to the Special People,
My mother was a very wise woman. Though she didn't have a lot of formal education or academic parchments hanging on the walls in witness of her intellect, she knew more than a few things well worth knowing. One of her favorite comments was that "The folks are just as good as the people." By that I think she meant that there are those who honestly believe that they are more insightful and sophisticated than the rest of us--that they have some degree of superiority by virtue of greater intelligence. It doesn't take a lot of living to realize that brainpower doesn't have much to do with what we call "Common Sense." In fact, it's almost a cliché in modern society, the recognition that some of the dumbest people around are the very ones who are the so-called "experts." That's certainly true in the field of religion where, for all their academic credentials, seminary professors still seem to be struggling with questions as irrelevant as that of how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, instead of helping us unravel those challenging mysteries of the sort I'm sure God cares a LOT more about--how to provide equal educational opportunity or establish sound corporate financial ethics.
I guess it has ever been so because we find in this morning's Gospel reading Jesus thanking God that the real truths of life aren't revealed to the supposedly wise and credentialed but, rather, to the plain and ordinary folk of this world. Jesus tells us that the truly important things are basically simple. He makes it clear that you won't find God at the end of some elaborate exercise of logic. God chooses to reveal the truth to those who are gifted not necessarily with super intelligence, but with a trusting and faithful heart. Listen again to what Jesus says to those alleged religious leaders who have spent an entire lifetime pouring over ancient manuscripts--to those who are absolutely certain that they know all of the minutiae of religious law and who have become so smug and secure in their status, that they are convinced that no one besides themselves has any chance of entering into the Kingdom of God:
Then, he follows up with this invitation to those who have been sneered at, rejected, humiliated, and dismissed by their so-called religious "betters":
See, Jesus is telling us that Mom was right, in God's eyes the folks really ARE just as good as the people. I think what Jesus is telling us here is that the religious authorities of his own day had pretty much lost touch with their vocation. God had called them to the business of leading people into relationship with God, of making a connection by which God could enter very directly and personally into each person's heart--become for each "Immanuel", literally, "God with us!" But instead of that ministry of introduction and relationship, the professionals had gotten totally off the track. They had created a special category of inquiry filled with all sorts of trivia ABOUT God--not offering people God, but just a burden of rules and principles and histories ABOUT God. And, in order to master all the religious material these great scholars had amassed, a person literally had to give up everything else that even vaguely resembled normal living and working. According to them, ordinary folk couldn't even hope to understand and live according to all the laws, restrictions, and precepts required of the truly righteous. Jesus lived well before the time of packaged lunch meat, but I can just imagine him responding, "Baloney!"
I think it's both reassuring and instructive that Paul Tillich, arguably the greatest religious scholar and writer of modern times, certainly supports the view of Jesus. Shortly after he had completed the writing of six six-inch-thick theological volumes of closely-reasoned Systematic Theology, a journalist asked him if he could boil down all that research and exposition into a simple sentence that anybody could understand. Without any hesitation, Tillich replied, "Jesus loves me; this I know, for the Bible tells me so." Now Tillich, no more than Jesus, wasn't saying that the issues and questions of religion aren't worth our serious thought and reflection. What he's telling us is that we have to be very careful not to get seduced by our own cleverness or impressed by our own speculation. God's truth is basic and simple. It is available to all of us. In short, as far as knowing the love of God and holding it in our hearts, like my Mom said, "The folks are just as good as the people."
The Church and its leaders--ordained and volunteer--too often find themselves so zealous for the welfare of the institution that we operate in a way that actually prevents people from coming to know and love God. We put up obstacles instead of building roadways. We insist that people concern themselves with all sorts of information and theories ABOUT God instead of offering them God himself or herself. Let me see if I can show you what I mean. Ann Weems tells this story about the experience of her son and the church:
mother must have been a lot like my own because she concludes her account
of Todd's misadventures with his balloon by saying that she learned from
her own mother that there's a big difference between smug self-righteous
religion and the calm joy of knowing God directly and personally. She
says it this way,
What I'm getting at here is that what people want and need is a direct, personal experience of God, not a bunch of theories ABOUT God. Our wisest perceptions are but a pale shadow of God's reality and, as Ann Weems helps us realize, our ignorance of God can be appallingly destructive of other folks. We can impose on others, if we're not careful, a view of God that resembles only our own prejudices and limitations rather than the freeing, strengthening, loving indwelling of the God who, as Frederick Handel so magnificently reminds us in the Messiah, really does reign forever and evermore
Frederich Buechner, in his wonderful book titled Longing for Home, describes the way all this business about the difference between helping people receive God and God's truth directly and personally --as opposed to getting all caught up in theories ABOUT God impacts the life of our church today. He reminds us that in the contemporary world we encounter the same danger as the religious authorities of Jesus' time. We can just as readily confuse traditional and dated understandings with the reality of everyday experience. Buechner contrasts the Jesus who WAS with the Jesus who IS. By those terms he means to distinguish between Jesus who WAS-- the dim and distant religious figure who is forever trapped in the language of the Bible or the oil paintings of the Old Masters--and the living presence that we encounter face-to-face, everyday--if we are able to let go of old notions long enough to let him come to life in the here and now.
About the very Gospel text that we heard this morning, Buechner says,
My vision and prayer for Calvary Church, as we approach in just a few weeks the 170th Anniversary of life and ministry here at Second and Adams, is that we increasingly devote ourselves to being more and more open to the presence and power of God. That we expect and look for God's hand everyday in the persons whom we meet and serve. That we lift up and celebrate what is God is doing in our midst so that others may come to know God for themselves--fully and personally.
As we gather at the Table of the Lord this morning may we all hear and respond once more to his gracious invitation as it is delivered not just to some specially gifted scholars, but to us very ordinary folks,
Gospel: Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30