It was six men of Indostan, to learning much inclined, who went to see the Elephant (Though all of them were blind), that each by observation might satisfy his mind. The First approach'd the Elephant, and happening to fall against his broad and sturdy side, at once began to bawl: "God bless me! but the Elephant is very like a wall!" The Second, feeling of the tusk, cried, -"Ho! what have we here so very round and smooth and sharp? to me 'tis mighty clear, this wonder of an Elephant is very like a spear!" The Third approach'd the animal, and happening to take the squirming trunk within his hands, thus boldly up and spake: "I see," -quoth he- "the Elephant is very like a snake!" The Fourth reached out an eager hand, and felt about the knee: "What most this wondrous beast is like is mighty plain," -quoth he,- "'Tis clear enough the Elephant is very like a tree!" The Fifth, who chanced to touch the ear, said- "E'en the blindest man can tell what this resembles most; Deny the fact who can, this marvel of an Elephant is very like a fan!" The Sixth no sooner had begun about the beast to grope, then, seizing on the swinging tail that fell within his scope, "I see," -quoth he,- "the Elephant is very like a rope!"
And so these men of Indostan disputed loud and long, Each in his own opinion exceeding stiff and strong, Though each was partly in the right, and all were in the wrong! MORAL, So, oft in theologic wars the disputants, I ween, rail on in utter ignorance of what each other mean; and prate about an Elephant not one of them has seen!
Most of us have heard the Indian fable of the six men and the elephant - (although perhaps not in poetic form) – and intuited its primary moral: We should not make judgments about things unless we are sure we have all the information. Originating in a nation that is largely Hindu, this story has versions among Buddhist and Jainist writings as well. In a theological context the story has often been used to suggest that no one religion can capture the true essence of God.
Not that Christians haven’t tried. Today’s readings alone contain no less than five descriptors of Jesus, including one of our collective favorites: Jesus the Good Shepherd. The image of Jesus as our guide to the delights of God’s country is so appealing that it has made the 23rd psalm a staple for Christians in need of comfort. We forget, however, that this psalm was written long before Jesus arrived, and refers to YHWH, “the Lord.” For those who first heard it, the Shepherd’s psalm was not just a comment on God’s pastoral aspects, but God’s power as well. Rulers in the ancient near East were often pictured carrying shepherd’s crooks and make no mistake, although our own bishops carry them as signs of their compassion, they also serve as symbols of authority. The 23rd psalm, then, is not simply a reminder of the delights of being God’s beloved, it is also a command to follow him and accept him as the only authority we obey.
The path we take to follow the Lord is the way of Jesus the Lamb of God. In today’s reading from the Revelation of John, we hear that salvation belongs both to God the King, and to the Lamb – the one who is the object of sacrifice on our behalf. It goes on to tell us who among the multitudes gathered around God’s throne will be included in God’s grace. It is those who have themselves undergone great troubles, who have suffered hunger, thirst, heat, and pain and have remained faithful to God. When we claim the Lord as our shepherd and accept the comfort of the words of the 23rd psalm, we also relinquish our right to desire things that are not part of God’s vision for creation. The psalm does not say that God will take away the terrors and temptations of the world; it says that we will reject them. “I shall not want. I will not fear. I will see the abundance around me – right here and right now and forever- and I will choose that abundance over the ways of the world.”
This is what Tabitha (or Dorcas) did. Today’s story from Acts makes a point of telling us that this disciple lived a life filled with good works and charity – a woman so beloved among her people that they begged Peter to try to raise her from the dead – which he did. This story tells us something else about how we are to follow the Lord. We are to do it collectively. We have heard, most recently from Reverend Columba, that it is something of an insult to identify as a sheep, who are dumb and self-destructive -but did you know that sheep are smarter in herds? The stupid things that they do – like falling into the same ravine over and over – do not happen when they are in groups, because they redirect one another to smarter (and less dangerous) behavior. They save one another. So it was with Tabitha’s people, and so it should be with us.
Our church is filled with Tabithas – and with people who have been touched by them. We have parishioners who pray daily for those in need. We have friends who cook food, make nametags, set up chairs, write cards, iron linens, give communion, fold bulletins, and sing to one another. These “angels of Grace” help us experience God’s compassion in our lives. We don’t have to dream of a faraway kingdom to know that the promises of the Shepherd’s psalm are true; we need only see it in one another. This is the blessing of Christian community.
It is also how we can understand the most complex of our ideas about God: that God and Jesus are one being. The notion of the Trinity is so complicated that theologians have hotly debated it for centuries- and today’s reading from the gospel of John does not make it easier. In it, Jesus not only claims to be the Messiah – the promised savior of God’s people – but to be one with God. It makes our heads hurt: “If God is Jesus’s Father, then how are Jesus and God one being”?
To answer this question, we need to look at the Greek word for “one.” As Gail O’Day suggests, “The Greek word ‘one’…is neuter not masculine, so that Jesus is not saying that he and the Father are one person, nor even of one nature or essence. Rather, he is saying that he and God are united in the work that they do.” He is saying that to know Jesus and to follow his way is to know God. Christianity did not become an enormous and enduring phenomenon because people were impressed with the theological arguments made by his disciples. It grew because they experienced the love of Jesus through his followers. Perhaps that is why it is no longer growing- why it is shrinking. Because while is true that we are in God’s hands, it is equally true that we are God’s hands- at least in this world. We must demonstrate the same unity of purpose shared by the Creator and the Savior by acting in love – feeding the hungry, sheltering the cold, and advocating for the oppressed. It is in this way that others may hear the voice of the good shepherd and follow him.
I see the people of Grace doing these things, and I am humbled and grateful. But I also see our ability to do more – to take our compassion and care far beyond our own church family – and to make known the power that allows us to do these things. We may describe our God in many ways – as Shepherd, King, Lamb, Messiah, and Lord – but, like the men in the parable of the elephant, we cannot claim to see God fully until we view God together, honoring the divinity in one another in whatever form it takes, and working to bring God’s kin-dom to this world and to all people. AMEN.
John Godfrey Saxe, (1816-1887), Blind Men and the Elephant: Found in All About Philosophy, https://www.allaboutphilosophy.org/blind-men-and-the-elephant.htm. Joseph A. Bessler, (2009), in Feasting on the Word: Year C Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 446-448.