February 10, 2013
Rev. John Watts
WHAT DO YOU KNOW?
I Corinthians 13
For some of us, our first introduction to the threat of Muslim extremism came in 1979 when our embassy inTehran,Iranwas seized and 52 Americans were held hostage for 444 days. For others, it was the terrorist attack on American soil on September 11, 2001 and the resulting 3,000 deaths. That threat has been brought to our consciousness once again in recent weeks as a Christian pastor fromBoisehas been sentenced to eight years in an Iranian prison.
Saeed Abedini was born inIran. He was born a Muslim. He converted to Christianity as a young man. That in itself is a crime inIran, punishable by death. For a Muslim to accept Christ is under Sharia Law, “waging war against Islam.” But he wasn’t arrested for that. As it was becoming more uncomfortable for him to live as a Christian inIran, he moved to theUnited States. He married an American woman. They settled inBoise. He became a pastor and aU.S.citizen. They started a family. They have two children, ages 4 and 6. He had traveled back and forth fromBoisetoIrana number of times, without incident, each time careful not to run afoul of Sharia law. He was visiting family. He was also building an orphanage. Last summer without warning he was arrested and thrown in jail. The sentence came down two weeks ago on a Sunday morning. His official crime: “Threatening the national security ofIran.”
(Youtube video: “American Pastor Saeed Imprisoned in Iran)
It’s a little hard for us in the West to get our heads around something like this. Freedom of religion is so deeply ingrained in us that the idea that you could be arrested and punished for your faith is difficult for us to comprehend. Muslim extremism is a serious threat to all we hold dear. We’ve known that for a long time. We’ve at times thought we’ve known what to do about it. But going to war against terrorism hasn’t gone as well as planned.
I recently learned of a man named Abdolkarim Soroush. With a name like that, you can probably guess he is Muslim. He is a citizen ofIran. He spends most of his time in this country. He’s currently a visiting scholar at theUniversityofMaryland. His Muslim faith tells him that Muslim extremism is dangerous and is wrong.
He’s been compared to Martin Luther. Martin Luther was a Catholic priest who came along about 500 years ago and said that Christianity was dangerous and was wrong. At least the way the Catholic church at that time was presenting it. He led a great popular movement that came to be known as the Reformation. Some have said that Abdolkarim Soroush is leading such a movement in Islam today.
It’s been pointed out that it was about 1,500 years after Christ that Christianity was reformed. Well, it’s not quite 1,500 years after Mohammed right now. So maybe it’s time for Islam to be reformed. Certainly the varieties of Islam that control modern nations likeIran.
Abdolkarim Soroush is talking about many of the same things Martin Luther talked about: the freedom of the individual to interpret scripture, the transcendence of God above all human institutions, the need for humility on the part of people of all faiths when they talk about God.
I’m praying for Saeed Abedini and I’m also praying for Abdolkarim Soroush. I invite you to join me. Neither is very popular with Iranian authorities right now. The one’s a Muslim who became a Christian. The other is a Muslim who will probably always remain a Muslim. Both give us hope for a new world where there will be freedom for all God’s children to practice their faith without fear.
And no better prescription for that new world can be found than the words Paul wrote in I Corinthians chapter 13. It’s called “the love chapter”. It was written in a setting in which love was in short supply. The Corinthian church was deeply divided. Various groups were fighting one another. They were each claiming that they alone possessed the truth. They were each claiming that they alone were the real Christians.
One thing they were fighting about was a subject some Christians still fight about today. Speaking in tongues. Those who had had that experience were looking down on those who hadn’t and saying that they were not “real” Christians. Those who were being looked down upon didn’t appreciate that. They were fighting back at these dangerous extremists who were sowing such seeds of division. And so it went. It was an ugly, ugly church fight.
Paul was speaking to them when he wrote these words: “I will show you a more excellent way. If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels and have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging symbol.”
It happens in Islam and it also happens in Christianity. It can happen in any religion. People have a deep spiritual experience. It’s such a profound experience, it turns their lives upside down and sets them on fire for their faith. This can be good but this can also be dangerous. Sometimes people conclude that since God has come into their lives in such a powerful way they are therefore no longer subject to human limitations. The rules that apply to other people don’t apply to them. And they become blind to what should be so obvious. No matter how close you are to God, you are still a sinful and a fallible human being.
Something similar can happen to the highly educated. They have all this knowledge and all these insights into what’s really going on in our world. They know so much more than the unenlightened masses. So why shouldn’t they make the rules for the rest of us? They too become blind to the fact that even really smart people are still human beings and therefore can do some really stupid things.
Paul is warning us that any claim to superiority is fraught with danger. None of us has in our possession the whole truth. And so those who claim “all wisdom and all knowledge” are by that very claim immediately suspect.
Derek Bok was president ofHarvardUniversity, a place known for its intellectual snobbery. He understood though that part of learning is learning how much we don’t know. Here’s the way he put it: “One of the goals of higher education is to teach a tolerance for ambiguity.” I like that. A tolerance for ambiguity. That means that as much as we try to learn and to grow, we accept the fact that we will never know it all. There are some questions we will never answer. There are some problems we will never solve. It’s not all black and white in this world. There are many shades of gray. And so we need to have some humility about what we think we know and also some tolerance for those who see things differently.
And that’s exactly what Paul is getting at. Be careful when you start to think you have it all figured out.
As for prophecies, they will pass away.
As for tongues, they will cease.
As for knowledge, it will pass away.
For our knowledge is imperfect.
That’s just the way it is. We don’t know it all. We never will. And a sign of maturity is to realize that and be OK with that. Paul goes on to say, “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. But when I became an adult, I gave up childish ways.” One of the childish ways we give up when we grow up is our need to be superior to everyone else. It’s OK not to know it all.
Speaking of behaving like children, I remember my freshman English class in high school. We had a first year teacher named Christine Luehring. Pete Bicart and I took turns giving her fits. I can almost remember word for word. Pete raised his hand one day and asked her some obscure question. She answered, “I don’t know.” Pete raised his hand again and asked some other question that probably didn’t even have an answer. Again she said, “I don’t know.” And then Pete Bicart raised his hand a third time and said, “Miss Luehring, what do you know?”
Well, that’s our question for today. What do you know? There are three areas in life about which it’s perfectly all right to say, as Miss Luehring said, “I don’t know.”
The first is our knowledge of God. The Bible tells us all we need to know about God. But the Bible is also very clear about one thing. It is possible for us to know God only in so far as God chooses to reveal himself to us. “No one has seen God” (Jn 1:18). God is always hidden. And it’s a good thing. Because, “no one can see God and live” (Ex 33:20).
When Job complains about all that has gone wrong in his life, God answers, “Who is this who darkens counsel with words without knowledge?” (38:2) Paul says in Romans, “How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable are his ways” (11:33). “Inscrutable”, by the way , means “impossible to understand.” That is our heritage from the Bible. That’s why I don’t see how anyone who claims to be a Bible-believing Christian can be anything but humble when they talk about God.
Sam Ervin was a United States Senator fromNorth Carolina. He presided over the Watergate hearings. He had a lot of people who were calling him and writing him. A lot of people with strong opinions about Watergate and President Nixon. One man called him and told him that the Lord had anointed him to be the second Elijah and had sent him toWashingtonto testify. Sam Ervin told this story in the wonderful way only he could tell stories. He said, “I told him that I didn’t believe we could use him. I told him that if he got on the stand and spoke for the Lord, that would be hearsay. But I said, ‘If you can get the Lord to testify for himself, I’ll put him on.'”
We can’t speak for God. No one can speak for God. No one knows enough to speak for God. We cannot have that level of certainty. That’s why Paul says that in relation to God, we live by faith.
Second, it’s OK to say “I don’t know” when it comes to the future. Jesus said, “No one knows the day or the hour [of any future event], not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only” (Mt 24:36). There are two typical reactions to the realization that there is no way to know the future. One is despair. We don’t know what’s going to happen to us in the future. That’s terrible. Terrible things might happen. The other reaction is hope. We don’t know what’s going to happen to us in the future! So why can’t it be good? Why can’t it be better than we expect?
If you want to read a good book about time travel, read 11/22/63 by Stephen King. Someone goes back in time to try to stop the assassination of President Kennedy. Coming from the future into the past, of course, he knows the future. It’s already happened as far as he’s concerned. He makes money by betting on the World Series. He knows Bill Mazeroski is going to hit that home run in the bottom of the ninth inning in 1960. He tries to make things better. He ends up making things much worse. The moral of the story: it’s a good thing we don’t know the future. It’s a good thing we can’t change what has already happened. But the best thing is that we can change the future that has not yet be written. The past is over and done with. But when it comes to the future, there is always hope.
Even in as hopeless a situation as the Islamic Republic of Iran. There is hope for Saeed Abedini to be set free. There is hope for the Islamic Reformation that men like Abdolkarim Soroush are working so hard to bring into reality. As long as there is a God who loves us and who desires the best for us, there is always hope.
Finally, it’s OK to say “I don’t know” when it comes to sizing up other people. We all have our impressions of what people are like. We all have our lists of the good ones and the not so good ones. In Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Mikado”, the executioner sings a song: “I got a little list, and they’ll none of them be missed.” It’s his list of who he wants to execute. I know it sounds horrible, but it really is quite funny. You’ll have to take my word for that. But that’s the temptation we all have. To make judgments about other people and put them on some list.
I was reading a creative piece about the people the writer had observed in the airport, while waiting for his plane. He would describe each person in a way that fit a mental category you probably already had of that particular kind of person. It was very funny. He described the economist and the school teacher and the business executive and the lawyer. You knew exactly who he was talking about. Then he described a man with a gray pallor and a sickening smile and said, “He must be a clergyman.” I no longer thought it was so funny.
We believe we can judge people on the basis of what we see of them and what we’ve heard about them. But we can’t do that. We should know better. People always remain mysteries. That’s why Paul says rather than wasting so much time and energy trying to size people up, we’d may as well just love them.
That’s Paul’s prescription for life. To the question, “What do you know?” the answer is, “Not much.” Paul says, “Now we know in part.” Now we see through a glass darkly. That means it’s like we’re looking into a foggy mirror.
So, are you ready? Here’s what we are left with: To the question, “How can we know God?”, the answer is, “Through faith.” To the question, “How can we know the future?”, the answer is, “Through hope.” And to the question, “How can we know other persons,” the answer is, “Through love.”
“So faith, hope, and love abide, these three, but the greatest of these is love.”
O God, you who are too wonderful for our small minds to comprehend; you who alone holds the future; you whose love is bigger and better and more inclusive than we could possibly imagine, save us from ourselves. Save us from thinking we have a corner on your truth. For it isn’t just Muslim extremists who think that way. Sometimes we do, too. So save us from ourselves and teach us your prescription to save the world. Love. In Jesus’ name, Amen.