The right question

If you were going to ask God one question, what would you ask?

If you were going to ask God one question, what would you ask?

The Sadducees know, or think they know, at any rate. They think they know an awful lot, actually—Luke tells us that they go to ask Jesus this question about the Resurrection, even though they don’t believe in the Resurrection. It’s just like that one know-it-all kid in school who asks you a question that they already know the answer to… because they want to “test” you.

And it’s a question that is really really technical. It’s not “is the Resurrection real”. No, it’s a question that requires knowing all about the laws of Moses for this ridiculous hypothetical situation which probably never happened. Did they really want to know the answer to the question? Or were they just trying to ask a question just to ask a question?

And Jesus sees through this trap—this bad faith question asked by people who are only interested in discrediting his ministry.

The woman with seven husbands—that is not the problem. They “neither marry nor are given in marriage”. Technicalities like marriage aren’t actually going to matter in the Resurrection.

But the real problem here, is that they’re asking a question about something that they don’t even believe in themselves!

This morning’s readings are a tale of two cities.

On the one hand, we have the Sadducees asking pointless questions to the God of the living. But they aren’t the only people asking questions this week. Our psalmist also approaches God with a question…

We might call it a question, or a demand. It’s really a petition, a desperate question to God: please save me. I’ve done all the right things, and I’m still hurting.

Won’t you save me?

Won’t you show me your marvelous loving kindness?

Won’t you keep me as the apple of your eye? Hide me under the shadow of your wings?

Won’t you save me?!

Two different readings. Two different kinds of questions.

It seems pretty obvious that the Sadducees are a good example of what not to do when it comes to asking pointless questions.

So what sorts of questions are we supposed to ask?

What are we supposed to do to be faithful followers of Christ?

It can be completely exhausting to walk around in the world sometimes. There’s so many things competing for our time. Our energy. Our money. Our compassion. There’s so many competing definitions of what it means to “be faithful”

“ be perfect”

“pray 5x a day”

“read the Bible once a year”

“give this much money to these organizations”

“pay attention to this crisis”

This is exhausting. But I don’t think any of this, in the end, is THE key to being faithful—even if it might be a helpful tool.

The God of the living doesn’t need your perfection, doesn’t need my piety, doesn’t need these tools. Our call to faithfulness, really, is about our attention.

We don’t have to have the answers.

But I’m convinced that we need to ask the right questions.

What is the right question?

Do you know that phrase that “there’s no such thing as a stupid question”? I do—I hear it all the time in classes—it’s a very common thing for a professor to say first day of an intro class… “there’s no such thing as a stupid question, so ask it, because someone else probably has that question too”. Or, if you’re a teacher or a parent, maybe you’ve said the same thing: “there’s no such thing as a stupid question”.

But we all know the feeling when someone inevitably pipes up and asks… well, you know, a stupid question. So some people think this adage is wrong, that there can be stupid questions… and one author names, among others, the wrong kind of question as a question “that can be answered on one’s own with complete certainty”.

I think the Sadducees’ question fits into this camp, after all, they didn’t even believe that the question THEY ASKED was relevant to their worldview. They had an answer.

It was the wrong question. Jesus doesn’t spend time with it because it’s not really the question that needs to be asked.

It was the wrong question.

Questions are not bad things. Even stupid ones. The religious authorities’ test of Jesus was only a wrong question because it wasn’t a real question.

What is the right question to ask Jesus?

A right question… is a real question.

It is a real question. It is the question, or questions, or pleas or demands that you want to offer before God.

It’s not the question you ask because you think you’re smarter than God. It’s not the question to ask just for the sake of asking a question.

It’s the question that is bubbling inside your soul right now. The one that you hear on really sad or happy days, or on quiet evenings alone when the wind whistles outside your door.

It’s the question that you ask God in the midst of grief and despair and joy and wondering.

Perhaps your question is from the Psalms, perhaps like the Psalmist you are asking “won’t you save me?” The Psalms, Ecclesiasties, the Prophets, Lamentations—there’s so many right questions in the Bible.

If you were going to ask God one question, what would you ask?

The question or questions that you’re thinking of, that’s the question that God is waiting to hear. That’s the question that Jesus is waiting outside the door of your heart to answer

There is a famous painting by pre-Raphaelite painter William Holman Hunt that hangs in the chapel of Keble College, Oxford. It’s called “The Light of the World”—perhaps you’ve seen a picture of it. In in, Christ stands, with the faint glimmer of sunrise peeking through the trees behind him. He takes up most of the frame—benevolent, reflective, in rich clothing with a crown of thorns. He holds a lantern in one hand—the other is raised—knocking on a wooden door. This is a door which is covered with ivy. There is no knob or keyhole.

The door represent the human soul, which according to the description, cannot be opened from the outside. No lock. No key. Christ does not have the key. But Christ stands and knocks—asking to be let in.

How shall we let him in?

If we wait until all the dishes are clean, and the floor is mopped, and we go to church every Sunday and pray perfectly and read the Bible every day… for some of us, Christ will be waiting a long time.

But Christ stands and knocks—asking to be let in.

Instead of the waiting until we have all the answers, perhaps what will open the door of your soul in this season, is the question that you and I have been afraid to ask.

The real question, that perhaps seems stupid. Or like something I should know already.

The God of the living stands and knocks—asking to be let in.

What question will open the door of your heart?

Audio Recording: Preached at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Waldorf.
Audio often differs from written text.

William Holman Hunt, The Light of the World, 1851-52. Oil on canvas, 122 x 60.5 cm. Keble College, Oxford. Scanned from Judith Bronkhurst, ‘William Holman Hunt: A Catalogue Raisonné’ (Yale University Press, 2006).

Dangerous Love (sermon)

About a decade ago, the movie Evan Almighty came out. If you’re not familiar with it, it’s a modern retelling of the Noah story, where a brand new congressman named Evan is asked to co-sponsor a bill that would allow development in national parks. 

Before Evan has decided what to do, God—played by the one and only Morgan Freeman–steps in, and says, “oh hey. Evan. I’d like you to build an ark”.

And, at first it’s just a statement. Hey, this is the job I have for you. But Evan is a bit surprised, and like, I think, most of us would, thinks it might be a hoax and tries to carry on with his new suburban life.

But God doesn’t go away, and neither does this annoying commission to build an ark. Wood and tools arrive in his front yard, animals—two by two—begin to just show up. His hair and beard grow overnight, and he suddenly can’t wear anything other than what we might call prophet’s garb. And the more Evan tries to avoid God, the worse it gets. 

When I read today’s Old Testament reading from Jeremiah, I hear something similar going on.

God tells Jeremiah that:

“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,
and before you were born I consecrated you;
I appointed you a prophet to the nations.”

What an intimidating job description! A “prophet to the nations”! It’s no wonder that Jeremiah says “you know what God? I’m too young for this whole prophet to the nations thing. I’m just a priest, I’m not ready for a promotion yet.”

But just like in Evan Almighty, God isn’t willing to accept this answer from Jeremiah.

“You must go

I am with you to deliver you

I have put my words in your mouth”

And we hear this refrain in scripture a lot—do not be afraid. Do not be afraid. I, God, am going to give you all the tools you need. We hear this again and again in the stories of Noah, and Abraham, and Jacob, and Moses, and Elijah, and Isaiah, and Peter, and Paul, and centuries of saints and martyrs. Don’t be afraid. I’m going to equip you for what I’m calling you to do.

In the case of Jeremiah, that’s really comforting… until you get to the very next lines, when God tells Jeremiah what his job actually entails.

Plucking up. Pulling down.

Destroying. Overthrowing.

Building up. Planting.

And despite what some Biblical commentators might argue, I don’t think this is figurative language. Plucking up and pulling down means literally pulling an entire nation and people out of its self-serving, idolatrous ways. Destroying and overthrowing means that these people will literally go to captivity in Babylon for disobeying God. We know this from the first few verses of the chapter, which are not included in our lection today, where the editors tell us that in the fifth month, the people went into exile.

This isn’t a nice, cozy call to be a prophet to the nations. It’s not a relatively cushy job, like Jonah’s, where the people all repent, and all the difficulties he has to deal with are from his own personal issues. There’s no promised exodus for these individuals—a lot of them are going to die in captivity. Most will never see their homeland again. The building up and planting won’t actually apply to most of them. Jeremiah himself will never see the people of Israel restored to the land.

Reading Jeremiah’s call story should be inspiring. After all, God, despite all of Jeremiah’s objections about being too young and not good enough, says that he was still called, and still had a role to play in God’s work.

But I think we’re also being duly warned about what a call from God might require from us.

Scholar and pastor Robert Laha writes of the book of Jeremiah that “Re-creation and renewal requires the tearing down and dismantling of old and useless structures. This, of course, is a difficult and often unwelcome work because it means letting go of old hopes and dreams and trying to imagine something new that, as of yet, does not exist.”

God’s call could mean letting go of old hopes and dreams and to imagine something new that does not yet exist.

God’s words in our mouths are risky and life-altering.

For me, that has meant leaving behind other plans, ideas of what my future might hold, to go to seminary. And maybe your call—your vocation has required you to give up something that’s perceived as “successful” or lucrative… in order to do something else. Maybe your call has required you to take your successful career in a new direction, or spend your limited free time in the care of others, or give more time and money than you normally would to support God’s mission in the world.

God’s words in our mouths are dangerous and death-dealing.

They spell death for the things that distract us from God, the pursuit of idols, our focus on money over the lives of innocent human beings, our focus on short-term profit over the ecosystems that sustain life on this planet, our focus on the people who tout their own authority while crushing the poor under their feet.

God’s words in our mouths refocus our priorities on the kingdom of God, instead of our earthly kingdoms.

Suddenly, our gifts and talents that seem irrelevant become a part of our vocation. We move from being the authorities, critiquing Jesus for healing on the Sabbath, to seeking out the work of the kingdom, knowing that the care of others’ souls is more urgent than any ideology.

We move from destruction to building and planting, from exile to freedom, from idolatry to love.

For Jeremiah, and for each of us, we are being called to speak a dangerous truth about God’s love and compassion that must deal death to the evil of this world, so that there may be life anew.

It is for this life that Christ died and was raised.

And it is for this life that you, too, are being called.

What words is God putting in your mouth?

Where are you being called to dangerous, life-giving love?

Audio recording

Am I not a God far off? (sermon)

Sometimes, I have a hard time finding God outside of church.

This probably sounds like a strange confession, coming from someone in the pulpit, someone who is in training to be clergy in the church.

But there are many days when I leave these four walls and mentally check church off the to-do list. “Okay, done for the day, God. It’s time to go take a nap, or go see a friend, or do some homework… or do whatever else is next on my calendar”

It’s amost too easy for me to relegate God to a list of things to do, or places to be… even when my life involves church almost every single day.

It’s too easy to compartmentalize, to put church and God in a box, or even just forget about God, as I get caught up in busyness and the cares and concerns of this world.

It’s too easy to forget the question that God asks in today’s lesson from Jeremiah, where God asks “Am I a God near by, and not a God far off?”

Am I a God near by, and not a God far off?”

This rhetorical question is a bit confusing. We all have different conceptions of God and where God is present for us, but I think it’s fair to say that many of us draw from an image of God as friend. An image of Jesus sitting beside us, of Jesus healing the little children. Of soft, friendly, Jesus who loves us and died for us and wants us to be with him.

So it’s a little bit shocking to be confronted by this question. “Am I a God near by, and not a God far off?”

“Am I not bigger than you think I am?”

“Am I not able to see everything that goes on in the world?”

“Do I not fill heaven and earth?”

In this reading, God is telling the people of Israel—“don’t underestimate me”.

And as I think about how easy it is to put God in these four walls and move on with my day, what God says here is really challenging. “Do I not fill heaven and earth?” Do I not fill your days, your schedule, your busyness, even when you forget I’m there?

I forget sometimes that God is bigger than all of this.

Psalm 82 says that “God takes his stand in the council of heaven; he gives judgment in the midst of the gods”. God takes God’s stand in the council of the heavens as we go through our daily lives, as we go to work and class, as we make choices as communities and nations about the poor, the captive, and the immigrant.

Jeremiah and the psalmist tell us repeatedly that the God who is near enough to be in our hearts and minds, is also able to see all our choices, our joys, and our failings from the highest reaches of heaven.

The God who stands in the council of heaven, who parted the Red Sea, who shut the mouths of lions, who sent Jesus to be our savior and redeemer, wants us to know this: God wants to be part of every moment of our lives.

Three years ago, I was getting ready to move to a monastery for an internship. There were a lot of people who were giving me advice about what I should make sure to do in Boston, or how to cope with being newly graduated. But one of the most common pieces of advice I received was from people saying “read Brother Lawrence”. “Oh, you’re going to a monastery, you have to read Brother Lawrence”.

I had no idea who this Brother Lawrence fellow was, but I took their advice anyways. Brother Lawrence, it turns out, was a medieval monk who wasn’t literate, but was so profoundly spiritual that someone bothered to interview him about his spirituality and write it down in a book called “The Practice of the Presence of God”.

What I love about The Practice of the Presence of God is that Brother Lawrence is completely honest about his failings as a good Christian. He starts out talking about how he’s really a bad person, and that he thought that he should become a monk as a way of apologizing to God, and to live a life of penance. But as it turns out [the book says] “GOD had disappointed him… he having met with nothing but satisfaction in that state” [of being a monk].

Lawrence’s actual point though, is this. I quote “That we should establish ourselves in a sense of GOD’s Presence, by continually conversing with Him.” What does this mean? For Brother Lawrence, this means talking to God constantly throughout his duties in the kitchen. He says “That our only business [i]s to love and delight ourselves in GOD”.

Our gospel reading makes a big point of talking about how following Christ must necessarily create division between us and others.

This division doesn’t always look like family arguments and battle lines and political parties. What I know from my own life is that more often that not, this division happens in my calendar, and in the thoughts I have throughout the day. What we do with our time matters.

We can make a choice, like Brother Lawrence, to be faithful to the presence of God in each facet and moment of our lives, even if it’s a moment of prayer while peeling potatoes in the kitchen or standing by the copier at work, or simply remembering why we’re doing this really good outreach work in the first place. That choice is ours to make, and that’s what we’re being invited into right now.

Faithful ones—God is very near to us, but this is a gift that we can’t be complacent about. Discipleship requires focus and dedication, not just in one part of our lives, or on one or two days of the week.

We’re called to work for justice for all people, and to lead faithful lives with our whole being. This is the call that we promise to live into in our baptism— to continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to strive for justice and peace among all people.

As we do this work, we need to know that this too, is where God is. Not just in these four walls, near us, but in the council of heaven, calling us continually, to make time for the presence of God wherever we are in this world.

Sermon Recording

Fatigue and the Beginning of Wisdom (sermon)

Preaching is a genre of speaking, where our goal is—through Scripture—to learn about God, the world, and each other. Preaching should be edifying. And preaching should ultimately be about the Good News of God in Christ.

So given this description of what we might expect a sermon to contain—sort of the baseline qualifications, it’s perhaps understandable that you might wonder why today’s sermon is about the reading from Ecclesiastes.

Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity.

Things continue to go downhill from there, really. The Teacher writes that even though he was king, and had access to all the wealth and education that might make it possible to find wisdom, he’s got nothing. No lasting wisdom, just frustration, and some exhaustion to boot.

All is vanity, and a chasing after wind.

After all, he continues, all of this work he does isn’t going to do him much good. He’s going to die. Just like everyone else. And who knows if the kids or grandkids or great grandkids are going to be wise or foolish? Is it worth it, really, to work work work all day and night, knowing that death is coming?

So as you can see, this is an incredibly uplifting reading. We’re all going to die. So what’s the point of wisdom or of a “good” or “productive” life?

What’s going on here? Why is this text in the Bible at all, and what are we going to do with it, on this Eighth Sunday after Pentecost?

This week, I was reading an article which called out some of the human rights abuses occurring in our country, and in our common political life. And in the midst of this impassioned discussion, one particular paragraph stood out to me. In this paragraph, the writer said that “Protesting in the face of such outrageous abuses of power, of such true horrors, can feel overwhelming.”.

This writer goes out of their way to name that this work is exhausting, even while arguing that it should be done. If you read a lot of work on social justice activism, you’ll know that this feeling of overwhelm actually has a name—“activism fatigue”.

Activism fatigue. Or maybe, you know it as work fatigue. School fatigue. Social media fatigue. Or just plain exhaustion at the hectic pace of life.

So when I read this part of Ecclesiastes, I hear this same sense of fatigue. Exhaustion at having tried just about everything.

Perhaps, for our Biblical author, it’s a frustration that no matter how hard we work, no matter how desperately we seek wisdom, it all eventually feels like nothing. Perhaps, it’s that, as the author says later in the book, “there are righteous people who are treated according to the conduct of the wicked, and there are wicked people who are treated according to the conduct of the righteous.” (8:14). The text describes this as “vanity”, but you could easily substitute the words “ridiculous”, “unfair”, or even “sinful” or “futile”. ‘Unfair. This is all just unfair’ (I’m sure you’ve heard, or said that before, right?).

This is all unfair.

The lectionary today has this incredible contrast between Ecclesiastes and the Gospel. In the Gospel, we find the parable of the man who thinks he has it all. Wealth, food, drink, a good harvest. Jesus tells us God’s response to this—“you fool!”.

I don’t know what God’s response is to the writer of Ecclesiastes, but I wonder if it might be the opposite? “you wise one!”

We find in Ecclesiastes, someone who has toiled under the sun. Who is exhausted. Who says that “all is vanity”, all is meaningless.

But we also find someone who is willing to recognize that he is not the greatest. He recognizes, like our psalmist, that our “graves shall be [our] homes for ever/ though [we] call the lands after [our] own names. He recognizes, unlike the rich man of the parable, that there is a season for everything, and that we are limited in what we are able to accomplish.

And most importantly, the conclusion of this book of the Bible is a reminder of what should center our limited, joyful, complex lives: he says in chapter 12 that this is “The end of the matter… fear God, and keep his commandments; for that is the whole duty of everyone”.

The end of the matter. Live according to the commandments of God. This is not vanity—in fact, any mention of vanity is gone by this epilogue.

Fear God and live according to the commandments.

This is, as the Gospel might say, being rich toward God.

This is our whole duty.

So if you walked in this morning, perhaps able to empathize with this writer in proclaiming that “all is vanity”, that “this world is unfair”, I hope you know that these words are enshrined in Scripture… for you. For us.

Because so much is unfair. There is so much pain, so many needless, senseless deaths—from guns and wars and our own inability to live together, to love each other. And I don’t know about you, but I feel the fatigue of this reality weighing down upon me this morning, in the wake of yet another shooting, this time in Texas.

This is also vanity.

So what do we do now?  

Christ tells us the greatest commandment is to love the Lord your God, and to love your neighbor as yourself.

This is not a platitude.

This is to fear God and live according to the commandments.

And however hopeless or terrifying or strange things may seem—however much work and exhaustion we are in the midst of—this is our whole duty.   

In our limited, complex, and even joyful lives, this is our whole duty: to love God and neighbor, and live according to the commandments.

May we remember this on our good days and our bad days—our call is to be faithful.

This is not vanity. This is faithfulness.