Children’s Chat: Super Why!
James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a
As a child, I learned the secret answer in Sunday School… I bet you did, too. It goes like this:
“Who walked on water?”
“Who cured the blind?”
“Who loves us?”
The answer to everything was either Jesus, God, love, or Jesus’ love for God. You get the idea. Our faith is simple, and boils down to love. But there’s an issue with this Jesus answer for everything… Sometimes, Jesus doesn’t fit the question.
“Who broke the vase?”
“Who gave you detention?”
JESUS! No – it was God?
As we experience more of life, the questions get harder, and the answer “Jesus!” or God or love fits even less.
“Why do I have cancer?”
Jesus. … Or God…
“Why is there evil in the world?”
… Jesus. God… love?
Our lives get more complex as we experience more, and satisfying answers get more complex. The simple answers don’t just cut it in the face of years of depression, years of feeling isolated, years of chronic illness. “Because Jesus loves you” is a terrible answer to why children die of starvation. Because Jesus loves you, he sent a drunk driver to kill your family. Because God loves children, God sends shooters into schools to kill children and make new angels for heaven. Because of love, our Sunday School theology applied to experienced life does so much harm.
In the words of Dr. Linda Mercadante – bad theology kills.
Bad theology kills our faith. Once we get to the notion everything is caused by God, and everything happens because God or Jesus loves us, we may come to the conclusion God is pretty evil. Or we don’t want Jesus’ love if this love looks like starvation. If God’s love is torture, who needs God? If Jesus’ love is hate, who wants to be a Jesus follower? The simple theology of Jesus is the answer to everything works when life is simple. And it kills faith when life is complex.
Bad theology kills.
It kills faith, but it also kills people. If the reason everything happens is because of God’s love, then any bad fortune is because someone has lost God’s love.
A woman on welfare must be lazy, sexual promiscuous, a thief, and not a good Christian woman. She is poor because she isn’t living virtuously. Her sins are why she is poor.
A man addicted to narcotics must be weak willed, violent, a thief, and not a good Christian man. He is addicted because he isn’t living sinfree. If he just confessed, he’d be clean and back in God’s love.
This theology kills. It denies food and shelter, love and education. It makes a class system when the least are treated as second class citizens – as left-overs – or as unwanted ‘undesirables’ of society. It also directs our public policy and research.
((Many are ordered to Alcoholics Anonymous even through there is no evidence it actually helps people. Oh yes – people leave alcohol there. But just as many do not. The only successful intervention scientifically proven is medication to help rewire the mind after the alcohol has wired it for addiction. AA is a great support network… but it doesn’t touch the physical addiction side of alcoholism. But our bad theology says the flesh is nothing, and the spirit everything. It says just confessing the sin of alcoholism will put you right with God again, and then, you ought to have no more issues.
But that’s not how our bodies work.))
This is bad theology.
Simplistic, early-learning theology.
And bad theology kills.
Jesus’ disciples began with simplistic theology. He told them do not fear, just have faith. And they got this. And it works while their mission is simple. They are simply curing the sick, helping the poor, and speaking of God’s love for people. When life is simple we need simple theology.
But then the disciples get more complex experiences, and Jesus begins to tell them the Messiah will be denied by organized religion, and killed by the government, and be resurrected by God. “But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.”
Because the answers are terrifying.
Based on simple theology applied to a complex question – ie, bad theology – the reason Jesus will be murdered terribly is because of God’s love. I bet you’ve heard this.
How different is this reasoning than “divinely ordained child abuse?”
How different is this than adults telling little children they are abused out of love?
These are terrifying answers. These are answers that kill my faith and kill people.
If you think these are going to be the answers to “Why did Jesus die?” why would you ever ask the question?
And if you did ask… who would you ask? And when? Where?
Once we know Jesus is the answer to everything, and God is love, then it’s like… we’re scared to be seen as foolish by questioning these simple answers. So we bottle up the questions instead of asking them. Bottle them up because we don’t want judged by our fellow family, friends, and congregation members…. Bottle them up because we don’t really want to know the answers…. And bottle them up because we think we’re Christians and this is our faith and we ought to get it.
The disciples literally walked with God Incarnate and didn’t get it.
They were scared to ask the questions, too.
But the questions are… liberating. They let our faith grow more complex to answer our complex lives.
I am guilty of hiding my questions like the disciples. Before I found the United Church of Christ, I sat with a Buddhist who didn’t know anything about Christianity. I could tell her all my questions around Christianity and she wouldn’t try to give me the simple answers because she didn’t know them. She wouldn’t say my soul was in danger for questioning the goodness of God, or the divinity of Jesus, or the reality of the Holy Spirit because soul isn’t really a concept in Buddhism.
She didn’t feed me answers at all. She sat with me in the questions.
She didn’t FEAR the questions.
And so I asked.
Of course, she had no answers. Christianity wasn’t her faith! But the answers weren’t as important as vocalizing the questions, looking at the questions, and considering the various answers. The journey into the questions was more important. And we journeyed in them together.
Jesus offers his disciples to ask him the hard questions. He doesn’t promise answers – he tends to answer in parables anyways – but he promises to stick with them through exploring the answers.
That is what living faith is about.
Exploring. Moving. Changing.
Our lives are not static. Our lives are dynamic. We gather more and more experiences. Our faith should be the same. Dynamic, growing, changing as we change.
The simplistic theology is important, and good, for when we are drinking the infant milk of our faith. But as infants age, they need solid food. They need carrots to crunch and meat to tear. As we grow into mature lives, we need a mature faith that is crunchy and has substance we can bite into. We need a faith that is satisfying to our more complex needs.
That faith can only come from permitting our faith to be exposed to life. The moment you feel you need to defend your faith from life is the moment you’ve outgrown your faith. Let her out! Let her stretch and grow and yes, pick up some bruises, but grow into the faith you need for your adult life!
The disciples have stopped growing in our reading today. They’ve begun to protect their concepts of Messiah from life. Jesus has been telling them of the bad fate for himself when he returns to Jerusalem, but they are scared to ask what this means. Instead, they focus on their simple faith in the messiah. The simple faith says the messiah will be a military warrior, go to Jerusalem, be crowned king, and toss out the Romans.
The simple faith says your lot in life is based on how much of God’s fortune you have earned. The simple faith says Jesus is a pretty amazing guy, so God’s going to reward Jesus with everything.
So they look at themselves who are also healing the sick and walking with THE Jesus, and they say – hey! We’re pretty amazing guys ourselves. Who is going to be the second most awesome person in the land and the second in charge for Jesus? Who has the most miraculous power, who’s cured the most ill, who’s preached the most good news? Let’s rank up!
And Jesus looks at them, hears their concerns, and realizes they have not grown into the new experience of a servant messiah at all. He realizes their faith is not ready. And we know Jesus is right. They all will desert him in the end.
And “It’s not just that they don’t understand some piece of information. It’s that they don’t understand this specific teaching, at the very heart of the Incarnation. How is it possible for the Son of God to suffer and die? And why should it happen?
The question that the disciples are afraid to ask is the question that propels so many early Christian attempts to construct an intelligible, if misguided, Christology. Maybe Jesus didn’t really suffer and die (Docetism) or maybe only the human part of Jesus suffered but the divine part was untouched (Gnosticism). Early Christians struggle with what sort of deity lets her/himself get into a corner like that? They needed an almighty God who conquers enemies, not one who suffers and dies. Underneath verses 31-32 are the basic questions of who Jesus is, and of the nature of God. Such a self-demoting God could hardly be trustworthy.” ((Amy Oden https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1356))
Faced with the terror of a suffering God, arguing over a victorious god’s right hand man is much easier. Faced with the wisdom of God, the wisdom of the world is much easier. But it leads to infighting, and all the other woes James writes about. When we avoid the hard questions, our faith doesn’t grow, and the small answers don’t satisfy and cause more issues. Remember, bad theology kills.
Jesus won’t abandon these disciples in their fear. He calls over a child. A child – who has not done a single miracle. Who cannot read or write. Who didn’t see the bread broke and the fish shared. A child – likely not baptized. Maybe not even Jewish. A child – someone wholly dependent on others for protection, food, and clothing. A young child who has no wealth, no status, nothing but themselves.
And Jesus says, “This is the greatest here.” Not any of the disciples, but this unnamed child. “Whoever welcomes the least, such as a child, in my name, welcomes me.”
Jesus is found in the lowest.
“Whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.”
God is found in the lowest.
“The greatest among you will be your servant.”
Not kings. Not princes. Not the best Christians. Not politicians. Not the rich. Not the sinless. And especially not in the person who says they have all the answers. But in children and those like them.
The greatest are the servants… the ones who are humble, low, don’t know better, and not scared of appearances. The ones with curiosity, who are growing, who are changing, who are embracing life as it comes.
The disciples are scared to ask Jesus questions. They want to look like they know it all to each other. And they don’t want their simple theology challenged.
The woman at the well asks Jesus lots and lots of questions. She doesn’t care what others think of her. And she hasn’t a simple theology to be challenged.
We, ourselves – are we scared to ask our hard questions? Do we fear what one another will think of us? Are we scared of how our faith may be changed, or challenged?
I’m guilty of this at times. At times it hurts to grow and the unknown is scary. It is painful to be vulnerable and suffer your friends, family, and congregation’s judgments (perceived or real.) It is terrifying to consider whether or not God is all good, all powerful, or all knowing.
But we’re a denomination of godly wisdom, not worldly wisdom. We’re a denomination of questions. Some of our mottos include
Don’t leave your brain at the door.
Never put a period where God has put a comma, God is still speaking.
Our faith is 2000 years old, our thinking is not.
Our roots are the Puritans who dreamed of free public education for every child, so that every person could read the Bible for themselves. Our roots are the Protestant Reformers who dreamed of a Bible translated into local languages and a physical copy there for each person to read. Our roots are roots of asking the questions and exploring answers.
How would our story of Christianity be different if the disciples had asked their hard and scary questions?
How will our faith be different?
How will our congregation be different?
This is a safe spot. We are on a journey together. We are asking the questions together. It is a journey, where sometimes we will find an answer to our questions that satisfies awhile, or satisfies one or two people but not all people. It is a journey where sometimes we won’t find answers at all… but we can live into the questions.
We can live into the faith.
We can live into the mystery.
There are no stupid questions. Carl Sagan once wrote, “There are naive questions, tedious questions, ill-phrased questions, questions put after inadequate self-criticism. But every question is a cry to understand the world. There is no such thing as a dumb question”
A question asked might risk you looking foolish for 5 minutes.
A question not asked may leave you foolish for 55 years.
Do not be afraid – ask!