January 20, 2013 “Our Partial Knowledge” (I Corinthinans 13:9-13)

The Text Says:

St. Paul’s description of what it was like to be a Christian is to “see through a glass darkly” (I Cor. 13:12).  That is, we live in a constant state of incompleteness because of our partial knowledge.  It is unavoidable.  There are positive effects of a fragmentary faith that we must focus upon.  And thereby learn to celebrate a faith, though aware of its imperfections, which holds within it the promise of life and knowledge to come.  “Now I know in part; then I shall understand fully.”  In light of that, our challenge is to try to be understanding, even when we don’t understand

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Hear the sermon

The Preacher Says:

            One of my favorite Yogi‑isms is “The future ain’t what it used to be.” I’ve lost count of how often I’ve said, “If I could just tell the future, I’d have done a lot of things differently.” Alas, hindsight is 20/20, and we’re left to face tomorrow’s surprises with today’s resources. This may shock you, but even God isn’t omniscient, as theologians claim. You can’t reconcile free will with foreknowledge. If we’re free, then God doesn’t know what we’re going to do. If he does know, then we’re not free. If even God doesn’t know everything, how on earth do we think we can? Partial knowledge is something we’re all stuck with. It guarantees mistakes, hurt feelings, broken relationships, inhumane behavior, and great harm in our world.

            The rich young ruler came to Jesus and thought he had it all. Jesus said to him, “Yet you lack one thing.” Rich or poor, wise or dumb; when it comes to knowledge, everybody’s lacking. We’re all rough‑drafts, with lots of strike‑overs. I’m sure it pains some folks to have to admit it, but there’s always more to learn than we can know. And there’s always more going on in any given situation than we can see. Final judgment belongs to God, because from where we sit, we’re in no position to say.

            If you have the humility to own this about yourself, then today’s text is for you. The scriptures are well-aware of our knowledge deficiency: “We know in part and our preaching is in part.  But when the perfect comes, that which is imperfect shall be no more.” We live on a continuum between the perfect and imperfect. Some, more or less perfect than others. Our herculean challenge is to learn how to live together before we’re fit to live with.

            The Apostle likened the state of our knowledge to “blurred reflections in a mirror.” Our ability to love somebody? “Through a glass darkly.”  Our capacity to solve a dysfunctional family or a violent society? “Through a glass darkly.” Hollywood actors? The government? Holy Jesus! “In a mirror dimly.”  A lack of knowledge lies at the root of a lot of misunderstanding. How often is there a “disconnect,” caused by some having information that others don’t? That’s when decisions are made that aren’t well-received. If we were all on the same page maybe we could get it right. When you don’t even know the right questions to ask your doctor. you miss out on pertinent information. Get a fancy cell phone, and that’s just part of it. Those with limited abilities have to learn how to use it!

            In the first part of Paul’s love hymn, he takes on three of the most common “special interest causes” people have. The first is spirituality or spiritual-but-not-religious as some prefer it. Of the SNR crowd Paul allows: “If I speak with the tongues of men and angels, without love, I’m just a noisy gong, or clanging cymbal.” The second cause is preaching and education. “If have the gift of prophecy and master all mysteries and all knowledge, with faith to move mountains, but have no love, I am nothing.” The third cause is social activism. The “do-something-even-if-it’s-wrong-folks: “If I give away my possessions to feed the poor and my body to be burned, without love, it profits me nothing.”

            These are three biggies. Prophecy will pass away, tongues will cease, and knowledge is partial. What cause does that leave us? Doctrine is divisive; activism will make you jaded; knowledge is limited. Paul allows as how there is one cause — one, that unites, uplifts, and endures: and that is love. Before every important decision we make, we should ask ourselves: Will what I stand for and champion bring more love to humanity, or less? As always, it’s whose special interests get the publicity?

            Jesus was sensitive to and often frustrated with his disciples rudimentary condition.  ”I have many things to say to you; but you can’t hear them now” (John 16:12). God knows our knowledge is limited at best and harmful at worst. The older I get the more I understand that. And my level of electronic expertise is a garage door opener! Give me something to do that I don’t know what I’m doing? Watch out! Whew! We’re capable of bearing some of what Jesus had to say. But God’s truth is too high voltage for our skimpy wiring to comprehend. So it’s in our own best interests that God allows us to “know in part.” 

            People in Providence, like every where else, are trying to do the best they can with the hand they’ve been dealt.  That goes for all of us and everyone you know: the kids you’ve raised, the heroes you admire, the experts who think their way is best, the media that’s supposed to inform us. You’d think with our partial knowledge, we’d try to be more gracious with one another. Realizing that we don’t know everything ought to make us humble. Instead it makes us reprehensible.

            The greatest evil deed ever committed was not-knowing: “Father forgive them for they know not what they do.” That was the ignorance of denial that crucified our Lord. Maybe the next worst is self-deception. One reason our knowledge is partial is because our seeing is selective. It stands to reason that we prefer those who see things the same way we do. How can anybody grow if they only hear one side of many-sided issues? That’s why those who know the most boast the least. The wisest people know they’re forever learners. They realize that “…knowledge? It shall pass away…”  So. We don’t see everything. That’s one side of it.

            The other side is we do see some things. Let’s give credit where credit’s due. “What is man that thou art mindful of him?” Lower than the angels? A whole lot lower. But made in God’s own image. As ornery as we are, yet God sees something in us. And I reckon we have come a mighty long way in 4.5 billion years. “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God,” said Paul. Now if I were God, I’d have just created us all good but not free and got it over with. Apparently God prefers us free, with imperfect knowledge. Which means growth but not perfection is acceptable with God.             

            The 25th Chapter of Matthew describes Jesus’ encounter with a cautious man who “hid his talent in the ground,” rather than risk losing it.  He was afraid of failing.  He thought Jesus was “a hard man.” God has some strong words for those who won’t give him all that’s unfinished in our lives. Not exploit it in arrogance; or hide it in cowardice. The opposite of masking, spinning, hoodwinking of course, is confession. When we acknowledge our faults, we’re no longer pretending like we know everything. That’s why we come to church.

            When I was younger I thought the purpose of going to college was to learn more. After I graduated it hit me: an educated person is one who knows how much he doesn’t know; but where to go to find it. One of those places where we “know as we are known” is the church. We don’t pretend to know everything, even at church. But we do know some things.  We know that “while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” And that ought to be enough to know. Jesus from the cross “Saw through his glass darkly,” as the sky turned black at noon. There the Son of Man cried out, “Why have you forsaken me?” Yet the last thing he said was “Into Thy hands I commit my spirit.” Trust in God is the proper response to partial knowledge.

            The Apostle Paul, who penned this great love hymn, had “a thorn in the flesh.” He begged God to remove it thrice. The thorn remained. Paul wanted healing. Instead he was given grace. God thinks that’ll be “sufficient.” No sufferer I’ve ever met wants to hear that. Yet he wrote this stunning poem about love, that “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things…endures all things.” That’s how to live successfully with our partial knowledge.

            Things aren’t always as they appear, given our time limitations. If we give time time we’ll surely see things differently. However good or bad something is — in time, it will change. That’s guaranteed. Jacob’s son Joseph, was callously sold into slavery down in Egypt by his jealous brothers. It’s hard to think of anything much worse than that. After eventually rising to the highest level of society, second only to Pharaoh, he said to them:  “Though you intended to do me harm God intended it for good in order to preserve many people.” Who’s to say how something will ultimately turn out? And what effect, by the grace of God, even horrible events can have on the future? Events intersect all of our lives, the totality of which we can never fully see. But the providence of God is at work, even in random occurrences. The whole of wisdom is found in this simple insight. And if we could just accept it, we could relax a little and enjoy the journey, and let go of those things over which we have no control, trusting that “in all things God is working for good.”

            As far as I can tell, God only relates to us in three ways. Sometimes he rescues us, and fixes our messes for us ‑‑ like the gospel miracle stories. And much of the time he collaborates with us, as he did with Moses, in the exodus. But most of the time, God gives us the strength to endure what cannot be changed, like he did Jesus.  Minimum protection. Maximum support.

            Isaiah the prophet said: “They that wait on the Lord, shall renew their strength…” But life being what it is and people being what they are; when there’s no wings to fly; no place to run; or go over, under, around or through, by the grace of God we “run and not get weary.” Sometimes energy from beyond ourselves breaks in and alters our circumstances. “And they shall mount up with eagles’ wings; they shall walk and faint not.”

            One of my favorite prayers is attributed to a confederate soldier: “I asked God for strength, that I might achieve; I was made weak, that I might learn humility. I asked for health, that I might do great things; I was given infirmity, that I might do better things. I asked for riches, that I might be happy; I was given poverty, that I might be wise. I asked for power, that I might be praised; I was given dependency, that I might know God. I asked for all things, that I might enjoy life; I was given life that I might enjoy all things. I got nothing I asked for ‑‑ but everything I hoped for.”  How amazing are those things we don’t even know what to ask for! 

            I close with my version to the conclusion to 1 Corinthians 13: “We don’t yet see things with clarity. Squinting in a fog, peering through the mist. But someday the sun’s gonna shine and we’ll see it all, as clearly as God sees us. But for now, until that perfect knowledge comes, we have three things to do: Trust steadily in God, hope unswervingly in grace, and love as extravagantly as we are capable.”

 ProvidencePrayers: (1/20/13)

            We gather in this special sanctuary once again O God, grateful for the lives we’ve been given. Thankful for the different ways we experience life and death, love and apathy, goodness and meanness; the satisfaction when we achieve, the disappointment when we fail, the anxiety when we face illness, fear and death and the apprehension when change occurs. We acknowledge the complex rhythms of human nature that make our days and nights interesting.  But we are one in this congregation at worship, bound by our common faith in Jesus Christ, who weaves us together in ways nothing else in the world can do. One in the pursuit of our mission. How difficult it is to be loving or to let somebody love us before it’s too late. We’re incapable of offering a love that knows no limits to its endurance, no end to its trust, no fading in its hope, one that will outlast anything, that stands when all else has fallen.

            We know too in our hearts that when we dare to love, it’s easier to speak; easier to listen; easier to play; easier to work; easier to cry; easier to laugh. Teach us again O Father, that of all the music on this earth, which reaches the farthest into the heavens is the pulsating of a loving heart. Awaken that impulse in each of us in this hour of worship.  Open our minds to our rich ability to imagine, to try to be understanding when we don’t understand, to have a sense of peace with what we’ve been given, to have an attitude of prayer…so that when this day is done, give us the hope of another ‑‑ to try to make right tomorrow what went wrong today, to lift up what has fallen and most of all, to know from deep within our souls, the reality of Thine own enduring love.  Because we honor the Christ as our Savior; follow him as example, and serve him as Lord — accept now the commitment of our hearts and the dedication of our souls…through Christ our Lord…Amen.

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