Friday, July 29, 2005

Proper 12A: Wisdom and Questions

“There are no stupid questions.” That’s what I always tell my students, even though it’s not quite true. Occasionally, you really will have a student who will ask when the War of 1812 was fought or something like that.

The story is told of a rabbinical student who asked his teacher, “Master, why do you always answer my questions with another question?” To which his teacher replied, “So, what’s wrong with questions?”

Each of today’s readings hangs on a question.

In the Old Testament reading, God asks Solomon, “What should I give you?” And Solomon asks for wisdom, although in asking for wisdom Solomon showed that he was already wise. But as someone pointed out in Sunday School last week, the fact that Solomon had one thousand wives suggests that while he may have been a PhD in some ways, in the area of relationships he had a lot to learn.

Paul’s letter to the Romans is full of rhetorical questions. “What shall se say then? If God is for us, who can be against us? What shall separate us from the love of God in Christ?”

And finally, in the gospel reading Jesus compares the kingdom of God to a mustard seed, an exceptionally valuable pearl, a treasure hidden in a field, and a net which catches all manner of fish. If we read on to the next pericope, we learn that Jesus' friends and neighbors asked, "Where did this man get this wisdom and these mighty works?"

All of us have questions. I would even say that the kind of questions we ask play a big role in defining the kind of person we are. At least some of the time, many (perhaps a majority) of human beings have to ask the basic questions of survival: Where can I find food and shelter? Others are focused almost entirely on questions of self-aggrandizement: What do I need to do to make a million dollars before I’m 30? What must I do to become CEO or partner or get tenure?

But there are some questions that all of us ask: Who am I? What is the purpose of life? Is death a period or a comma? A wall or a door? An ending or a beginning?

I believe that Jesus’ parables were intended less to serve as answers and more to prod his listeners to ask further questions. Matthew tells us that after Jesus told the parable of the wheat and the weeds that his disciples came to him and said, “Explain to us the story of the wheat and the weeds.” And other listeners said, “Where did this man get this wisdom?”

Another great religious teacher who had a great gift for telling stories was the Buddha. Like Jesus the Buddha told stories that prompted questions that then led his listeners to go deeper and seek wisdom.

My favorite Buddhist story is also about a mustard seed. A woman named Kisa Gotami had one son whom she loved with all her heart, but tragically, he died. Desperate with grief, Kisa went to the Buddha and said, "Master, my son has died, but I know that you have the power to raise him from the dead." The Buddha looked on Kisa with compassion and said, "My daughter, I will raise him from the dead if you bring me a single mustard seed." And Kisa's heart leapt, for mustard seed was a common spice. Then the Buddha added, "But it must come from a house that has never known sorrow." So Kisa went from house to house and family to family, asking is they had ever known sorrow. And at every house she heard tales of sorrow and suffering. Finally, at the end of the day, Kisa sat down on the hill overlooking her village. The sun went down, the moon rose, and the lights in every house were lighted. Suddenly, it dawned on Kisa that sorrow is common to us all and that enlightenment is found, not in avoiding suffering but accepting it, not letting sorrow close our hearts but in allowing suffering to open our hearts to the suffering of others.

Like Solomon, the Buddha was a man of extraordinary wisdom, but there are limits to wisdom. When we face the great question of death, wisdom can teach us resignation but it cannot offer us any hope that death is not the last word. When we face the question of death, then we need to ask the question that Paul asked, “What can separate us from the love of God in Christ?”

It was not an open-ended question. It was a rhetorical question, a question to which Paul knew the answer. Paul surveyed heaven and earth. He set up straw figures only to knock them down. Can heights or depths separate us from God? Can past, present, or future? Can angels or principalities or any other spiritual being? Can even life and death separate us from God's love?

In our day we might add to Paul’s list. Can terrorism and violence? Can unemployment or financial difficulties? Can physical or mental handicaps? These questions take us beyond the limits of wisdom into the realm of faith.

Paul was convinced and I am convinced and I want you to be convinced that nothing, nothing, nothing in all creation can separate us from the love of God which lived among us and taught in parables and died upon a cross and rose again and is seated at God’s right hand and will come again in power and great glory. Amen.