Saturday, September 22, 2012

What if?

I am indebted to the writing of D. Mark Davis, Amy Oden (Gospel tab), Alyce McKenzie,and Delmer Chilton for their ideas and sermon paths.

Mark 9:30-37
They went on from there and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it; for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, "The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again." But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.
Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, "What were you arguing about on the way?" But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest. He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, "Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all." Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, "Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me."

This is the Word of the Lord.

“They did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.”

At this point in the Gospel, Jesus had gone with Peter, James and John on a mountaintop and had been transfigured before them. He had cast a demon from a child – mind you, the other disciples had not only tried to do this and failed, they’d gotten into a loud and bitter argument with some scribes over the matter to boot.

The point is that the disciples, either in smaller or larger groups, had seen plenty of who Jesus was and is, had heard him answer hard questions countless times, and this is by no means the first time he has told them in detail, about what awaits him at the end of this road: betrayal, suffering, death, and ultimately, resurrection.

But what they are hearing clashes with what they think they know. The Messiah is supposed to come in glory and crush his enemies, not be given over into their hands and killed! It is as if Jesus is suddenly speaking in another language, or stringing together words in a nonsense fashion. It isn’t connecting.

But they’re afraid to ask. No one wants to pipe up, no one wants to look stupid. After all, they’re The Twelve, right? They’re the big dogs, the inner circle, they’re supposed to have all of this figured out. They have a reputation to uphold.

Or maybe they remember the dressing-down Peter got when he took Jesus aside… forgetting, of course, that Peter hadn’t been asking anything, he’d been attempting to correct Jesus’ misconceptions about himself. And maybe they are frightened of the answer, fearing that the man they’d abandoned their former lives to follow was, in fact, not who they thought him to be. Perhaps what terrified them was that Jesus was who they thought him to be, and to have that confirmed once and for all was an overwhelming thought.

I wonder… what if they hadn’t been afraid? What if someone – Peter or James or John, maybe, who had seen him glorified and shining like the sun, or even Thomas, who had a quiet determination to follow no matter what, or Nathaniel, who doesn’t get very many good lines in the Gospel narrative – what if one of them had asked?

What would they have asked?

“Look, Jesus, all this death-and-resurrection talk doesn’t square with what we’ve been taught. Explain to us how God can die.”

“How will you come in your glory if you are humiliated on a cross, Jesus?”

“Jesus, we expect you to save us from the Romans. How is all of this really going to help us where we really need help?”

“Um, Jesus, ‘rise again?’ What does that mean, exactly?”

Whatever form it takes, the question that the disciples are afraid to ask is the question that propelled so many early Christian attempts to construct a logical, intelligible, and horribly misguided, theology of who Christ is. Maybe Jesus didn’t really suffer and die (that’s called Docetism). Maybe only the human part of Jesus suffered, and the divine part was untouched (that’s called Gnosticism). Early Christians struggled almost endlessly with this question: what sort of deity lets himself get pushed into a corner like that, and does it on purpose? The early Christians needed an almighty God who conquers enemies, not one who suffers and dies.

If only the disciples had asked, we could have known the answers to the basic questions of who Jesus is, and of the nature of God. Perhaps then the church could have avoided millennia of heresies, conflicts, schisms, and bloodshed.

Or maybe the church would have found other reasons to have heresies, conflicts, schisms and bloodshed.

We are human, after all, and like the disciples, we have our own questions we are afraid to ask. No one wants to look uninformed, confused, or clueless. We withhold our toughest questions, within ourselves, within own churches, and within Christian fellowship. We pretend we don't have hard questions. Yet, if we are honest, the deepest mysteries of life elude us. Why do good people suffer? Why are humans so brutal to one another? Why does evil succeed? If God's own Son is betrayed and killed, then is anyone safe? Why did God set up a world like this?

The disciples didn’t ask. They avoided the hard question, and instead – or, perhaps, as an unavoidable result of avoiding the hard question – started bickering over who was the greatest: who the head disciple was, who was going to occupy the throne closest to Jesus, and on and on.

And in response to all of this – yes, all of the arguing, but I wonder if it was also in response to their lack of comprehension, and fear of asking the hard questions? In any case, Jesus sits them down in a circle and puts a child right there in the middle of them.

A child.

What is it about a child here? I’ve read plenty of sermons about the importance of childlike faith, about how I should focus on my inward life, on becoming more pure, more innocent, more humble, more spontaneous, more trusting. More childlike in my faith.

And there is no question that, in other portions of the Gospel narrative, we as Christians are told that we must become like little children. That childlike faith is important.

But that childlike faith isn’t the point here.

You see, the disciples were arguing over who was the greatest specifically because they viewed “greatness” in exactly the same way every human does.

In order to win, you see, someone has to lose. In order to lead, someone has to follow. One is only greater if another is lesser. Our culture, our politics, our advertising, and, all too often, even popular Christian theology is predicated upon seeing one’s self as better than another. It is a common language, perfectly acceptable in polite society.

And in that one profound act, putting that child (probably a toddler) in the circle of disciples, and then embracing that child, Jesus is telling us one simple fact: We have it all wrong.

Let me tell you about the value of children in ancient society: In Rome, when a baby was born it was laid at the feet of its father. If the father picked the child up, it lived. If the father ignored it, it was taken out of the house and left to die.

Now, Jewish culture was not that harsh, and more value was given to children. A father was bound by Law and tradition to teach the firstborn the Torah, teach him a trade, and get a wife for him. But there was no provision for female children, and nothing stopping that father from offering his children for sale as slaves if times got tough, and it did happen, because when you got right down to it, children, like women, were property. And outside of the family structure, children were pretty much invisible.

“Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” Servant even of those who have no power, no position, no ability to help you get ahead in your life or career or ambitions. Servant even of those who cannot pay you back. Servant even to the invisible.

It is too easy to end this sermon talking about the invisible people in our society. We all know who they are: the homeless, the alien, the poor, the disenfranchised, those without equal civil rights, those who society as a whole treats as invisible. Obviously, at least in my eyes, we have a clear and compelling duty as followers of Christ to reach out to these individuals and groups and classes, to serve them as Christ served them.

It is much harder to end with a question: a question to all of us, yes, but especially to myself: who is invisible to me? Do I dare ask the hard question, in prayer, to have my eyes opened to the person, or people, I don’t see? To have my heart opened to the people I never notice?

How would history have changed for all of Christianity if the disciples had asked the questions, there on that road through Galilee, that they were afraid to ask?

And what if you and I had the courage to ask the questions we are afraid to ask… and what if we opened our eyes, and hearts, and lives, to the invisible people around us?

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