Engage, Expand, Reach Deeper

Sermon for Sunday, November 10, 2019 || Proper 27C || Luke 20:27-38

I’ve said it many times, and I’ll say it again. Jesus rarely, if ever, answers the questions people ask him in the Gospel. Instead, he answers the questions he wishes they had asked. Today’s Gospel lesson is a case in point.

Jesus does not answer the Sadducees question because their question is disingenuous. They ask him a question designed to expose what they think is the absurdity of the resurrection. However, since they don’t believe in the resurrection, they really have no standing to ask a question about it. They are simply trying to get Jesus to trip into a bad sound bite. They have focus-group-tested a stumper, and they deploy it to make Jesus look bad.

But Jesus’ doesn’t fall into their trap. Rather than engaging their disingenuous question directly, Jesus takes their premise and expands it beyond anything they could possibly imagine. Jesus says something like this: “You want to talk about marital legalism in an afterlife you don’t even believe in? Try this on for size. There is no such thing as permanent death, for to God even our ancestors who died long ago are all alive.”

So the question Jesus answers might be this: “Jesus, how does God perceive existence?” Now that’s a question. (And one I’m entirely incapable of tackling, even if, in my hubris, I tried in a sermon six years ago.)

What fascinates me about this exchange between Jesus and the Sadducees is Jesus’ desire to engage them, despite their disingenuous intentions. Jesus listens to their question and responds with neither the need to assent to their worldview nor belittle it. He calmly states another way to look at the issue they bring up, a more expansive way, one that locates the original, limited question in a wider array of understanding.

Jesus follows this same pattern when a lawyer asks him, “And who is my neighbor?” (The lawyer asks him this as a follow up to a discussion about loving your neighbor as yourself.) Rather than answering that softball question (“everyone is your neighbor” is the answer), Jesus tells the parable of the Good Samaritan, which demonstrates “how to be a neighbor.” Jesus is less concerned with who counts as a neighbor than with the characteristics that make a good neighbor. In the end, the lawyer gets it. Jesus asks which of the people in the story was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers. The lawyer says, “The one who showed him mercy.” With this story, Jesus engages the question, expands the original intent of the questioner, and reaches for deeper understanding.

Jesus follows this pattern again and again throughout the Gospel.

  1. Engage the question
  2. Expand the original intent
  3. Reach for deeper understanding

What a wonderful example for you and me when conversing with those across theological, ideological, or political differences.

Such an activity might strike you with mild to severe anxiety. I totally understand, and I feel it too. But we have been so socialized by our culture not to talk about potentially uncomfortable topics that we have never been trained in having difficult conversations in productive ways. The thing is, it is possible, even necessary, to have such conversations.

(Just a quick aside – I’m not saying we have to engage in conversations with people who are being disingenuous or purposefully provocative. That’s called “trolling” and it’s done in bad faith. We need not give trolls the time of day.)

Well-intentioned conversations across difference can, believe it or not, lead to deeper understanding and closer relationships. Such a conversation a few years ago led me on the journey to understand my own racism and white supremacy and to try to live as an antiracist. At a meeting of the Diocesan Mission Council, I asked what I now know to be a very insensitive question directed to a colleague of mine who is a Black woman. In that moment, she had every right to disengage; thankfully, I think she sensed that, despite my ungraceful query, I wasn’t irredeemable. Then she followed precisely the pattern of Jesus. First, she gracefully engaged my ham-fisted question. Second, she expanded my original intent so that I would see how even asking the question betrayed my own unexamined racism. Third, she invited me to begin my own exploration so I could come to a deeper understanding of the issue. And she did all of this coming from a posture of deep faith, rooted in the love of God.

I am so thankful for her example, and the example of Jesus, because they both show that having tough conversations is possible and can be life-giving. When you find yourself about to have such a conversation, take a moment to center yourself in the love of God. Such prayerful centering will allow you to let go of the egotistical need to “win” the conversation and set you free to “speak the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15).

Next, engage like Jesus did. Listen to their words. And listen beyond the words for the intent of the speaker. Listen for their background, their assumptions, their biases, their trauma, their joy. Reflect back their words without agreeing or disagreeing in order to confirm you heard them rightly.

Then expand the conversation. Say “I notice that…” followed by something you heard. Then say “I wonder if…” and add something new to the conversation, something that directs the flow of their ideas down a new or more expansive pathway.

Finally, reach for deeper understanding, the place that can release us to discover how our firmly held beliefs are never the full story. Sometimes this last step is possible; sometimes not. In the two examples above, Jesus goes to this final step, but he doesn’t always. Think of the story of the rich man, whom Jesus lovingly invites to give up his possessions. The man goes away shocked and grieving (Mark 10:17-22). Jesus lets him go, but Jesus doesn’t stop loving him. Sometimes it is enough to plant a seed.

I invite you this week to practice Jesus’ conversational pattern.

  1. Engage the question 
  2. Expand the original intent
  3. Reach for deeper understanding

Practice with someone you love and respect. Choose a non-essential topic first. Remember to begin by centering yourselves in the love of God. And then don’t be afraid to seek the truth, for as Jesus says, “The Truth will make you free.”

Photo by Abdullah Öğük on Unsplash.

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