Headmaster's Study

Headmaster’s Study

Matthew 7:7—Ask, Seek, Knock

Let's imagine you're sitting in a church not during an assigned School period, such as now, but voluntarily. Most church services include a homily, such as this one. What do you want to hear? I don't mean the obvious—that you want to hear words that are profound and witty, and that you don't want to hear too many of them so you can go on with what feels like the real business of life. I mean what message you do want. Let's accept, at least for the moment, that the deeply flawed people in pulpits like this are nevertheless trying to address God's Word to the deeply flawed people in the pews. Deep inside, then, what do you want God to say to you?

I linger over the question because my homily today tries to express what I believe is the central paradox of faith. Before we go on, remind yourself what a paradox is. It is a daring literary device. What appears to be wrong or false or contradictory at first, upon reflection, becomes unexpectedly true. Consider this religious paradox: life is death and death is life. At first the statement is contradictory, but upon reflection we realize that every moment we live, from birth on, we are dying. If we believe in the resurrection, then death starts a new life. To borrow from John Donne, Death, Thou Shalt Die. Thus death is life and life is death.

So, what's the point? I return to the pulpit and the pews. Sitting there, what do we desire God to say to us? I argue this paradox. God speaks to us, but we don't hear. God actually tells us what we most want to hear, deep inside, but we don't realize that. We can't hear what we most want to hear. God speaks to us in plain words but we respond with our own baroque words. Christ tells us that if we ask, seek, knock, God will give and open. We simply don't believe this to be true.

How do I draw this conclusion? Obviously it's a personal interpretation—I must admit that. But when I sit there in the pew, I think I desire what most people do. From what I can see in other people, I don't think my desires are that odd. From what I can read in the Scripture, which tells of centuries of people praying to God, I don't think my desires are much different from people on the ancient plains of Jericho or the hills of Samaria.

I want God to tell me I am a good person, to confirm and explain His plan for me, to tell me He favors me and that He will make me prosper. Does that sound close to what you would like to hear? One, I'm good, two, what's going to happen? Three, will I succeed and prosper?

But here's the paradox. God tells me that I can be good, but I don't believe Him, knowing all too well how evil I can be. God tells me my life has a purpose, but only now, at the age of 56, and only maybe, do I glimpse it (I think). God does favor me but I spend too much time cataloguing my disfavor—the rejections I have felt, the criticisms of my work, the slings and arrows of having to defend decisions, the unfair interpretations of what I say. God is making me prosper, but what about all those people I see around me who are seemingly in better shape than I am?

Does this list of problems, even at my age, seem like yours? How can God say He will answer the knock my prayers make on His door when what I desire doesn't happen? When what I am absolutely convinced is the right thing for me isn't heard? When what I know will make me a believer and a person who lives a good life falls on deaf ears?

So here, once again, is the paradox. What He gives us we don't recognize as a gift.

I hate to use some trivial examples, but here are a few. Oh God, please give me French fries. He gives me broccoli. Oh God, please give me a Maserati. He gives me a bicycle. Oh God, please me a touchdown. He gives me a fumble. Those examples get progressively more pointed. We can laugh at French fries to broccoli and understand that broccoli is better for us, and perhaps Maserati to bicycles, justifying our bicycles as environmentally conscious. But touchdown to fumble hurts, frankly because we can not in any way see how a touchdown could be anything but wonderful for us; spectacular for us. How in God's name could a fumble be a gift?

Let's get very serious with our examples. God, I pray for consolation; he gives me grieving. I pray for understanding; he gives me a dark and confused night of the soul. I pray for love; he gives me rejection. Worst of all, I pray for life; he gives me death. Then and only then do we really see if we accept the paradox of life is death and death is life.

Agnosticism and atheism sometimes thrive in our souls. Instead we say there is no meaning in the world because we have decided, lacking evidence otherwise, that we are the sole arbiters of meaning. We also see ourselves not only as the cosmologists of the galaxies but the creators of our own galactic truth. This is how the universe begins, not with a bang but with our saying so.

Let us listen for what is greater than we are. This reality we often don't recognize but sometimes, with grace, glimpse. That reality, for want of a better word, we call God. He is not abstract. Sometimes we glimpse in our souls God's gifts to our lives. Pray that somehow, through the dark and selfish nights, God will give us sight of His goodness and favor. Help us to be quiet and listen, O Lord, and then to see.

Now go in peace to love and serve the Lord.

Headmaster Wilson delivered this homily at Upper School chapel, October 16, 2006.

St. Albans School, Mount St. Alban, Washington, DC 20016, 202-537-6435