This is an adapted version of the sermon I preached this morning, the Fifth Sunday in Lent. The gospel text was John 12:1-8.
Did you ever hear the story of the blind men and the elephant? It comes from India, and it’s been told a number of ways. Here’s one way:
There were once six blind men who stood by the road-side every day, and begged from the people who passed. They had often heard of elephants, but they had never seen one; for, being blind, how could they?
It so happened one morning that an elephant was driven down the road where they stood. When they were told that the great beast was before them, they asked the driver to let him stop so that they might see him.
Of course they could not see him with their eyes; but they thought that by touching him they could learn just what kind of animal he was.
The first one happened to put his hand on the elephant’s side. “Well, well!” he said, “now I know all about this beast. He is exactly like a wall.”
The second felt only of the elephant’s tusk. “My brother,” he said, “you are mistaken. He is not at all like a wall. He is round and smooth and sharp. He is more like a spear than anything else.”
The third happened to take hold of the elephant’s trunk. “Both of you are wrong,” he said. “Anybody who knows anything can see that this elephant is like a snake.”
The fourth reached out his arms, and grasped one of the elephant’s legs. “Oh, how blind you are!” he said. “It is very plain to me that he is round and tall like a tree.”
The fifth was a very tall man, and he chanced to take hold of the elephant’s ear. “The blindest man ought to know that this beast is not like any of the things that you name,” he said. “He is exactly like a huge fan.”
The sixth was very blind indeed, and it was some time before he could find the elephant at all. At last he seized the animal’s tail. “O foolish fellows!” he cried. “You surely have lost your senses. This elephant is not like a wall, or a spear, or a snake, or a tree; neither is he like a fan. But any man with a particle of sense can see that he is exactly like a rope.”
One elephant, understood in so many ways.
Perhaps we might have a similar experience trying to understand today’s gospel story.
One person might say, “This story is about loving Jesus and giving up everything, even perfume of great value, to serve him.”
One person might say, “This story is about the poor, and how there’s no point in helping them, because Jesus said they’d always be here.”
Another might say, “The fragrance of the perfume filled the whole house, and so this story is about the importance of burning incense when we worship God.”
Another might say, “This story takes place in the house of Lazarus, whom Jesus just raised from the dead. So the story is all about death and life.”
Another might say, “You are all wrong. The meaning of this story is simple. Judas asks Jesus a question, and Jesus immediately tells him to be quiet. So the meaning of the story is this: Don’t ask questions.”
In some tellings of the story of the blind men and the elephant, the six blind men eventually talk about their experiences and discover that they were all right, in a sense, and that they were all wrong, in another sense. And through their conversation, they were able to discern the truth.
I wonder. I wonder if that might be a good way to understand this story, perhaps to understand the whole story of scripture. I wonder if the only way for us to hear what God is saying to us is in conversation together, in asking questions together, in wondering together.
But a voice says, “No. You are wrong. Do not ask questions.” The voice continues, “Do not wonder. The Bible has one meaning. Listen to what the church tells you it means. Listen to what the preacher tells you it means, and don’t ask questions. Asking questions means your faith is weak.”
It’s a voice many people have heard throughout the history of the church, a voice that says that it’s wrong to ask questions about God. A voice that says it’s wrong to ask questions of God. That it’s wrong to wonder why. That it’s wrong to have doubts.
There have certainly been times in the past when the church has explicitly said things like that. And even today, I think some of us still feel that way, at least a little, at least sometimes.
Sometimes we think that faith is supposed to mean certainty. That being a faithful Christian means we have to know what these stories mean. And we have to believe it, without any doubt. Because if we do doubt, then there’s something wrong with our faith, and God will be displeased with us.
Reciting a creed together as we do each Sunday may imply this. We say together, “I believe such and such.” But I wonder. When we recite the creed, do you ever wonder about any of it? Do you ever think, “I’m not sure I believe that part?” Do you ever think, “I’m not sure what that bit means.” Do you ever think, “I bet I’m the only one here who is confused about that. I’d better keep my mouth shut.”
But I tell you: You don’t have to keep your mouth shut. Questions are good. Wonder is good. Doubt is good. They are all part of faith.
Faith, after all, isn’t mainly about believing certain things to be true. Faith is about trusting, trusting that God is real, trusting that God loves you, trusting that God comes to us through grace that accepts you and transforms you. God’s grace is given to us, with no strings attached, no entrance exams. And that means that we are free to ask questions about that grace. Free to wonder about that grace. Free to doubt that grace.
Being confused can make us anxious. I know that uncertainty usually makes me anxious. But grace means that it’s safe. It’s safe to ask questions. It’s safe to doubt. It’s safe to not have easy answers to every question. It’s safe to do the best you can, and to not be sure.
I wonder if Mary teaches that to us in the story today. I don’t know what she was thinking as she poured out that perfume on Jesus’ feet. Maybe she didn’t either. Maybe she just saw Jesus there and trusted that it was safe to do something spontaneous, to pour herself out like this in front of everyone. Even in front of Judas. Judas didn’t like it one bit. But maybe there’s always a grumpy Judas around. And maybe we don’t have to live in fear of the grumpy Judases.
I don’t know. I’ve brought up a lot of questions in this sermon, and not given too many answers. But maybe that’s good. Maybe I try to give too many answers sometimes. After all, I don’t have all the answers. And maybe my job as pastor was never to provide answers at all, but rather to help guide the questions.
There are good questions in this story.
- Why didn’t Jesus agree that the money would be better spent on the poor? Why was this more important?
- Why did Mary pour so much perfume on his feet, anyway? What was she trying to do?
- Is it important that this happened in the house of Lazarus, whom Jesus had just raised from the dead?
- Where are we in this story? Is there a way in which I am playing the role of Judas? Or the role of Mary? Or the role of Jesus?
These are just a few of the questions that I see here. You probably have others. Ask those questions. Talk about those questions. For a few weeks in May, we’re going to offer an opportunity for you to talk about questions like these in a formal way during coffee hour. But you don’t have to wait until then. Talk about them, with each other. With me. With God. Maybe we’re all like those blind men trying to figure out what an elephant is. Maybe we’ll never figure it out completely. And maybe that’s not the point. Maybe the questions are the whole point. Maybe that’s why the Bible is so full of stories. Maybe that’s why Jesus told so many stories. So we’d ask questions about them.
I don’t know. What do you think?