Ambivalence and Faith. A Nathan Kirkpatrick Sermon

Following is a sermon preached by The Rev. Nathan Kirkpatrick, Priest Associate of the Advocate
on the Fourth Sunday of Easter, April 17, 2016. 

She was sure that he was the man for her.

After six years of dating, she knew down to her bones

that he was right for her, that they were good together.

But each time, she would hint around the marriage question,

she received the same answer:

“I’m just not sure that you’re the one for me.”

 

Six years. Six years of her certainty. And six years of his ambivalence.

Finally, she had had enough:

No more. She wrote him a letter.

She told him that she loved him, and that they

either they had to get married or they had to break it off.

 

Her friends cheered her.

“About time,” a few suggested. (Six years?)

But now, she waited for a reply.

Day after day, she would walk to the mailbox, and there was nothing.

Until finally, one day, a letter came.

 

 

To my ear, the question of the religious leaders to Jesus seems fair.

It seems reasonable enough. It seems honest … enough.

It might have even been the question on my mind or in my heart.

“Don’t keep us in suspense any longer.

Tell us plainly …

          Are you the Messiah?

Are you the One we have been waiting for?”

 

It’s not like Jesus hasn’t been asked this before.

Do you remember the story in St Luke’s Gospel

when John the Baptist sent some of his followers to Jesus to ask,

“are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” (Luke 7.19)?

When John’s followers asked, Jesus told them to go back and tell John what they saw —

and just then, Jesus goes on a tear of healings.

You’ve got a problem? Jesus has a healing for you.

Go tell John that, in Jesus, the blind can see,

that the lame are made to wake,

the deaf can hear,

and the dead are raised.

That was the answer.

 

But on this particular winter’s day

during the Jewish Feast of Dedication

— the holiday that we now know as Hanukkah —

Jesus’ reaction to the religious and the religious leaders

suggests that there must be something else going on in their question;

His impatience with them

tells us that, however charitably I want to hear their question,

there was something less than charitable in what they were after.

 

You heard what He said?

“I have told you, and you do not believe.

The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me;

but you do not believe,

because you do not belong to my sheep.”

You do not believe … you do not belong.

Jesus seems to hear something from them other than an honest question.

 

I wonder if what Jesus hears in them is

something akin to the boyfriend who, after years of dating,

still says, “I’m just not sure that you’re the one for me.”

Against the certainty of His love,

He hears in them ambivalence, apathy, and indifference.

 

He loves them. All the way down to His bones.

 

But they? They’re still asking, “are you the One?”

 

The Contemporary English Bible renders their question this way:

“How long will you test our patience? If you are the Christ, tell us plainly.”

 

Their question sounds honest, reasonable, fair.

Who wants to give their lives to something and then turn out to be wrong?

Who wants to follow someone only to find out that they’re just a cult leader

and not the Messiah?

But when you poke at it,

that’s not what they’re asking.

Theirs is not a question that comes from vulnerability.

They’re using the question

to hold faith at arm’s length.

They’re using the question to prevent finding an answer.

 

Now, let’s be clear.

There are plenty of good reasons to hold faith at arm’s length.

To examine it. To inquire into it.

To put to it the hardest and most meaningful questions of our lives.

And sometimes we have to do that at some distance.

We have to hold the thing up and look at it and really see it.

 

And there is no harm or judgment for those

who ask questions

about what they believe

or why they believe

or if they believe at all.

 

Those can be the most important questions of our lives —

to wrestle with those questions –

can be the most important wrestling we do.

 

It’s what the late writer Reynolds Price called “a serious way of wondering.”

And week-by-week we pray for all of us who do that work

when we pray for those who seek God

and a deeper knowledge and love of God.

 

But, Jesus seems to be warning us that

there comes a point

when the question itself can become a shield,

when the wonder itself becomes a defense,

when the seeking becomes an excuse from finding.

 

Here’s the thing:

If you’re going to ask the questions,

at some point, you have to be willing to be changed by the answers.

Faith doesn’t require that all our answers are the same,

but faith requires the vulnerability of relationship.

The religious ones of Jesus’ day were substituting the question for the relationship.

 

 

She went to her mailbox, and there was a letter — an invitation to dinner.

She almost didn’t go. There had been so many dinners.

But she needed to know.

 

He told her that he loved her.

But that he was afraid he would be a terrible husband.

He told her that he was scared.

That he didn’t know what it would mean for them to get married.

 

And she took his hand,

and told him that, from what she had heard,

no one knows what it means to be married. Ever.

But they would figure it out

— together —

across the rest of their lives.

 

So, take a hand. Ask the questions.

And we’ll figure it out together.

 

Amen.