1 Cor. 13:8-12; Isaiah 55:8-9

            Perhaps you have heard the old folktale about the blind men and the elephant.  I’ve found it on the internet in poetic form and want to begin by reading it to you.  (Read poem at  Even though there were never really six blind men who tried to describe an elephant, that folktale is as true as anything I’ve ever read because I think it tells us the truth about our view of God.

            In these last sermons here, I am giving you what I believe to be the most critical things to remember about faith.  Last week we talked about how to read the Bible, and this week I want to focus on our human limitations in understanding God.  God is big.  Really, really, really, really big.  Bigger than any human brain can even contemplate.  A key part of the Christian witness is that this vast huge God is loving and wants to be in relationship with us…which means that God has agreed to enter time and space in limited form, so that we can have some basis for relationship.  That is what Jesus is.

            But we come to that experience of God as the blind men come to the elephant, each one discovering a piece of the truth through our own experiences of God, but none of us able to comprehend the whole.  I think this is a critically important concept, because I believe that failing to realize it is what causes most, if not all, of the religious violence in our world…both today and throughout history.

            When we get to thinking that the part of God that we have known and experienced is the sum total of all of it, then we become right and everyone else is wrong.  Once we have that attitude, we are on the way down a slippery slope that will, in time, start believing that it is more important for people to see God “rightly” than it is for them to be free or comfortable or even to live.  Better to lose the body and save the soul, we reason, except that the other soul may not have ever been in jeopardy in the first place.  They might just have been holding onto a different part of the elephant.

            I have read the text from 1 Corinthians 13 this morning to show you that, like last week, I’m not making this up.  Paul reminds us that we are limited beings.  While on earth our sight is limited by a dark glass, a dim mirror.  We see some things, but it’s not clear.  We know, he says, only in part.

            Boy could our world use a little more of that acknowledgement.  Throughout his letters Paul speaks with a lot of authority.  He is teaching the people he writes to as best as he can.  But behind it all is this disclaimer.  Even Paul is looking through a glass, darkly.  Even Paul knows only in part.  There is more to be known of God.  No one person, congregation, denomination, or even religion is exempt.  They know only in part.  They see only through dirty glass.

            Ironically, this is officially part of Roman Catholic doctrine, although you would not know it from listening to some.  I’ve been reading a book called Simplicity by a Franciscan priest named Richard Rohr.  In his final chapter he reminds us of this:

            “…At the Second Vatican Council [in 1965] the bishops composed some wonderful documents.  One of the most important of those was on our relationship with non-Christian religions.  It starts by affirming that ‘all people comprise a single community, and have a single origin…One also is their final goal, God.  His providence, his manifestation of goodness, and his saving designs extend to all people.’  In the second section, the document quickl affirms that those of other religions are also struggling with the same mystery that Christians are struggling with.  It says, ‘The Catholic Church rejects nothing which is true and holy in these religions.  She looks with sincere respect upon these ways of conduct and life, those rules and teachings which, though differing in many particulars from what she holds and sets forth, nevertheless often reflect a ray of that truth which enlightens all people.’  One wonders what has happened to that courageous wisdom since it was first officially taught in 1965. … History waited thousands of years for such freedom.”

            I had no idea the Catholics had taken that stand, but I agree with it completely.  It is the acknowledgement that most of the world is, in some way, trying to determine the nature of the elephant, and all of us are given only partial knowledge.  That knowledge and understanding that we each have…whether it be knowledge of an individual, church, denomination, or religion is what I have called our God-Box.  And that box is not a problem.  In fact, it is a great gift.  That almighty God would consent to be known at all is absolutely amazing.

            The problem is not in describing our own experience of God.  The problem is putting a lid on our box and saying that my experience and understanding is right and yours is wrong.  We simply cannot say that, because we are not capable of understanding the fullness of God while we exist on this earth.  We know only in part, and even that knowledge could be misleading because of the dirty glass.  We are encouraged to share what we know with others, but to do so with humility.

            So what does that mean for my life?  Well, a lot of things.  For one, if you are inclined to tell anybody their going to hell for any reason whatsoever, quit it.  You don’t know that.  You can’t know that.  That is God’s decision, and God is clear in many places that God is not planning on turning it over any time soon.  “Vengeance is mine, says the Lord.”  “I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy and compassion on whom I will have compassion.”  We look on outward appearances, but God looks on the heart.  We have to make some judgments on how we live together in the human community of this earth, but we are strictly warned in the Bible not to judge the soul of another.  We don’t have either the knowledge or the authority to do that.

            In the community of a local church, it also means to be gentle with change.  In a month’s time, Mark Alley will be coming to be your new pastor.  He will bring new ideas and new approaches.  He may want to do the unthinkable and actually change something in the worship service.  Realize that as a church, we know only in part.  Our traditions are not the sum total of all truth.  They are not the only path to God.  Feeling some discomfort with change is natural.  And the new thing might be right up your alley (no pun intended) or it may be something you don’t really care for at all. 

But the point is, when you express your feelings about it, do so with humility, kindness, and with the knowledge that the change might be giving you a glimpse at a part of God that you could not see before.   As Mark shares his God-Box with you, you are being given a gift…insight into a larger part of the truth about God.

If you’ve been here awhile, you might remember back to when we started having communion every week.  On the weeks when we do this before the service, music is playing.  At the later service Andy plays the bell carillon, which caused no difficulty at all.  But at the early service, we sing praise music.  There is clapping, the drums keep the beat, and the music is mostly upbeat.

I quickly discovered that a whole bunch of people at St. John’s had never touched that part of the elephant before.  The time of communion had always been somber and serious with soft music.  And that is not wrong.  That does reflect the part of the sacrament of Holy Communion that remembers Jesus broken body and shed blood on Good Friday.  But that piece is not the complete picture of the sacrament.  There is also the joyous piece…the anticipation of Christ coming in final victory and feasting at that heavenly banquet.  The Christian story does not end at the Cross.  It ends with joy and fellowship and a huge party.

Celebrating communion with upbeat music as we clap and sing, expands our understanding of both the sacrament and God.  For awhile, some saw the celebratory music during Communion as “wrong.”  That is a closed box.  It is not “wrong,” but neither is it complete.  Likewise, the quiet, reflective music is not wrong.  But it is not complete either.  Even both of them together are not complete, but they do give us a bigger picture than either one alone.

When I say to “be open,” I don’t mean to believe nothing or to prefer nothing.  I simply mean that we must always remember that even the most brilliant person on the planet cannot know all there is to know about God and God’s ways.  God warns us about that in Isaiah.  God’s thoughts and ways are beyond us.  If we could understand all there was to know about God, then we would be greater than God.  We know only in part.  We see only through a glass, darkly.

That applies to how we conduct ourselves inside the church, but it doesn’t end there.  Even though our knowledge is limited, God is still booting us out the door to share our experience of God with others…not because we’re right and they’re wrong, but because the more we share, the bigger our understanding.  It can never be complete, but it can be a whole lot bigger than it is.

Knowing only in part is such a helpful thing in political discussions.  If I enter into, for example, the abortion debate with the absolute certainty that my ways are God’s ways, there is absolutely no way to ever either hear the other side or resolve the issue.  Both sides are guilty of closing the box here and mature adults turn into two-year-olds when it comes time for debate.  “You want to kill babies!” shouts the one side.  “You hate women!” shouts the other…both with lids nailed on their boxes and sealed with super glue.

There is nothing wrong with feeling very strongly about an issue, but it will never get resolved until we can come at it with the humility of Isaiah in knowing that God’s ways are not my ways and God’s thoughts are not my thoughts.  We see through a glass darkly.  Maybe the other side isn’t really as ugly as they look.  Maybe the dirt is on the glass and we are not seeing them truly.  Maybe our knowledge is only partial and maybe each side’s partial knowledge could create something much greater if it could be combined and shared.

Our discussion about the Bible last week is relevant to this, as I discovered in a discussion with a colleague this week.  I told him that I was going to be talking about the elephant folktale this morning and, while acknowledging some truth in that, he said.  “Yes, but the story goes on.  Then one day, the elephant spoke.”  What he meant was that we grope for God in our experience, but then God spoke the words of the Bible and cleared up the problems.

Well, I agree that God spoke and that God is, in fact, still speaking.  And when God spoke both in the Hebrew Scriptures and in the New Testament, God said similar things.  My thoughts, says God, are both different and higher than yours.  Our knowledge, Paul confirms, is limited.  There are many ways to interpret the Bible, and perhaps we don’t need to choose one over the other.  Maybe they are describing two different aspects of the same God.  Maybe one is talking about the trunk and one about the leg.  Maybe the focus on humility in the Bible is more important than we ever imagined.

And so I encourage you to remember.  Your truth is an important part of the nature of God and needs to be shared.  We at St. John’s have an important message to share with other churches, and we as United Methodists have a unique angle to share with Christians of other traditions.  And we Christians have the wonderful good news that God can at least be partially known…that God allows us blind people to run up and touch God’s ears and nose…to put our hands on his side and to grasp his feet.  We can share with the world that we have touched the elephant, that we have known the Lord.  We have no business keeping that information to ourselves.  We must just be sure to acknowledge at the same time that we are blind.  That we know only in part and only see through a glass, darkly.  Amen.

Sermon © 2005, Anne Robertson

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