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)

Because you are a sky full of stars

I love the NHL TV ad where they show just the first seconds of an on-ice interview moments after a team has won the coveted prize — the holy grail of hockey — the Stanley Cup. After over 20-some games played, four consecutive series won, the campaign is finally over in victory, the question: “How does this feel?”

And so the ad runs through several players over the years, responding to this same question. It’s the consistent response that makes the point. None of them have words to describe the feeling. Uhh. Ummm. (sigh). (sob). Whew! (shake head). etc. is all they can manage. Words simply cannot describe the majesty and awe and joy of the moment.

Such is the attitude surrounding the Psalm appointed for this Trinity Sunday on which we also celebrate an Affirmation of Baptism (Confirmation).

Early 20th century American scientist, Dr. Carver, was asked by some writer late in his life what he thought was the most indispensable thing for science in the modern age. Carver replied, “The capacity for awe.” And mere words fall far short of capturing an awe-filled moment.

When the Psalmist asks, “What are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?” (Psalm 8:4), this is not intended to be so much an intellectual question. This is not so much a matter of curiosity, that is being expressed. It is not so much a problematic question.

Rather it is a question of mystery and marvel. “What are human beings that you are mindful of them . . .?” A question of mystery is not satisfied with logical tidiness. This question eludes our intellectual grasp because the enormity of moment grasps us.

Psalm 8 is not a scientific response to the wonder of creation, and the wonder of human life. It is a hymn — an evening hymn — a vesper song. It is an expression of faith — an act of worship — a moment of praise. It takes place in the temple, not the laboratory. It springs from the heart rather than the mind. It is wonderment, not wondering. It is awe, not assessment. It is exaltation not experimentation. It is affirmation not analysis. It is celebration, not curiosity. (Carl Schultz, Houghton College, “What Are Human Beings?”, campus.houghton.edu)

But not just at the best of times. It is when we get that phone call in the middle of the night, when tragedy strikes, when we hear for the first time “bad news”, and when things suddenly go from bad to worse. There’s a similar dynamic at play within our hearts; it’s as if we are standing before a mystery that we simply cannot ‘manage’ scientifically. When words fail us, and we feel we cannot do anything.

“What are human beings that you are mindful of them?” O God? This prayer can also be a prayer that puts us in our place, literally and figuratively. We are but a speck of dust in the magnitude of all that is. Who are we? A speck of dust? We can feel like that sometimes, too.

But here’s the catch. There’s a fellow in the Old Testament that I think you may of heard of. His name is Job. He was a man of God. But he lost everything. His family dies. He suffers pain and disease. His friends ridicule him. He loses his house and property.

And when he complains to God, he cites this very Psalm. In the 7th chapter of Job, he quotes the exact words from Psalm 8 as he shakes his fist at God: “What are human beings, that you make so much of them, that you set your mind on them … (v.17)”. And then, “Will you not look away from me for a while, leave me alone…?” (v.19).

Here’s the point of this Psalm quote in Job: God pays attention to us. In those glorious moments of life, but especially also when we are at our lowest. God pays attention to us specks of carbon in the universe. Let your soul rest in this awareness — of a God who will not leave us alone, even when we are completely defeated.

My favourite summer past-time is watching sunsets over the ocean or Great Lake. When I sit or stand still on the beach at the water’s edge observing this large burning orb dip into the fluid horizon — if you had a camera on me, you would say I am gawking at the sunset. I’m not saying anything. My eyes are wide open.

I encourage you this summer if you experience an awe-filled moment — on the farm, in the forest, on the beach or mountainside, even at home — pay attention to the glory of God before you. Pause, just for a minute. Because in that very moment, God is gawking at you.

It is because God pays attention to us, that we find, as Job eventually did, the strength to move on. It is because God pays attention to us when we are joy-filled as well as down-and-out, that we find, eventually, the strength to carry on. It is because God considers each one of us a beautiful and precious creation — because God is gawking at each of us — that our hearts are filled and we can live life fully.

During this Confirmation year, we made a few road trips: to visit Lutherlyn Camp and Conference Centre in the Fall, and other Lutheran, Anglican and even Jewish congregations in Ottawa. Olivia would usually drive in my car. And something we always did while we travelled was listen to music.

Indeed music — as the Doghouse Band from Pembroke today reminds us so wonderfully — music is an expression that defies analysis because music goes straight to the soul, to the heart. Martin Luther said that when you sing, you pray twice. J.S. Bach came to be known as the Fifth Evangelist (after Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) precisely because his music expressed the Gospel even better than words on a page.

The pop group, Coldplay, just last month came out with their latest album. One song in particular has been getting a lot of airtime on radio. Now, they’re a secular band, but these lyrics are deeply theological, if you pay attention to them. They are a prayer, to God:

“‘Cause you’re a sky, ’cause you’re a sky full of stars /I’m gonna give you my heart
‘Cause you’re a sky, ’cause you’re a sky full of stars /’Cause you light up the path …

‘Cause in a sky, ’cause in a sky full of stars /I think I saw You

‘Cause you’re a sky, ’cause you’re a sky full of stars /I wanna die in your arms
‘Cause you get lighter the more it gets dark /I’m gonna give you my heart….”

It’s ’cause who God is and what God does, that we have any hope and any strength in all of creation to be all that we were made to be. It’s ’cause who God is that we can give Him our heart.

God gawks at us. God pays attention to us. And because of that, we can move on, no matter what.

Funeral sermon – A special grace given

Just this last week in the news you might have heard that a 74-year-old nun from Quebec was released from captivity after being abducted two months ago by armed rebels in northern Cameroon.

And just around that time we heard that an American soldier was released after nearly five years of captivity in Afghanistan at the hands of the Taliban.

When hearing this news, I wondered how those held hostage were able to hold it together. Not knowing for sure when and if they would be released, somehow the nun and the soldier endured their captivity. They persevered, with no guarantee that they would be saved. For all they knew, those prisons could have been the last thing they ever saw.

When I met recently with Brenda, I noticed this quality of perseverance in her. She never gave up hope. She didn’t waver in what she presented to others. She gave determined witness to the faith that she would not be defeated by her illness.

After meeting with her, I wondered in a similar way I did after hearing about the nun and the soldier held hostage for significant periods of time. How could she endure? How was this possible? How did she do this? Without knowing for sure how things would turn out?

Brenda’s from the Upper Ottawa Valley. I want to welcome members of Brenda’s family who made the trip at least a couple of times down to Ottawa. Perhaps some of you know a retired pastor who has for many years made the circuit among Lutheran churches in Valley. He once told me something I have not forgotten.

He said that God gives a special grace to people at two events in life: First, God gives a special grace to people in their dying; that is, when someone dies God gives them a special strength and ability to do so. And this is not something always and easily perceptible by those witnessing the death, and is known fully, only by the person who is dying — this special grace.

The other event in life when God gives a special grace is to birthing mothers; when the time comes, finally, to give birth, God gives a special grace to endure this trying yet hope-filled event. At these profound moments of life and death, God gives to those who must endure them, a special grace.

And that is the only explanation I can give for understanding the incredible gift of perseverance and final peace with which Brenda endured this last chapter of her life on earth.

The story of Job from the bible is a testimony as well to this incredible ability to proclaim a steadfast faith in the midst of suffering. He lost everything — his family, his property. He suffered disease and ridicule. You would think that his profession of faith would come only after all his fortunes were restored, which they were right at the end of the book of Job, chapter 42. But Job doesn’t wait until chapter 42; already at chapter 19 he can proclaim a great faith even in the middle of suffering greatly.

We are Christian not because somehow now we have the secret to cheating death. We are Christian not because we can avoid suffering in this life. We Christian not because we can prove miracles sometimes happen. We are Christian, because we discover and receive the gift of grace to embrace our faith whenever we do have to suffer in life.

There is a beautiful image in the Gospel of a giant tree where birds of the air find refuge and make nests in its branches. Jesus tells the story of the mustard seed — small, seemingly insignificant, hardly noticed. It’s the smallest of seeds, barely perceptible.

“It is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that birds of the air come and make nests in its branches” (Matthew 13:31-32). We could interpret those words “so that” merely as a descriptive consequence of the mustard seed growing into the largest of trees — that, among other things, birds would find safety in its branches.

But we could also interpret “so that” as the reason why a mustard seed is great. Because it provides shelter, care and compassion for the creatures of this world. There is an important purpose and mandate for that ‘greatness’.

The faith that can move mountains is a faith not easily noticed, perceived or appreciated by the world. Because it is the gift of compassion and care. It is the gift of grace and love which embraces others and provides shelter to those in need.

That is the greatness of faith. It is a faith that recognizes the compassion of our Lord. It is a faith that recognizes God’s steadfast love no matter what happens. “Neither death nor life nor anything in all of creation can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8).

Brenda showed that grace to others in her life. But she endured these last days because of the compassion and grace given to her. Those around Brenda, closest to Brenda, you showed abundant grace, care and compassion — to put Brenda’s needs before your own, at times of joy in life but also, and especially, in the most dire of circumstances. And that’s the greatness of faith.

The special grace of God is given to Brenda. The prize is hers today. She has endured. She is released from her captivity. And this special grace is ours, also, forever. No matter what may come.