Disturbing Questions

by Arthur Mampel

Sermon Preached at Beacon Hill United Church of Christ Seattle, Washington, May 3, 1992

Our Greek Teacher on Tuesday mornings, Dr. Winefred Weter, translates the Gospel text for this morning in the following manner: Now when they had had breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” He answered, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.” A second time Jesus said to him, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” He replied, “Yes, Lord, you know I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Look after my sheep.” Jesus said to him a third time, “Do you love me?” Peter was disturbed (and grieved) because he asked him a third time, “Do you love me?” He said, “Lord, you know everything, you know that I love you. Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep” (John 21:15-17).

The teachings of Jesus are full of hard questions. Even in his conversations with the ordinary personalities found in our Gospel stories, Jesus will often begin or end a conversation with a question. After healing the ten lepers, Jesus said, “Were not ten made clean? But where are they? Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” Three questions in a row!

After telling the story of the unrighteous judge who brought justice to a poor widow who had continued to come to him pleading her cause, Jesus said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says, and will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long and yet, when the son of man comes, will he find faith on earth?” Again, three questions in a row!

Jesus said to Nicodemus when they were in a conversation one evening, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?” And again, he said to Nicodemus, “If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things?” Questions, and more questions.

To the pharisees Jesus said, “You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?”

After Jesus told the crowd the parable of the Good Samaritan, he asked them, “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” Questions, questions!

In our Gospel story for this morning we read that Peter was disturbed and grieved because Jesus asked him the same question for a third time, “Do you love me?” Sisters and brothers—in a day when complex and difficult issues require slow, thoughtful solutions, we are too easily satisfied with answers that are shallow and have no depth. We have preferred “sound bites” over sound reason. We prefer illusions over reality! We avoid confrontations and public debate, and want the big issues staged and orchestrated in such a way that our ears and eyes will not be offended!

And we are outraged when the quiet hostility that has been building up in neighborhoods like Watts in California for years and years and years is suddenly released in a volcanic display of violence and tragedy.

I tell you people, what happened in Watts last Wednesday was not a single, solitary issue. The brutal beating of Rodney King was the fuse that ignited that neighborhood, but the frustration and anger and hurt and injustice had been stored up a long time before Rodney King became a public figure. Poverty, unemployment, racism, and alienation go on hourly and daily in that neighborhood, and it builds up over the years until it is finally released in a tragic moment of anarchy and violence!

I find it so ironic that just when the political campaigns in this country were being sidetracked by personality issues and tabloid pettiness, our presidential candidates will now be forced by this event to confront an issue that has weight and meaning.

I think it is ironic and tragic that it often takes an explosive event like the one that happened in Los Angeles last Wednesday before we will begin to ask ourselves the hard, disquieting questions of life.

For example, we have yet to hear what any of our presidential candidates will do about our aging infrastructure in this country, or the S. & L. bailout, or the deficit, or the disappearance of the middle class. There seems to be no forum in place where hard, disturbing questions can even be discussed.

Now, we read in our text for this morning that Peter was disturbed (and grieved) when Jesus asked him a third time, “Do you love me?” Let me say something this morning about good, hard questions. Questions that disturb our complacency and make us uneasy and angry can do more to correct mistakes and solve issues than those light, airy, easy answers that require not thought nor pain! A good question can make your imagination work! It can challenge your mind! It can cause the playful side of your inquiring nature to dream and create! The good, hard questions will not command a quick answer either. But such questions will send you back to your room for long, thoughtful, dreamy solutions.

The author Brenda Ueland advises those who wish to write that they need to be idle. She writes, “. . . the imagination needs moodling—long, inefficient, happy idling, dawdling and puttering. These people who are always briskly doing something and as busy as waltzing mice, they have sharp, staccato ideas, such as: ‘I see where I can make an annual cut of $3.47 in my meat budget.’ But they have no slow, big ideas.” Brenda Ueland insists that we can get beyond our slumps in life when we have the dreamy idleness that children have, like when you walk alone for a long, long time, or like a long time at dressing, or lying in bed at night as thoughts come and go, or digging in a garden, or driving a car for many hours alone, or playing the piano, or sewing, or painting alone. Says Ueland, “With all my heart I tell you and reassure you: at such times you are being slowly filled and recharged with warm imagination, with wonderful living thoughts.” With slow, big ideas.

It was the author Walker Percy who thought that important questions were far more important than answers. He said that a good, thoughtful question will have in it the intuitive energy needed to solve the problem. The great Greek scholar Socrates was often seen wandering around with his students asking them difficult questions about justice and beauty. When they would answer, he would question even further their answers until the students began to see the larger life in everything.

I tell you people, we make a mockery of life when we try to reduce the complexity of every human condition to a simple answer! And using such slogans as “Just say no” may sound like a wise solution to the drug problem, but it does not begin to speak to the complexity of that problem. If you are a welfare white person or a minority person who has been shut out of the American system, it might sound wise to say, “Just say yes to education,” but after you do that and then you are refused an education because there are no funds available, then what does it all mean? When the value system of our country is so twisted that we will spend $40,000 a year to keep someone in prison and not put out $5800 a year to keep a student in school, we need to ask ourselves some serious questions. How can a Washington player like Entman receive nine million dollars from the Colts and a teacher must stop teaching because her family cannot exist on her salary?

Yesterday I saw on the bumper of an automobile this simple message: “Question Authority.” And yes, we need to do that! We need to question and be suspicious of any leader who gives us an easy answer to a difficult and complex problem.

When Jesus asked Peter three times if he loved him, and Peter said “Yes,” then Jesus said, [Very well then] “Feed my lambs,” [Look after my sheep] “Feed my sheep.”

When we seek answers to a thoughtful question, we go toward the solution when we act. Last week I attended the Washington-North Idaho Conference with the other delegates from our church. On Friday night, hard and difficult questions were put to the staff and board members of that conference. It seems that in the last three years our conference has been accumulating a deficit that will not go away. Well, what to do? Should we let go of the three staff members? Should we retire our interim Conference Minister, Don Yonglas, and keep two of the staff? There were several such questions raised at the conference.

Now the point I am trying to make is that some difficult and thoughtful questions rallied that conference body until we came up with a solution. Now, we do not know whether the solution we came up with will be the answer we need, but one thing was right about it! We acted! We heard the question and—we acted!

“Do you love me?” [Well then] “Feed my lambs.” [Look after my sheep] “Feed my sheep.”