A sermon preached on September 20th, 2015 based upon Mark 9:30 – 37.
This is the second of the three times in the Gospel of Mark that Jesus tells his disciples that he is going to Jerusalem where he will suffer and die, and on the third day would rise. Mark tells us that in this instance the disciples “did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.”
They were afraid. In Mark’s Gospel fear and faith are presented as being two alternate states of being. If you are full of fear, you are not trusting Jesus. The night Jesus is asleep in a boat on the sea of Galilee and a storm suddenly start blowing the wind and the waves, the disciples are terrified and wake him up. Jesus silences the storm and then says, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?”
Other places the fear is more subtle. Out there in the wilderness with the crowd of 5000 people in need, the disciples become anxious about what might happen with a hungry mob of people. Their fear leads them to tell Jesus to send the people away in order to go get food. They have that “Oh, no! Bad things are going to happen!” state of mind. Jesus rejects their advice. He tells them in essence, “Trust me, let go, and serve the people you see in front of you.”
Throughout the Gospel, the disciples seem to exhibit more fear than faith. In this instance, why are the disciples so afraid to ask Jesus what he means with all this suffering and death talk? The answer to that one seems pretty clear: The last time Jesus told them he had to go to Jerusalem to suffer and die, Simon Peter had challenged him about it, and the result was he received from Jesus the most intense rebuke that any single person ever receives in the Gospels: “Get behind me Satan!” The disciples are afraid that if they ask Jesus to explain what he is saying, they will receive the same sort of anger that Simon Peter previously received. So it seems better to them to remain silent and ignorant.
Notice however that the time Peter got called “Satan”, he wasn’t asking a question. He was telling Jesus that he knew better than he did what his mission was all about. He was being arrogant.
But the truth is, Jesus loved questions. We think of him as the “answer man”, but it might be better to call him the “question man.” In the Gospels he asks questions 307 times. Many of the questions he asks aren’t the sort that you answer once and for all and then you’re done with the question. No, they are questions to live with.
There is famous quote from the poet Rainer Maria Rilke of words written in a letter to a young poet who had asked him for advice, in which he told him to be patient with the big questions of his life. Don’t try to force an answer prematurely: “Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.”
Jesus asked a lot of these sorts of questions: Here’s a couple:
“What does it profit a man if he inherits the whole world, but loses his soul?”
“Why are you so afraid?”
“Why do you notice the speck in your neighbor’s eye, yet fail to perceive the beam in your own eye?”
“If you greet only your brothers and sisters, what is unusual about that? Do not the Gentiles do the same?”
And this seemingly innocuous question: “What do you want me to do for you?” It invites us to get in touch with our deepest dreams and desires.
I attended a meeting this week at Drew Theological School with Sabitha, our seminarian student, along with all the other students doing supervised ministry and their supervising ministers. The dean described how each of the students were asked to give a lot of thought to their learning goals for the experience they were about to undertake in local churches. She told a story about how when she said this at a previous meeting, a student who was an accomplished middle aged woman, having previously achieved degrees in other graduate programs came up to her afterwards in a state of astonishment. In all her years, she said, she had never been asked what it was she wanted to learn. She had always sought to find out what others had wanted her to learn, and then set out to please them. And what surprised her even further was that she could not recall asking herself the question, either.
One of the big questions Jesus asked is contained in our reading today: He asks the disciples, “What were you arguing about as we walked along the way?” They’d walked for several hours that day down the dusty roads of Galilee, and during the time Jesus was aware that there was a lot of conversation going on out of his range of his hearing.
It’s a question that invites some self-reflection: A more general way of asking the question might be to ask, “What are the thoughts that run through our heads in the course of our days, as we go about our various activities?” The question requires we step back and take an honest look at ourselves, something we may not be inclined to do, because what we may not like what we see.
Maybe we will realize that we’ve spent an inordinate amount of time and energy worrying, being afraid. We become conscious that we are full of fear, and the direction our thoughts are going buries our faith deep down inside us.
Perhaps we take notice of the way we obsess over resentments, or desires to possess something we don’t have, and we see that our thoughts have left no space for love.
In one of his books, Scott Peck tells a story from when he was a teenager of an experience that was very ordinary and otherwise, insignificant that provided remarkable meaning and insight when he asked the question, “What have I been thinking about?” He was walking down a road when he spotted a classmate coming towards him from a long ways off. It took them five minutes to meet one another, at which point they paused to speak to one another for maybe five minutes about rather ordinary stuff of their school life together, after which they headed off in opposite directions.
Five minutes later he stopped, dumbstruck. He realized that he spent the time approaching his classmate thinking about what he might say to impress him with how clever he was; that during the course of their conversation his eyes were peeled on his classmate for one purpose only – for signs of how well he was succeeding; and that the five minutes afterwards was consumed with thoughts assessing how well he had done.
With a flash of insight, it struck him just how entirely self-absorbed his last 15 minutes had been. It was all about himself — not really himself, but of the image he was trying so hard to conjure up about himself. He hadn’t actually thought about his classmate at all except in terms of his being somebody he could impress. And he recognized, suddenly, that if he were to continue on this self-absorbed path, the life he would live would be incredibly petty and small, in the end, an altogether meaningless life.
Scott Peck went on to say it wasn’t that he suddenly understood the truth and that from then on life’s big questions were solved, that he then and there ceased to be self-absorbed. But what changed is that he recognized the sort of questions he needed to live with – questions like, what makes for a truly meaningful life?
When Jesus asked the disciples, “What were you arguing about on the way?” I think he hoped to inspire the same kind of self-reflection that the young Scott Peck engaged in.
The disciples didn’t answer Jesus’ question out loud, but Mark makes it clear they were answering it inside their hearts, and the answers weren’t pretty: Even though I am a disciple of Jesus, on a deep level, I’m still all about competing to be thought of as better than others.
This time he doesn’t ask another question; he makes a simple, concrete, declarative statement, saying that if they want to be great, they need to be the servant of every person they meet. And then to drive the point home he talks a small child up into his arms and says, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”
We tend to view children somewhat differently from the way they were viewed in Jesus’ day, so we may not fully get what Jesus was getting at here. There are neglected children in this world, but for the most part, we don’t see a lot of them. Children tend to get a great deal of attention these days. We have this culture of child adoration.
Not so in Jesus’ time. The primary value children had was that one day they might grow up to be an adult who could do something useful to help the family survive in this world, but until then, they were essentially nobodies. Most children died from disease before they even made it to adolescence, so people didn’t shower children with attention – it didn’t seem worth it.
So for Jesus, that child in his arms represents more than just children: the child represented all the invisible people in this world, all the people with no social status, no money, no power — people who can’t do anything for you. He was saying, “I want you to be a servant of the people considered as insignificant as this child.”
Saint Francis of Assisi had a beautiful saying. “Go out into the world and preach the Gospel,” he said, “use words if you have to.” The point being, the Gospel is best preached by actions rather than words. The message of the Gospel is heard best when it is embodied in human beings willing to follow Jesus.
The Gospel proclaims that every single human being is beloved by God; somebody that Jesus considered worthy of his death. The best way to convey this message is to care for the people that the world overlooks and devalues.
The world needs examples of how of what it looks like to live out the Gospel.
It makes all the difference in the world who we choose for heroes, who it is we look to as models of how to live. We need to choose our heroes carefully.
This month three people have appeared on our national stage, and each, in their own way offered to us as potential heroes for us to admire.
Let’s take a brief look at the three.
The first is Kim Davis, the county clerk in Kentucky who has been in and out of prison for refusing to issue marriage licenses to gay and lesbian people. She has garnered headlines and national TV coverage and the support of presidential candidates. Many view her as a courageous Christian being persecuted for her beliefs.
There is that old saying: you may be the only Bible anybody reads. What is the message people are reading from the Bible of Kim Davis? That the essence of Christianity is about closing doors, about rejecting gay and lesbian persons. With examples like Kim Davis who claim the identity of Christian, it is no wonder that when young people are asked these days what words comes to mind when they hear the word “Christian”, the most common words you get are intolerance and the rejection of gay and lesbian persons. How did it come to be that Christians got known by such things, rather than by the very thing that Jesus said we were to be about: serving the people the world rejects?
The Gospel is about welcoming the stranger, and unfortunately but Kim Davis is about shutting the door on the stranger. It’s worth asking ourselves another of Jesus’ big questions that we are called to live our lives underneath: “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord’ and do not do what I command?”
The second person has dominated the national stage lately, and that, you probably guessed is Donald Trump. Amazingly, he too claims to be a Christian, though that is not the center of his message. He flaunts his wealth, insults people who disagree with him, and looks down on the very people Jesus said we are supposed to be serving, calling them “losers.” His one and only real policy proposal is about putting up a great wall, and kicking out millions of people out of the country with no compassion whatsoever for their struggles. He talks about “making America great again,” and yet Jesus said true greatness comes when we embrace humbly the life of a servant, caring for the least among us.
Trump is admired by millions of Americans as an example of how we should live, and that in itself is highly disturbing. He is living the life that Scott Peck would have lived out if he hadn’t been willing to live under Jesus’ big questions: rich in stuff and empty of soul.
The third person isn’t an American citizen, but he will be arriving in our country this Tuesday, and that is, of course, Pope Francis. It is hard to imagine a person more different from Donald Trump. Although the pope lives under a doctrine that says he is infallible, he speaks humbly, expressing doubt that he is, in fact, always understanding things clearly. In contrast, Donald Trump is quick to claim he is infallible.
This Pope really gets it about his namesake’s expression, “Go into the world and preach the Gospel: use words if you have to.” His actions powerfully convey the Gospel. He moved out of the luxurious Pope’s apartments in order to live instead in the modest quarters of a monk, to be a little closer to the experience of the poor in this world. He passes on the fancy pope mobile in order to drive around in a Ford Focus. He spends a great deal of time with the poor, and unlike Trump, isn’t afraid to get his hands dirty in contact with the poor, getting down on his knees to washes their feet.
This week Pope Francis will do things popes have traditionally done when they visit: he will be adored by the masses, he will meet with the Cardinals and have a visit in the White House. But Pope Francis has made a point to include time to be with the downtrodden of the world. He intends to visit a women’s prison in Philadelphia, and a church in East Harlem, inhabited by the poor, and certainly not a few of the people who are labeled “illegal aliens.”
There is a lot of fear in the United States. Hopefully Pope Francis will inspire us to try to let go of some of that fear and to live more intentionally out a place of faith, and to live under the questions that Jesus would have us ask as we try to follow him in this world.