Questions

Dixcy Bosley-Smith

Here's a Pop Quiz:

True / False: Jesus is the man with all the answers ( F)
Jesus asked 137 / 240 / 307 questions in his life ( 307)
Of the 183 question asked of Jesus, he answered 13 / 3 / 34 questions in his life.  (3)

Jesus was the Great Interrogator....The One who asks questions What was he modeling for us..  ?

UNKNOWING
STRUGGLE
WONDERING
THINKING IT THROUGH
PROCESS ( He would love 8th Day!)
Maybe Jesus was modeling WHAT A LIFE OF FAITH SHOULD LOOK LIKE
We would not be sitting in this very room with each other had a young pastor, Gordon Cosby, faced with much soul searching in the fox holes of World War II, not asked these insightful questions ..
DID THE GOD STORY OF SCRIPTURE HAVE MEANING IN THE FACE OF HUMAN DESPAIR?
COULD THE DIVINE-HUMAN ENCOUNTER BE TRUSTED?
DID THE SUFFERING JESUS OFFER FUNDAMENTAL HOPE?

Today, I want to explore the questions Jesus asked … and more importantly consider what our responses to those questions might say about what it means to follow him.

The Gospels are filled with stories and parables.  In this morning’s lectionary scripture Matthew speaks to the Parable of the Talents, a profound message about wealth, success, fairness and accountability.  We know more about the character and nature of Jesus because of these lessons woven into story.  Miracles stories, commandments and dramatic encounters help us trace Jesus’ life and teachings.

A closer reading of the Gospels reveals that Jesus asked a whole lot of questions.  307 !!!   Like any good teacher or rabbi, he has a question for everyone he meets, every occasion, every experience, every fear and every potential disciple.  I suspect he used this tool to demonstrate a desperate desire to communicate indirectly and engage us in the process.

The goal was TRANSFORMATION, not INFORMATION

These questions do not challenge or condemn.  Rather they invite, summon and welcome truth.

"Quest" is part of QUESTION; we are on a journey

Jesus seemed to know his disciples were on a hard journey so he frequently used a question.  For example..  What are you looking for?  to focus their search.

In the same way, when our 15 year-old Collin comes home after hours of baseball and weight training, and .towers over the opened refrigerator door, I ask, What are you looking for?  He withdraws his sweaty head from the interior of the appliance and says "I am hungry."

Are we not just like the hungry young athlete with not a clue what we are seeking???

Questions have served the same role for the listener, the learner, the seeker throughout all religious and faith traditions.  At the Passover Seder, children will ask the Four Questions, starting with:

Why on this night do we eat matzah bread?
Why on this night do we consume only bitter herbs?
Why on this night do we dip twice?
Why on this night do we recline when eating?

Quakers are known for their listening circles, a practice we also value when folks are struggling and a question may help lead them home.

At a Bat mitzvah/ Bar mitzvah young adults ask a QUESTION as they enter into their life as faithful Jews.  One of Colby's friends had a profound question at her service.  "Can an atheist be a good Jew?"  Silence came over the synagogue as she carefully developed her response.  It was her focal inquiry after a full year of Hebrew lessons.  Razi, still a devout atheist, is now a biblical studies major at Smith College and living more deeply into her thoughtful question.

Many questions with few answers have been a common theme for 2017.  The election of this 45th president supported largely by evangelical white Christians left me baffled and bitter toward the mainstream church.  My spirit and the spirit of the community around me was dysphoric for months.  Remember who we were this time last year?

I realized that I have been suffering from the symptoms of T.I.A.D. … Trump Induced Anxiety Disorder.  A creative ad this week announced a recommended medication "Impeachara", a prescription that can relieve symptoms.  Labeling cautions women who are pregnant or nursing should ask their doctor, as well as their state legislators, if they are allowed to take this medicine and do it soon before you lose your health insurance.

On occasion, I felt such paralyzing cynicism toward the Church and wondering a bit about God.  How could a God of goodness and mercy allow this perfect storm of catastrophe?  Is God somehow at work in this mess?  Do I trust that God's realm will break through?  How do I open my heart to the misery created by reckless policies and believe that God is still creating new life from the destruction?

Needless to say, the prophetic and radical nature of Eighth Day has been a true blessing in these dark times.

With you, I believe Jesus of the Scriptures is asking us not to dwell only in despair.  But how do we move beyond the wilderness of these discouraging times and disabling powerlessness?  Edmund Burke wrote, "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good people to do nothing."

Parker Palmer at Shalem this past week shared from his recent essay “The Politics of the Brokenhearted” describes it as though we are "standing in the tragic gap," the gap between our knowledge of what is and our knowledge of what might be," between reality and possibility.  He tells a remarkable Hasidic tale of a disciple asking the rabbi, "Why does the Torah tell us to 'place these words UPON your hearts'?  Why does it not tell us to place these holy words IN our hearts?"

The rabbi answers, "It is because as we are, our hearts are closed, and we cannot place the holy words in our hearts.  So we place them on top of our hearts.  And there they will stay until, one day, the heart breaks and the words fall in."

Broken-hearted people whom we revere like Dorothy Day, Rosa Parks, Nelson Mandela … our heroes for justice did more than stand in the " tragic gap."  They did more than resist    They trusted that God breaks the heart again and again and again until it stays open.  

Maybe God is very much at work in all this, not breaking our hearts in pieces but breaking our hearts open.

The lectionary Psalm this week, Psalm 90, is a lamentation of Moses asking God to help us gain a heart of wisdom.  "You have set our iniquities before you, our secret sins in the light of your presence.  All our days pass away under your wrath.  Have compassion on your servants.  Satisfy us in the morning with your unfailing love that we may sing for joy and be glad all the days."  

When does the morning come?

It is morning in Virginia, with the recent election of candidate from the margins, a sign the arc of the moral universe actually does bend toward justice;
when the evangelical conservative "Chief Homophobe" loses his seat to Danica Roem, a transgender woman;
when the one who wears bigotry on his sleeve as a badge of honor is defeated;

There is a sweet satisfaction that prejudice and hate have no power.

It is morning for many women who have been abused.  Everyone of us in this room have either been sexually abused or loves someone who has been abused.  Women are finding courage in numbers and are collectively raising their voices, from Alabama to Hollywood to the fields of farm workers, uniting in common pain and power.  I must say it is thrilling.  On Capitol Hill this week, letters were sent out to young staffers about sexual harassment prevention training.  They expected 100 responses and they got 1600.

"Organized money only has one enemy and that is organized people power" and especially if those people are women.  (Parker Palmer)

Speaking of powerful women, 94 year-old Emmy Lu expressed an interest in taking a School of Christian Living class at Seekers on the Book of John this past fall.  Did I ever need this invitation!  This is what angels look like when disguised as little old ladies who need transportation.

If the Gospel of John were all we had, it would be enough.  Our class, led by Marjory Bankson, explored what kind of community would be formed if John were the only scripture in the New Testament.  Unlike the mainstream Christian Church that has answers for every human condition and function, the community of believers that John was written for was based on powerful questions, not absolute answers.

Too many absolute Christian directives today have likely lead to the demise of the Church or at least to a whole lot of people replacing church with yoga or AA or reading the NYTimes next door at The Potters House.

Henri Nouwen once said in his many published thoughts, "If we want spiritual answers to life, we have to keep asking questions."  I suspect folks are finding those spiritual answers in alternative communities who don't pretend to know all the answers but accept the unknowing, the unbelieving and often, the un-welcomed.

As we delved into the Gospel of John, we just started and ended with a whole bunch of questions.  From that place, we shared freely our own understanding to various themes

Who was John?
Who was the Son of God he was announcing? 
What was the darkness and what was the Light? 
What does it mean to be a Child of God?

The community described in John's Gospel asked a lot of questions and had few answers.  It welcomed the marginalized because Jesus broke down tribal barriers.  It encouraged seeking and interpretation by telling metaphoric stories and disturbing parables.  Note there are more stories in John involving women than in any other gospel and some of them even had names!   How radical is that?  It was grounded in creationism not original sin like the Torah.  It was about the power of love and the power of forgiveness.

The ethos was grace not law.  Inclusivity not exclusivity.  Jesus said, I am bread; I am Light; I am a Gate, a Good Shepherd, a vine.  In John, Jesus talked about what the Body of Christ looked like and invited us to become an extension of what that possible expression could become.

In Father John Dear's book The Questions of Jesus, Dear uses some of the most profound questions as a starting point or an invitation to help readers discover more depth in the Gospels.  These values are foundational to our faith.

INVITATION What are you looking for? 
IDENTITY Who do people say that I am?
CONVERSION Why do you notice the splinter in your brothers, not the wooden beam in yours?
LOVE If you love only those who love you, what credit is that to you?
HEALING Do you want to be well?  Who touched me?  What is your name?
VISION Can a blind person guide a blind person?  Do you see this woman?
COMPASSION Which of these was neighbor to the robber's victim?
LIFE What profit is there to gain the whole world but lose your life?
FAITH Do you not yet have faith?  Why are you terrified?
DISCIPLESHIP Will you lay down your life for me?  Can you drink the cup I drink? 
CROSS Why are you trying to kill me?  My God, why have you forsaken me? 
RESURRECTION Woman, why are you weeping, who are you looking for?  Do you love me?

It seems that the time is now when we put aside our squabbles within the faith for a while and listen more closely to Jesus' questions, live with them and let them lead us back home.

I thought about this in relation to my work.  Doctors often sit with me as we have "end of life" conversations with patients.  Too often, good docs fail their responsibility to the Hippocratic Oath when they avoid the discussion all together.  You can be sure I remind them of their negligence.  My approach is simple: Just ask a whole bunch of questions and the answers will come.

What do you understand about your illness?
What are you goals of care now?
What does the word hospice mean to you?
Is being comfortable a high priority for you or would you rather retain lucidity? 
What was your life work?
Can you tell me about your children?  your travels?  times when you felt happy? 
Who are the people you want near to you now? 
Are you afraid of dying? 
Do you have a dog?

Hearts are opened:  the patient’s, the family’s and mine.  The dying patient often concludes on their own how life is now unfolding for them, and it allows them to find their path forward.  Needless to say, it is always sacred conversation.

Rainer Maria Rilke in “A Letter to a Young Poet” reminds us to "Try to love the questions themselves.  Live the questions now.  Someday, some way, without our knowing it, we may live our way into the answer."

Those who love Jesus and believe his way of mercy and justice are truth have taken a big blow this last year.  We are being tested in new ways in these very hard and scary times.  Some days I cannot even bear to hear or read news of any kind.  Even the late-night comics terrify me.

But if we live into questions of Jesus with renewed interest, it may help us reflect on the meaning of our lives and our broken world.  It may support us in standing strong in the tension of the "tragic gap" and reflect more on our God who we seek to know.  Questions lead us deeper into our heart space and even greater into the mystery of our Creator.

I leave you with a question for homework:

So what are those three questions Jesus answered?