Seventeenth Sunday After Pentecost—Year B—September 23, 2012
Preached at the Lutheran Church of Framingham
Lord God, give me the tongue of a teacher, that I may know how to sustain the weary with a word. Amen.
There are no bad questions? Well except those that you do not ask.
I am sure that most of you have heard that cliché many times in your lifetimes, but for some reason, for many of us it never quite fully sinks in. No matter how many times we are reassured and encouraged to ask any and all questions, we remain hesitant, embarrassed, or even scared of asking questions in front of other people. Others might think that we are dumb for not knowing the answer, or think less of us for not being able to figure it out on our own. We might get teased if we take the risk and open our mouths. Better to keep our mouths shut and Google the answer later.
Even though the disciples do not have smart-phones and Siri to help them out, to answer their questions without having to admit their lack to those around them, they still do not ask Jesus for clarification. They are too afraid. Jesus has now told them twice that “the Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again,” but the disciples are still confused. Throughout the Gospel of Mark, the disciples’ short comings are highlighted, and this is my New Testament professor in seminary called the disciples in Mark the “duh-sciples.” They are always misunderstanding, misspeaking, and misbehaving. They do not get what is going on, what Jesus is trying to explain to them is about to happen, but they do not ask Jesus for clarification, for a remedial lesson, they just keep their mouths shut and go on their merry way, following Jesus to Jerusalem, and without realizing it, to the cross.
But we cannot really give the disciples that hard of a time, because we do not do much better on a regular basis. We too let our pride get in the way. We worry about what others think of us. We worry about coming off as full of wisdom. We try to make ourselves seem as if we are the greatest.
Our sin is manifesting itself as envy, selfish ambition, disorder, wickedness, and that is especially bad for two reasons:
1) It leads to conflicts and disputes among us. We compete against one another to be considered the fastest, biggest, and best. We argue with one another, just like the disciples, about who is the greatest.
Our sin breaks down the community of God, it fractures us, it makes us less effective as we try to do God’s work in the world. People do it as individuals, and on larger scales as institutions.
Have you ever thought how backwards it is that congregations, of different and the even at times the same denominations compete to attract and retain members? It quickly becomes all about numbers, instead of being about mission, about preaching the gospel, spreading the good news throughout the world with words and actions. By trying to climb to the top, we push others down, we wish evil on them, we seek vengeance, we lost sight of God’s hope for the kingdom here on earth.
2) But our selfish ambition also breaks our relationship with God directly.
When our pride keeps us from asking questions about God, religion, spirituality, and faith, we are in essence putting ourselves higher than God. What does it say, when we spend more time trying to secure honor for ourselves than focusing on the honor and status that comes as a free gift from God.
Questions show that you are thinking, that you have listened to what you have been told and are processing it so that it becomes a part of you. It is a sign that the gospel is not simply going in one ear and out the other. Questions, curiosity, and doubt are not the opposite of faith. “Faith, in fact, grows in the soil of doubts and challenges.” Being “ that faith is ‘belief in things not seen,’ doubt seems to be an essential ingredient.” Asking questions leads us eventually to a deeper understanding and relationship with God. Questions and doubt do not negate God’s claim on us.
In God’s “wisdom from above” there is no “trace of partiality or hypocrisy”. God accepts us just as we are, sinful and flawed, and full of questions and doubts. God knows that we never fully understand everything that we hear and learn and experience of God, creation, and God’s reign, but the Holy Spirit continues to work faith in us.
You are a child of God, claimed, saved, and loved loaded down with all of your questions, confusions, and doubts. And that is why we gather as a community week after week, at the font, at the table, in prayer, and in song. We do our best to set aside our envy, selfish ambition, and delusions of grandeur so that we can gather together to praise God. We begin by communally admitting our shortcomings and weaknesses and sins. This is always followed by absolution—a reminder that God forgives you fully and does not hold these faults against you.
Once we are humbled and comforted, then we hear God’s word both read and preached, and hopefully somewhere in there, the Holy Spirit works to answer your questions. Sometimes, something in one of the readings quiets your insecurities a bit, but other times, you must rely on a similarly flawed preacher to try to guess what question you might have this week or what reminder of God’s good news you need. And other times, the Holy Spirit provides you with the faith you need to get through one more week of life in a different way: in Bible Study, at work, in conversation with your family or friends, or even through an encounter with an entire stranger.
The Holy Spirit does not need us or the disciples to ask our questions out loud in order to be able to work faith in people across the globe, but I have found that asking those questions in some even somewhat public way helps us to get into the right mindset to receive the answer, and sometimes the asking creates the environment for faith building in the whole community.
So I am going to be bold today and ask you a question, and at the same time, I am asking you to be even bolder.
What is a big question about God, faith, religion, or spirituality that is running through your head right now?
I want you all to take a couple of minutes to think about this. Take a pencil and a slip of paper, write it down, and place it in the plate during offering.
Do not put your name on the slip, because I do not need to know whose question it is.
If you have the question, someone else probably does too. It is a question of the community.
So let us offer our questions up to God along with our other offerings today. And I pray that the Holy Spirit will work through your questions to guide my preaching and teaching in the future.
Take a couple of minutes to think and write, and then we will sing our Hymn of the Day: Lord, Whose Love in Humble Service.
Be bold! Ask your question!