It’s a Mystery

Sermon preached October 21, 2012

Have you ever had an embarrassing moment? Have you ever felt uncomfortable in a group of people, out of place? I probably should just ask if you have experience as a human being, because occasional embarrassment or out-of-placeness just go with the territory.
The seminary I attended, United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities, held an annual fall retreat for students and faculty. The retreat included recreation, but also worship, lectures and small breakout groups. One year I thought it might be interesting to attend a breakout session on mystery stories. I cannot recall the specific title of the session, but I remember pondering – “theological thinking about mystery stories, that could be interesting.”
I arrived at the session and we were seated in a circle. One of the seminary faculty was the convener of the group. She said that rather than make any kind of presentation, she was assuming everyone in the group was there because they were mystery story readers and we would just be going around to share some of our favorite mystery writers. Oh no. While I was interested in mystery stories, I had come to find out more about them and something about their theological significance. I did not have any favorite mystery writers to share. I felt embarrassed, uncomfortable and out of place, though things ended up o.k.
Since then, I have acquired a few mystery writers whose works I like to tell others about: Julia Spenser-Fleming, Nevada Barr, Peter Robinson, John D. MacDonald. I enjoy a good mystery story now and again.
The Biblical book of Job is a mystery story of sorts. It is a book filled with questions. Where is God when humans suffer? Why do we sometimes assume that when people suffer, God is somehow behind it? Unlike many mystery stories, unless there is a planned sequel, Job ends up providing more questions than answers. We read this morning from some of the final chapters in the book. Job and some of his friends have had conversation about Job’s suffering. In the end of the story God responds, but with more questions. Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?… Who has put wisdom in the inward parts, or given understanding to the mind? Job is a mystery story, but of a unique kind, and the kind of mystery story Job is has something to say about our Christian faith.
When we think about mystery stories we tend to think about mystery stories that are puzzles of sorts. There is a crime – a murder, a theft, and the plot of the mystery story revolves around trying to figure out who committed the crime. Really good mystery stories, though, make their characters three-dimensional, especially the detectives. Really good mystery stories can give us insight into the human condition. But Job is not the kind of mystery story that is a puzzle to be solved.
I am also cautious when we, in religious circles, appeal too easily to mystery. Sometimes it is as if some churches want to tell people – “Quit thinking so much. It is a mystery.” If mystery stories as puzzles invite our thinking, these religious appeals to mystery want to short-circuit our thinking. Earlier this month it was reported that a Georgia congressman (Rep. Paul Broun) who sits on the House Science, Space and Technology Committee said at a church banquet: God’s word is true. I’ve come to understand that. All that stuff I was taught about evolution, embryology, Big Bang theory, all that is lies straight from the pit of hell…. I believe that [the Earth] was created in six days as we know them. That’s what the Bible says. If asked how this could be given all the scientific knowledge we have, some religionists might say simply, “It’s a mystery.” Really? Does being a Christian mean that we leave our critical thinking behind, that questions are forbidden? Does being a Christian mean that if science seems to suggest something different than on understanding of the Bible, we simply say, “the Bible tells me so” and appeal to the mystery of our faith?
That’s not the kind of mystery story Job is, nor is it the kind of mystery to which we are invited as Christians.
Mystery is important in Christian faith, but mystery as understood like this – Frederick Buechner: There are mysteries which you can solve by taking thought. For instance, a murder mystery whose mysteriousness must be dispelled in order for the truth to be known. There are other mysteries which do not conceal a truth to think your way to but whose truth is itself the mystery. The mystery of your self, for example. The more you try to fathom it, the more fathomless it is revealed to be. No matter how much of your self you are able to objectify and examine, the quintessential, living part will always elude you, i.e., the part that is conducting the examination. Thus you do not solve the mystery, you live the mystery. (Wishful Thinking, 76)
I think Buechner is right about the character of mystery that is at the heart of job and Christian faith. There is something about being human that takes us beyond what our critical thinking can tell us. We don’t abandon such thinking, we push beyond it to ponder and live mystery. Even when we learn all that we can about the human brain and human body and biochemistry, it still will not explain what being a person feels like. There will always be something mysterious about being human, and particularly about being human in relation to God.
In First Corinthians 4, Paul writes, “Think of us in this way, as servants of Christ and stewards of God’s mysteries.” The Message renders that last part like this: “We are guides into God’s most sublime secrets.” To be Christian is to follow Jesus into the mysteries of God and of human life. It is to follow Jesus into God’s most sublime secrets. We are stewards of God’s mysteries, mysteries like those identified by the poet Denise Levertov: the quiet mystery… the mystery/that there is anything, anything at all,/let alone cosmos, joy, memory, everything,/rather than void: and that, O Lord,/Creator, Hallowed One, You still/hour by hour sustain it. (“Primary Wonder”)
To be a Christian, a follower of Jesus, is to have some answers, yes, but maybe what we have even more are signposts pointing in a direction. You want to know something about God? You want to know something about the meaning of being human? Look in this direction – toward Jesus Christ. What we find in Jesus is not a series of bullet points, but a guide into God’s most sublime secrets. The way of Jesus is the way of the open heart, the open mind – open to the mystery of our lives, open to the mystery of the world. It is not a way that tells us to forget our brains, it is a way that says beyond what we can know through our best thinking, there may be even more to be known and experienced in a different way.
I bring with me today some testimony to the importance of mystery in Christian faith.
Kathleen Norris, poet, Christian spiritual writer, asserts that at the heart of prayer is mystery. Prayer is not doing, but being. It is not words but the beyond-words experience of coming into the presence of something much greater than oneself…. [Prayer] is ordinary experience lived with gratitude and wonder, a wonder that makes us know the smallness of oneself in an enormous and various universe. (Amazing Grace, 350, 351) Prayer can be doing. Prayer can be asking. When prayer seems to get to its deepest place in my life, there is that beyond-words experience of coming into the presence of One greater than myself, One who has depths of mystery beyond me.
God is central to Christian faith, and the God of Jesus Christ will always be sublime and mysterious. James Jones, In the Middle of This Road We Call Our Life: Language is limited by space and time, culture, and individual experience. To speak directly about God is to limit God by treating God like an object in the world of tables and chairs. That is precisely what God is not. (174) Have you ever been a little confused about some parts of the Ten Commandments, particularly the parts about idols and graven images (KJV)? Perhaps this is an invitation to take seriously the limitations of human communication when it comes to God, to remember the depths of God’s mystery, to recall just how sublime are God’s secrets.
The voice of God that calls to us as followers of Jesus will always have a certain mysterious quality to it. The Jewish theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel spoke often of the ineffable when he wrote about God. The search of reason ends at the shore of the known; on the immense expanse beyond it only the sense of the ineffable can glide…. We do not leave the shore of the known in search of adventure or suspense or because of the failure of reason to answer our questions. We sail because our mind is like a fantastic seashell, and when applying our ear to its lips we hear a perpetual murmur from the waves beyond the shore. (I Asked for Wonder, 19)
We followers of Jesus are stewards of the mysteries of God. We seek to be attentive to deeper realities and invite others to join us in paying attention. We believe we are responsible in our lives to a mysterious One who we know, but cannot fully name. We may not leave the shore of the known in search of adventure, but an adventure it is. Following Jesus in tracking the mystery of God is an adventure. Once upon a time the term “Christian” meant wider horizons, a larger heart, minds set free, room to move around. But these days “Christian” sounds pinched, squeezed, narrow. Many people who identify themselves as Christians seem to have leapfrogged over life, short-circuited the adventure…. Curiosity, imagination, exploration, adventure are not preliminary to Christian identity; a kind of booster rocket to be jettisoned when spiritual orbit is achieved. They are part of the payload. (Patrick Henry, The Ironic Christian’s Companion, p. 8-9)
This month the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life released its latest survey on religious affiliation in the United States. One in five adults now considers themselves religiously unaffiliated. Most do not consider themselves atheist, but there is something about organized religion that they are not finding helpful. Perhaps we have tried to offer pat answers rather than invite them to the adventure of following Jesus in tracing the ways of a God of love who yet remains sublime and mysterious. Perhaps the church has been a poor steward of the mysteries of God – appealing to mystery as a substitute for thinking rather than inviting to mystery that considers thinking as a companion on the way.
In a preface he wrote to a book of his poems, Abraham Joshua Heschel penned these words, words addressed to God: “I did not ask for success; I asked for wonder. And You gave it to me.” (I Asked For Wonder, 7) Pray for wonder. Embrace mystery. You will find the God of wonder and mystery embracing you. Amen.