6th Sunday of EasterWilliam J. Kemp
5, May 2013
Earl Pickles is a retiree with way too much time on his hands. His main hobbies are teaching his grandson, Nelson, important things, such as the best way to find something you’ve lost is to buy another one. Earl also enjoys driving his wife Opal crazy. Nelson likes staying with them because they have the same bedtime as he does.In one of the more profound episodes from this comic strip, Nelson asks, “Grandpa, how come it’s colder on top of mountains, even though it’s closer to the sun there?” “Good question,” replies Earl. “I don’t know the answer, but the important thing is to not stop asking questions.” “Why?” Nelson asks. “Yeah, that’s the way!” Grandpa replies.
That’s the way it usually is with our children and grandchildren. They’re always asking questions. That's how they learn. Isn't that how we all learn?
Too ften we Christians don't want to think for ourselves. We want to be spoon-fed answers. We want answers to be unambiguously black or white, right or wrong. We're reluctant to ask questions lest we be judged as unfaithful. We hide our doubts lest we appear weak. Yet, writes Frederich Buechner, "Whether your faith is that there is a God or that there is not a God, if you don't have any doubts you are either kidding yourself or asleep. Doubts are ants in the pants of faith. They keep it alive and moving."
If you watch the TV quiz show, Jeopardy, you know that the question is more important than the answer. Indeed, the question is the answer. When an answer is revealed, contestants are challenged to come up with the appropriate question. Alex Trabeck issues the warning: "Remember to put your answer in the form of a question!"
I'm suggesting this morning that even in matters of Christian faith, the question is at least as, if not more, important than the answer. At Caesarea Philippi Jesus asked his disciples to report what others are saying about him. “Some think you are John the Baptist, others say Elijah, still others say Jeremiah.” "But who do you say that I am?" Peter replies, "You are the Messiah (the Christ), the Son of the living God."
I believe that the question is as important as the answer because even though Peter's answer is now recognized as orthodoxy, it soon becomes apparent that it did not mean Peter had Jesus all figured out. In his next breath, he tries to dissuade Jesus from entertaining any notions about moving toward the cross. Peter simply didn't get it. He was thinking human thoughts, not divine thoughts. And how different the two are -- radically different. "For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”
That's why even our best answers to the great questions of faith and life can never be final answers. Peter's answer, "Thou art the Christ, the Son of the Living God," is not the last word. It's foundational. It's the rock upon which Christ builds the church. It's the springboard to other questions. It’s not enough for us to confess that Jesus is the Christ. What does that mean to us? Yes, I can find passages in the Book of Confessions and tell you how our tradition has answered. But what does it mean for you? What difference does it make in your life? Who do YOU say that Jesus is?
There is no more important question for us. To live it will transform your life. The question sends us on a life-long pilgrimage with other seekers to search for ways to understand and serve the Lord of Life. Led by God's Spirit which blows where it chooses, each new understanding becomes a new birth and leads to new questions.
Answers don't send us on a pilgrimage. Answers deceive us into thinking we have arrived at our destination. When we think we have found the "right" answer, we cease to be conversant and become dogmatic, condemning anyone who may disagree.
Answers can make us arrogant and stand in the way of a deeper awareness of God. Perhaps that's why St. Paul, in the midst of a theological controversy with the Corinthians, wrote, "We sometimes tend to think we know all we need to know to answer these kinds of questions -- but sometimes our humble hearts can help us more than our proud minds. We never really know enough until we recognize that God alone knows it all."
In her book, Called to Question, Benedictine sister Joan Chittister tells about her conversion from religion to spirituality. The only child of a Roman Catholic mother and a Presbyterian stepfather, Joan had an unusual interest in religion for a young girl. It troubled her that her good and faithful stepfather was judged by some to be undeserving of salvation because he was a Protestant. "Early on I knew that life was not really the way the church said it was," she writes. However she pushed her questions away.
I went from church to church, smelling the cool, damp air of their high vaulted caverns. I lit candles in every candle stand along the way. Then I dropped to my knees at the marble altar rails next to each flickering bank of flames to draw God's attention to the petition they represented. Most of all, I studied my catechism. Correction: No, I did not "study" it ... I swallowed it whole. I memorized every word of it ... I would recount every feast day. I could recite every gift of the Holy Spirit. I could list every capital sin.
She entered the convent at sixteen. She fulfilled all the requirements, followed all the rules, took all the vows. She later became active in the Civil Rights and women's movements, wrote dozens of books, traveled widely on the lecture circuit, taught courses on spirituality, and accumulated many honorary degrees. But a moment came when something shifted.
She describes the ensuing journey as one "from the certainties of dogma to that long, slow personal journey into God ... I began my own wrestling match with God, which no catechism, no creed, could mediate. From then on ... I would have to dare to ask the questions no one had ever wanted me to ask." She adopted what she called a "spirituality of search" in which openness to other ideas is not considered as infidelity, but rather the beginning of spiritual maturity.
Mary Ann Grantham and her family came to Peace from a tradition where the teachings of the church felt more like wearing a straight jacket. A few months ago she, along with some others, gave a short testimony as to what drew her to this congregation. She said something like this: "Here at Peace you aren't put down if you have questions about the faith. Indeed, you are encouraged to ask questions and to search together for answers. That spirit continues to sustain me, and I am grateful that my kids likely will take this for granted."
St. Paul urges, "Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God -- what is good and acceptable and perfect ... For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment ..." Minds locked into answers that claim to know the mysteries of God and God's will for all time are not renewable. Such minds are rigid and closed. To be renewable, our minds need to be open to new understanding.
Human life is so fragmented these days because we think our answers are more important than the questions. That's real jeopardy. Everybody has an answer for everything -- whether it's how to fix the economy; or how to raise the quality of education for our children; or how Presbyterians could grow in numbers; or whether the Roman Church should allow priests to be married, or ordain women as priests.
We are invited to the Lord's Table every Lord's Day. Every time we come forward, I think about how the Table has become so divisive among Christians when Christ gave it to us as a place for hospitality and welcome. Is Jesus really present in the Sacrament and, if so, how? Catholics talk about transubstantiation. Lutherans talk about consubstantiation. Personally, I lean towards unsubstantiation. Everybody thinks his or her answer is the right answer. As a result, we are polarized and torn apart as a nation, as a society and as a church.
Wouldn't we find more unity of spirit, if not unanimity of thought, by giving up some of our sacred answers and, instead, concentrated on sacred questions? Somewhere there's a church that displays this poster–Why is it churches that claim to have all the answers, don’t allow any questions.
Henri Nouwen writes,
It is not difficult to see how those ‘who know it all’ can kill a conversation and prevent an interchange of ideas. Poverty of mind as a spiritual attitude is a growing willingness to recognize the incomprehensibility of the mystery of life. The more mature we become the more we will be able to give up our inclination to grasp, catch, and comprehend the fullness of life and the more we will be ready to let life enter into us.
That is, the more mature we become the more we will "live the question" and the less we will
cling to our answers. That's when our answers become little gods that we worship. By "living
the question," I mean that it is more important to try to live Christ-like lives than it is to try to understand the mystery of faith:
Christ has died
Christ has risen
Christ will come again.
Isn't that the wisdom attested to in the Book of Proverbs? "Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not rely on your own insight. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths. Do not be wise in your own eyes; fear the Lord and turn away from evil. It will be a healing for your flesh and a refreshment for your body." How counter-cultural is that! The world is always trying to squeeze us into its mold. It’s always telling us “trust your own insight;” “be wise in your own eyes;” “go with your feelings.” You can’t do that and, at the same time, “be transformed by the renewing of your minds.”
Are there no absolutes, then? Is nothing certain? Of course there is! Jesus is the Christ. He is the absolute claim on our lives. Loving God with all our being and our neighbor as ourselves is the solid foundation for living out our faith. But how we build on that foundation will vary for there are as many ways of being Christian as there are Christians
The Lord of life wants each one of us to answer for ourselves, "who do you say that I am?" I believe the best way to answer that question is to live it. Any words we offer as answers are feeble at best and can never be a final answer because "the love of Christ surpasses knowledge." So whatever question is put before you, if you don't want to lean on your own understanding, if you want to keep your mind open to the transforming power of God's Spirit, remember to put your answer in the form of a question!