The Rev. Rachel G. Hackenberg
God be in our listening,
Christ forgive my speaking,
Spirit move through our living
so that together we might discern your redemption. Amen.
In the days of political turmoil, during a time when allegiances were easily swayed, in an ancient but-oh-so-familiar season when faith was greatly informed by fear, the word of the Holy One came to young Jeremiah, saying,
“From the time outside of time, I have always known you, Jeremiah,
and from the beginning, I have consecrated to be part of my work.”
And Jeremiah replied, saying,
“Oh wow, God, I don’t know. There’s really nothing about me to suggest that I’m the one you want, and the political landscape right now is kind of rocky for prophet work. [eee---whooooo-tsk-mmm] I don’t know.”
If he had had Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth at his disposal, Jeremiah might have said to God,
“I’m only a child. I speak like a child. I know only in part, so I’ll only be able to prophesy in part. Whatever I know, it’s only in a mirror dimly. I can’t possibly know fully.”
As it turns out, saying “I don’t know” was precisely the response God was seeking.
“I will give you words,” God said.
“I will give you visions,” God said.
“You don’t need to know fully. The work to unfold is mine: I will pluck up and pull down, I will destroy and plant, I will overthrow and rebuild. You don’t need to know.”
In contrast, the Gospel of Luke offers a scene in which the people of Nazareth know everything they need to know about Jesus: he is Joseph’s son. These are the people who watched Jesus grow up after his family came back from Egypt. These are the same people who saw him fine-tune his carpentry skills alongside Joseph. These are his friends and childhood playmates who celebrated their faith together, who learned to read from the scrolls in synagogue when they were kids. They know Jesus…
…and they certainly know the political tensions in which they reside, living in a Jewish village within a Roman-occupied territory. What they know is that anyone suspected of revolt is still arrested. What they know is that poverty still shapes their lives. What they know is that a new king has not yet arrived to heal the sick, to bring sight to the blind, to make the lame walk again, to relieve them from systems of oppressions. The man they know without a doubt to be the son of Joseph has declared what they know to not be true: the ancient prophesies have not yet been filled, no matter what Jesus declared in the synagogue.
And enraged by all that they know, the friends of Jesus, the friends of his parents, the community that is most familiar with him, becomes violent toward him. Because of what they know.
Because they know where he’s from and who his family is. Because they know the same faith stories that he knows. Because they know that those stories are still unfulfilled. Because they know that Elijah saved a hungry widow at Zarephath and they are still waiting for Elijah to come to them too. Because they know that Elisha healed Naaman, a Syrian and a leper, and they are still waiting for healing to reach them too.
They are mad because they know…and they simply cannot make room for anything else to be possible, so they resort to violence.
Tell me: how do you react when someone disputes what you know to be true?
It could be as simple as your certainty that the cheapest gas station is in Bedford Heights, and you won’t hear a word from anyone who tries to tell you that there’s a cheaper and closer gas station in Highland Hills. It might be your perspective on government that someone challenges—perhaps you have always held that any injury or injustice within the government will right itself by the very nature of democracy, but someone challenges your certainty with an argument that change cannot occur without protest. Maybe you’ve always absolutely known that a friend, a community member, a family member, is an upstanding guy…but someone tells you that he has caused significant harm.
How do you react when someone contests what you know about Jesus, or challenges what you believe about how God works in the world? How do you respond when someone tells you that they know you, when their entire definition of you contradicts what you know about yourself?
Certainty can be a kind of violence when it disallows for possibility. Knowing can be a brutality when it obstructs the space someone needs to consider wonder or to ask questions. Conviction can look like rage when it is overwhelmed with the worry that something might be imaginable that we don’t know or understand.
The people of Nazareth knew that their hope for a new messiah had not yet been fulfilled because poverty still haunted them, because sickness and disease still threatened them, because the oppression of the Roman Empire still shaped their daily lives, because Jesus—bless his heart—hadn’t done anything in Nazareth to bring about the year of the Lord’s favor except maybe carve a few rocking horses for the kids. So when Jesus said something else was possible, and not only possible eventually but happening now, that the fulfillment of prophesies was taking hold now, the townspeople’s certainty welled up in rage and they drove him to the edge of a cliff.
Still the poor are cold at night, still the sick cannot access healing without great expense, still the diseases of racism and of gender violence eat away at our spirits, still governments overthrow other governments, still empires stockpile weapons, and Jesus—bless his heart—whispers to us from the text and shows up to us through others, saying, “the year of the Lord’s favor is fulfilled.”
And the invitation of faith is not to become certain. The invitation of faith is to join Jeremiah in confessing, “I don’t know, God. The world is full of evidence to the contrary…but I’m willing to admit that everything I know about the world and about myself and about you isn’t everything. I’m willing to wonder what else might be.” The invitation of faith is not to live with absolute certainty, but to live in—to participate in—the possibility.
In faith, not knowing is the start of personal imagination, community participation, and holy inspiration. When we confess “I don’t know,” what we begin to see more fully is what else might be—what else God might be about—through love.
What we know will come to an end: the certainty of poverty, the constancy of violence, the frenzy of politics. The ways of living that we established and ritualized for the sake of certainty in this all-too-predictable world will also come to an end. And when it all ends, the dim mirror of our certainty will end and everything we’ve never known and everything we’ve only dreamed will be revealed face-to-face.
Until then, we continue to practice the possibilities of love.
What we do not know
“Love never ends.
There is always faith to plant,
there is always hope to share,
there is always love to dwell within and between you.”
And for centuries we have
1 Cor 13 suggest that confessing our “dim mirrors” makes way for knowing more fully the endurance of love, the pervasive spirit of hope, the stubbornness of faith. (sidebar: same descript of hope and faith)
The Reverend Peter Faass
The Reverend Peter Faass was born in Delft, Netherlands. He is a graduate of the General Theological Seminary in New York City and has been at Christ Church since 2006.