Sunday, June 12, 2005

Proper 9A: Wonder and secrets

I know I'm dating myself, but as a small child I loved the TV game show What’s My Line? Every week the celebrity panelists tried to guess the mystery guest’s secret. One week the guest would be an astronaut in training. Another week the guest would be the Sweet Potato Queen from Hickory, North Carolina.

Secrets seem anathema to the Christian faith. Jesus said, "I am the light of the world" and "You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free." And yet, he often cautioned those he had healed to tell no one about his miraculous powers. In today's gospel reading, Jesus claims that even God has secrets. "I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants..."There are some truths that seem more apparent to children. Hans Christian Andersen recognized this in his story, "The Emperor's New Clothes." The adults are all conditioned to believe that the emperor is wearing clothes so wondrously made that they are invisible or else they are afraid to tell the emperor the truth. But a little boy in the crowd spontaneously shouts out the truth that adults are too stupid or frightened to say: "The emperor has no clothes!"

It is commonplace in some churches to believe that the Christian faith may be more easily understood by the poorly educated than the well-educated, as though a lack of education confers some kind of special insight. John Wesley once received a letter from a man, who wrote, "Dear Mr. Wesley: God has no need of your fine learning." Wesley replied to him, saying, "Dear Sir: I am aware that God has no need of my learning. God has no need of your ignorance, either!" Jesus is not denouncing learning nor is he conferring a privileged status on ignorance or childishness. Rather, I think he is saying something like what Hans Christian Andersen was saying in "The Emperor's New Clothes." Sometimes it is children or others with little or nothing to lose who can see what others miss or at least what they are afraid to point out.

Author Robert Fulghum claimed that he learned everything he needed to know in kindergarten. Obviously, that's not quite true, but the lessons of childhood are perhaps the most important lessons of all. Share your toys and cookies; if someone is tired and discouraged a big hug is better than a martini; say your prayers every night. Compared to these lessons, a Ph.D. seems almost trivial.

So, what are the things that God has hidden "from the wise and the intelligent" and revealed to infants? Jesus has just finished denouncing the villagers of the Galilee. Matthew tells us that Jesus was going through the villages of Galilee, proclaiming the nearness of the kingdom of Heaven, healing the sick, and teaching. Then he sent out the Twelve to do what they had seen him do. And yet, his words and deeds of power seem to have had little effect. He denounced the villages of Galilee and compared them to Sodom. He seems to have meant that just as Sodom was grossly inhospitable to the angelic messengers who visited Lot, so the villages of Galilee had been inhospitable to Jesus and the Twelve.

Children possess the gift of wonder. When adults say that "Christmas is for children," they mean that a small child still believes and hopes and wishes with all her heart that reindeer fly and that Santa can squeeze down the chimney; she still sees the magic in a handful of tinsel and a few strands of twinkly lights on a scraggly spruce tree; and she still believes that the box of fancy soap she bought at Walmart for $5 is the best gift her mother will ever receive.

Adults too often have lost that sense of wonder. That's not entirely a bad thing. Adults have to pay taxes; go to work; and have the oil changed in the car. A sense of wonder can get in the way. But it's an expensive trade-off. The philosopher Paul Ricoeur wrote of the "second naiveté." The first naiveté is the wonder of childhood, which, in time, inevitably evaporates. Children grow up and become adults. Adult responsibilities drive out childish wonder. And if that were the end of the story, it would be sad indeed. But sometimes we recover a sense of wonder; that's the second naiveté. We know that reindeer do not fly but we may still be able to feel the magic and excitement in the story.

Perhaps the villagers of Galilee had lost their first naiveté but not yet arrived at their second naiveté. Miracle workers and itinerant teachers were no unusual sight in first century Palestine. When Jesus came to the Galilean villages and restored sight to the blind, cleansed lepers, and freed the oppressed from demonic power, did they yawn and say, "Very nice but last week we saw a rabbi make his assistant float in the air and then vanish. Do you know that one, Jesus?"

How is it with us? Have we lost our first naiveté but not yet acquired a second naiveté? What has happened to our sense of wonder? Do you still marvel at the works of God? Do you see God's hand at work when the clouds part and the sun shines through? When you look up at the starry sky, do you see God wind up his arm like a major league pitcher and scatter diamonds all across the deep blue of heaven? And above all do you marvel at the young prophet who embraced death on the cross to reconcile the world to God and who rose to new life on the third day? Does it strike you mute with wonder that God loves you and embraces you as a beloved child?

If wonder is missing from your life, if you no longer feel grateful beyond words for what God has done and is doing, try this: tell someone else the story. Tell a child, if possible, because their sense of wonder is contagious. Tell someone how God summoned worlds out of empty space; grabbed a lump of clay and fashioned humankind; called one people out of all the nations of the earth; and then in time's fullness came among us as one of us. Tell the story and you may feel again the wonder that you once knew. Because God hasn't really hidden anything. God's marvels are right in front of our eyes, if only we will open them.