Sunday, January 29, 2012

Love Builds Up
[a sermon for the 4th Sunday after Epiphany]

Deuteronomy 18:15-20
Psalm 111
1 Corinthians 8:1-13
Mark 1:21-28 
 
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Raise your hand if Paul is your favorite saint.  The rest of you look around - the folks with their hands in the air can't be trusted.  That's how a lot of us think about Paul, isn't it?  We may not have read much of Paul, but we remember someone telling us once on good authority that Paul was a sexist who twisted the unbridled love of Jesus's Gospel into the prison of dogmatic, institutional Christianity, and it's taken the church some 2,000 years to clean up the mess.  I'm not endorsing this view, mind you, just naming it as one of the views that’s floating around out there.  When we do muster up the patience to read Paul in his own words, the fact that he's so long-winded doesn't help him - or us - any because long-winded in our culture is code for "politician."  And politicians can’t be trusted.  Paul, as the Politician of the Gospel, Paul as Mr. Know-it-all, representing (to some) the worst of patriarchy.  Father knows best.  Condescension. 

So it's easy to miss it altogether in the reading today when Paul says the words that, at least to some of you, are the very opposite of your picture of Paul.  These are the startling words:

"Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up."

Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.  Paul, speaking to the smart folks, the ones with degrees, who know that it's okay to eat food offered to idols because they know - they have the knowledge - that idols don't exist.  That there's nothing to worry about.  Paul, warning the people with knowledge not to be so fixated on their freedom to fill their bellies with food offered to idols that they destroy the faith of those who think that it might not be okay.

Paul, acknowledging that as Christians we look to one other as examples of what is right and holy and good.  Paul, saying, "Hey, don't run by your weaker sister, weaker brother.  Don't use your knowledge as a battering ram in the family of faith.  Look around at who is looking at you.  Be patient with them.  Love builds up." 

Lest the knowledge that there are no idols becomes itself an idol, Paul leaves them these words: “Love builds up.”

How delightfully surprising.

So (maybe) Paul scores unexpected points with some of you this morning.  Maybe not.  What's beautiful this morning, though, is that our gospel reading proceeds to offer a living picture of what Paul is trying to say about the relationship between knowledge and love.

Check out Mark’s gospel: we enter the picture and there are lots of people gathered around Jesus, but none of them knows who Jesus is.  They lack knowledge.  The only one with the fullness of knowledge - the only one who knows who Jesus is - is a demon.  A demon who worries that Jesus has come to destroy him. 

This is the riddle of Mark's entire gospel - that the news announced is the first verse, that this Jesus is the Son of God, gets discovered only at the end, by a centurion on Calvary.  The rest of the characters go bumbling around without knowledge of Jesus’s identity.  No one else seems to know what we, the readers, know from the beginning.  Only the occasional demon has the correct answer.  But that the correct knowledge comes from the lips of a demon should be our first clue that knowledge is not always all that it’s cracked up to be.

Remember our brother Paul: knowledge puffs up; love builds up.

But this strikes as strange, if not wrong.  Episcopalians of all folks know that knowledge is a good thing, that you need not check your brain at the door in the adventure called faith.  Remember, though, that the warning in Paul’s letter - and as seen in Mark’s gospel - is not that knowledge is bad; only that it cannot stand alone, apart from love.

But in what way is knowledge harmful apart from love?  In what way do you and I abuse knowledge apart from love?

I want to suggest that we abuse knowledge most often (that is, separate it apart from love) in our relationships with one another and that we can see this dynamic most clearly in the relationship that model’s Christ’s love to the Church: marriage.

It’s starts off innocently enough.  The premise is that knowledge - full knowledge - in life might give us direction, will point us to the action that will best serve our best interests.  (This is the reasoning behind insider trading.)  Knowledge means information that makes our decisions more precise, more efficient, less vulnerable to harm, especially the harm that can occur in the intimacy of love.  And so evolves that wonderfully surreal and somewhat neurotic acquisition of knowledge that we call "dating" - or, if you go back a litter longer than that, "courting.”

One of the objectives (the primary objective) of dating (or courting) is to find out who it is you're with.  Who is this person, really?  So you ask questions about background and financial standing, job prospects and values.  Does the person have children?  Does the person want children?  And if you don't ask these questions, a good friend or parent might for you.  Someone has to know.  Because what if she "didn't know what she had got herself into?"  Isn't that how we talk about it?  Love can be dangerous, and knowledge - it is thought - can protect us from the danger inherent to love.

There's only one problem with this course.  As Stanley Hauerwas puts it (bluntly):

“We never know whom we marry; we just think we do. Or even if we first marry the right person, just give it a while and he or she will change. For marriage, being [the enormous thing it is] means we are not the same person after we have entered it. The primary challenge of marriage is learning how to love and care for the stranger to whom you find yourself married.”

It turns out that knowledge cannot save you from the great risk of love, but love can grow your knowledge of others, evening turning strangers into friends.

The first instinct of knowledge apart from love is to be defensive.  I want to know about you so that I can protect myself from you.  That’s the picture of the demon, too, remember?  Jesus, Son of God, you haven’t come here to destroy us, have you?  It’s also, if you remember, the first instinct of Adam and Eve after they ate of the tree of what?  That’s right, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  And there first instinct is to hide.  To protect themselves.  To run away.  Knowledge as insulating one’s self from the vulnerability of love.

But what is knowledge protecting you from?  There’s an old and funny saying that just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you.  But believe it or not, most people are too self-centered to be out to get you.  I know it’s a blow to all that you’d like to believe about yourself, but most of the time, they’re not thinking about you.  Maintaining defensive knowledge like this kind can be pretty exhausting.

Knowledge isn’t bad; it’s just not made for defense.  Knowledge is made for love.  It’s not by accident that the other time in Mark’s gospel that someone makes a scene about Jesus the Son of God is the centurion at the cross.  This is knowledge made for love, knowledge revealed by the love of God on the cross.  Knowledge that knows it has nothing to fear.  The centurion gets this knowledge because Jesus poured out his love without fear.

What would a proactive knowledge, married to a fearless love, look like?  What if, for example, knowledge could bring you closer to your enemy, instead of only protecting you from her weapons?  What if knowledge knit to love led you not to fear the loss of what you had, but rather grew your imagination for ways to offer all you had for others?

Bernard of Clairvaux lived as a monk and mystic some nine hundred years ago.  He said this about knowledge and the different ways that we use it:

 “There are those who seek knowledge for the sake of knowledge; that is Curiosity.

There are those who seek knowledge to be known by others; that is Vanity.

There are those who seek knowledge in order to serve; that is Love.”

Love comes first.  Love comes first because God shows us his love on the cross.  Do you remember some of the last words of Jesus?  “Father for give them - they don’t know...”  They don’t know.  And that’s okay.  Knowledge is power, but not the greatest power.  The greatest power is the love we find and know in Jesus.

It’s okay not to know.  Not to know who you married.  Not to know what comes next.  Not knowing is not nearly as scary as knowing without love.  Love comes first.  And love builds up. 

Amen.

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