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Sometimes Things Turn Out Differently from What You Expect

(Sermon, Church of the Holy Trinity, Toronto, August 15, 1999)

[The readings for the day were Genesis 45:1-5, Romans 11:1-2a,29-32, and Matthew 15:10-28.]

I wasn't going to start with a reference to a movie this time, but sometimes things turn out differently from what you expect.

In point of fact, I didn't even have an appropriate cinematic reference in mind until two weeks ago, when I saw a recently released movie which I'm going to leave nameless so as not to spoil it for those of you who haven't seen it but will. In this movie, a young man is found who, it is believed, will be more or less the saviour of humanity – will lead us all to emancipation, to an awakening of sorts. But this has to be confirmed by an oracle. So he is taken to the oracle and sent in to speak with her alone... in her kitchen... while she's baking cookies. She looks at his palm, asks him if he knows what she's going to say, he doesn't know, then he guesses that he's not the chosen one. He didn't think so in the first place. She says sorry and warns him that another's faith in him will lead the other to forfeit his own life, and this young man will have to make a choice between his own life and the other's.

Well, to make a long story short, everything this oracle has told anyone has a way of coming true, but somehow her predictions to others all point to this man and yet what she says to him points away. And so when this other who believes in him is ready to forfeit his life, the young man goes after to save him. And in so doing he does save him and at the same time discovers for himself that he is, in fact, the one. But the only way for him to have come to this realization and to have done the right thing was for him first to have believed that he was not the one.

Now, I've believed for a long time in a pragmatic approach to the question of truth. Truth and meaning have a lot more to do with than just hard, physically verifiable quote-facts-unquote. Sometimes you have to believe something that is objectively wrong – in other words, not matching with the external verifiables – in order to walk the right internal path of emotions and meaning to the right final state. The question is, Where are you going? And how do you get there? If you're in Oakville, Niagara-on-the-Lake is southeast, but you have to drive southwest first if you're heading there. You don't even think about that, but somehow when we talk internal states, what things mean to us and for us, we allow ourselves to be misdirected by the idea that truth is whatever can be empirically verified. And yet how many externally verifiable things mean such opposite things for different people! Coming out might be a release and a very positive thing for someone who's gay, for instance, and yet be perceived as an awful thing by that person's family. The victory of any given political party is going to be seen as a good thing by some people and a terrible thing by others. How can we talk of truth without recourse to what makes up the larger part of meaning for us, these internal, emotional, pragmatic understandings? As Jesus knew, you can do all the observances in the book and still have the wrong state of the soul. It's not the externals that are your truth or your falsehood, your clean or unclean; it's what you do with them, where you are with them, what they mean for you. It's what comes from you.

And sometimes... you have to be misdirected to get to the best place. If your faith will save you, you need an opportunity to manifest the strength of that faith. Did Jesus really mean that he was there only for the Israelites? This same Jesus who preached to the Gentiles, converted Samaritans, healed the child of a Roman? He knew that he could challenge this woman to a fuller realization of her own faith--and in so doing make an even more powerful demonstration of his point. He knew she would push back.

The other readings likewise speak to the value of misdirection. Paul, in Romans, talks of the necessity of disobedience for mercy. Mercy – such a beautiful thing to give and to receive. And yet it can only occur when someone has done something which is viewed as wrong. Wouldn't it have been better not to have erred in the first place? Why not ask Jesus about this – Jesus who told the parable of the prodigal son and dined with sinners and tax collectors.

I like the story of Joseph even more. It's like a scene from a play. An eighteenth-century melodrama – ah! he is revealed! And all the evil his brothers intended, and all the suffering Joseph went through, it led to this: wealth, happiness, forgiveness. And this brother they had despised they learn to appreciate – and as for him, he has the joy of forgiving, and seeing his family again.

It's really an exceptionally coherent set of readings, thematically speaking. Your truth, your good, your meaning, is your truth, your good, your meaning. And sometimes you have to pass through states which seem quite opposite to the one you will ultimately arrive in. It's kind of the story of my life, I don't know about yours: everytime something bad has happened to me, it's led to something better afterwards. How long that's taken has often been affected by the degree to which I let myself be in the quote-bad-unquote state rather than trying to push back the clock. I mean, you have to drive through Hamilton to get to Niagara-on-the-Lake.

Zen Buddhism is suffused with this awareness. In one of the most famous anecdotes, the master Chao Chou is asked on two different occasions by two different monks, "Does a dog have the Buddha-nature?" To one he says yes, to the other he says no. Why? Because the one understands dog and Buddha-nature in such a way that yes is the appropriate answer, while the other would be led down the wrong path by yes and must instead hear no.

So it makes sense to step back when we talk of truth or similar things and look at the issue more in terms of pragmatic appropriateness, what it means for a specific person at a specific time. Pragmatic appropriateness: where we need to end up. But we're left with a little problem here: if, in order to get to the right place in the long run, we sometimes have to believe things that are quite different from the end reality, how can we possibly trust our understanding at any given moment of where it is we're supposed to end up? Well, we can't. All we can do is have faith in God, who has a better overall picture of things. And accept that sometimes things turn out differently from what you expect.


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