September 23, 2012

The Knowledge Most Worth Having


It's the sunday after Labor Day. It has all started again, hasn’t it? In the old days, New Year’s day came in January; but in a knowledge-based economy, the New Year really happens when the school year begins. We are beavering away at our books again, grasping for knowledge, filling our brains with formulas.

I remember how impressed I was, the first year I showed up at college, a place where the beginning of the school year meant a ceremony, something called convocation. I came from a public school in the midwest; we didn’t wear gowns except at prom, and then onliy half of us were supposed to wear them.

But here was all this black and silk, the actual version of what our high-school commencement had been a kind of pastiche of. It was all very grand, and it must have made a pretty deep impression on me, because ever since I have rarely strayed far from hanging out at those kinds of places.

Different places do this old ceremony in different ways. One of my very favorite traditions is at the University of Chicago, where all of the entering freshmen are marched into Rockefeller Chapel in order to listen to a lecture given by a senior member of the faculty. Being asked to give this lecture is a particular honor at Chicago, and it is always delivered under the same title: The Aims of Education.

Basically, it’s meant to be an introduction to what a college is, and what it is for. It’s a first chance for these young brains of wet clay to be molded in the ways of critical thought.

Some years ago some of these lectures were collected into a volume that appeared under the title The Knowledge Most Worth Having. Of course, all of the contributors have a different idea; the philosopher, the chemist, the biologist, the sociologist each of them had a different answer to what the purpose of education might be.

It might be an interesting question for us to ask for ourselves. When it comes to what we do here, when it comes to our lives as spiritual beings, what is the knowledge most worth having?


This is a little bit of a conundrum, because where we’re at today is with something Jesus does not want people to know. He doesn’t want people to know where he is at. But even more curiously, he doesn’t want people to know who he is.

All throughout the gospel of Mark we hear this theme. Jesus heals someone, or helps someone, or does something pretty amazing, and the story almost always ends with something like this line: “He sternly ordered them to tell no one what had happened.”

This happens so often in Mark’s gospel, the New Testament scholars have a little phrase to describe it. The phrase is the “Messianic secret.” So often Jesus seems to be desperately anxious for people not to see through what he does and what he says to who he is.

What is this about? It’s the idea that something about Jesus authenticity, something about his genuineness, is communicated in his unwillingness to be known. He is doing the thing that prophets always do, when the call first comes on them; he’s declaring himself unready, unworthy of the calling, or at least trying to. No true Messiah would be out there proclaming himself, is the idea. The evidence that this is the real guy is exactly that he is so anxious for it not to be revealed.

Well, maybe. Not a lot of people put much credit in the Messianic Secret idea anymore. And yet maybe it serves the purpose of pointing right to what we’re supposed to be paying attention to. The thing we’re supposed to know. The knowledge most worth having.

It’s the realization Peter has along the way with Jesus: You are the promised one. It’s the realization that moves the people around him to come asking for help. This man has something to say. It’s not just an interesting take on things, it’s not just a blog post or a pundit’s essay.

It’s a message that has the power to change you. It will change you in a way that it changes the people in the stories we read here every Sunday morning. It will bring you up out of your darkness and doubt to come forward like the woman this morning, and like so many others, looking for something--—looking for hope.

This morning’s gospel reading is a little challenging, because the woman who comes forward in that way is pretty clearly rejected at first by Jesus—the same Jesus who, in so many other places, is so accepting of people outside the lines that separate Jews and Gentiles.

Here, Jesus frankly just plain seems to get it wrong. He is willing to send this woman away exactly because, just because she isn’t Jewish. Something is wrong with this picture.

What we know from the story is that the woman seems to know something more about Jesus than just the first words he speaks to her. She seems to know more because she is not deterred. She doesn’t just go away. She presses forward. She knows there is something here worth pursuing.

And, it turns out, she is right. Something about what she says calls Jesus back to himself. Maybe he didn’t want to be found out; maybe he was trying to hide who he was, or who he was coming to understand himself to be.

Whatever the case, he comes to himself, or she brings him to himself, and they both know something. They both know that God’s love for us has the power to break down the barriers we make between ourselves, whether they are barriers of race or class or language or anything.

They both know that love has the power to get us out of our little shells and into a place where we truly, genuinely care about others, because we know that we are truly, genuinely loved, despite all our faults. And that is the knowledge most worth having.

The question for us is, if people come into this house—will they know Jesus is here? If they come here daring to seek that hope, looking for that affirmation, will they find it?

Or will they instead find the Jesus that is trying to be hidden, the Jesus that is trying to escape notice?

It’s the beginning of a new year, a new year of learning, a new year of reflecting, a new year of coming together for prayer and the support of this community. Let us share the knowledge we have found here of the Jesus who is love, and who has given us that hope, with anyone who comes into this house looking for him.