“Asking The Right Questions” Matthew 21:23-32 (September 28, 2014)

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To my memory, every question I had for my parents
from the time I was 12 until I went away to college
ended with one of them summarily ending the exchange
with the nuclear bomb of all parental responses to such questions.

It would always go a little something like this:
My initial question: “Dad, can I go to the movies with
my friends this weekend?”
Response from Dad: “No.”
Follow up question from me: “Why?”
Dad’s nuclear bomb response: “Because I said so, that’s why!”

I could never understand the reason for such a short answer.
I couldn’t wrap my head around why it was that they
never gave me reasons for some of their decisions.

It should have been easy enough to say:
“No, because your grades have been slipping” or
“No, we can’t afford that this week.”
I would have been able to stomach those responses
a lot easier than the “because I said so” response.
I just never understood it.

Until Michaela started asking questions, that is.
A four year old wants to know the whys and hows
of everything in the universe.
And all those questions can wear you out…
especially when every answer is met with another question.
Sooner or later, most of us parents reach the end of our rope –
either the end of our patience,
or the end of our knowledge,
or the end of our explanations… and so we say:
“Because I said so.” It’s an answer that works – sometimes –
for parents… but it’s not a very compelling answer
when it comes from a pastor, from a priest, or from a church.

For a good chunk of the church’s history,
unwanted questions and questioners were just done away with.
The authority of the church and its teachings were absolute;
there were so many questions that “good Christians” just didn’t ask.
You were allowed to ask the right questions –
which means, the questions to which you had already
been given the answers.
But follow-ups were right-out.
In fact, prior to the Reformation, people posing questions
that went against church teaching were often excommunicated.
They were forced to leave the Church,
they were not allowed to participate in the life of the church
or even to be buried in holy ground.

One of the strengths of the Protestant Reformation
is that it pushed those limits… the first Protestant, Martin Luther,
didn’t ask questions to cause trouble;
he asked questions that were born out of his
sincere struggles with his faith.
When the Church of that day told him to stop –
he left, and a whole new kind of church was born:
a church where people were encouraged to read the scriptures
and wrestle with the hard questions for themselves.

Of course the Protestant Reformation didn’t entirely solve the problem. Many people wrestling with many questions
meant many different viewpoints and answers might emerge –
and they don’t always agree.
When disagreements arose in congregations
over questions of doctrine one congregation
or denomination became two or sometimes three separate ones.

Now-a-days we have a mix of both models of dealing with questions.
If it is a large group within a church that is questioning something
that the church believes or doesn’t believe,
splits can occur within that group.

If it is simply an individual or two raising the questions,
many churches will, delicately, kindly,
or rather rudely and directly ask the question bearers to leave.
It takes a very courageous congregation –
and a very courageous leader –
to allow the space for everyone,
even those with difficult questions and different answers
to work and worship together.
It’s hard. It’s threatening. And it’s downright uncomfortable.

When it comes to faith, the general assumption
is that if you have a question that doesn’t fit in to the narrow,
shallow, box of answers that we possess,
then you are just trying to cause trouble.
If you don’t accept the answers that are given,
then you must not have enough faith…
and if you don’t have enough of the right kind of faith,
well, then you just aren’t welcome here.

People often use passages like this -our scripture for today-
to say that it is not a good idea to ask God any questions.
Even my “go-to” set of commentaries on this passage
uses this opportunity to say that we really don’t want to start
asking God questions.
The chief priests and elders asked questions,
and look where it got them,
entering the kingdom behind the tax collectors and sinners.

Personally, however, I could not disagree more with the notion
that our questions about life, the universe,
and everything are to be avoided.
There are no wrong questions when it comes
to our questions of faith and of God.
There are, however, wrong attitudes and motivations.

The questions raised by the chief priests and elders in our passage
don’t have anything to do with the wrestling of their souls
or the struggles of their faith.
Instead, they are trying to trap Jesus,
to find a way to shut him up and shut him down
and in doing so protect their own power.
They wanted to find out if Jesus was going to be the type of guy
that towed the company line and fit in with them
or if he was going to make trouble and bring their
own power and authority into question.

They had to have had an idea of who Jesus might be.
A large part of the belief structure of the Israelites
was waiting for the coming Messiah.
They had theories and time tables and
all sorts of ideas around when and how
and who the Messiah would be.
They were the first century equivalent of the folks
who always predict when Jesus is coming back
or when the “rapture” will happen.
As teachers of Israel you would think they could come up
with a better question for a potential Messiah than
“Where does your authority come from?”
All this question did was reveal their true motive, holding on to power.

As we study the gospels we find that
Jesus doesn’t always react in this way to questions.
Jesus answers a lot of questions – sometimes with parables,
of course, but still he answers them.

He doesn’t rebuke the questioners,
but invites them to think and consider even
more deeply the question at stake.
The only time he gets upset is when he can see
the ulterior motives at work.

Earlier this week I put out a question on Facebook
in order to see what kind of questions
were on peoples hearts to ask Jesus if we had the chance. Amazingly, not one single question was about
where Jesus gets his authority from.

There were many who want to know why people suffer,
or why babies get cancer, or what happens after we die?
There were questions about how we might feel truly
set free and forgiven from our past,
or how we might better follow God in the days ahead.
The questions we have are questions that relate to our lives and
to how we move and live and breathe in the world.
They are not about us trying to maintain our power.
They are about us figuring out how to live in the world
with our beliefs and how those beliefs
shape the way we live with each other.

For God, questions are never the problem;
the problem is the motivation and attitude behind them.

Questions about God and about faith and
how everything holds together are not signs of a lack of faith but
signs of a faith taken seriously.
If we really love God, if we really want to follow God more closely,
to better understand how God is at work in the world
and in our lives – then we will struggle,
and we will wrestle along the way;
just as in any other area of our lives,
in faith, questioning is a part of how we grow.

If you are looking for a loop-hole to justify sin,
or to prove that God is a just a giant cosmic jerk so
that you can do what you want,
or for an answer that somehow exempts you from
the journey and struggle of faith,
you are asking questions with the wrong attitudes and motivations
and you need to stop, consider that attitude and change it.

However, if your questions are real, and honest,
and seeking to deepen your relationship between
yourself and God or yourself and others
then you can ask all the questions you want and search for those answers freely.

This, my friends, is how our faith grows by asking the hard questions
and seeking the answers. Don’t hear me incorrectly.
Just because you are seeking the answers doesn’t mean
you will always find the answers.
But by seeking to answer them we might get to
understand the question better,
or to know ourselves more,
or to catch a clearer glimpse of who God is.

Finding the answer to life, the universe, and everything
is probably not going to happen in this life.
We will not find all the answers.
The point is not finding the answer
but continuing in a dialogue for our journey of faith.

Our questions and our searching create
a conversation that needs to be maintained.
When I was in Bible College I had a friend named Dave.
Dave was my roommate and, I thought, my BFF.
But after those two years together
we went in different directions.
We sent letters and emails for a while
but somewhere along he way we just stopped connecting.
We became too busy,
too caught up in whatever we were doing to
do the work to maintain that friendship and that relationship died. I couldn’t even tell you what country Dave is living in now or
if he has a family. I don’t even know where to start
asking those questions because we are
no longer in relationship and apparently he doesn’t Facebook.

Maintaining that conversation with God and with others,
communicating the good and the bad and the ugly is
how we all grow in our relationship with God and with each other. Without it, without the work to maintain the relationship,
asking the hard questions and seeking the answers
the relationship dies.

When we take the time to question our faith, to study it,
to search out the answers, that’s when we start to find out
what our faith is really made of,
what kind of pressure it will hold up under.
If it’s just a superficial and shallow thing that
we do on Sunday morning,
we will find out in time of crisis
that our faith is not going to sustain us.
If your faith can’t handle questions,
your faith is not big enough.
If your God can’t handle your questions,
then you need a bigger God.

You need to be willing to ask the questions,
to dig the deep roots, to water and test your faith before
the storm comes – so you can weather that storm
when it shows up; because it always does.
When we’ve tested our faith, put it through its paces,
formed deeper bonds with God,
then when tragedy strikes we have a faith that can sustain us. Even if we find an aspect of our faith lacking in that crucial moment,
we will have equipped ourselves with the tools to repair it,
to seek out where we were wrong and
figure out how to pick up the pieces and rebuild.

So this morning I want to challenge you to start asking
the hard questions, but I want to encourage you to not do it alone.

In a couple of weeks we will be starting our small group study.
That would be a great place to start, to begin to wrestle with
the deeper questions of faith.

If that doesn’t sound like your cup of tea
we will be starting membership classes as well.
Even if you have been a member of this church since
before the foundation was laid I promise you there
will be great conversation and opportunity to deepen your faith.

And if the group stuff is too much for you to handle right now then
please pick up your bible and read it some more.
Find the questions that your heart is asking.
Then give me a call; we can get a cup of coffee,
and at least try to understand the question a little better.

To have faith friends, is to have questions,
but not just questions, rather questions whose answers may
be outside of our reach but still we believe.
This is faith: believing even in the not knowing;
being honest about the questions at the heart of our lives;
and the way we grow our faith is by living into those questions,
and trusting that, even in the unknowing,
even in the wrestling, we are not alone,
but God is with us. Amen? Amen.

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