United Presbyterian Church of West Orange

“Challenging Questions”

Rev. Rebecca Migliore

October 3, 2021


       This is one of those Sundays when as a lectionary preacher you read the texts and promptly think, “maybe I should choose my own texts this week”!  Especially on World Communion Sunday, to be saddled with the jarring portrait of God and the Satan, (the prosecuting attorney not the red dressed, horned devil of costumes) betting on whether Job will stay faithful if bad things happen to him on the one hand, AND Jesus talking about divorce (which is such a painful topic to so many) on the other hand—it really seems too much. 

       But as one commentator put it, “This week’s readings are challenging. There might be a natural inclination to avoid the difficult conversations these readings can spark, but if we rejected all the difficult passages, we would miss an opportunity to grow deeper in our trust with God and each other. How [else] can you cre­ate a safe atmosphere to have radical conversations about challenging and divisive issues?” (Seasons, 10/3/21, p. 71 “Focus for Worship, Learning and Serving”)

       As we continue to live in a world where there is a virus randomly stalking people,

       as we face the enormous and almost paralyzing reality of a climate emergency,

       as we  deal with the repercussions of needed changes urged on by the Black Lives Matter, and #MeToo movements (among others),

       and as we live in a country that seems to have thrown off all strictures of decency and is loudly debating whether we can do anything together—maybe this is exactly the space and time to talk about what we do when we are faced with challenging questions.         Certainly the Old Testament (Jesus’ Scripture) is willing to debate difficult topics.  Take the book of Job--an epic poem focused on the huge question of (as Rabbi Harold Cushner put it) “why bad things happen to good people.”

      The book of Job is filled with conversations about these questions—between Job and his wife, between Job and his friends, between Job and God.  I wish I could tell you that there is an easy answer to one of the most challenging questions of all.  Even Job, who eventually and famously asks God “WHY” is told in reply that he needs to reconstruct his vision of the world.  What are we supposed to take from this?  What I do notice is that the philosopher who is grappling with this question of life not going according to plan resists what seem to be “easy” explanations—you can’t just say it was punishment for sin; you can’t just pretend that it is God’s arbitrary will; and you can’t just hope that you are being tested to receive a greater reward.       

       Actually, what we learn from the book of Job is that we should be honest about our ability to explain what happens in the world (ie, maybe there is no earthly explanation that we can understand).  The best we can do is show up for those who are suffering, listen to them, and be with them.  It is a profoundly humbling (and deeply human) experience to have to say, “I don’t know” when someone so desperately wants there to be an answer.

       What we are left with in Job, is a record of friends hanging out, talking about the nitty-gritty of life, and trying to understand where God fits into all this.  In some ways, it is a concrete example of the point Jesus has been making along the way,—that our personal relationships with one another are more important than any rule or regulation.

       But once you start talking about specifics, it becomes messy.  Let’s take divorce.  Divorce was perfectly legal in Jesus’ time (though it could only be started by the man), so in our lesson this morning Jesus is having a debate with those who want to trip him up, matching their “Moses created it” argument with his “God created two becoming one” rebuttal.  When the disciples press him further, he takes it to the religious extreme—that if you divorce and remarry, you commit adultery.  I wish we had Jesus here with us, so that we could sit down and hash out what he meant. 

    Unfortunately, we do not.  And the church has not been good about having discussions on difficult topics, so we run into a passage like this and either ignore it, or see it without the context of the rest of the gospel.  Many read this text and others like it, and proclaimed that divorce was forbidden in God’s eyes.  I think that reading of the situation is too small.  Dr. J. Randall Nichols, a Presbyterian minister and pastorally-trained psychotherapists puts it this way,

     “When I work with Christian divorcing people who are worried about what Jesus either says or seems to say about divorce, I often reply that the most important New Tes­tament passages to look at “on the sub­ject” are such episodes as his encoun­ter with the Samaritan woman (John 4:7–26) or with the men about to stone a woman caught in adultery (John 8:3–11) or with the tax collector Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1–10). “But they’re not about divorce,” people say. “Not true,” I reply, “they are about the only things that matter in coming to terms with your divorce, and that is confronting a failure and a sense of loss, and maybe even a great wrongdoing and being offered a new future. They are about how both God’s will and human brokenness meet in the miracle of restoration, and that is the Bible’s clear word about “divorce.”’  (Seasons, 10/3/21, p. 75) 

       I find it fascinating that Jesus once again pulls little children into their midst to illustrate who might find their way into the Kingdom of God.  When they are arguing “who is the greatest?” Jesus takes a little child and talks about whoever welcomes one such child, welcomes me. 

       In dealing with the disciples trying to make sure no one but their own kind is healing in Jesus’ name, Jesus talks about making sure you don’t put a stumbling block “before one of these little ones who believe in me.” 

       And directly after the heat of this argument about divorce and human failings, Jesus swipes away the disciples’ attempts to keep children from him with “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them, for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.”

       Isn’t it interesting that in this week where we are asked to consider challenging questions, children keep popping up.  It is almost as if we are plagued by our inner child, who constantly, and maybe annoyingly, keeps asking “Why?”  And we know it’s never good to answer “Just because…” 

       Why do you think Jesus lifted up little children?  Why are they the ones “to whom belong the kingdom of God”?  Is it because they are innocent?  Because they are trusting?  Because they haven’t yet been coached on being guarded or cynical?  Or is it because of their wide-eyed wonder (at the world)?  Their joy in simple pleasures?

       Their desire for relationships like snuggling close?  Their realization that they have so much to learn?

       There is a boldness to youngsters (they haven’t been trampled down yet).  There is an optimism to those who haven’t had hopes dashed or people they trust disappoint or fail them.  Today’s lesson presents two very different but very important things. 

       1) that big questions, difficult decisions, thorny issues, challenging conversations are not something to avoid—rather they sharpen our resolve, they test whether we are actually living by the principles we espouse, they show that we are connected to the messy, hard to figure out thing called life (and trying to find where God is in all of this).

       2) The other part, which seems incongruous, but I think is essential in dealing with deep questions of how to live and God’s place in our lives, is to use a child-like approach.  Hang onto wonder, hang onto delight in the here and now, hang onto the ability, even the necessity, of asking why, of dreaming what isn’t yet, trusting that we will be able to figure out a way, for with God on our side, nothing is impossible.

       I am exceedingly aware that it is more difficult to have “big” conversations when some of us are in-person, and some of us are virtual, and none of us knows what tomorrow will bring.


       Maybe this week’s Scripture is an invitation to engage with those “too big to talk about” items—not to worry if there is no easy solution, and not to be afraid that we are stepping on God’s territory.  Any time and place we can gather, any topic, even those we find challenging, can be an opportunity to be faithful in our learning and our living.

       We have dipped our toes in the deep end of the pool with our pledge to be a Matthew 25 church, focusing on church vitality, and the challenging issues of poverty and systemic racism.  We have found ways to sit around tables and show up in virtual spaces to talk about our lives and our world.   The good things Job’s friends did: to show up, to listen, and to stick around are a good start.  We know there is more to it than that.  And we are committed to following the words of Micah: “to do justice, and love kindness, and walk humbly with our God.”     

       I know having uncomfortable conversations and finding the energy to be the change in our world can be a heavy load.  Especially in times like these.  I am so glad that Jesus continues to insist that we also follow in the footsteps of our children and hold onto our innate curiosity, the precious gift of laughter, and the talent to never lose touch with what is right in front of our eyes. 


   May God give us this blessing.  Alleluia, Amen.