This homily was first delivered as a part of The Jazz Ministry at St. Peter's Church, New York, New York, June 23, 2005.
Around the world, groups like the one we make up tonight come together on a weekly basis to listen to a book read us. This book looks at us from the vantage of thousands of years of received wisdom, storytelling, political maneuvering, group gestalt and, yes, divine inspiration. It speaks the thoughts of our mysterious cosmic godparent. It reads us. It knows us – our faults, our strengths – our nature. It shows us our world in all its tumult, eternally cycling themes of greed and nobility, lust and selflessness, anger and love and meanness, joy, betrayal and redemption. There is nothing new under the sun. We are as broken and frightened a people as we ever were – foolish, wasteful and ignorant of the light in which we dwell. Yet somehow, we have inherited a copy of a stunning, divine oracle of truth. Somehow, we must change our lives because of it.
But the book is also itself among the greatest impediments to truth. In places, the oracle is at odds with itself, historically and scientifically inaccurate, homophobic, patriarchal, logically maddening, incoherent, just plain full of itself, and – at times – fundamentally bizarre. And we have every right to say so. It reads us. We read it. Indeed, we are charged with the responsibility of discernment. Discernment in reading is a form of worshiping God with our minds. Moreover, we in this age have no less native nobility than those who came before us; no less access, if we want it and seek it, to immediate and transcendent revelation – however different in form or volume from that which was revealed in the past. To put it in a Jazz context: the music didn’t stop with Bird or Monk or even Trane. There’s always more – a little further – it never ends.
And so we read one another – the book and us – however imperfectly; both parties trying to come to a perfect union in an imperfect world, both containing and exhibiting the dual nature of humanity, broadcasting the seeds of hope, the greatest good and a superabundance of destruction. And it is a wrestling match. It is Jacob and the angel. And we on our end do not always get it right, regardless of the intensity of our dedication. We must read with a right intention. We must wrestle with ourselves as much as we do with the book. We must be at the same time judicious in our reading and humble. For we do confront mystery.
Like poetry, religion makes truth claims that cannot be proved. No one has ever seen God. The book that reads us and that we read invites us into a realm of vision, of hints and guesses – of “hints followed by guesses.”(T.S.Eliot) Religion itself, understood as “poetry that intervenes in life” (David Tracy), does not offer knowledge, strictly speaking. It offers understanding, maturity, acceptance, compassion and visionary ecstasy. That the mysterious ecstasy remains just beyond our comprehension means we cannot really control it or even really possess it in a final way. That the ecstasy is communicated first through the language of a book means it is mitigated and compacted and often hidden in a dense bramble patch of imperfect words. Our oracle will never speak except from a place of mystery and enigma, and we will wrestle with the angel forever.
So what can we really hope for from our time spent reading and being read? Why do we go back again and again when all we can do is wrestle with an angel in a never-ending match? I suspect it is because most of us – myself included – are not spiritual savants. We need an ongoing, inspiring relationship with the book and with a community of readers to remind us that we belong to the mystery – that it is ours already - that the peace that passes understanding is real and attainable; that it is, in fact, ever before us - however difficult to find and maintain. It is what the German poet Holderlin meant what he said, “Near, and hard to grasp is God. But where danger grows, the Deliverer, too, grows strong.” Then again, perhaps it is the wrestling match itself that is the point.
“We are luminous, we human beings. We are alight in that we have been given a light through our creator, through a gift of nature. Everyone is born with this logos/light. The light is, as it were, sealed in the protection of our flesh – inscribed like a secret text of nature. Because of this gift we have the capacity to make visible the light of divine meaning in our common life.” (R.Q. Elvee, 1988) And so, each week we make a space in the darkness wherein we engage our relationship of reading and let the light shine again. And it is only that which stands in this lighted space – and stands out here - that can truly be said to exist. For those of us who show up to wrestle, to read and be read, to wait upon the Lord of peace, tonight’s passages feel particularly heartening, even antidotal. From Jeremiah:
“But listen now to this word that I speak in your hearing and in the hearing of all the people. The prophets who preceded you and me from ancient times prophesied war, famine, and pestilence against many countries and great kingdoms. As for the prophet who prophesies peace, when the word of that prophet comes true, then it will be known that the Lord has truly sent the prophet.”
And so we do find news of the god we have been looking for – the god of peace. The news comes not from prophecies of war, of control or vengeance – not even from the earthquake or the hurricane or the fire – but from the still, small voice of peace. This, in the middle of our endless cosmic wrestling match. Peace. Pax. Shalom. Salaam. It is the heavy-lidded eyes of the Buddha saying, “All is well.”
It is when we hear that still, small voice that we confirm our own voice s – our own utterance – our own purpose: namely, the reception and nurturing of the god energy within us. That is what is means each Christmas we sing: “O holy child of Bethlehem, descend to us, we pray. Cast out our sin and enter in be born in us today. We hear the Christmas angels the great glad tidings tell. Come to us; abide with us, our Lord, Emanuel.