Pastor Steve Molin
Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost
Dear friends in Christ, grace to you and peace, from God our Father, and his Son, our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
I want to have a conversation with you this morning. Sounds odd, I know, coming from your pastor standing at the pulpit on a Sunday morning. Might even make you a little nervous; like I’m going to call on you and say, “How do you feel about that, Mildred?” I’m not going to do that. But what I DO want to do today is share in a conversational way about what we just read in Mark’s gospel text. So let me tell you what I know…
For three years Jesus and the Twelve moved throughout the cities and towns and wilderness areas of Israel. While Jesus taught, the disciples listened, and interacted with the crowds, and handled some of the details of the journey. And I think that, for those twelve men, they thought this was it; this was the extent of their ministry. They probably never expected it would become anything more than what they already knew.
But in last week’s gospel, Jesus gives them a hint of the future. A hint! Heck, he gives them a bombshell, do you recall it? He asked what people were saying about him, and he got various responses. And then Peter chimed in, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” Finally, somebody recognized who Jesus was. So Jesus gives Peter an ‘atta boy!’ and then tells them all that was in store. In Mark’s gospel, there are three passion predictions by Jesus and this is the first: “I’m going to Jerusalem and I’m going to be killed, but I will rise again.” And they didn’t get it, but that was only the first installment.
This week, Jesus tries again. They are walking through the region of Galilee, by the lake of the same name. In our time, it would be like being “Up North.” Jesus and the disciples are up north, hiking and talking, and again Jesus mentions the future. “I’ll be killed and will rise again in three days.” And still the disciples are clueless and begin to have a conversation about which one of them is the most important disciple. I suppose we do that sort of thing when we get nervous; when a topic makes us uncomfortable we change the subject and talk about sports, or the weather, or who mom likes best. Jesus will try one more time in the next chapter of Mark, and again, the disciples still will not understand. It is not until that first Easter Sunday that the disciples begin to comprehend the purpose of Jesus’ life.
And here’s the thing: You and I know the rest of the story. We know about his dying on the cross, and rising again on Easter, but except for that, we don’t understand much more than the disciples did. We don’t understand WHY Jesus had to die like that. We cannot grasp how his death paid for our sins, nor do we comprehend why God couldn’t simply change the rules and forgive us without having his son die. They’re his rules, after all! In short, like the disciples, we don’t understand. And also like the disciples, we’ve never really pursued these things with God. Not me. Not deeply.
Did you notice when I read the text? “But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.” Nobody dared say to Jesus, “Why do you have to go through this?” Nobody thought to ask, “How are you going to rise after being dead for three days?” Not one disciple ever says to Jesus, “Hey, what is the real point of your ministry anyway?” So, why the silence? Why the unwillingness to ask Jesus the simplest of questions? “But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.” The disciples of Jesus were afraid to ask Jesus a question.
And so are we. And so are we. Because questions make us look stupid, right? Last Friday, I put up a sign that said, “Adam and Eve didn’t eat just one apple; they ate a pear.” A pair! Someone came up to me this morning and said, “Nobody understands your sign.” Why doesn’t anybody just ask me? Because they don’t want to look stupid.
My first week at Luther Seminary found me sitting in a class with 20 other first year students, all males by the way, listening to a lecture. At one point, a student asked a question about something the professor had said, and the professor’s response was something like, “Well, duh!” Do you think that student asked any more questions at the seminary? Ever? I don’t think so, because now he was afraid. Now he had been embarrassed in front of classmates and friends, so he put a shield up to protect himself from ever feeling that way again.
And in the same way, we are afraid of looking stupid, or sounding unfaithful, or questioning the authority of our authorities, so we say nothing. And I would dare to say this; in some congregations, in some denominations, questions are not even tolerated. Where questions are not allowed. “Just believe what we tell you to believe!” That’s not how we do things in this church.
The ironic thing about the disciples not asking Jesus any questions is that the Jews were known for their questions. In the synagogue on Saturday mornings, asking questions of the rabbis and the teachers was the norm. When families celebrate the Passover, the youngest child always takes on the role of “the questioner.” When the candles are lit, or the unleavened bread is eaten, or the bitter herbs are passed around, it is the youngest child who is trained to ask, “Why do we do this Papa?” And then Papa teaches the family about the faith. My friend Murray, who grew up Jewish in Brooklyn, says he came home from school every day and his father was sitting in the stuffed chair. And his father would ask him not “Did you learn anything in school today, Murray?” Rather, his father would say, “Did you ask any good questions?”
But the disciples were afraid. Maybe because they didn’t want to look stupid. Or maybe…because the topic of Jesus’ death was just too sensitive, just too painful to imagine, let alone discuss in detail. Maybe the disciples DID have a hint about the future events and were afraid that they would have to die, too. Or perhaps they didn’t want to know what the future held because ignorance, they say, is bliss.
As I look back over my life, I can’t recall any questions that I regret asking, but I have regret for a lot of the questions I did not ask.
· How might my life have been different if I’d have asked my parents, “Why don’t we go to church like all the other families on the block?”
· What if I would have said to my teachers in high school, “I don’t understand this; can you help me?” instead of struggling through?
· Could I have made a difference if I’d have stood up and said to that seminary professor, “Why did you respond to my fellow student with such disrespect?”
· And now…how might my faith be different if I boldly asked God, “Why do people suffer? Why do children die? Why are you so silent when I pray? Why do I sin when I know better? How can all followers of Jesus get along, and when we don’t, how can we respectfully disagree?”
In our text today, after Jesus made his passion prediction, and after the disciples didn’t ask Jesus “why?” Jesus does an amazing thing. He takes a small child into his arms and holds him tightly, and tells the disciples that this…this child is the example of my Kingdom. Ones who are meek but unafraid to ask questions; they are humble yet willing to be bold in their thoughts and needs and wants and wishes. They are curious, yet simple in their faith. Emulate the children, Jesus says, and you will gain the Kingdom of God. And that gentle message of Jesus comes to us yet today. There is nothing to fear in this one whom even the children trust and believe.
And those questions I asked you to write down – the questions that you would like to ask God? Maybe you did that, maybe you didn’t. Maybe you thought it was a silly exercise and passed on it. Maybe you thought I would ask you to stand up and read your question aloud, so because you were afraid, you didn’t ask it…not even on paper. But there is still time to write one. I’ll ask you to place your question in the offering plate when it comes by, because those questions are every bit as important as the money you put there, and the prayer requests you offer. We will read them, and ponder them, and pray over them, and find ways to answer them as best as we are able in the coming weeks. But in the end, perhaps the important thing is not the answer you may or may not receive. No, the important thing is the questions that you will ask…because you can. Thanks be to God. Amen.
©2012 Steven Molin