I got to visit my fantastic friend Johanna up in Rochester a few weeks ago, and she invited me to preach at her two parishes! The week before I went up, sensing the near implosion of my head from work overload, she asked if I was still able to do it. I asked, “Can we do something together?” It turns out, we could! The text of our sermon follows. Enjoy!
September 23, 2012
Victoria: There was a video floating around Facebook a few months back of a 4th grade boy at a townhall meeting in New Orleans. During the time when people could ask questions, he raises his hand, and President Obama goes over to him. After introducing himself, the kid asks his question: “Why do people hate you? They’re supposed to love you. God is love.” Gutsy kid! It’s a legitimate question, of course, but what adult do you know who would ask such a question of such an important person as the president of the United States of America!
Filters aren’t something you’re born with; they’re something you develop as you mature. Anyone who has kids or encounters kids knows how delightful, hilarious, and often wise the unfiltered remarks of kids can be. But in an adult? Such candidness is not so charming. In today’s gospel we see the disciples operating with some good filters, don’t we? No one wants to be caught out asking Jesus what he means when we says he’s going to suffer, die, and be raised. No one wants to be that guy, the guy who raises his hand and gets all the dirty looks from the people who know what’s going on!
Well, thank goodness we’ve come a long way since the disciples. We’ve had two thousand years to figure out this faith thing! Anytime you have a question about faith, or about something in the Bible, the Christian tradition can hand you all the answers you want. Thank goodness, we don’t really need to display our ignorance by asking questions anymore! We’ve got it all down in this book. (Points to Bible.) You got questions, Jesus got answers. God said it, I believe it, and that settles it.
Johanna: Uhm… *raises hand*
Victoria: Um…because being Christians gives us that kind of assurance. We have this divine Word to help us live our lives. Being Christian means never having to end a sentence with a question mark.
Johanna: (waves hand frantically)
Victoria: (trying not to see her) That’s what Jesus means when he gives us children as models of faith. The goal is to accept with child-like faith that God is right, even if you don’t understand what God’s saying…that’s what the disciples are modeling for us in today’s Gospel. They don’t understand what Jesus is saying, but they know that Jesus is Lord. So they don’t raise their hand.
Johanna: (has aneurism in front pew)
Victoria: …Johanna? Do you have something to add?
Johanna: Yeah, sorry, I’m just not so sure that’s quite right. I know I said you could preach today and I told everyone that you’d do a good job and everything, but… what you’re saying just doesn’t sit well with me.
Victoria: What part of that doesn’t sit well with you?
Johanna: Well, first of all, it seems, according to the Gospel reading, that doubt has been a part of faith from the very beginning.
Victoria: Well, sure, but that doesn’t mean that it’s GOOD to have doubts…
Johanna: I just mean, you seem to be saying that if you have faith, it means that you can’t have any questions. But when I read this text, I see here that the first disciples did have questions, but that they were afraid to ask. To me, the problem with this isn’t the having questions, but the being afraid to ask. It’s the fear that’s concerning.
Victoria: I can’t believe you’re calling me out in front of your entire congregation.
Johanna: Well, I had a question… and I wasn’t afraid to ask it!
Victoria: No, seriously, THIS is why I don’t ask questions. Because someone…someone like YOU… ALWAYS knows better than I do, and by showing my ignorance you’re just showing how vulnerable I am.
Johanna: You know… I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s exactly how the disciples felt.
Victoria: I’m sorry, would YOU like to preach this sermon?
Johanna: No, not really.
Victoria. OK then. Um…(tries to find place in notes)
Johanna: It’s just that… here Jesus has just told them about how he’s going to be betrayed and suffer and die, and then rise again, that this is what the Son of Man has to do. This is now the second time he’s told them that, but it’s still really hard for them to understand. Heck, it’s hard for ME to understand, even 2000 years later! If you don’t have questions about the meaning of Jesus’ death and resurrection, then you’re probably not paying attention.
Victoria: Hey, I’m paying attention! And I do have questions. But I don’t like to ask them in front of everyone when I can just look them up on my own.
Johanna: But why not bring it up with your community of faith? This teaching is difficult, and we need to spend time thinking about it and talking about it and asking about it…I think the church is a great place to do that! What’s so unfaithful about asking God questions?
Victoria: Because God is ineffable. Ineffable! I mean, part of God is revealed in Jesus Christ, this real man that walked the earth who helped us to better understand God’s character, and who eventually conquered the power of death so that we can know God’s life instead of death… but really, there’s a part of God that’s just fundamentally mysterious, that we’ll never fully understand. It feels WRONG to question God…presumptuous…I mean, who am I to ask God about God’s plan for the cosmos? (Aren’t there questions that you’re afraid to ask God?)
Johanna: That’s a good point. But that brings us back to some of what you were saying earlier – that asking questions makes us admit our vulnerability, our lack of knowing… You might say, it forces us to realize that God knows, and we don’t!
Victoria: Well, yeah…God does know. Yeah, ok.
Johanna: I really didn’t mean to shang-hai your sermon. Do you want to get back to it?
Victoria: Yeah, absolutely. I can just…(riffles pages, then looks up) …There’s another reason I don’t like to ask God questions.
Johanna: What’s that?
Victoria: …I don’t want to say.
Johanna: Come on…
Victoria: It just sounds weird for a seminarian to say it. People are going to judge me.
Johanna: No, they won’t! Will you? (ask congregation) See? These are lovely, nonjudgmental people! Go ahead.
Victoria: Well, I mean…in my heart of hearts…I’m kind of afraid that if I ask God too many questions, God is going to make me the answer.
Johanna: Hmm… say more about that.
Victoria: C’mon…look at what God does to people who get all up in God’s business! Here’s this girl from Bethlehem, unmarried, probably about 13, and she’s probably wondering, “God, what do you have in store for my life?” And then God is like, “BAM! How about an unplanned pregnancy out of wedlock, and by the way, you’ll be carrying the Son of God, a child who’s born to die?”
Victoria: And then look at Jeremiah in our first reading today. When he was just a boy, when God first called him to prophesy, he said, “How can I do that, I’m only a boy?” He becomes a prophet anyway, and then, BAM! now he’s dealing with all this suffering and persecution – he even refers to himself as “a gentle lamb that was led to slaughter.” I’m sure that’s not quite what he had in mind when he asked God, “How can I do that?”!
Johanna: No, probably not.
Victoria: And then there’s the disciples in today’s gospel, right? Like Peter! He’s out one day, it’s a nice day, he’s fishing, guys love to fish, you know? And then Jesus comes along, and he’s like, “Follow me!”, and Peter’s like, “Ok!” and then he asks the question, y’know, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life!” And Jesus is like, “Good question, Peter. You’re the rock on whom I’ll build my church.” And, BAM! a couple decades later, Peter dies upside down on a cross in Rome!
Johanna: It’s a tough life, that’s for sure.
Victoria: So there’s just a part of me that’s a little bit worried that my baptism might have been God going, “BAM! I’m going to make you the answer.” I mean, how else did I end up in seminary? And I bet there are people here today who ended up doing stuff they never dreamed of doing, all because God made them the answer to a need!
Johanna: Vocation sure ain’t easy.
Victoria: (deflating) No…It sure ain’t.
Johanna: But I think there isn’t just a call, but an assurance that we receive as baptized Christians…not like the assurance you talked about earlier, the kind where you take things at face value and don’t ask questions. No, it’s an assurance that God is with us, wherever we go, and that means that we don’t have to be afraid – to ask questions, to have doubts, even to yell at God that we don’t understand what God is doing with our lives!
Victoria: I know we receive assurance in the word of absolution, or forgiveness, after confession, or in the words, “This is my body, given for you.” This is the same assurance, isn’t it?
Victoria: But it’s not assurance that’s telling us that we need to know everything – especially not everything about God.
Johanna: Preach it, sister.
Victoria: So you’re saying that the model we should lift up out of today’s gospel isn’t the disciples who were afraid to ask questions, but the little child. The one who wasn’t fighting to know everything. The one without filters…like the kid who asked Obama why people hated him.
Johanna: Yeah, I think that God wants to know our deepest questions and desires, our most nagging doubts as well as our greatest joys.
Victoria: You know, when you look at it that way…there is something beautiful about making ourselves vulnerable and asking those questions that scare us – asking each other, but also asking God. Because when we do that, we have a chance to learn more about God, and more about ourselves in the process.
Johanna: And that doesn’t mean our faith is any less. In fact, I’d say it shows that we crave a closer relationship with the God who created us, who redeemed us through God’s Son, and who continues to work in us and in the church.
Victoria: Well, that’ll preach!
Johanna: Hey, Victoria?
Victoria: Yes, Johanna?
Johanna: How about, since you’re the preacher today, you close us in prayer?
Victoria: Gladly! Let us pray…
Ineffable, mysterious God, we have so many questions. Grant us the courage to ask those questions, even as we strive to understand you and our faith in you more deeply and more wholly. And in our asking, guide our hearts always toward you. In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.