One of my favorite Biblical scholars once told me, “I believe that God has something new to say to us every day. He is not done with us yet.”
That’s comforting and frightening at the same time. We would like our God to be a fixed point in a confusing world. We would like our God to be manageable, understandable. We would like to be able to use the Bible to define the height, depth, width and volume of our God, so we could fit God into a God-shaped box. It’s easier that way, having all the dimensions measured out, knowing what we need to know to have a relationship with God.
But God doesn’t really work that way. God is bigger than us in every way. God doesn’t fit neatly into a little box that we can tuck away in a corner and forget about until Sunday. God has something new to say to us every day.
So King David found out in today’s Old Testament passage. Remember last week? The ark being carried into the city of David and the king dancing wildly for joy, and the great celebration with everyone going home well-fed?
You know about parties…there is always a morning after, and here we are in the morning after, and David has an idea. After all, he is king. He is settled into his house now, his enemies have been vanquished, and the ark is here. So he asks Nathan, the prophet, about an idea he has: the king lives in a nice house – a house made of cedar – makes you think of the Pacific Northwest, doesn’t it? – but the ark, that wonderful symbol of the relationship between God and his people, is in a tent. Just some poles and some cloth. Certainly not fit for such a wonderful thing as the ark…so why not build a nice house for the ark? Nathan says, “Sounds good to me. You’re God’s beloved one. Go for it.”
And David goes to sleep that night with blueprints dancing in his head, drawings of the marvelous temple he wants to build for the ark, for God. Nathan goes to sleep, too, but his sleep is not as untroubled as David’s – God comes to him in a dream, and has some rather harsh words that he wants Nathan to pass along to David: “You’re not the one to figure out whether I need a temple. I’ve been traveling alongside my people in an ark and a tent since I took you all out of Egypt. At any time, have I said ‘I want a house of cedar?’ No, you boys are missing the point. YOU don’t get to say when and where I need a house. I am the one who decides about the house thing….and this is what I have to say about it: I’ve got it under control. I made you king, and I will give my people Israel a land of their own, and I will build a house…but it won’t be a house made of cedar. It will be a house made of the generations of those who follow you. I’ll take care of David’s people and defend them against their enemies. That’s the house that will be built.”
So Nathan has to get up the next morning and tell all this to David, and David is shocked, and has to go in to pray before the ark and talk to God for a while, to get his head around what God has promised….what scholars call the Davidic covenant, this promise to David and to the generations out of David’s line yet to come. God has said something new to David; God has the right to do that, being God.
God has something new to say to us every day. God takes what we think we understand, and sets it on its ear…God reveals more about himself, and we learn, slowly.
At the heart of this is the question of how we know God. It’s an ancient question. I like what St. Thomas Aquinas had to say about it: in the Summa Theologica, his book that outlined what he believed was his whole theological understanding, he talked about the various ways we might know God, but he put in a big caveat: we cannot know God completely, not in this life. We can get hints of who God is, through the magnificence of creation, but that is an imperfect and incomplete understanding. As Augustine said “If you have comprehended, what you have comprehended is not God.” There is always more to learn as we try to understand in our weak human way who God is.
God has something new to say to us every day. There is something more for us to learn every day.
That puts us in an uncomfortable place, because we want our God to be tame and well-defined, a God for whom we can build a temple in which to keep God locked away. But our God is not a tame god. “I am who I am” cannot be easily fit into a box.
And yet people try. We have seen this in people who have tried to use God’s words as a weapon, as if there is only one understanding, as if there is no fresh knowledge for us to pursue as we, as faithful people, try to understand God better. They rightly state that God is unchangeable, that God is fixed. But while God is fixed, our understanding of God cannot be. We are supposed to keep trying to understand God more, and better. We Episcopalians believe that it is not only Scripture and our traditions that guide our understanding but also the use of our brains, our ability to reason…and we struggle to faithfully understand God’s will. The result of that is that sometimes we disagree. Remember, we cannot fully understand God in this life, so we’re bound to these challenges. That’s nothing new in the church – the apostles Peter and Paul fought mightily over whether Gentile Christians were to be held to different standards than Jewish Christians, and the church fathers in Nicea fought for almost 60 years before the final version of the Nicene Creed was agreed upon. There was the Reformation, both the German version and the English version, and don’t get me started on the subject of women’s ordination! The church debates, and sometimes fights, as it struggles to understand God’s purpose.
This is the position in which we have found ourselves in recent years, on the subject of the inclusion of gay and lesbian people in the life of the church.
It came to a head, of course, with the election of Gene Robinson in 2003 as Bishop of New Hampshire. A gay man, living in a committed relationship with his partner of more than two decades, elected a bishop? A scandal to some, righteous justice to others.
The sequence of events that followed Bishop Robinson’s election is well-known: some conservative folks have left the church, allying themselves with other provinces in Africa and South America that believe as they do. Some within the Anglican Communion were greatly disturbed by what they viewed as the Episcopal Church’s radical acts. In response to the tumult, the 2006 General Convention passed a resolution promising a moratorium on the ordination of Bishops whose “manner of life” would cause problems for others in the communion…this was widely read to mean a moratorium on electing any more gay bishops; the resolution also included language blocking the blessing of same-sex relationships. For many gay and lesbian persons, that resolution had the feeling of exclusion, of being unwelcome if they chose to be fully themselves.
But God has something new to say to us every day, and we are bound to try and hear God’s voice. So this past week, at General Convention, a resolution was passed that affirmed our desire to continue to be a part of the Anglican Communion and also affirmed that the Episcopal Church believes that gay and lesbian persons should be able to live out their call to any of the orders of ordained ministry – either deacon, priest, or bishop. Some folks view this new resolution, which passed in both the House of Bishops and the House of Deputies by 2 to 1, as a repudiation of the moratorium. Others interpret it as a clarification, and that it is a matter of choice on the part of different dioceses how this will play out in their location. In point of fact, it has always been a matter of choice on the part of a diocese as to how they would react to resolutions, which is why there were several dioceses who wouldn’t ordain women as recently as a year ago, and others who have always approved blessings of same-sex unions…it is part of the DNA of the Episcopal Church that we can hold ourselves in the tension of differing interpretations.
I believe that God has something new to say to us every day. I don’t always understand all the details, but I pray that we all can listen faithfully, and be willing to reshape or even discard the box that we try to put God in, and know that we will finally understand it at the last day. In the meantime, a little theological humility as we try to seek God’s will is a good thing.
I am comforted by the words of the great Colombian writer Gabriel Garcia Marques, who was asked about the secret to his marriage of many decades…he said, “I know her so well now, after all these years, that I know that I know nothing about her.”
God is a mystery, but we don’t get a pass on trying to understand at least a little bit about the Divine Mystery. We may feel at moments of change that we know nothing about God, but our sure knowledge that God is love, and that God bids us to love one another, goes a long way toward getting us started.