Sunday’s Sermon, May 12, 2024: Joyful Ambiguity

Rev. Cn. Richard Hogue Jr.

         The reading from Acts surprised me, especially as it comes to certainty. Peter has absolute certainty in his Scriptural interpretation, but imagine if he found himself in our time, what he might say about the “correct” reading of so many of our recent theological arguments. What would Peter think of the book of Acts itself or any of the writings attributed to Paul, or of gnostic texts that haven’t made the canonical cut. Peter didn’t have those in hand, of course, but there is this sense of certainty that we often crave. Ambiguity can indeed be difficult to work with in life, and on core tenets of faith it can bewilder and cause strife.

         I do find it amusing though, that Peter turns right around and casts lots for a new disciple to fill Judas’ spot on the bench. Going from certitude in interpretation to randomness in the span of ten verses gave me a giggle when I started prepping this sermon. Scripture itself can’t deny the need for ambiguity either it seems. Sometimes not knowing can be fun and joyful. What would be the point in any sport or game if the outcome was predetermined? Would we practice our favorite hobbies if it was always certain exactly what would come of it? Would art be of any use in a world full of total certainty? Would we always stick with our assumptions and prejudgments? What would life be without some surprises? One might go as far as to so that our perceived or desired certitude is precisely the problem with the world, causing the most malignant aspects of ourselves to grow beyond our capacity for mutuality and healthy ambiguities.

There are a lot of truly terrible things happening in the world right now, for most vulnerable and lonely people everywhere, for Ukrainians and Russian soldiers, for Uigurs in northwestern China, for all Gazans and the remaining Israeli captives, strife in myriad parts of the globe, and for our planet’s climate. I don’t want to ignore or forget anyone’s suffering. We must pray and act in the ways each of us reasonably can to ease suffering and its causes in this world. Yet what good would any of it be if we don’t find joy in life? Showing others that suffering and anxiousness are not the only present reality is necessary to keep ourselves going,  contrasting and creating tension with the way the world is for so many. God’s reign can sometimes feel ambiguous. That’s why we must look carefully for the signs of God’s reign in the most mundane of moments and places, allowing us a moment of pause to form cracks in our certitude, letting the Holy Spirit bring us a lively new spark.

         This week, I was able to go to a conference back East for Episcopal clergy under the age of 40, which I am unambiguously close to. The morning I woke to board my plane it was not the alarm that got me up, but a red shouldered hawk directly outside our bedroom window, calling to the dawn and the canyon, letting its presence be known to friend and foe alike. These magnificent raptors are always fun to watch, whether they are perched or riding pockets of air higher and higher. They clearly enjoy life. For many, my wakeup call would simply be coincidence. Yet for me, the reasons for her presence that moment are so ambiguous to my human mind that I cannot help sensing it was a blessing.

         Aspirational as it may be, being present to joy amid uncertainty in life is a radical, revolutionary act in a system and society that foments a certitude of scarcity over everything else. I deeply believe that a big part of why Jesus lived, why his presence was felt by the people who saw him preach, pray, and practice his ministry was his joy. It wasn’t just the parables, it wasn’t just challenging religious and political authorities. It was the way he lived, l’chaim, his verve, his joie de vivre, that I think made him an effective communicator of the good news of God’s love. He allowed for ambiguity in his own approach to interpreting Scripture. Jesus says on one hand “not one jot, not one tittle of the law” will disappear, yet also puts compassion and mercy before right religious practice. Think about the cross, the resurrection, the ascension. Each is rooted in the ambiguously large space of God’s love, flummoxing the certitude of people then and now. Can anyone truly explain Jesus’ choice to die on the cross? Can anyone explain the resurrection? Can anyone really explain why Jesus ascended instead of publicly marching through Jerusalem to prove he thwarted all powers in this world? Why did Jesus, instead, leave the disciples, us, to point to God’s reign for all people?

         The community John’s gospel emerged from seems like it was isolated, deeply persecuted, and fearful of the world. In it Jesus prays for his disciples before his death.

“I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world. They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. Now they know that everything you have given me is from you; for the words that you gave to me I have given to them, and they have received them and know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me. I am asking on their behalf; I am not asking on behalf of the world, but on behalf of those whom you gave me, because they are yours.”

In an odd—and I feel a sad—twist of history, it’s this desire for separation from the world, rather than a fulsome embrace of it and its ambiguity, wounds, and all, that defines following Jesus for many Christians. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t have a healthy sense of right and wrong or to have some certainties, Jesus does tell us the house built on sand falls in the flood. But I feel John’s community leaned heavily into Jesus’ commandment to “love each other as I have loved you” in the most insular of ways. On one hand, I cannot blame them for having felt so downtrodden and ridiculed, the world can be hostile to God’s ambiguity and love, like with the last being first and the first being last, and sharing everything we can. On the other hand, perhaps John’s tradition ironically forgot their own maxim: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only son.”  

         Bp. Curry spoke at our conference on Friday, he spoke honestly about the ambiguity of the church’s future, but he infused it with his joy. He likened our discipleship to the tree planted by living water in Prophet Jeremiah’s otherwise very bleak writing. Bp. Curry said we are rooted, tapped into the gift of the Holy Spirit. It makes me think about living water meandering wider and deeper, allowing Jeremiah’s tree to experience drought and anxiety but to never be overwhelmed. We get a taste of that from the Psalm today too. The future, for the world and the church, certainly doesn’t look promising. But if we look for the signs of the Spirit, like the hawk who got me up, or the joy you get from friends or family or pets or your favorite TV show, whatever it may be, if we start living with joy instead of just certainty, we might live more fully.

         It is easy to forget or ignore the goodness of life when we are forced to constantly contemplate death and destruction, and that’s also the irony and ambiguity, of Jesus’ life. We can focus so much on certainties about him that we forget the way he lived. Yes, he could get cranky and needed naps, and all of us have those moments. I believe his joy for living fully helped energize and restore him. Like Jeremiah’s tree, he could be anxious, but was never overwhelmed, not even on the cross, or in death. Framed that way, God is closer to us than we can imagine, however ambiguous it sometimes feels. God understands our life and ambiguities and loves us all deeply anyway. Of course, Jesus could be exhausted, but he never stopped living and loving and hasn’t still, and that’s where we come in. If we take our discipleship seriously, we show others a way to freedom and joy.

         I hope we can all live like the hawks, able to joyfully ride the surges and swells of forces we can’t see but can feel. I hope we swoop to places high and low with our eyes open, keen, and eager to see where the Holy Spirit is working in the world. We can give people a glimpse of joyful living, helping others’ hearts to soar. Won’t that reshape the world? We can start with joy and see God beyond our certitudes. We will be surprised by the places we find Jesus, and new companions, turning hearts of stone to hearts of flesh, alive with the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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