Sermon: Twentieth Sunday after Trinity, 14 October 2018, St Mary Magdalene

Reading  Mark 10.17-31

Preacher  Revd Alan Sykes

 

I thought I’d start off with something a little controversial – a lot controversial in fact. It can’t have escaped your attention that the appointment last week of Brett Kavanaugh to the United States Supreme Court polarised opinion very severely over in America.

You’ll remember that he was accused of a sexual assault when he was 17. If you were a Democrat, you tended to believe his accuser. If you were a Republican, you tended to believe Mr Kavanaugh.

But the real truth of the matter is, I would suggest, unknown to both sides. They simply have no way of knowing the real truth of what happened.

That’s often the case with us human beings. For our own reasons we often pretend to know more than we do. We know very little about most things and we tend to exaggerate what we do know into something more than it is.

The few drops of knowledge that we do have evaporate into insignificance compared to the ocean of ignorance in which we swim. It’s our inevitable state, from which it is impossible to escape.

Human beings are amazing creatures in a myriad of ways but it’s not wise to pretend that we are more than we are.

Now, you could say the same principle of humility applies to our knowledge of God. God is not an object in the universe that we can see or touch or prod or measure or take samples from for later analysis under a microscope.

God is beyond our comprehension, beyond our language, beyond any capacity for thought that we possess. The finite cannot comprehend the in-finite, the infinite.

In case you think I’m getting a bit too agnostic, let me just point out that our limited knowledge of God is actually good news. God would not be God if he – to use a completely arbitrary personal pronoun – could be detected by the Hubble telescope or known fully by philosophical enquiry.

We can’t pin God down like a butterfly in a museum display cabinet.

Scientific and philosophical enquiry are wonderful tools but they only get us so far when it comes to the nature of divine reality.

Neither is all this an unbiblical thought. Take the passage from Job that was our first reading. Job is here talking about God:

   ‘If I go forward, he is not there;
   or backward, I cannot perceive him; 
   on the left he hides, and I cannot behold him;
   I turn to the right, but I cannot see him’. 

God is hidden from our gaze, however hard we look. That doesn’t mean that we can’t talk meaningfully about God, that we can’t use words but we should always be mindful that words will always be inadequate and limited, more metaphorical than literal.

So, what are we to do? Must we for ever despair of coming to a truly authentic knowledge of God?

The answer is definitively ‘no’. Despite the profound unknowability of God, the Christian contention is that we can form a real relationship with this unknowable God. So how might that come about?

Let’s take a look at our gospel reading. The problem that the rich man has appears at first glance to be money, his attachment to his own wealth.

And it’s certainly true that his attachment to wealth is a problem, but to my mind there’s a deeper thing going on here – his lack of real, genuine commitment.

That is what holds him back. The attachment to money is symptomatic of this deeper malaise. If we want to fulfil the possibility of forming a real relationship with anybody, there needs to be commitment.

We all know that. If you want a proper relationship with your spouse or partner, you need commitment. All such relationships require commitment, fidelity, things like that, if they are to thrive.

And it’s a two-way street requiring commitment and fidelity from both parties.

It’s similar when it comes to our relationship with God. He is already committed to us – that’s been a done deal since the creation of the world – but we need to be committed to him.

A tentative, tepid, toe in the water kind of attitude isn’t going to do the trick.

It’s not that God demands commitment exactly. It’s just that things won’t get very far without it. No commitment equals no relationship. Mediocre commitment equals mediocre relationship – not necessarily no relationship, but a mediocre one.

And who wants that?

So Jesus says to this rich man: come on then – put your money where your mouth is. Let’s see what you’re really made of.

Note that Jesus loves him. He sees the potential within him for spiritual growth. But the young man isn’t able to respond fully. He’s nearly committed but not quite. He can’t make that all-important final step.

It’s love responding to love that brings us into relationship with the divine, person to person. It’s vital we hold onto that notion of God being a person, strange though it may be in many ways.

Obviously, God isn’t a person in the same way that we are persons. But he’s capable of love. God is love. That’s what makes God a person.

Let me offer you some words from one of my favourite spiritual writers, Richard Rohr, who says this:

God, it seems, cannot really be known, but only related to. Or, as the mystics would assert, we know God by loving God, by trusting God, by placing our hope in God.

It is always I-Thou and never I-It, to use Martin Buber’s wonderfully insightful phrases. God allows us to know God only by loving God. God, in that sense, cannot be “thought.”

Martin Buber was a Jewish philosopher well-known for his distinction between an I-Thou relationship – person to person – and an I-It relationship – person to thing. God is not a thing.

So what we might call the heart has the lead role in the spiritual life but that doesn’t mean that the mind, the intellect, has no part to play at all. Jesus tells us to love God with all our mind, as well as with all our heart, soul and strength.

The mind can temper and critique the excesses of the heart. It can tell us important things about God but it can’t of itself bring us into relationship with God.

It’s the mind and the heart working together that can find this relationship, which is the goal of our existence.

About Revd Alan Sykes

Revd Alan Sykes is a self-supporting minister (SSM) based at St Mary Magdalene. He was ordained in 2009. He has worshipped at St Mary’s for over 25 years. No longer employed, he gave up his job as a librarian early in 2009. His interests include poetry, classical music, cricket and football. Which team he supports remains a closely guarded secret as he does not wish to cause merriment among the congregation.
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