Posted by: dacalu | 15 August 2011

Good and Bad Doubt

Grace St. Paul’s, Tucson was kind enough to invite me to preside and preach this morning. It was a great delight to be with them. I preached without notes, but have included hear the rough draft sermon I wrote the day before.

Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32 (The gifts of God are irrevocable)
Matthew 15: 10-28 (The Syro-Phoenician Woman)

Today’s Gospel contains one of the more curious stories from Jesus life.
A gentile woman comes asking him to heal her daughter
and Jesus ignores her.
Not the kind of behavior we have come to expect
from the savior of humanity.
He only notices her when the disciples complain,
and then he calls her a dog.
Jesus does not look good in this story.

It’s most commonly represented as a tale of Jesus inclusion,
and the opening of the kingdom
to those outside of Israel
because of this Canaanite woman’s faith.
So that’s sermon number one: Inclusion.
I know you all and think you’ve got that one down pretty well.
We’re going to pass on by sermon one.

After looking at Jesus’ conclusion,
some people start to question
how Jesus starts off.
Why does Jesus treat her this way?
Does Jesus have perfect knowledge?
Why doesn’t he know she has faith from the beginning?
Is he testing her?
Does she genuinely correct him?
What’s up with that?
And that’s sermon number two: who is Jesus?
Always a good sermon by the way,
but I’ve done that one, and many of you have heard that on.
We’re going to pass on by sermon two as well.

That leaves us with the Syro-Phoenician woman herself.
Sermons one and two focus our attention elsewhere,
and I’m not sure that’s the thing to do.
The woman gets what she asks for.
The woman is reckoned as faithful,
because she questions Jesus –
because she argues with God.
It’s not something that pops up too often in the Bible,
though if you think about it, you’ll probably remember other examples:
Abraham trying to save the people of Sodom (Genesis 18),
Jacob wrestling with an angel (Genesis 32)
Moses asking for help when he goes before Israel and Pharaoh (Exodus 4)
Job asking God why all this has happened
Jonah trying not to save Ninevah (Jonah 4)
Jesus questioning at Gethsemane (Matthew 26) and Golgotha (Mark 15)
And occasionally we hear about the bad arguments,
the ones where God is in the right,
and the other person is just whining:
Cain claiming that he’s not responsible (Genesis 4)
Nicodemus, perhaps (John 3)
Pilate certainly (Matthew 27)
Peter asking Jesus not to follow God’s call to Jerusalem (Mark 8 )

So what’s the difference between expressing doubt
and showing a lack of faith?
When is it okay to question God’s judgment?

Some Christians would have you believe that you should never question,
you should never second guess.
I have to say I find that horrific, especially in light of the scriptures.
Jesus says we must have faith like little children,
and who’s better at asking questions?
Who’s more persistent?
The Syro-Phoenician woman gets what she asks for,
just as Abraham and Moses and Joshua did.
So, if we are to be biblical Christians, we must, on occasion,
be questioning Christians.

I think it has something to do with the spirit of the doubt.
Faith has to do with trust in a person, and in a relationship.
There is a kind of challenging question that tries to break relationship.
The Pharisees ask Jesus questions in order to trap him,
get him to say something they can disapprove of.
They need an excuse to dismiss or to punish.
Pilate asks his question, “What is truth?”
Perhaps cynically to avoid hearing what Jesus has to say.
Worse yet, when Peter rebukes Jesus about going to his death,
Peter is asking him to be less than who he is,
less than who God calls him to be,
and more what Peter wants.
This kind of doubt tears down.
This kind of doubt destroys.

But there is another kind of doubt,
the kind of doubt necessary to bridge miscommunication,
“Did I hear you right?” “Did you really mean to say that?”
the kind of questioning that overcomes ignorance and fear,
“Can this really be true?” “How does that work?”
Doubt that rests firmly on a relationship and a desire to know –
that kind of doubt builds up.
The woman in today’s Gospel is asking for more relationship.
She presents God with the picture she has –
a picture of benevolence and trust –
and says, “this is the God I know; are you not he?”
Job, likewise, calls out to God for justice,
saying “are you not a fair God?”

To fail to question is to presume perfect harmony,
perfect knowledge of the will of God.
Christians have never been so presumptuous.
We know that there is a gap between who God is,
and who we perceive God to be.
And that gap requires constant questioning.

If it were purely a matter of trust or no trust,
perhaps we would never question.
But the world doesn’t work that way.
We put our trust in the love of God.
We put our trust in faith, that relationship with God in Christ.
And not in the law of God, doctrine, or principle.

It is the surety of our kinship with Jesus
that allows us to ask when we are unsure in our ideas
For, how can our doubts be addressed,
if we will not bring them before God?
The alternative is not to not doubt,
but to doubt in silence – or to pretend.
Neither of those leads anywhere but estrangement.
As Anglicans we do not fear to question,
because we know that God will love us even when we disagree,
we know that God can lead us only when we open our hearts,
and we know that our relationship with God
is a model for our relationship with people.
Relationships without communication –
especially around issues of disagreement –
well, those aren’t particularly healthy relationships.

Here’s the trick, though.
Can we ask the questions in a way that allows God to answer?

It is idolatry, I think,
to decide what is just,
and complain that God has not done justice;
to decide what is loving,
and complain that God will not allow it.
Rather, we must ask the question, genuinely willing to see an answer,
even one that does not fit with what we already believe.
For, if we already understood, we would not need to ask.
Holy doubt has to be genuine doubt.
It has to be a surety that we don’t understand,
rather than a surety that we do.
How else can we learn.

I’m going to do something that many Christians out there would shudder at.
I’m going to ask you to question God.
Not lightly, not superficially or gently,
but with every fiber of your being,
with heart, and mind, and nerve, and sinew.
Ask God anything and everything,
and keep asking until you get answers that satisfy,
and then, as you need to, keep asking.
God likes questions.
Questions mean conversation, engagement, relationship.
Real questions come with silence and listening for answers.
Real questions come with humility to know
that we won’t fully understand the answers
at least not in this lifetime,
but the understanding we do have,
that comes from trying to understand.

Faith never comes from unasked questions,
only from doubts unflinchingly addressed.

Be honest with God,
be honest with your love and faith and love,
but also with your doubt and questions and uncertainties,
and God, I trust, will be honest with you.


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