Looking for Answers in All the Wrong Places


Rev. Dr. Joyce Antila Phipps

Old First Church, Middletown, NJ

July 26, 2020

Texts: Isaiah 3:1–15; Matthew 13:31–33, 44–52

       We were all sitting around the dinner table in Connecticut at Christmas and Molly, who must have been about four or five and who still never shies away from anything, looked at me, and asked: “Nana, what's a virgin?” The gasps were almost audible. Obviously, she had heard the priest read from Isaiah: “And behold, a virgin shall conceive . . . . “ All eyes were fixed on me. I calmly responded, “Oh, it's a young woman who hasn't gotten married yet.” Just a one sentence simple answer, that's all she needed. 

       Children are always full of questions. Some are factual questions: Why is the sky blue? What is a star? How does a bird fly? Others involve the deepest motives of the human heart and are more difficult to answer: Why is he so mean? Why did he do that – fill in the blank. And, there are questions of faith: What happens when we die? Our questions, if not our answers, usually come out of our upbringing and our cultural conditioning. Our society teaches us what kinds of questions that can be asked – as well as what cannot or should not be asked. 

      For example, many of us as children were taught that the Bible was “true,” whatever that word means and that there were many things that should not be questioned. Apparent discrepancies or differences in stories in both the Old Testament and the New were glossed over, especially in those books labeled historical.

Part of that comes from a misunderstanding of history, which is actually an interpretation of those events that shaped our present, not some compilation of so-called facts. Good historical writing takes a series of events and shapes them into a better understanding of a time past.         Good historical research looks to separate the actual from the mythical and explains why both are important in understanding something about our world today. 

        For example, take this morning’s reading of Isaiah’s prophecy. The first forty chapters or so date from the time of Sennacherib’s invasion. Here the prophet is decrying the utter moral collapse of Judah. No one will take charge; no one will take responsibility.

This could have been written today. Just look at the political infighting that continues while thousands are infected with the coronavirus and now more than a thousand deaths a day. “The people will be oppressed, everyone by another,” cried the prophet. Chaos was the order of his day, and it seems to be the order of ours as well. 

        Political ambition comes first; science and sound medicine later. Moving data collection from the CDC to an appointed political lackey is just part of it. The whole fight over reopening schools is another. How can we have the answers when there is such disagreement on the questions to ask? 

        We need wisdom and judgment, not just scattered knowledge. Wisdom means asking the right questions. You can’t get the right answers if you don’t ask the right questions. And we seem to be at a loss to do that. 

Our English word wisdom comes from the Old German weid, which means wise,  being full of vision, knowing in the deeper sense of the word. It has some affinity with the Hebrew word for wisdom, hokhma, is also translated as counsel, knowledge, or truth, depending on the context. The search for knowledge cannot be separated from a search for understanding which involves far more than looking for the quick and easy answer. 

       That search is much like the search for faith, which grows from a tiny seed, the seed of curiosity, of questioning implanted deep within us. But just as the seed doesn’t grow without water and nurture, neither can it grow without labor. It needs to be worked, kneaded like the yeast and the wheat to result in a loaf of bread. To grow in knowledge, just as to make a loaf of bread, requires the correct basic ingredients – the yeast at a certain temperature, the right kind of liquid, and good flour, or wheat. To grow in knowledge and understanding requires asking questions and honestly searching for answers.

       We can’t get the right answers if we cut ourselves off from asking questions that explore the heart of our faith. We need to be able to ask questions with an open mind. We need to be able to explore every aspect of our beliefs without fear, for what is faith if it doesn’t mean being certain that God is with us all the way? Some years ago, someone commented that the fear of societal changes that the fundamentalists have comes from the lack of faith. As I thought about that comment, it seems clear that the refusal to look at Scripture critically does come from a lack of faith. 

       There is a children’s game where you build a structure with sticks. If you pull out one stick, the whole structure will collapse. In spite of the fact that some people look at Scripture and faith in such a way, the analogy does not hold. The fundamentalist asks, referring to Scripture, Well, if it’s not all true, how do we know what is true? Faith, however, is not like the stick game of children. It is much more, as Jesus noted, like a seed or the yeast for baking bread. In order to become that large bush, the mustard seed must be planted and watered; it will not grow just sitting on a kitchen table. 

       The same is true of the yeast worked into the dough. Yeast by itself does nothing, it must be kneaded with liquid and flour in order to rise and provide a loaf. Kneading the bread takes effort as well as developing the skill to feel when the dough is elastic enough to be set aside for the rising. The same is true of our faith. It must be watered and nourished to grow into a strong bush; it must be kneaded with effort to develop a wonderful loaf. 

       We have all had those “aha!” moments when something suddenly made sense to us. Those moments are somewhat like finding the pearl or treasure. We look at what is old in our faith, the beliefs and attitudes with which we were raised; they hang on, even in spite of our attempts to put them aside. They contrast with what is new and become part of our new developing faith, which is stronger in the end because we have delved deeply and struggled with our past. Unlike Athena from the head of Zeus, a strong faith just doesn't pop out of the head. It comes from a far deeper place within us. 

       Faith and understanding are intimately linked. The greater our understanding is, the more our faith should and will grow. And we gain greater understanding and a deeper appreciation of our faith when we are open to questioning. There are no questions that cannot be asked. We may not always find answers; we may not even agree on what the questions should be – but we will grow in our faith through the struggle of the process of discovery. 

        Let us pray: You, O God, who calls Wisdom forth develop in us the spirit of question and enable us to see an infinite variety of approaches to faith, as did the One we follow, even Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.