Got Questions?

A Sermon on Mark 4:35-41

Ten days ago I returned from the annual Christian Formation week at Kanuga Conference Center. I wrote something about one part of my experience for the latest Saints Alive! newsletter, to be mailed this week. By the way, if you choose to receive your copy of the newsletter through by e-mail, you'll be able to see it in color!

Today I want to tell you about another part of my time in the mountains of North Carolina and share a story I heard while at that Kanuga conference. The storyteller, also the keynote speaker, was Sandy Sasso. Rabbi Sandy was ordained in 1974, making her the third woman in the world to become a rabbi. She also received a doctor of ministry degree from a Christian seminary. Rabbi Sandy's claim to fame comes from all the popular children's books she writes – books about God. With titles like In God's Name, God's Paintbrush, and Butterflies Under Our Hats, more than half a million copies of her children's books are in print around the world.

At the beginning of one of her sessions, entitled “Nurturing Children's Religious Imaginations,” Rabbi Sandy Sasso told this story. A young Jewish boy was talking with his rabbi about God, and they were having a good conversation. Then the rabbi said, “Tell me, my son: Where is God?” The boy fell silent. The rabbi, not sure if the boy had heard him, repeated the question. “Where is God?” Shaking a bit, the boy still did not speak. “WHERE. IS. GOD?” thundered the rabbi. The boy jumped up and ran out of the rabbi's office, all the way home. When he got there, the boy's younger brother saw how upset his older brother was. “What happened?” the younger brother asked. “God is missing,” said his older brother. “And we're in trouble. The rabbi thinks WE did it!”

Then Rabbi Sandy got serious. “My friends,” she said, “God is missing. And WE are the ones who have removed God from the conversation – NOT our children.” She spoke about midrash, the ancient Jewish practice of asking questions like, “Where am I in this Bible story?” Rabbi Sandy calls midrash “reading the Bible with question marks.” “Just as Christians read the Hebrew Scriptures through the eyes of the New Testament – which in some ways could be called Christian midrash,” she writes in her little book God's Echo, “Jews read that Scripture through the eyes of the Talmud and Midrash and rabbinic commentaries” (p. 24).

“Do not preach to children,” she implored us. “Instead, create a safe, sacred space for them to ask their questions.” THEIR questions. And YOURS, too. Don't be afraid to entertain questions about God, and try, if at all possible, not to scare anyone! Do that – create time and space for questions – and children will surprise you. No, they'll astound you with questions they are holding, questions just waiting to be asked. Questions like: How do babies get born? What is heaven like? Where is God?

The disciples had a question for Jesus they were not afraid to ask. In today's Gospel story, they left the crowd behind, got into a boat with Jesus and sailed off across the Sea of Galilee. Suddenly, the story goes, “a great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped” (Mark 4:37). Some of you have probably been in a similar situation. Those of you who are experienced sailors or seafarers know that, on the water, things can get pretty dangerous pretty quickly. Four of those disciples – Peter, Andrew, James, and John, the first four whom Jesus had called to follow him (Mark 1:16-20) – they were what we would call professional fishermen. Their fear shows us just how dangerous this particular situation was.

They were so afraid, they woke up their Master, who must have been exhausted from tending to people's needs, cares and hurts. Surely they had to shout over the wild, wailing wind, “DO YOU NOT CARE THAT WE ARE PERISHING?” (4:38) Today they might say: Jesus! Can't you see we're DYING here? And you're sleeping. What's up with that? Don't you love us anymore? At one time or another, you and I just might have wanted to say something like that to Jesus. At the least, we've thought things like:

Jesus, my church is changing, and you know that I don't like change! It feels like we're dying here. Where have you gone? Don't you care about us oldtimers anymore?

OR. . .Jesus, I lost my job three years ago. If I can't get work soon, I just don't know what I'll do. I'm terrified. Where did you go, Jesus? Don't you love me?

OR. . .Jesus, my husband doesn't pay attention to me anymore. I'm afraid there's someone else. I know you were with us when we got married, but where have you gone?

OR. . .Jesus, I turned eighty this year, and all my friends are starting to die. I feel like maybe I'm dying, too, every day, inside. And I'm afraid. Where are you?

OR. . .Jesus, I'm going to college this Fall, and I'm excited, but I'll be on my own for the very first time. I'll have to make new friends. I'm kind of scared. Are you there?

The question, “Where is God?” is a lifelong question for us. But a more personal, existential question – the question each of us human beings, regardless of age, can dare ask directly – is, “Where areyou, God?” Where IS God – for ME, for YOU, today? If we dare to ask that question of ourselves, a series of related questions might emerge.

I'm going to invite you to do something a bit different right now. I'm going to ask you some questions about God, midrash questions today's Gospel reading has evoked for me. I think they might be questions for YOU, too. As I ask you these questions, I'll give you a bit of time in between them – some silence, to consider them a bit. Perhaps you'd like to jot down the questions or some thoughts about them on your bulletin and take it home with you today. Here are the questions. I'll read them slowly:

Have you ever felt like something was killing you? Have you ever felt like you were perishing or dying? At work? At school? At home? At church? Anywhere?

How did you survive that death-dealing experience, that great windstorm in your life? What were your fears? Where was your faith? Where was God for you?

Where is your faith today? Where is your fear today? Where is God, for you, in the middle of your fear and your faith – right here, right now?

In our Gospel story from Mark, found in just about every children's Bible, Jesus wakes up and calms the sea. Then, he answers his disciples' question with two questions of his own: “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” (4:40) Now, just in case you have a question about Jesus' questions – “Isn't Jesus being just a little too harsh?” – it's helpful to know that this story is also found in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. “Why are you afraid, you of little faith?” says Jesus in Matthew's version (8:26). Luke has Jesus put it this way: “Where is your faith?” (8:25). Luke's Jesus presents a single question, in what feels like a less judgmental light. Luke's Jesus does not ask the yes-no, either-or question of Mark's Jesus: “Have you still no faith?” That's the kind of question we might want to ask when we're sick and tired of trying to be patient with someone. Questions like: “Are you listening to me?” Or “Aren't you ever going to grow up?”

Of course, the problem with those kinds of questions – questions we can't help but think sometimes, if not speak them right out loud – is that we're a little too sure we have the right answer – and we want someone to give it to us. These kinds of questions are not honest, open questions. An honest, open question, another rabbi explains, is one to which you cannot possibly know the answer. Here's a good example: “Have you ever thought about seeing a therapist?” is not an honest, open question. But this question is: “What did you learn from the experience you just told me about?” (Center for Courage and Renewal: http://www.couragerenewal.org/parker/writings/clearness-committee).

“Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” is the way Mark's Jesus puts it. But maybe that's Mark's midrash. Maybe Luke has the question more like Jesus would have asked it, in a more honest, open way, more simply put: “Where is your faith?”

Here's one last story, a story that, like our Gospel, is about the intersection of faith and fear. When I was a new priest serving as an assistant for youth ministry in a parish in Pennsylvania, the youth group leaders took me on my very first whitewater rafting trip. I had a ball! A few years later, after I had been called to be rector of another parish, fairly close to the other one, I suggested to my new youth group that we go to the same river, rent those little rafts called “rubber duckies” and have some fun! By the way, if you type the phrase “whitewater rafting” into your computer's search engine, you can see it's called an “extreme sport.” That's because it can easily become quite dangerous.

This time, I shared a raft with some inexperienced youth, three sisters. This made me the “experienced” rafter. Shortly after we pushed away from shore and turned the river's bend, a great boulder loomed ahead of us, looking like the mother of all rocks, smack dab in the middle of our path. Due to my “experience” (and my arrogance), I hadn't really listened to the river guide’s warning while we were putting on our lifejackets: “Now, if the whitewater gets really bumpy, and you fall off your raft, into the river, do NOT try to pull yourself back up over the side, into your boat. Just relax, lie back, and let the current carry you down the river, where someone can help you.”

Well, the whitewater didn't get bumpier, but we stopped, dead in the water, with that powerful whitewater pushing us up against that great, big rock. I thought, I'll just get out and push us away from the rock. It didn't work. In fact, I was so powerless, I couldn't even budge the raft from being stuck against that rock. And then, suddenly, I went under. The whitewater pulled me down, hard, right under our boat. I was not a good swimmer, and I remember thinking what we now call “OMG”: Oh. My. God. I remember thinking, “I REFUSE to die this way!” Which I believe was my way of asking, God, am I going to die this way? Where the heaven are you, God? Which I believe was also my way of deciding that God was with me, and I wasn't ready to die.

Meanwhile, the three sisters, knowing I had brought my inhaler, panicked and began screaming, “Asthma Attack! Asthma Attack!” Together, they were the hands and feet of God, helping me over the side of the duckie, back to safety. When one of the guides paddled up and heard what happened, he began to say, just to me: “Now, remember: if you fall into the river again, do NOT try to pull yourself up over the side of the boat. Just relax, lie back, and let the current carry you down the river, to a calmer, gentler place, where someone can help you.” Like three teenagers. Like God.

Where is our fear? Where is our faith? Where is God? Years ago, a book published by John Westerhoff, a leading Christian educator, was called Will Our Children Have Faith? His answer, simply put, was: Yes. . .if WE do. Our questions about God and for God are, in a way, the intersection of our fears in life and our faith in God. God-questions are where our fear and our faith meet. That's why asking God- questions – our honest, open questions about God and for God – is a very good thing.

This week, during our annual weeklong Day Camp at Claggett Conference Center, children of all ages will have the chance to ask God-questions. Perhaps you can come to the closing ceremonies on Friday! Our children will surely have questions this week – and every week! But will we let them ask their questions? Will we have questions for them? Will they have faith? Will we? Where is our faith? Where is God?

—The Rev. Thomas A. Momberg
June 24, 2012