Learned Ignorance

Learned Ignorance

One of the central tenets of Christianity, arguably THE central tenet is resurrection. However we view it and whatever questions we may have about it, this rising from the dead, love is stronger than death thing is, is a critical piece of our faith. And not just that Jesus rose from the dead, but that we will too. We say it every Sunday in the Creed: “We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come”. That means that in some way, we expect that there is a world to come and our life will go on with God after we die. We expect that the God who made us once can make us again.

Of course, it is not possible to prove resurrection, or to disprove it either, for that matter. And it is a tough one to explain. In some ways it seems odd to insist on something that is not provable and is hard to explain. And despite the fact that many people assume I must have a good idea of what exactly life after life looks like, I really don’t. Even Jesus didn’t really say too much about it. So what we have are a handful of stories of resurrections and the freedom to decide what we will make of them.

This morning’s story from Acts is one of those stories—though it is not in the top 10 hit list of Bible stories—even of resurrection stories. We know all about Jesus resurrection. And most of us have heard about Lazarus, but Tabitha? She is sort of a New Testament also ran. The story tells us that Tabitha was raised from the dead by Peter and restored to the community of widows in Lydda; widows who obviously loved her very much and were devastated by her death. Technically, this is not a resurrection story but a resuscitation story, because Tabitha is restored to this life, not life in the world to come, but that alone doesn’t explain why she is relatively unknown. Lazarus, too, was resuscitated. Maybe it is because the story is in Acts and not one of the Gospels. Maybe it is because Tabitha is a woman and not a man. It can’t be because she wasn’t a disciple—Luke clearly refers to her as such. And the text tells us at length that she was a devoted servant of Christ, doing good works and deeds of charity. So it can’t be that she was a spiritual slacker and thus relegated to the back shelf.

As is true for all of us though, all her good works did not prevent her from falling ill and dying. What Tabitha had was the good fortune to die while surrounded by good friends who loved her and would do anything for her and, critically, she had Peter nearby—busy healing a paralyzed man in Joppa. When Tabitha’s friends got to him they begged him to drop everything and come immediately to Lydda—some 11 miles away. And Peter did. Why they were in a great rush is something of a puzzle—Tabitha was clearly dead. Her body had been washed and laid out. And 11 miles can’t have been a quick journey in ancient Palestine. When they finally got there, Peter was taken upstairs to where the body was and found a room full of women wailing and mourning—holding up the fine clothes Tabitha had made for them. Peter was not all that interested in the fine cloth, didn’t seem to need proof that she was worthy of his best effort. He cleared the room of everyone: the weeping women, the disciples who had fetched him, and any random spectators. And then, the way Luke tells it, he knelt down next to the body and prayed. After praying, Peter turned to the body and said, “Tabitha, get up.” And she did. She opened her eyes and sat right up. Peter offered her his hand, and he took it, just as if he was helping her up from a chair after a meal and not helping her out of her deathbed. Once everyone saw that she was alive, the story spread like wildfire through Lydda and all the way to Joppa. And many believed in the Lord. What a great story.

But you know, if I am honest, there are things about this story that bother me. Scholars are also a little bothered, pointing out that the story doesn’t line up theologically. They note that Peter doesn’t invoke the name of Jesus when he commands Tabitha to get up. He invoked Jesus while healing the paralyzed man, so why not here? And why did he clear the room? Wouldn’t he want a lot of witnesses? And, then there is the long list of Tabitha’s good works. There was nothing like that in the Lazarus story, or the story of the paralyzed man either. The only thing those two had going for them was that they needed help—that they were beyond all human help—not that they were great helpers themselves. So why mention the good works, the acts of charity, the tunics and other clothing? Are we supposed to think Tabitha sewed her way to new life?

So scholars worry about the lack of theological clarity in this story. But, while I love biblical scholarly critique as much as the next person, I don’t think we are excused from dealing with this text because it does not line up with our neat theology. I think that most of us, when reading this text don’t worry about the scholarship, but rather go to a different place—go to the question of why this sort of miracle hasn’t happened for those that we love. Why can’t we reproduce this miracle now? Why can’t my prayers work the way Peter’s did—but instead of getting up and leaving the room, my dead stay dead. Sure, I have experienced things that are miraculous, as have others I know, but no resurrections yet—at least not the bodily kind. And sometimes when people go on about miracles happening to them, frankly I get a little irritated. I want to say, well that’s great for you, but what about me or everybody else? If it doesn’t happen to everyone, what is it supposed to mean?

The more I think about it, the more I wonder if what it means is quite simply that we don’t know how things work. We think we should but we don’t. People in Jesus time thought they knew how things worked, but then, don’t you know it, he came back from the dead, and they found out they didn’t. This seems to me to be important. To remember that we don’t actually know how things work—there are somethings we just don’t know.

Like how an osprey knows exactly when to return to Central America for the winter, or trees know when to set their buds. Heck, I don’t even really know how my cell phone works. I know that they all do work, I just don’t know how. So perhaps there are other things, things at work between this world and the next that I don’t understand either.

Nicholas of Cusa, a 15th century German priest, wrote a book called On Learned Ignorance. He said there are three kinds of ignorance in those who seek God. First are those who do not know that they do not know. Second there are those who know that they do not know but think they ought to know. Lastly are those who know that they do not know and who received this learned ignorance as God’s own gift—a gift because they do not have the pressure of thinking they should know everything God knows. Because it frees them to live in perpetual wonder. Because it saves them from ruling out new life for themselves and those they love on the basis that they know how things work and life like that is not possible. Nicholas calls this very high-level ignorance. These are the ones who do not know where the wind comes from and where it goes, but who are OK with that because they trust that God does. This sounds like Tabitha’s people to me—people who had let go of what they once thought they knew about life and death and sent for Peter.

It is, of course, entirely possible that the outcome was different. That Peter knelt and prayed to beat the band, told Tabitha to get up, and she just lay there—still very much dead. I have a sneaking hunch though that the same ignorance that led them to praise God for their lack of understanding, would still have saved them in the end. We do not know how things work. But we trust that God does. And perhaps that is all we really need to know.

In the meantime, we should get about the business of what we do know how to do: get Peter some food, say our prayers, tell stories about Tabitha while we wait to see who God will raise up right here in this community. Isn’t that how it works? We are the people who don’t know how things work but who trust that God does, whose high-level ignorance frees us up to live in unusual ways and say some really odd things—things like “We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.”

 

 

With thanks to Barbara Brown Taylor whose thoughts and words influenced this sermon.

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The Rev. Claire Nevin-Field is the rector of St. Peter’s Church.

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