The Right Questions

Preacher: Jeff Davidson

Scripture: Psalm 78: 23-29 and John 6: 24-35

Jessie preached last week on the miracle of the loaves and fishes. One of my favorite British comedians and writers is a guy named David Mitchell. Mitchell once talked about the miracle of the loaves and fishes, and pointed out that out of 5,000 people who came that day only 2 had thought ahead enough to bring anything to eat. The rest, he says, just assumed Jesus would take care of it. “Why should we bring anything? Jesus will just magic up some grub for us!”

According to Wikipedia, David Mitchell’s an agnostic. I don’t know if he was raised in any particular faith or not but I know he’s a smart guy and I know that he nails exactly what lesson the crowd took away from what happened in last week’s reading about the loaves and fishes. Stick a pin in that. I’m going to come back to that in a minute.

When I was a 911 call taker one of the things we worried about was our line of questioning. It’s important to ask questions that are designed to get useful information. For instance, someone calls up saying they need an ambulance. As most of you know, the first thing 911 needs to know is where to send help. So I might ask the caller, “Where are you?”

That’s not a good question. It’s not designed to get the information that I really want, and it may not even get the information that the caller wants to give me. “Where are you?” “I’m in the bedroom.”

I don’t want to know where they are in the house, at least not right now. Later that might be something I want to find out, but at this point a better and more exact question is “What is the address where you are?” or “What is the intersection you’re at?” or “What’s the nearest mile marker on the interstate?” The caller wants me to send help, and in order to do that I need to ask questions that elicit where the help should be sent. Later on it may matter if the caller is in the bedroom or the basement or the back yard, but that’s not the immediate issue.

Usually I have one introduction to a sermon, but this week I’ve had two. The point of the first one, about the David Mitchell joke, is that the crowd is likely focused on the physical bread that Jesus provided for them. The point of the second one is that the right question in a given situation is a question where the answer provides the most important and most relevant information.

Today’s scripture reading starts with the crowd wondering where Jesus went. Eventually the crowd finds Jesus, and asks him how he got across the water to Capernaum. This is the beginning of a whole exchange where the crowd is asking about one thing, and Jesus keeps trying to shift the conversation to something else. The crowd is doing their best, but they are not asking the right questions to elicit the information that Jesus wants to provide them.

“Rabbi, when did you come here?” Jesus’ response looks to the heart of what motivates the crowd, not to the question they literally asked. Jesus says that they aren’t so much interested in what might have been a miracle that got him to the other side of the water, but that what they really care about is eating some more bread. As Mitchell said, the crowd may just want Jesus to magic up some more grub. Jesus redirects their attention from working for physical food to working for “the food that endures for eternal life.”

The crowd picks up on the hint that there’s some work to be done on their part, and that this eternal life kind of food might be worth having, so then they ask what kind of work they need to do. Jesus leads them a little further away from their original question, and says that it’s about believing as opposed to working. The crowd follows along again, and asks what kind of a sign Jesus is going to give them. They talk about how manna, or bread from heaven, was given to their ancestors.

Here’s one place where we get the idea that the crowd isn’t quite putting things together. What did Jessie talk about last Sunday? The feeding of the five thousand. The miracle of the loaves and fishes. Jesus has already given them a sign. Jesus has already given them a miracle. That miracle is what caused them to follow him over here to Capernaum. And although that was less than 24 hours ago, the people who received it are now asking what sign Jesus will give them so that they may believe him. Jesus’ answer to the crowd now is that it is God who gives the bread from heaven, the bread of life.

Finally the crowd wants to know where they can always get this bread that Jesus is talking about. It does seem at this point that the crowd has started to move on from their original understanding of physical bread and now gets it that Jesus may be using the word “bread” as a symbol. Jesus gives them his answer, that he is the bread of life, and that whoever comes to him will never be hungry, and whoever believes in him will never be thirsty.

This little back-and-forth shows how much it matters to ask the right questions. It also shows how asking the right questions is informed by what your prior assumptions are.

When I was in training just starting out at the 911 center back in 2003 we got a call from a woman who was frantic. She said that she had been driving down Route 1 with her family and all of a sudden her daughter fell out. I started asking questions about the location and the call back number in case we got disconnected, and once I had all of that I moved on to what exactly the problem was. 

I asked the caller if she knew whether her daughter was conscious or not. She said that her daughter wasn’t conscious, she fell out. Then I asked if her daughter had hit her head, and she said no, she fell out. I asked if she’d hurt herself in any way and the woman said no, no other injuries, she fell out. I asked if the daughter was bleeding and the woman was starting to get pretty frustrated, and she said “NO! SHE FELL OUT!” I asked if the woman had gone back to where her daughter had fallen out. She seemed confused by my question and said no, I’m right here with her. She just fell out.

The dialogue wasn’t going very well, and eventually I figured out why my questions weren’t getting me any useful information. You may already know, but in some communities “fell out” means “went unconscious.” I thought that the daughter had fallen out of the car somehow, but no – she had lost consciousness, which I would have called “fainted” or “passed out.” My assumptions about what the caller meant made it very difficult for me to ask the right questions.

Just as my caller had to work to repair my incorrect assumptions, Jesus in his answers has to try to correct the false assumptions that the crowd has taken away from their encounter with the bread and the fish. They weren’t asking quite the right questions, and so Jesus had to lead them around a bit to get them to understand the point – that just as the bread they had across the water sustained them physically, Jesus can be the bread that sustains them spiritually.

We’re working through some changes and decisions here at Washington City. This is the first time I’ve preached in this physical space in almost a year and a half. We’re trying to figure out how to make use of our physical space for worship but still keep the connections we’ve made with our brothers and sisters around the country and around the world via Zoom. We’re having to think about our assumptions about what worshiping together means for us, about what it means to be a part of the body of Christ that is the Washington City Church of the Brethren.

We’re also making decisions about our building. We decided several years ago that we were interested in an arts ministry of some sort, and Jessie is helping us take the next step into making that interest into a reality. Jacob has created some music studio space in the old chapel area. Jessie is helping us come up with an art gallery and meeting space down in the basement. What has to happen for us to take the next step on those goals? What are the assumptions that we have about what an arts ministry looks like? What are the questions we need to ask?

Julia and I are moving to Illinois in about six weeks or so. This raises other questions. How do we as a congregation fill the responsibilities here, either as a part of the ministry team or in the administrative area or just in terms of whatever gifts we bring by our presence, that Julia and I have been filling? What assumptions do we have about ministry and staffing models? We’ve been creative in our approach to those models before, but are we able to open ourselves to new leading in a new way?

That’s just the congregation. Each of us have things in our own lives that we make assumptions about. Each of us have ideas or thoughts or views that we may need to question from time to time. When is it that we need to question ourselves? What are the questions that we need to ask, both of ourselves and others?

For the Christian, the right questions are essential in reaching the right understanding. The right questions don’t start with “what can God do for me” or “what can God do for people that I care about.” 

The right questions start with us. Do we have faith in Jesus? Are we willing to act on that faith? What is it that Jesus wants us to do? What does it mean to be a Christian here and now? How do I find the strength and the faith to do what I think God is calling me to do?

Those are the right questions, or at least the right kinds of questions. When we ask the right questions, even though we may not know it immediately, God will provide the answers. Amen.

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