Princeton University Religious Life

All We Do Not Know

The Rev. Dr. Alison L. Boden
Princeton University Chapel
October 18, 2015
Job 38: 1-7, 34-41; Mark 10: 35-45

I must begin this sermon with a spoiler alert.  If any of you are accompanying young (or not so young!) people to whose house the tooth fairy still visits, you may want to distract those persons for the next 30 seconds.

About eleven years ago, when he was six, our son Timothy lost yet another baby tooth.  As I put him to bed, we double-checked that the tooth was properly under the pillow where the fairy could find it.  My sweet guy looked up at me from his pillow very seriously and asked, “Mom, are you the tooth fairy?”  My policy has always been to encourage my children’s imagination and delight in many things, tooth fairies included, but also to answer them honestly when they asked direct questions.  And so I told him, “Yes—yes I am the tooth fairy.” And Tim got a deep grin on his face, he nodded up and down, and he thought for a moment, clearly very pleased to have earned his way into the world of adult knowledge about the tooth fairy.  He then asked me, very seriously, “Does Dad know?”

It was all I could do to keep a straight face.  This was a very serious conversation, after all! I said, “Yes, Dad knows.”

This story, one of my particularly cherished moments from my son’s childhood came to my mind this week as I was reflecting on our texts from the Book of Job and the Gospel According to Mark.  We know just enough about a situation, or about how the universe really works, to be sure that we see with full clarity, that we have all knowledge.  In fact, we only see a tiny piece.  We don’t yet understand everything.  A world of deeper meaning is going on.  Our ignorance makes us confident.  We realize that Mom is the tooth fairy, but not that the rest of the adult world is in on the plan.

Sometimes our ignorance makes us too confident.  James and John, the sons of Zebedee, delighted to be the first to be called as disciples of Jesus, really get ambitious.  They want to cement positions for themselves—the highest positions—and for eternity.  They ask Jesus a sneaky question: “Will you give us whatever we ask?”  Jesus certainly doesn’t say, “Sure!” He also doesn’t say no.  He says, “Whaddaya want?”  They want permanent places of privilege and honor, it turns out.  Jesus tells them, “You don’t understand what you’re asking.”  They do not—for to be with him at his right and his left in glory would mean substituting for the criminals crucified to Christ’s left and right.  James and John do not want that, and as Christ is processed towards Golgotha, carrying his cross, they join the other disciples in running away as fast as their legs can carry them.

Job experienced all the suffering that can come to a human being without literally dying oneself—he lost everything he owned, he lost all his children, his wife left, he became hideously and painfully ill, just shy of death.  With a confidence borne of indescribable suffering he dares to demand of God, “Why?”  Why has such suffering been visited upon me?  What have I done?  Where is fairness?  Justice?  Job thinks he has the excruciatingly earned wisdom of the ways of the universe to demand an explanation for this inconsistency between his virtue and his suffering.

And boy, what a response he gets back from God!  God doesn’t have answers, only questions back for Job.  Job has demanded an accounting from God about how God is doing at ruling the universe (wow!) and God’s essential reply is, “You can’t understand.”  The answer is not, “You could understand but you don’t,” the answer is, “You can’t.”

Job and we cannot truly understand the mind of God.  We aren’t God; we did not lay the foundations of the earth, lay its cornerstone, and rejoice “when the morning stars sang together and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy.”  We did not place wisdom or understanding in our own minds; we are the receivers of such wisdom, we are grateful when it comes to us.  God’s response, only some of which we have in our pericope for today, is a beautiful litany of the majesty and wonder of the world around us.  The ocean deep churns and rolls; in it are creatures both massive and infinitesimal, dark as night and glowing neon.  On its surface the ocean breaks into waves, white caps, it crashes on to shore and foam sprays everywhere.  The sun rises in the morning and moves with its sure burning fire across the horizon.  When it sets, the blue skies darken, a thumbnail moon grows brighter, stars emerge and twinkle, worlds upon worlds up there.  Forests are deep green and so silent except for the creaking of trunks as they move in the wind, or when the woodpecker pecks, or the red fox screeches.  Treetops sway together as a gusty breeze moves through; they share their rhythm; their leaves shimmer in unison like the applause of the deaf for the genius of their creator and the beauty of it all.  Fireflies dance in a meadow; each one lights up as if to say “Wow!” “Wow!” It is a holy light show of random, simple joy.  Geese fly overhead.  They have somewhere to go.  They know the route they do not know, the route they never have flown, deep in their brains is planted a map they can only follow.  The whale and the luna moth, the cheetah, the sloth, the koala—they know what to do, how to live, even how to kill, and when to die.  We human animals, too—we make our way.  We love, we struggle; we rejoice and age and create and suffer and learn and die.  We try to leave something positive of ourselves as a marker, so that those who come later will know that we were ever here at all.

There is the physical creation that we can see and marvel at, yet we know that there is so much more.  We see shooting stars, our moon, distant planets.  Beyond the universe we can touch and see is the one—or many?—that we cannot.  Here we are in the mind of God, an existence so expansive that it blows our minds.  Institutions like this university are dedicated to learning as much as possible about where and who we are, in this mind of God.  Astrophysicists ask what dust we are all made of, and astronomers want to look out into our planetary neighborhood and understand our neighbors, understand how we all came to be, where we exist in relation to all that is, and what exactly comprises all that is.  Chemists want to know how all things are composed, historians want to know where we’ve been, our artists and writers want to express what we think we know, or imagine a picture of where we might be going.  Our neuroscientists and psychologists want to figure out how we know what we think we know.  Our friends in the Religion Department want to know who God is.  We all want to touch it, see it, understand it—this amazing cosmos of glory and beauty and also suffering that God references in response to Job’s simple question…why?

We ask “Why?” We ask “Why?” all the time.  We want to know - why me?  Why am I ill?  Why was she in that car?  Why was my child born with disabilities?  Why can’t I find love?  Why (to follow Job) is the world unjust?  And the answer is, you can’t understand, not because you are stupid but because you are human.  You—we—are not God.

All we do not know is not a problem, it’s an existential and spiritual fact.  We are the creature, not the Creator, and when we live at our best it is not as angry denouncers of all that displeases us but as daily activists for just human societies in the context of wonder and mystery.  We work to change what we can; we move with humility throughout our days in the face of all of the questions we can never, because we are human, truly understand.  I mean this as good news—as very good news—as each of us lives with so many reminders of our own powerlessness and our lack of wisdom, of understanding.

God’s good plan is still unfolding.  The distance between creation and the fulfillment of salvation, it turns out, we find, to be rather lengthy; and with our earthly lives we will see only a small portion of it.  The profoundest meaning of our lives—the faith, joy, struggle, beauty, suffering, everything—has a holiness all its own, and is yet a tiny circle of experience surrounded by God’s infinity.  Our lives matter infinitely, in the midst of infinity.  All that we love and know and do is a holy and beloved speck in the middle of an infinity we can never really understand or come to know.  We are Job and James and John—we live and thrive and hurt terribly in front of God and Christ who love us infinitely, yet whose infinity reminds of us all we do not know.  We are the creature—created through love and toil in the person of God, redeemed by love and blood in the person of Christ, led into all freedom by the love and persistence of the Holy Spirit.  In the midst of an immensity of universal holiness we live our precious lives, we do our best, we love and serve, we observe the mighty mystery around us and within us, and we walk on, we walk on.

In the end, all we do not know is not evidence of God’s uncaring, boredom, injustice, anger, or displeasure, but is rather a simple testimony to God’s wonder, love, and grace.

And thanks be to God.  Amen.



D.L.  Bartlett & B.B. Taylor, eds. Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 4 (Louisville: WJK Press, 2009), pp. 170-175.          


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