Readings: James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a and Mark 9:30-37
Have you ever been in a room and thought everyone there was smarter than you?
I sure have. I remember that when I started my ministry training at Harvard Divinity School I was soooo intimidated. I had gone to a small liberal arts college, maybe 2500 students. It was a great education, and I was pretty smart, but whoa. This was Harvard. There were people from Ivy League colleges, and people who, as we say in Boston, were just wickid smaht. And wickid wickid smaht. Talking about theologians and concepts I never heard of before.
I’ll never forget my first assignment: a three page paper on the advantages and disadvantages of the theology of St. Thomas Aquinas. One of the great figures in church history. Three pages, about the length of this sermon – no big deal, right? Not. I was a deer in the headlights. I was paralyzed with fear of looking completely ignorant. Thankfully, a friend walked me through it…all night, paragraph by tortured paragraph.
You know that saying, “Fake it ‘til you make it?” I think that’s how I spent my first semester in Div School. I would listen and then look things up later. I was careful with what I said and when I said it – what I asked and when I asked it – so as not to appear ignorant. And it took me a while to know what was going on and get up to speed.
Afraid to Ask
So, I have sympathy for the disciples in our Gospel today. Jesus is a great teacher. They were his students. This is how he taught them: he’d say things in the midst of the large crowds, like parables. And then when he was alone with the disciples, he’d explain what they meant. Or he would ask them what they thought about what had happened. It was an advanced seminar in discipleship, leadership, and faith.
Now, he’s giving them their hardest lesson. He says, I’m going to be betrayed, handed over to the authorities. I’m going to be killed. And then rise again.
In fact, this is the third time Jesus had predicted his death and resurrection – and the disciples still don’t comprehend it.
Mark says, “But they did not understand what he was saying and [they] were afraid to ask him.”
They didn’t understand. (And who could blame them.)
They were going about healing and teaching, learning some good theology and Biblical interpretation – all well and good.
But death and resurrection? That’s mind-blowing stuff. It flips the script on a what a Messiah should be – supposed to conquer, not be killed. And then rise again? From the dead? And he was only 33 years old. His work had just begun. It just didn’t compute.
And they were afraid to ask. Why? Maybe they didn’t want to accept it. Was there some denial there. Or, perhaps, they didn’t want to reveal that they didn’t understand. They didn’t want to appear as uninformed, confused, and clueless as they felt.
So they didn’t say anything – and they wind up talking amongst themselves, arguing about who is the greatest, which only reinforces that they don’t get it at all, because while Jesus is divesting himself of all his divine power to go to the cross, they are arguing who is and will be the greatest and most powerful disciple.
Questions. Questions (as we can see from the disciples, as we might know in our own lives) are problematic for us because they make us vulnerable, by admitting we don’t know, revealing something personal about us. When I was in seminary I had a professor, who, when you would pose a question – often carefully formulated in such a way as not to reveal too much about yourself, as if you were asking for a friend, would say, “Why do you ask that question?” In those moments, you could see that there is a very short distance from the questions we ask and the things most on our hearts.
Often like the disciples, to avoid this, we just don’t ask at all. We keep our questions to ourselves.
Church, unfortunately, has had a way of reinforcing that.
For a long time church has treated faith was a matter of having the right answers, assimilating the right information. Remember when we had to memorize the catechism. First Commandment, “We are to fear, love, and trust God above all things.” The whole idea was that right answers will lead to right living will lead to right Christian society.
My friend Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber at House for All Sinners and Saints in Denver has joked that Lutherans really believe they are saved, not by grace alone, but by theological precision. That is, by right thinking. Which winds up creating lots of debate about who’s right and who’s greatest.
But when the strength of one’s faith is calculated on the amount of information and the accumulated number answers, we tend to hide what we don’t know. Things like the catechism explanations are, no doubt, good to know, but in an age of Google we can pull things up nearly instantaneously (as I did this morning to make sure I had that explanation right). The question is: what does that mean for my life, as I experience it? And life as we experience it together?
No longer are churches places that distribute answers, as if they were a way to salvation, but places where we can ask questions that matter.
And so, the question I posed on Facebook this week. The question I have asked you this morning to text. “What are the questions we are too afraid – or too polite – to ask in church? What are the questions we keep to ourselves?”
This is why I’m looking forward to our new Animate series on Wednesday nights. A new twist on educational programming. Rather than a talking head giving you an answer about who God is, why you should read the Bible, and what it should mean to you, it suggests and ask for your questions. It revolves around the questions of really smart, faithful, curious and questioning people, people like Nadia. Questions like,
- Why do we have to read these Bible stories over and over and over again?
- How do we, like the disciples, make sense of the cross?
- What is God like? How do we know?
- Why can church be such a complicated, sometimes disappointing, place?
- Do I have to live like Jesus lived? And how would I go about it?
It raises other questions, like,
- Does anybody else have doubts? (By the way, everybody’s got doubts.)
- How do I make sense of suffering?
- Why do bad things happen to good people?
Question as Prayer
Answers are fine, but when we reach the edge of reason, the limits of our knowing, well, that’s when things really start to get interesting. When we discover faith, trust in others, and trust in God.
Jesus tell the disciples, “Whoever want to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” He picks up a child and says, “whoever welcomes a child in my name welcomes me.” And in another scene of welcoming children, he says, “You must be like a child to enter the Kingdom of God.” We often think that the qualities Jesus is talking about here are child-like innocence, acceptance, and trust.
But…they also have great questions and they are not afraid to ask them!
And God welcomes our questions – loves them. Questions open things up, invite conversation, whereas answers can sometimes close them down. Our questions are a form of prayer.
Through questions, as James writes, we can “draw near to God and God will draw near to us.”
Finally, I wonder what would have happened in our story if the disciples had asked, “Jesus, tell us, what do you mean?”
Note: I asked those in worship to share the questions they carry via text message. We displayed them in the sanctuary as I preached using a service called Poll Everywhere. These were some of the responses.
Selected 7:45 Service Responses
God loves all people, even people who are gay, right?
Why do Christians kill others in the name of God?
Is the Bible to be taken literally?
How do dinosaurs fit into the Biblical story of Creation? Before or after Adam and Eve?
Can Christians be demon possessed?
What gives God power?
Do plants and animals go to heaven
Why does God let good things happen to bad people?
Selected 9:00 Service Responses
How do you stay in faith when so many intelligent well educated people say there is nothing beyond this life?
Is is OK to openly disagree with what the church wants us to believe?
Why did God harden Pharaoh’s heart and then punish him for having a hardened heart?
Selected 10:30 Service Responses
How do we know we as Lutherans are correct?
Does the devil really exist?
Would Jesus be able to get a message out today in a world with so many distractions?
How would we recognize a miracle if we saw one?
Is there really a heaven and a hell we will go to when we die?
Would Jesus see Facebook as a good tool or a platform for hurt and pain?
Am I a bad Christian if I don’t want to give everything I have to others? I like new cars clothes and stuff.
Does God love everyone, even those with alternative lifestyles and values?
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