Scripture is often thought of as a source for answers. Yet throughout the Bible we find question after question: How long, O Lord? Whom shall I send? Are you able? Why is my soul disquieted within me? Do you love me? Who is my neighbor? In this series, we zero in on questions that appear in the lectionary texts—not trying to provide easy answers, but to “live the questions” as poet Rainer Maria Rilke encouraged. We will explore scriptural questions in the hope that as we do, we might “gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.” Join us in June and July to live the questions!
“A More Beautiful Question”
Isaiah 43:1-2, 5-7, 14-21
Preached by Rev. Will Ed Green at Foundry United Methodist Church on Sunday, June 12th, 2022
How would your life change if you had all the answers? What would be different about you, your relationships, or your commitments if you never felt uncertain? After almost three years of pandemics, protests, and constant disruption to life—I can imagine that sounds pretty great, right? I can already see the Type A, perfectionist, future-casters among us breathing a sigh of relief at the thought.
Truth is, we’re all wired—culturally and biologically—to trade in the currency of certainty. We’re taught to rely upon facts and what we presently perceive to prepare ourselves well for the future. To control the variables…forewarned, after all, is forearmed.
The currencies of certainty and comfortable answers are tempting forms of spiritual tender. They purchase us the power to control the narrative, to define and delineate who’s in and who’s out, what’s welcome and what’s not, what’s right and what’s wrong. They afford a life lived with the comfortable lie that we can fully and perpetually grasp the complexities of the world and people around us—and that we have both the right and responsibility to make them fit into our understanding. And while I’d venture we know we can’t have all the answers that rarely stops us from behaving as if what we can’t or don’t know can and will most likely hurt us.
Eventually, though, and we find how little value this currency holds. Our answers, as quickly as they seem to resolve uncertainty, can become excuses to stop growing, learning, trying, living. Uninterrogated, they can prevent us from perceiving deeper truths about others and ourselves and the world around us. As easily as they offer clarity, they can obfuscate—blur—our ability to perceive what God is up to behind-the-scenes in our world; prevent us from being a Pentecost people open to the power of Spirit to make possible what our present circumstances suggest is impossible.
Far too often I find folk feel like discipleship is about arriving at all the right answers. That faith is about banishing our questions, or that it provides consistent clarity about who we’re called to be or how we’re called to show up in the world. But time and again in Scripture it’s the questions, not the answers, that are both the threshold and pathway to deeper understanding of who God is calling us to be and where God is calling us to go.
Perhaps that’s why critical moments in the life of God’s people hinge not upon clarity or certainty, but rather upon our ability to ask—or to be asked—good questions. Think about it: with a question at the burning bush, God revealed God’s self to Moses, and sent him with strength to lead his people into liberation from Pharaoh’s grasp. With a question, Isaiah’s prophetic ministry—of truth-telling and hope-bringing in a moment defined by despair—was launched. With a question, dry bones in a desert valley got up at Spirit’s prompting, a living symbol of hope that God would renew and restore a weary people.
Today’s reading comes from Isaiah 43, the third of approximately 15 chapters in Second Isaiah. This body of work, appended to the first 40 chapters of Isaiah about mid-way through the Babylonian Exile, and God’s people are tired. Behind them lies a past littered with the failures of their political state, the destruction of the temple—and with it rituals which reinforced their religious identity, and waning connections to the God of the ancestors. Before them—the crumbling Babylonian empire and the seemingly endless exile in which they found themselves. It’s no wonder that the Hebrew word translated as weary in 43:22-24 appears in Second Isaiah more than anywhere else. The community is worn out, they don’t have the energy or hope to believe anymore.
But instead of turning to old truisms or familiar answers— the prophet responds by doing the opposite:
“Do not remember the former things
or consider the things of old.
I am about to do a new thing;
now it springs forth; do you not perceive it?”
Instead of answers, the prophet asks a question. Building upon the promises of God’s enduring love and informed by the past experiences of God’s saving action in the earlier portion of the reading, the prophet’s question helps enflame hope for a different future, one undefined exclusively by their past or their present. Notice what happens here: referencing past stories of God’s faithfulness—like the exodus from Egypt in vs. 16 and 17—they paint an even more beautiful vision of what is to come and then uses a simple question to invite the people into it. .
And this question isn’t a question of their faithfulness or a rhetorical condemnation of their doubt. It is an invitation. An invitation to remember that their’s is the God who lead the people through the waters of the Red Sea and swallowed up Pharaoh’s forces when they tried to follow. That their identity doesn’t rest upon political identity or the powers-that-be but is given to them freely by the God who has called them by name, has claimed them as God’s own, and who is able to do abundantly more than they could ask for or imagine.
The invitation is to question. To question the ways they’ve been been closed off to what God is up to because they’ve been too caught up in what seemed certain about their circumstances so that they can do to plug into God’s kin-dom vision for the future.
You know, when we’re weary and worn out, when we’re feeling anxious or uncertain, it can be easy to start trading in the currencies of certainty. You know what I’m talking about right? It’s been a long day at work and you just can’t think anymore, so rather than turning on that documentary you know you should be watching, you watch that show you’ve watched a million times before because you don’t have to wonder what’s coming next. Or you’ve got so much you’re trying to manage that the habit you’ve worked so hard to address—I don’t know, like road rage—flies back into full effect the minute someone fails to use their blinker. The more tired we are—and aren’t we all exhausted on some level these days—the easier it can become to rely upon what we already thing we know or can lock down with easily digested answers or understanding.
But it’s in our moments of weariness, in times of transition and change—when we are feeling to weary to hope—that our ability to question—what we can currently perceive, what we think we know—become strength for the journey of discipleship and work of sacred resistance. And when we’re willing to embrace them, our questions and doubts can help us plug into the possibility of a life different from the one we know or can currently understand. They create space for the Holy Spirit to enter our lives and stir stuff up—shake us loose from things that are holding us back from who we need to be.
And this isn’t just true in scripture!
In the Jim Crow South, voter rights activist Fannie Lou Hammer used a question to reveal the hypocrisy ofDemocratic National Convention’s Credentials Committee and the suffering of American Black folk when she asked :
“Is this America, the land of the free and the home of the brave, where we have to sleep with our telephones off the hooks because our lives be threatened daily, because we want to live as decent human beings, in America?”
Her simple question didn’t end discrimination or secure voter rights—as we know all to well that critical work is still ours to do. But it did offer the hope that the voices of the voiceless, but it did secure racial parity on delegations sent to the DNC, and has continued to be an Ebenezer of hope for activists still today.
45 years ago, in the pews of this congregation, queer people had remain in the closet, wondering if our welcome was ever going to be extended to the fullness of their God-given identity. And then faithful questions of folks like Adele Hutchins, Suzanne Forsythe, Ralph Williams, and Ray Goodrow began to push back against the presumption that queer folk and the Methodist Church would never mix. Together, these questions became the foundation of this present moment where queer folk sit not only in the pews with the partners, but on the chancel with their spouses.
During Pride, we celebrate the bold leadership of saints like Marsha P. Johnson, James Obergefell, and countless others. They publically, and with great risk to themselves, questioned a world that denied their right to love or live with Pride in who God created them to be. Their questions ignited a movement that still today, through every glittering step and rainbow-laden protest-parade continue asking that question to make space for all of God’s beloved LGBTQIA+ children—literally saving lives of those living in places where freedom to be themselves seems impossible.
And on a more personal note, I have been privileged these last six years to sit with so many of you as you’ve asked questions about what it means to faithfully follow Jesus, how it is you can serve the Church and the world, what gifts you’re being called to offer in this moment of our life together. And I’ve watched as those questions were so bold to ask have transformed the life of the congregation. They’ve birthed small groups and classes, and led to calls to ministry, and sanctuary art which proclaims our values for the whole world to see, and prayer flag witnesses at General Conference that offered hope—living hope—at a moment when all felt lost.
With each of these questions, the willingness of people to make the next faithful move without knowing the outcome changed not just their lives—in fact, sometimes, they didn’t even live to see the change they sought—but the world. And like the prophet their refusal to trade in the currency of ‘the former things or things of old’ opened up opportunity for who communities to live a little more freely, to love a little more deeply.
The pressures of this present moment, I know, seem overwhelming. Pandemic fatigue, violence of every form crowding out hope on our newsfeeds, denominational exhaustion as we watch harm continue to be inflicted on our LGBTQIA+ siblings. And I know how tempting it may be to circle the wagons around what seems certain. To remain cautious unless we can predict or control the outcomes of our decisions. To run—fast and far away—from any situation which seems more murky than manageable.
But you know, no where in Scripture does God guarantee us a life without uncertainty or doubt. The promise has never been that God would give us everything we need when we wanted it to do what we wanted to do. The promise we are given, however, is that the one who has named us as God‘s own who has called us this far will not lead us to a place that we will not be seen through.
It is that hope that allows us to question and doubt, to dream dreams bigger than our circumstances make seem possible, and actually believe and work for a day that justice will flow down like mighty water and rightness like a flow stream.
The world needs the hope that only our willingness to embrace the questions and uncertainties of this moment can offer.
Your questions are sacred. Your doubts pregnant with the possibility of fresh perspectives and transformed ways of thinking about the world around you. Your willingness to name them, to engage them, that’s not an act of faithlessness or failure. It is a profound and potentially world-changing act of faith. And even if all they do is open someone else’s heart to the possibility the world that they know it is not the world as it needs to be, you’ve done the miraculous.
And our work? Our work is not to look for hope at the bottom line of a balanced budget. Our work is not to rely upon perfectly packaged protocols or well-crafted legislation to the save The United Methodist Church, even though these things may be a part of the puzzle. Our work is not to wait on someone to ask us to do the thing that deep in our hearts we know we’re being called to do—whether that’s preach, teach, protest, or pass out bulletins and greeting folk walking in the doors on Sunday morning.
Our work IS to plug into the prophetic imagination of Isaiah—for God is always, always doing a new thing—and then to show up. Even when we don’t know the answers. Even when we can’t predict the outcome. Even when we don’t quite know what do or how to do it. To show up anyway and trust that the One who began the good work in you WILL see it through to completion.
E.E. Cummings once wrote a line in an introduction to his poetry that I’ve never been able to un-read. “Ever the more beautiful answer,” he writes, “that asks a more beautiful question.”
My prayer for you, beloved, is that you learn to live the questions. Dare to question those who would tell you that building a more just, loving, inclusive church is impossible. Dare to dream dreams unfettered by the failures of the past—whether the live stream fails on Easter Sunday or a clergy session says “no.” Live into the possibility that what was once true—in your relationships, in your faith, in yourself—doesn’t need to define you forever or prevent you from growing into a fuller, more abundant future. Take the risk of reaching out to others for the sake of the kin-dom work to which you’re called, even if it means letting go of old understandings and your preconceived notions. And with every answer, every doubt you let draw you deeper into belief, every risk that results in new life and perspective, let it ask you a more beautiful question—drawing you ever deeper in the heart and work of God.
There’s an old hymn of the Church that we sang just about every service I can remember at grandparent’s little Methodist Church. I’m going to spare you having to hear me sing it, but I want to read the words to you now.
I know not what of good or ill May be reserved for me, Of weary ways or golden days, Before God’s face I see.
But “I know Whom I have believed,
And am persuaded that Christ is able
To keep that which I’ve committed
Unto Him against that day.”
I know not what lies next for you—or for me, for that matter—but I do know this: no matter what transitions lie ahead or uncertainties assail. No matter how complex the questions or unclear the future, the One who began and continues the Good Work of the people called Foundry will continue to be at work in and through you, until that day when together we arrive in the future kin-dom reality which only our questions could help us perceive.