One Sunday morning in 1939, the famous American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr was preaching in a church in Edinburgh, Scotland.
At the conclusion of the service, Professor Niebuhr stood at the church door to receive the parishioners. One “wee wifey” as older women used to be called in Scotland stood before the great theologian and took his hand and said “Ah, I dinna ken a single word you were sayin’ lad, but I knew you were making God great.”
Translation: “I didn’t understand a word you said, but I knew you were making God great.”
I have a new Bible, a new translation called the Common English Bible – yet another attempt to express the meaning of words written over 2,000 years ago in contemporary language.
But this contemporary translations has kept an old fashioned tradition – that of highlighting the words of Jesus in red; an old-fashioned Red Letter edition. Now scholars go on and on and on in a lively debate about which of those red words Jesus actually said but nevertheless it is sometimes helpful to know which words are placed in the mouth of Jesus.
In today’s passage there are a 195 words; 178 words in highlighted in red, 17 in black. (Yes, I counted them!)
Actually it was the words in black that jumped out at me, became highlighted: “Those who heard Jesus use this analogy didn’t understand what he was saying.” “They dinna ken a single word he was sayin!”
I have to admit, I am not sure I do either. But that one editorial sentence about the hearers not knowing what Jesus was saying, is as much “scripture” and hence “The word of God” as any other passage and probably is more truthfully descriptive of where you and I are in our Christian faith most of the time.
We have more questions than certainty – and sometimes we are left wondering “What?”
I don’t really know who the “thieves and outlaws” are who climb over the gate; certainly some of the scribes and Pharisees. John’s gospel was the last gospel written. Most believe that John wrote to a community that was suffering persecution and division within the ranks and so the author was using words of Jesus to remind his community to keep together and stay firm. But we don’t know. Was Jesus talking about previous Jewish teachings, the law and the prophets? Hardly.
In this passage Jesus is the gate of the sheep. In the next passage he is the Good Shepherd who lays his life down for his sheep. The metaphors get mixed, or maybe the Christian scribe made a mistake.
But one thing that is clear to me, despite what I “dinna ken” or what my mind sometimes cannot fathom, my heart knows – it follows its desire to be cared for and saved, to be set free, to be with others.
The “ears” of my heart recognize love and knows peace. Jesus’ voice is gentle and loving and calls me to do just things. I recognize that.
I may not understand much, but I know love. So pay attention to what you do understand and connect with in your faith and let the other things go for now. They will come in their own time.
At the end of the day maybe that is the best we can do – try to make God great through our words but more importantly through our lives, even if sometimes we don’t know what Jesus is telling us, or even what we are doing.
Our language is limiting, our vision cloudy; sometimes we don’t really know what to do, and most of the time we don’t have a clue as to what is going on – and yet we trust, hope, and yearn for what we say and what we do is oriented to something great as we seek to follow the path of God in the same way as the sunflowers follows the sun across the sky.
The Bible says that “we live and move and have our being in Christ.” I don’t know precisely what that means but I like it; seeking to be like Jesus.
So much of what Jesus said and did is beyond my ken – “I dinna ken a word that lad was sayin’.” Or I am confused by some passages that seem harsh, exclusive, or limiting or judgmental. Jesus too was limited by his social and historical context.
But I know he was making God great, pointing to a larger reality of what the Kingdom of God looks like, inviting one and all into it.
In light of so much violence and misery and injustice in our world; such harsh voices, and so much noise it is understandable that we sometimes say or feel “to heck with God.” But my heart keeps coming back to the promises, and my ears are attuned to the words of God’s justice and mercy and love – and I want to be a part of the sheep, the community that calls Jesus “shepherd.” For I know to be isolated is danger.
This sense of not understanding faith but wanting to be part of it anyway; Using our best thoughts but realizing we are falling far short from describing the mystery and majesty of God – this is the faithful journey – faith seeking understanding; has been much on my mind lately and we try to react faithfully as a community to what is happening in our world, in our nation and in our church.
Last week I preached about this sense of call for our church’s future – and who knows if our experience, our discernment, our best thoughts are even close to what God has in store. Are we hearing the voice of Jesus above all else? Above our own expectations, concerns, fears?
We “dinna ken.” And yet we press on because we want to be a part of something big and grand and true. We want to make God great!
There are a lot of voices out in our world today – and we have so many choices. It takes disciple to listen and not get distracted.
The voices that are raised in the halls of power, concern me. It isn’t even so much the policy, but the tone – the actual words and misuse of our language – and it is not just the politicians, but social media and television – we are big on fear language, on suspicion language, on blame language, on nonsense – the voices are everywhere.
But Christ, as he says, comes to give life and to offer life to the fullest – and I am not quite sure I know exactly what that means, but I can intuit that it means more than wealth and fame and hook-ups and self-medication and suspicion of others.
Christ comes to call a community of those willing to sacrifice, and welcome others, and be at peace with themselves and with other – to enter and leave the sheep pen, so to speak, with curiosity and confidence, with joy and hope –into the abundant valley.
We come now to the table to receive the body and blood of Jesus Christ; another mystery that I “dinna ken” but as John Calvin once wrote, I would rather experience it than talk about it.
What I do know is that I want to be in the sheep pen with all of you; bleating and bumping into each other – making room for new sheep – the white and black sheep together; and all the mixed up ones too.
We might not understand any of it but we know we want part of something that is bigger than us, part of something that is seeking to make God great and the world a better place.