Impossible Questions: a sermon for Thanksgiving and Confirmation

In observing Jesus’ teaching style in this text (Matthew 6:24-34), indeed throughout the gospels, notice all the questions he asks.

Normally, you would think the student is the only one who asks questions of the teacher, not the other way around. Jesus, the Rabbi, or Teacher, asks questions to reinforce his point. In fact, Jesus is employing a technique he learned from the sages of Israel who came before him.

There are at least two kinds of questions employed by the wisdom writers of the Hebrew scriptures: The first, is the rhetorical type, the one with the obvious answer. The obvious answer is leading to either ‘yes’ or ‘no.’

For example, “Can one walk on hot coals without scorching one’s feet?” (Proverbs 6:28); “Does not wisdom call, and does not understanding raise her voice?” (Proverbs 8:1)? To answer these questions, you don’t need to study the night before.

Now, Jesus’ teachings include some rhetorical questions, such as: “Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone?” (Matthew 7:9); “Is there anyone among you, who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake?” (Luke 11:11; Matthew 7:10); “Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles?” (Matthew 7:16; Luke 6:44). No brainer, right? Either yes or no.

We have a large three-panelled window at the front of our house. Recently we placed my reading chair beside it so I can enjoy the natural lighting and look outside. Periodically a bird would hit one of the side panels with a loud ‘thump’ and we would jump each time a bird slammed into it, offering a prayer for the poor bird’s well-being.

One day we noticed a good-sized crack making its way from the top corner of the centre panel. And we called in the window-guy. As he was removing the large centre panel window, he asked for my help. It wasn’t easy getting it out of the frame. Even with the vinyl strips removed we needed to do a lot of jimmying to get that frame out.

“This panel was installed too tightly,” he mused. “That may be the cause of the problem. Windows need to have some give, some space to move. Otherwise when something hits it, it’ll break.”

Rhetorical questions are like that window that have no give. Today, rhetorical questions don’t get much traction in meaningful conversation let alone as an effective teaching method. Like the window too tightly installed, there’s no wiggle room. Laced with presumption, rhetorical questions are often used as cheap shots in a fight: “Do you think I was going to say anything in response to that stupid thing you did?” “Duh! Isn’t it obvious you should not have done that?”

Rhetorical questions are also not very helpful in dealing with crises. When someone struggles, asking them rhetorical questions presumes ‘they should know better.’ I remember sitting in a church assembly years ago when the bishop forbade the use of rhetorical questions in the debate we were having.

Given the trouble associated with this style of asking questions, you can breathe a sigh of relief because–maybe you’ve already noticed– rhetorical questioning isn’t the type of question used in today’s text. But, don’t breathe too easily just yet. Because Jesus’ distinctive voice comes through more clearly in his “impossible questions.”[1]

His impossible questions made him a subversive teacher who often undercut the comfortable assumptions of his audience. His teaching and use of questions were more in the style of Ecclesiastes and Job, rather than the sunnier outlook of Proverbs. Some examples of impossible questions we see in Ecclesiastes and Job:

“How can the wise die just like the fools?” (Eccl 2:16); “What do mortals get from all the toil and strain with which they toil under the sun?” (Eccl 2:22); “Where is the way of the dwelling of light, and where is the place of darkness?” (Job 38:19-20). Not so easy, these questions are, to answer. Even impossible, in light of reality for many people. Nothing neat and tidy about answers to these kinds of questions.

Impossible questions annoy and even anger people. Why? Because they make us scramble for answers and doubt our most basic assumptions. Who likes to do that? It’s easier to be fixed and unyielding with clear-cut proofs and rules. It’s easier to repel the questions with sure-fire answers. If we don’t yield or bend, however, we will crack under the pressure of our own doing and the challenges of life that come to us all.

  • “Can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?” (Matthew 6:27; Luke 9:25).
  • “What will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?” (Matthew 16:26; Mark 8:36; Luke 9:25).
  • “Salt is good, but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored?” (Matthew 5:13; Mark 9:50; Luke 14:34).
  • “If you love those who love you what reward do you have?” (Matthew 5:46; Luke 6:32)

Indeed, Jesus uses sayings that conform to traditional wisdom like the beatitudes and proverbs. But he uses them not to resolve conflicts of life but to heighten them. He uses them not to preserve the status quo, but to push the hearer to questions one’s own values and assumptions.

Not a very popular technique. No wonder the authorities got nervous and eventually did away with Jesus.

Questions are indeed indicators that learning can happen. Of course, just because we ask questions, or questions are asked of us, doesn’t mean we will respond positively to them. Just because we ask questions to which are provided answers, rhetorical or otherwise, doesn’t mean we will take the next step forward, ourselves, with our growth, healing and transformation.

We will likely stumble out of the gate. And continue to stumble on the path of life. And sometimes get stuck in the mud. But just because we can’t fathom how to emerge from the shackles of our own humanity, our own failings, our own weaknesses, doesn’t mean all is lost. Doesn’t mean the journey is not worth taking.

Jesus stirs the pot. And continues to do so. But because he believes in us. Because Jesus believes in our growth, in our transformation. Because Jesus is anchored in his divine self, Jesus is free “to dive into a fully incarnate and diverse world—as it is. He can love this ordinary and broken world … and critique all false absolutes and idolatries at the same time.”[2]

Jesus nudges us and beckons us forward on the journey, refusing to abandon us when we get stuck. He goes ahead on the muddy path. In shine and shower, wind storm and in the calm stretches. And, on the way, can we learn to let go of the false absolutes and idolatries in our lives? Can we release our preoccupation with worry, for example, to hang on too tightly to the emotional securities of material wealth, which seems to be the message of the passage today? But I would extend this to worries about what awaits after  we let go of anything that we have held on too tightly in our lives?

Every time we worship and every time we say the Creed together, we are being confirmed in faith. We have a confirmation every Sunday! And the one being confirmed is YOU!

Yet, as I’ve tried to make clear to the confirmation classes year after year, just because you are saying ‘yes’ today, just because you are saying the words of affirmation of baptism printed on the sheet in your hands, just because you are standing up at the front of the church doesn’t mean:

  • You’ve got it all figured out
  • You have all the answers to all the questions of faith
  • You are finished on this journey of learning
  • You have nothing more to learn
  • You will now never again make any mistakes nor experience any hardship

You keep on keeping on, as they say, not because the church is perfect. Listen, if you haven’t figured that out yet let me emphasize again: the church is not perfect. The church will continue to be full of people who are far from perfect. You stay on the journey NOT because the church or its leaders are perfect and never make mistakes. Your faith and your participation in a life and journey of faith is not validated by the church to which you belong, but by the God who loves you and us despite all our failings.

If anything, what you are doing today is bearing witness to the need to keep on the journey. You are standing with the rest of us, calling for us to stay the course alongside you. By your witness today you are calling the rest of us not to stop asking questions. Not to stop doubting from time to time. Not to stop saying once in while, “Hey, wait a minute. I’m not sure I believe that. What’s that all about?” Not to stop looking up and asking for help from time to time. Not to give up, on the journey.

Your window of faith will last intact a lot longer when there continues to be ‘give’ around the frame of your beliefs.

Jesus suggests to us that knowing all the answers and not making mistakes is not the point of the faithful life. Rather, it is the imperfect yet faithful following on the journey that makes all the difference.

Despite all that is wrong, God is still there.

We stay on the path not because it is easy. But for those moments of grace. We do this for those moments of joy where we notice the pinpricks of light across the dark canvas of our world.

Where forgiveness melts cold hearts.

Where mercy triumphs over condemnation.

Where love embraces the weary traveller.

Thank you, God.

 

[1]Alyce Mckenzie, No Easy Answers: Reflections on Matthew 6:24-34 (patheos.com, February 21, 2011)

[2]Richard Rohr, Daily Meditation,3 October 2018 (www.cac.org/Meditations@cac.org)

Marriage: for the heavy-haul

“For if they fall, one will lift up the other” (Ecclesiastes 4:10)
On the journey of life, how well we do depends on with whom we travel. And how well we travel together. I like the name of your business — the brand of your trucking company: “JNB Heavy Haul”. You are not hauling the light stuff. You’re challenging yourself to haul the heaviest stuff that can be pulled by a tractor-trailer on the highways and byways of this continent.
On the road of life, how well we travel together depends, furthermore, on the degree of touch in the relationship. Yes, touch. In our touch-averse culture, the institution of marriage offers couples the benefit and freedom to exercise that public and private right with the fullness, health and joy with which touching another was meant to be.
The popular reading, “The Blessing of the Hands”, brings to our minds this image of holding the hand of your beloved. What is powerful about this poem is that it not only describes those delightful and joyous occasions when hands are held in the sweetness of love. It also brings to mind the larger picture of youth AND ageing, happy AND sad — and even hints at the prospect of death. This perspective includes the heavy-haul of life.
In the blissful exchange of wedding vows you make in the prime of the first half of your life, it is important to sound this deeper note. Because even in the most challenging moments of marriage, life and love, those hands that hold one another can mean everything. The sense of touch with the beloved can get us through times when disappointment, failure, loss, grief, fear and the need for forgiveness press close — as will happen in everyone’s life.
The image of holding hands in those times are equally important to bring to light. Such a bond, forged in the anvil of struggle and conflict, is nearly indestructible. When two people join their hearts, minds and bodies, a third element is brought into the relationship — you can call it ‘the relationship’. And when this happens, you feel it — and everyone else knows it and must respect it: “A threefold cord is not quickly broken” (Ecclesiastes 4:12). If you ever take ballroom dancing and learn the standard, international steps of, let’s say, a waltz, you soon recognize this ‘third partner’ that is the energy linking two individuals. Both partners step in time with one another and respond in kind to this field of energy between and surrounding them. Call it God.
God, who created you both, makes an eternal promise that will never be broken: “I am continually with you; you hold my right hand” (Psalm 73:23). Originally this promise was made to a people desperate in life’s challenging circumstances and struggles, travelling through the wilderness of life. This promise is made for the long-haul and the heavy-haul of life.
I recently read the story of a woman who had walked seven hundred miles as a refugee to escape a violent war. She was finally able to cross a national boundary out of the war zone. She walked all that way and brought with her an eight-year-old girl, who walked beside her. For seven hundred miles, the child held her hand tightly. When they reached safety, the girl loosened her grip, and the woman looked at her hand: It was raw and bloody with an open wound, because the little girl had held tightly in her fearfulness. This is no casual hand-holding. This is a life-or-death grip that does not let go. (Walter Brueggemann, “Sabbath as Resistance: Saying No to the Culture of Now”, WJK Kentucky, 2014, p.88-89)
Upon arriving at their destination, can you imagine the joy, relief and gratitude expressed by both the woman and her eight-year-old travel companion? Their relationship is sealed for life, no matter what!
Earlier this year, a colleague of mine from Toronto was celebrating her 25th silver anniversary. In fact it was Valentine’s Day when she and her husband were driving by one of the biggest cemeteries in Toronto. At that moment they were discussing what they should do, to celebrate this joyous occasion. They wondered if they ought spend some money on themselves, treat themselves, to mark such an auspicious point in their lives.
At that moment they passed by the entrance-way to the sprawling cemetery grounds. And hanging over the ornate gate was a great canvass banner with the words printed in Valentine’s Day red: “One-day sale only: 10% off burial plots!”. The couple looked at each other with wide eyes. A few hours later, they drove out of the cemetery chuckling about how they had just dropped $8000 for themselves on their silver anniversary …. to buy two burial plots side by side!
This puts a different slant on those traditional wedding vows, “till death do us part!” And yet, they do so in life with confidence and faith that marital love can stand the test of time, thanks be to God, for the long-haul and the heavy-haul!