The Right Questions

detail-k-street-doordetail, art glass, FPCE …. Luke 20:27-38 …. sermon for the 32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time ….

This week, I made a request to the educators in our congregation’s Facebook group. “What is a silly student answer you’ve received to a serious test question?” From the comments, I could sense that there were some great stories to be told, but they were buried a little too deep in memory to be easily recalled.  Therese had a story, not about a student’s answer, but rather his comment after a test for he which he was strongly encouraged to prepare. As he turned in his test, he said, “Tests sure do take a long time when you study for them!”

The main reason I’m speaking about tests in this sermon is that today’s gospel lesson focuses upon the test a group of people gave to Jesus. You’ve heard me read the text, and you know the data the questioners provided: seven brothers die, one after the other; one woman is wife to them all, in succession, according to the custom of the time; zero children are born as the result of these unions; the woman dies also, eight funerals total. The question posed to Jesus: “In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will the woman be?”

It’s important to understand the religious tension underneath this particular question.  The Sadducees were a sect within Judaism, composed mainly of priests and privileged aristocrats, who rejected the oral interpretations that had grown around the Law, who favored a more literal interpretation of it. Most important is the fact that the Sadducees did not believe in the resurrection of the dead.  As the old preacher’s joke goes, “That is why they were sad, you see.”

This context helps us understand that Jesus is facing a trick question. Suppose he says that in the resurrection the woman must be the wife of one particular brother. No matter whether he picks the first brother “A,” or the seventh brother “G,” or any brother in between, the Sadducees can make a case that he is wrong, because under the Law, the woman was, at one time or another, equally the wife of each of the brothers, until parted by death. The question is framed in a way that assumes a resurrection in which the woman cannot be the wife of all the brothers, and must be the wife of one of the brothers. The way the question is framed allows only one category of answers: ridiculous answers that mock Jesus’ belief in resurrection, and, in that mocking, show the superiority of the Sadducees and their ideology.

What does Jesus do? He answers in a way the questioners did not intend. He challenges the assumptions upon which the question is based. Instead of selecting multiple choice “A,” “B,” or “C,” up to “G,” he calls into question the question itself, saying that the question presumes a way of framing life for the current age, not a way for framing life in God’s kingdom.  In our world, say the Pharisees, a woman must be the property of one man. In my kingdom of love, says Jesus, a woman is not given as property.

If you reflect upon the mental frames used by the Sadducees, then you realize that there is a dimension of power to their use. In posing their question, the Sadducees were framing a world in which the current reality was the only one that ever would be.  From their point of view, there was no personal judgment coming in which they would be held accountable, no future in which a reversal of fortune might take place. There was only the present world in which to make alliances with Rome, and expand their control of people and consumption of resources as much as they could.

This week, on my LinkedIn news feed, I came across a short video by a young man who is resisting the way in which cultural forces try to place him in a constricting frame.[1] Some young people, he suggests, feel pressured to select from a short list of career choices that may not feel like the best match for their talents and gifts. For example:

  • You’d like to explore a career in finance, but society frames the picture of people in that field as stiff, old, and boring.
  • You’re thinking about a career in nursing, but society frames the picture of people in that field as wearing scrubs, emptying bedpans, as women rather than men.
  • You’d consider a career in technology, but society frames the picture of people in that field as socially awkward guys dressed in sweatpants and superhero t-shirts.

The worst thing about these social frames is that they can divert you from your true calling, convincing you to be a certain kind of person that you are not gifted to be, and never be the authentic person God has called you to be

Dimitri Bianco, the young man in the piece, says you can wear different hats. You can be a quantitative risk manager, and love to read books, and love to work as a bricklayer, and love to ride motocross bikes. You don’t have to live life framed by a parent, or a particular group of friends, or societal expectations that rob you of a full life, or keep you from expressing the gifts and talents with which you have been uniquely gifted. You can dare to be different!

This month, I’m also thinking about the ways we frame questions about important issues facing the future of our congregation.

Today we dedicate our year 2017 pledges to the mission and ministry of First Presbyterian Church. For most Presbyterian congregations, ours included, pledged giving is the backbone of revenue; without it, nearly all programs, services, and staff are not possible. The profile of church revenue in year 2017 will look different as we lose income from farmed property and rental of the former manse, as we cope with an above-average number of deaths and moves. At the same time, the profile of church expenses will look different, too, most significantly from interest payments related to a bridge loan to complete construction of a new building, while waiting for proceeds from the sale of his campus. Your session elders will need to consider cutting expenses in ways small and large. But as we address the question of “What expenses do we cut?” we need to be asking whether that is the right way to frame the question. As theologians and hymn-writers remind us, God is the creator of all good things. God owns the cattle on a thousand hills, and the wealth in every mine.  As we ask hard questions about “What expenses do we cut?” perhaps we also need to ask the question, “What new revenues can we raise?”

In the work of our construction readiness committee, the challenge is similar.  The design-build process is presenting many interrelated choices that require careful consideration. Each selection that improves building beauty or functionality can diminish our financial plan to pay for it, and vice-versa. The session, and the construction readiness and G.E.M. committees are contemplating possibilities; please pray for these leaders as they discern the path forward.

As we ask hard questions about “What expenses do we cut?” we also will be asking the question, “What new revenues can we raise?” This week, you’ll be receiving a mailing with a brochure under cover of a letter from Dave Lowry, chair of the CRC, and Donna Crider, chair of the GEM Committee. In it, you’ll be learning more about sponsorship and memorial opportunities for the new building.  As we consider the hard question of  “What expenses, and what beauty and functionality do we cut from the new building?” we’re also asking you, “What financial resources might you provide to make sure one element or another is definitely included in God’s new home for the mission and ministry of First Presbyterian Church?”

The year ahead will be different in ways we’re never experienced in the living memory of this congregation.  The way we frame questions and answer them will make a big difference in our perception of whether we’re living life abundantly, as Jesus intends.  His words lead me down a path of wondering how many questions are too narrow.

  • In the resurrection, whose wife will she be?
  • Which career will you choose?
  • What expense will be cut?
  • What part of the new building must be sacrificed?

Are the answers to these questions always limited to one of a few multiple-choice responses? Or might there be more answers out there, answers that cannot come from only the possibilities we see, but must be discerned by the Spirit working in all of us, weaving together a solution from multiple strands of faith?  As my old preaching professor Tom Long says, “The good news is that on the other side of our questions there is not an answer, but there is God, who makes all things new, who brings a future more redemptive than we can imagine.”[2] May it be so for us.

[1] Dimitri Bianco, “Wearing Different Hats and Breaking Stereotypes,” 1 Nov. 2016, accessed on 2 Nov. 2016 https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/wearing-different-hats-breaking-stereotypes-dimitri-bianco-frm?

[2] Thomas G. Long, “Jesus’ Final Exam,” Princeton Seminary Bulletin, Vol. 8, No. 1, 1987.

 

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~ by JohnH1962 on November 6, 2016.