This sermon was preached on Thursday, September 7 by Professor Jennifer Snow. The readings for this sermon are the Propers for Education: Deuteronomy 6:4-9,20-25, Psalm 78:1-7, 2 Timothy 3:14—4:5, and Matthew 11:25-30.
It just so happens that today we pray “for education,” and our readings are chosen to reflect on this theme. And these readings tie in to the complexity of what it means to learn, to be certain, to pray, to do justice, in the light of God’s love. The tension between certainty and love is brought out in reading after reading, with great declarations of simple truth followed by calls to share the story, intertwined with elaborations of what truth is and what it means and where it comes from and how to avoid error that demonstrate that truth in God is not the same as truth in human terms. Truth is simple. Truth is complex. Knowledge comes from scripture and readings and teachers. Knowledge is given to infants. The truth is told in parables; the truth is stated in mysteries; the truth is told in story and memory. Proclaim the message, but beware of teachers that simply lean to your desire. Proclaim the message, but avoid unsound doctrine. We always ask why, children that we are. When Nazis and white nationalists marched on Charlottesville, it just so happened I was in the Outer Banks in North Carolina with my family. It just so happened that I had good friends in Charlottesville who had helped organize the counterprotests; I didn’t know what had happened to them. It also just so happened that I took a wrong turn on the beach trying to catch up with my sisters and ended up having a long walk alone in the dark, listening to the waves crash. It just so happened that I wanted to pray, and when my words were inadequate I turned to music, which I do. I stood on the sand and sang to the waves the song we will sing in a few minutes. This is my song, I sang, O God of all the nations…a song of peace, for their land and for mine. This is a song about loving what is good, and nonetheless loving those who oppose and would destroy what I love, because they too are loved by God. God loves my opponents – not because they are right, but because God loves them. God loves my friends – not because they are right, but because God loves them. How is it possible, then, both to love and yet to name what is true, what is right, what is wrong, what is good, what is evil: to declare that a given action or belief is incompatible with God’s truth and God’s desire for us?
There are two temptations in the face of this complexity about truth and God. One temptation is to reject the idea that knowledge and learning about God is at all worthwhile, and choose to deliberately remain ignorant. Presumably, since we are here at seminary, we are resisting that temptation. But the second temptation is to identify what knowledge I hold, what I believe to be true, at any time, to be certain truth about God. It is a temptation because it can make truth itself into an idol; following the teacher of my own desires, my desire to be right.
In today’s readings from Deuteronomy and Timothy, we are exhorted to proclaim the message, to tell the story, to remember the truth; and the truth has a definite content, the story has a clear focus. Yet the Gospel says something different to us about truth and knowledge. Knowledge of God is literally held within the knowledge of Jesus, and Jesus calls the listener to “learn from me.” And this learning is not stated in terms of doctrine or particular statements about God or God’s activity, but is to “come unto him…for he is gentle and humble of heart.” The knowledge we seek – and the knowledge is perhaps found only in the seeking – is through this following, through seeking to rest in Jesus, through the one who is gentle and humble of heart and who gives up all that is of human value in order to demonstrate that love beyond human love.
One way of understanding this is that the seeking of knowledge of God itself comes through love – not abstract love, but love of one another. Knowledge of God is found not within ourselves, that endless search for “authenticity” – that would indeed be following the teacher that suits our own desires – but in the other. Perhaps even, specifically, in that other who denies my worth, my faith, and my very existence as valuable or valid. And that can happen at a white nationalist march, or it can happen in any Christian community of seminary or church.
The third stanza of the song we will soon sing was written by Methodist Georgia Harkness, right here at the GTU, where in 1950 she became the first female theologian to hold full professor status in a United States seminary. While publishing over thirty books and articles, she also spent her life in fighting for the rights of women and women’s ordination, for international peace, for the rights of people of color, immigrants, and LGBTQ people. Her very first book, in 1921, defended the rights of immigrants at the height of American nativism. Before she died in 1974 she advocated for the legal and religious inclusion of gay and lesbian people. I have no doubt that many times, Dr. Harkness was accused of teaching unsound doctrine, and that she had to engage in passionate disagreement with those who defended patriarchy, racism, heterosexism, and white nationalism, both Christian and secular. She yearned nonetheless to submit all conflict to the judgment of Christ, which judgment is always love.
This is a starting point very much appropriate for where are as members of a global Communion and an ecumenical seminary. We share a faith in Christ with many who disagree with us, fundamentally and deeply, about what is true about God and God’s desires for humanity and creation. We must name what is evil; we must argue against what is false. As the letter to Timothy says, we must be persistent, whether time is favorable or unfavorable: we must convince, rebuke, encourage, with the utmost patience. To acknowledge that our relationship can never be ruptured by disagreements and anathemas, because our relationship is rooted in the love of God in Christ for each one of us, is not to embrace a tepid tolerance of dissent or indifference to the intellect and to justice. It is certainly not to permit others to abuse us or those around us, politically, physically, spiritually, intellectually, or emotionally. It is to choose a committed, passionate path of disagreement and action while remaining constantly aware of God’s love for the other. It is to place even conflict about truth and justice under the judgment of God. It is to follow the one who is gentle and humble of heart, whose yoke is easy, because it is never inflicted with the whip and the goad; whose burden is light, because it is always shared among all of us.
Learn from me, Jesus says. Proclaim the message, in the presence of God and Christ Jesus. Join in the seeking for the love that seeks us. We are invited, day by day. We love to tell the story, because we know it’s true.
“Hymn: This Is My Song, O God of All the Nations (FINLANDIA)” performed by Harvard University Choir, posted August 4, 2014.