One of my first classes in graduate school about 20 years ago was called Research Methods. I anticipated that I would learn how to conduct a clinical research study. I was quite surprised to find that the primary work of the semester, in addition to hundreds of pages of reading, would be the development of a research question meant to guide my study during the remainder of my time at UC San Francisco. The idea of spending three months developing a question seemed a bit much to me. By the end of the semester, I was convinced that another 3 months to work on the question would have been just fine. Two years later, at the end of my coursework, when I was struggling to write my thesis and considering it a good day if I had managed an entire paragraph, I knew that the question I had been studying was about three miles downstream from the real question, the question for which I had assumed I knew the answer. The bulk of my thesis was a discussion of the question I wish I had asked.
As I’ve read today’s gospel, it’s seemed to me that Pilate was asking the wrong questions. He begins with the assumption that the charges brought against Jesus are accurate. He asks him if he is king of the Jews. Jesus asks a question in return—a question that doesn’t do much to clarify the situation. He asks Pilate if he asks the question of his own accord or if others have prompted him. Pilate responds that he knows nothing about the Jewish people and asks Jesus what he has done that his own people have handed him over to the Romans for punishment. When Jesus responds that his kingship is not of this world, Pilate presses the point, asking Jesus yet again if he is a king.
I can think of at least a half dozen questions that would have served Pilate better in determining the situation. I imagine that you could do the same. The questions that come to me are: Who are you? Who sent you? Why are you here? Who are your friends? Who are your enemies? What do you want from me?
Finding the right question is one of the hardest things we ever do, because our questions so often come from our assumptions about the way the world is. Our questions come from our experience, and it’s difficult for us to see a different perspective than the one that’s part of our usual approach to the world around us.
For the past few weeks, we have been talking about an important part of our world: the ways we participate with each other in the work God has given us to do. Last week Sharon Martin and Mary Russell invited you to look at the many mini-ministries we have here at St. Mark’s—the ways we can serve God, each other and our community in just a few hours here and there. I’m delighted to say that several folks have already returned their forms with indications of your interest in these ministries. This week, I hope you’ve all received an envelope containing a letter from the Stewardship Committee, a preliminary budget for the year 2010, some tools for looking at our giving and a pledge form to express your commitment of time, talent and financial resources. In the last couple of days, you’ve received a letter from me that underlines the financial picture our preliminary budget portrays. If you’ve reviewed the packet, I know there’ll be no question in your mind that we are in a frighteningly difficult financial situation. The question is: what are we going to do about it?
Today is our first pledge ingathering day. In a few minutes, we will all have an opportunity to bring our pledges to this altar, to place tokens of our promises to God and this community on the table from whence we receive tokens of God’s goodness and grace.
As you give prayerful consideration to your pledge for 2010, I invite you to think about the questions you are asking. Frequently our questions, especially about money and most especially in this time of economic uncertainty come from a sense of fear and risk. What questions are you asking? Are you asking what brings you to this place? What is it about our community that you value? What do you find here that enriches your life? What do you find here that helps you live from your spiritual center? What do you experience that supports growth in your relationship with God? Ask yourself those questions, then consider whether you are asking the right question about your pledge. Are you asking yourself how much of your time, talent and treasure you can afford to give? Or are you asking how much of your time, talent and treasure you need to give?
I don’t know what your answer is to those questions. I know what mine is. I also know that I’ll have a bit of trepidation as I place my pledge on the altar. I know there’s a little part of me that will be asking if I’ll be able to keep my promise. But even as I question, I know I’ll be remembering that Jesus has kept his promise to me—that he is with me today and will be with me tomorrow and through the years to come.
Thanks be to God.
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