Friday, August 29, 2014

“Asking the Tough Questions” (Hard Questions Series), August 24, 2014, Rev. Martha Daniels

Proverbs 3:13-18
Joyful is the person who finds wisdom, the one who gains understanding.
For wisdom is more profitable than silver, and her wages are better than gold.
Wisdom is more precious than rubies; nothing you desire can compare with her.
She offers you long life in her right hand, and riches and honour in her left.
She will guide you down delightful paths; all her ways are satisfying.
Wisdom is a tree of life to those who embrace her; happy are those who hold her tightly.

Matthew 13:3-9
Jesus told many stories in the form of parables, such as this one:
“Listen! A farmer went out to plant some seeds. As the farmer scattered them across the field, some seeds fell on a footpath, and the birds came and ate them. Other seeds fell on shallow soil with underlying rock. The seeds sprouted quickly because the soil was shallow. But the plants soon wilted under the hot sun, and since they didn’t have deep roots, they died. Other seeds fell among thorns that grew up and choked out the tender plants. Still other seeds fell on fertile soil, and they produced a crop that was thirty, sixty, and even a hundred times as much as had been planted! Anyone with ears to hear should listen and understand.”


Will you pray with me? Holy One, your wisdom is our guide. Open our hearts, minds and spirits to hear you speaking to us in that still small voice. Amen.

Today marks the last of our Hard Questions sermons series. And maybe today’s topic should have been one of the first—why do we ask these hard questions? I mean, obviously, we ask because we want an answer, but why do we want an answer? Why do we have questions about our faith—both as a group and as individuals--in the first place?

Well, much of that is just basic to our nature as human beings. We are curious about things, things we don’t know or understand—we want to know more, whether it is about the latest celebrity breakup, the plotlines of the next season of Downton Abbey or Game of Thrones, how to make better hamburgers, the best bank for our circumstances—the list goes on and on. But some topics seem to be out of bounds—especially in spiritual matters. There’s a sense that if we have questions, if we have uncertainty or doubt, then we are lacking in faith somehow.

But the reality is that we do have questions. Some of them are more factual, such as wondering about John the Baptist. Some are about how we live our faith in the world, like understanding Mary’s place in Christianity. Others get to the heart of our faith, the most basic questions of all—why is life difficult for so many people? Why do people suffer? How do we reconcile that kind of pain and grief and suffering with a loving God?

Those are the questions that, no doubt about it, test our faith. But that is why we ask them, isn’t it? We are saying, “Here’s something I don’t understand; my understanding of God tells me one thing, but the reality of the world is something else. How can I reconcile these two?”

And here’s the thing--we are allowed, encouraged, even, to ask questions, to dig deeper, to look for the answers. That is, in fact, what we are supposed to be doing. The disciples asked Jesus questions all the time—“Teacher, how can it be that…” “Teacher, why did you say..” “What was the meaning of that parable, teacher?” Constant questions. Well, that is how the rabbis taught. They would lecture a bit on a topic, then the students, the disciples, would ask questions that were raised for them, and the rabbi would answer, which often led to more questions. They were exploring the topic together through questions.

And here’s why: a faith that asks questions is stronger than one that simply accepts. Someone who has been through difficult times and questioned their faith, wandered away for a time, maybe, but still has that faith—well, that faith is strong. The person with a questioning faith has tested her beliefs and understanding. She has pushed against the edges of her comfort zone, and developed some spiritual “muscle” from all that resistance training.

If we don’t look beneath the surface, we cannot grasp the whole of something. For example, a pond or lake seems quiet and still on the surface. But when you look more closely, when you got beneath that surface, you find some pretty amazing things, both beautiful and terrible. You will find snapping turtles snatching young frogs, and you will see beautiful lake plants; fish and birds and salamanders and all kinds of things. And to use another example—when you meet a person for the first time, you notice their appearance—taller or shorter, hair colour, eye colour maybe. In conversation, you learn where they live and maybe what they do for a living. But a person is more than those basic facts—perhaps they are kind, perhaps they are angry, perhaps they are disappointed in their life, maybe they are in a new relationship—but you don’t learn that in the first conversation, it takes a deeper relationship, more conversation—more questions. In the same way, all our issues of faith are deeper than the surface, more complicated than they may appear. If we do not wrestle with them and find our own path, then when a crisis comes, we are likely to lose faith. Like the seeds planted in rocky or shallow soil in Jesus’ parable, that faith may wither and die, but the seeds that root well—that is, reach down into the depths, finding what lies below the surface, are in deep soil, well-rooted and not easily destroyed.

The tested faith is stronger and wiser—it has looked into the depths of despair and sorrow and frustration, and turned back, understanding more of hope than it did before. Like a weightlifter’s muscle, the tested faith gets stronger and more supple with exercise and stretching. A faith that is not exercised and tested may be weak and frail, liable to fail at the first test.

So we question and we wonder and we dig deep into our faith, our spirituality. It is that very questioning and testing that grounds it and strengthens it.

Don’t be afraid to ask the questions—you should rather be worried if someone tells you not to ask questions. It’s OK to have doubts—God can take it! And in fact, those questions will lead you closer to God. So ask the questions, dig deep, explore! Find the answers to the questions you haven’t asked yet, look for God in unexpected places, dive below the surface of that lake, have those deeper conversations. Your questions may not be answered, but your spirit will be stronger. In all God’s names, amen.

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