I learned how to ‘line’ a canoe, and did it the first time in my life last month when I canoe-camped in Algonquin Park. Lining a canoe requires paying attention to opposing forces, and seeking a tension – a balance – between those forces. Because if you are lining a canoe in the first place, you are likely on a river needing to get through a set of rapids or manoeuvre through a swift.
Before lining a canoe, certain things have to be established. First you can’t line a canoe by yourself. Lining a canoe is done in tandem with someone else – your paddling partner for example.
Second, to line a canoe successfully, you need to know the direction of the current vis-à-vis the direction you are headed. Going up the river through a set of rapids, for example, the front of the canoe – the bow – has to be angled outward from the shore while the person leading walks along the shore holding onto one end of the rope. The second person, lining the canoe from the stern – the back – holds the rope connected to the back of the canoe which is relatively closer to the shore.
The idea is that while the canoe is being lined upriver, the current pushes on the bow keeping it angled out, and therefore the canoe won’t collide with the shore. Of course, both ‘liners’ must keep this pattern more or less fixed while walking along the shore line. The exercise tests the paddlers’ ability to maintain this constant tension between opposing movements – the movement of the water going in the opposite direction than the canoe pointing upriver in the water.
Going downriver, the process is reversed. The canoe points downriver along the shoreline, but this time, the stern is angled farther out than the bow.
The Gospel reading today feels like we are stepping into a river with cross currents.The chief priests and elders are flowing in one direction: they are motivated by politics, concerned about reputation, pleasing the crowd and making sure they maintain their powerbase. And Jesus is going the other way.
At the end of a conversation with Jesus about the origins of John the Baptist’s baptism and hence the authority of Jesus, the chief priests confess, “We do not know”. It’s like Jesus was leading them into a conundrum with his question; he knew their motivation was self-preservation. It’s like he wanted to bring them to that confession, and he got their admission: “We don’t know.”
How do you respond to that first part of the Gospel – when they admit, “they don’t know”, they don’t know the answer to the question, they don’t know the proper response, they don’t know how to get out of it, they just don’t know?
I suspect in our culture, not knowing is frowned upon. We may read that as a victory for Jesus in the constant battle he wages throughout the Gospels against the religious leaders of his day. Jesus – 1; chief priests – 0.
But maybe “we don’t know” is a place Jesus brought them to, for their own good. Maybe in all the debating, all the words, the twists and turns in the arguments he has with them, in all the cross-currents of conversations that are hard to follow, “We don’t know” is a gift in tumultuous times when we really don’t know, if we are honest.
Navigating this text is like lining a canoe – you have to hold in tension the various currents if you want to get anywhere meaningful with it. But this conflab does not occur on a river far away from civilization, removed from the centres of human interaction and public activity. It does not occur in some otherworldly, private, disconnected place of fantasy and escapism. These cross-currents happen in the temple. The Gospel story begins with the words, “When Jesus entered the temple …”
It is in the temple – the very centre of religious experience and practice – where we not only encounter the divine, but we also encounter the challenges of our faith and life. The cross-currents. Right in the middle of the messy, uncertain, disruptive realities of COVID. Right in the middle of our fears and anxieties about ‘going out’ and being with others. Right here, in the midst of the awkwardness of in-person worship with all the pandemic protocols in place.
At one point in lining the canoe, my canoe partner slipped on a stone and fell splashing in the water. Thankfully, he was ok besides being soaking wet. And he didn’t let go of his rope. We could have been in big trouble if our canoe containing all our overnight gear went sailing down river away from us!
This is a high stakes exercise of faith, whenever we enter the temple to meet with God. At any given moment we don’t know if we will slip on a stone or have some kind of mishap. We take risks to come to worship in the building these days.
Maybe Jesus is bringing us to that silent, humble confession, “We don’t know.” That kind of thing is usually said quietly, almost in a whisper. With our masks on and our voices subdued, perhaps this silence is a gift. It is where God leads us now in the conversation of faith. “We don’t know.”
Welcome the moments of silence. Step into the cross-current, risking it all, but knowing too that in the silence, “we don’t know” is not a fateful but faithful confession.
Not knowing all the answers may be a necessary part of our journey. Confessing, “we don’t know” reveals a vulnerability that is an important part of being healthy and whole. So when our voices are silent and we don’t sing the hymns out loud and say the responses out loud, maybe in so doing we practice love for others by making a whole lot of room for God to say something to us.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Matthew 21:23-32 for Pentecost 17A, Revised Common Lectionary