Sermon – Sunday, September 23, 2012
Zion Lutheran Church, Hoople, ND
They were silent. In Mark’s gospel today, Jesus was explaining to the disciples that he was to be betrayed, killed, and would rise again. “But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.” So they said nothing. Later when they arrived at their destination in Capernaum Jesus asked them another question. He asked the disciples what they were arguing about and again……they were silent. They were silent because they were arguing about who was the greatest and they were most likely embarrassed that they had been caught arguing about such a thing. If you’ve ever been around a group of children arguing and then asked them what they were arguing about you know what happens……they are silent.
It’s interesting in today’s gospel that at both times Jesus is trying to get the disciples to say what is on their minds. He is trying to get them to reveal the questions that are burning to be asked, but they don’t want to talk. You can’t really blame them. In last week’s gospel text, Peter professed that Jesus was the Messiah, but then when he didn’t understand why Jesus had to suffer and be killed, he was called Satan by Jesus. After that encounter the other disciples didn’t want to risk being called Satan either, so they were silent.
I’ve had teachers and I’m sure you have too that were very intimidating and if you answered them incorrectly they were not gracious in telling you or the entire class why you were wrong. And so you learn not to speak up the next time for fear of being embarrassed. I think that is how the disciples felt when Jesus was explaining his mission. They didn’t understand, but were afraid of risking embarrassment so they didn’t ask him to explain it again. They may have been afraid that he’d say, “Really, how many times am I going to have to go over this with you!” So they didn’t ask any questions.
But Jesus didn’t call Peter Satan because he spoke up. He called him Satan because Peter’s idea of what a Messiah was supposed to be was different than the Messiah Jesus was called to be. So today, Jesus tries to explain it again to the disciples and instead of engaging in a conversation with Jesus they decided to play it safe. But engaging in conversation was exactly what Jesus was asking of them. He wanted them to understand and in order to do that they had to be honest with what it was that they didn’t understand and they were not willing to do that. They were just arguing about who was the greatest. Certainly, you’re not great if you don’t have all the answers, right?
We all are guilty of this from time to time. And if I am honest, I am guilty of it a lot more than I’d like to admit. There’s many reasons for how we learned we have to be perfect; I certainly know there are for me, but that’s the past. Yes, old habits die hard, but the truth is that in our human sinfulness to want to be great and do great things, we have the misguided idea like the disciples that the people who are the greatest are the ones who have all the answers. The truth is, you can’t get the answers without first asking the questions. And for the disciples, and many of us, we’re still asking the wrong questions.
Who is the greatest? Who has the best job? Who is the most respected? Why are we so concerned about being great? Why were the disciples? Maybe because we, like them, are human and we want to amount to something. We want to make a difference in this world. There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s an admirable goal, but we’re missing the point. Greatness isn’t found in people who have all the answers and do all the right things. Greatness is not found in perfection; it’s found in servant-hood. It’s easy to forget that. It’s certainly not what our culture tells us.
I received an email a couple of days ago with an attached article entitled The Blessing of Not Being Perfect by Joan Chittister, a Catholic nun in the Benedictine order. In her article Sister Joan explains that we need to embrace our imperfections. She says, “Humanity is a mixture of blunders. That’s what makes it so charming, so interesting to be around. Because none of us is complete, we all need one another. It’s only when we convince ourselves that we are the fullness of all that is, that we become spiritually poor.” It’s easy to forget and I am very grateful to the friend who sent this article to me. In my effort to try and be the best person I can be, I often compare myself to those great people who achieve so much. But God is not asking me or any of us to be perfect. God is asking us to be authentic.
Jesus didn’t want Thomas to be just like Peter. He didn’t want James to be just like Andrew or Matthew to be just like Bartholomew. They were arguing over which one of them was better than the other and all the time Jesus just wanted them to be who they were. Jesus called the twelve because they were all different. If there was one greatest among them he would have called only one. Of course, there was one who was greatest among them and that was Jesus, but instead of trying to be just like Jesus they were trying to be better than each other. It’s a problem many of us still face today. That’s why these gospel stories are so important because human nature hasn’t changed over the centuries. We strive to be great instead of allowing ourselves to be led by the one who is the greatest of all – Jesus, our Savior, our Messiah.
And so in our effort to be great, we hold back our questions. We think our doubts are signs of weakness. We don’t want to reveal our weaknesses because, well, greatness isn’t found in weakness is it? Mark’s gospel says yes. When Jesus took the little child in his arms he was showing them what it meant to embrace greatness. In those days, children were of no importance in society. They were considered almost as low as animals. There was nothing significant about children. They were barely considered humans and they didn’t understand anything. They certainly didn’t have all the answers. In fact, children today still don’t. They have far more questions than answers. Hang around little children long enough and all you’ll hear is a long list of whys. “Why is the sun so hot? Why does a dog have a tail? Why does a cat meow? Why do the birds fly south? Why does a bumblebee buzz? Why do ducks have webbed feet? Why do I have to wear a hat? Why do I have to go to bed? Why do I have to go to school? Why do I have to sit in church? Why, why, why……and after a while most adults are tempted to just say, “Because I said so!” But children are asking questions because they want to know the answers. Yet when we become adults we stop asking the questions because we don’t want to appear like little kids; we don’t want to look like we don’t know what we are talking about. But the answers only come when we ask enough questions.
There’s a web site called a more beautiful question . com This web site praises questions as the means to understand. One story tells how in 1943, Edwin Land was taking a picture of his three year old daughter with a regular camera of that time. She asked, “Why do I have to wait for the picture?” After a serious of questions – and failures – he eventually invented the Polaroid camera. The questions were necessary to find the answer.
Questions and doubts are not a sign of a lack of intelligence. They are a witness of someone who is searching for the truth and it takes great courage to risk asking. Jesus wants us, like the disciples, to come to him with our questions, doubts, and insecurities. Silence on our part is not the answer. We must be bold in our prayers and not be afraid that we don’t even know how to pray as beautifully as others. Prayer is our communication with God. It is our opportunity to understand who God is and what God is calling us to do in our lives.
Sister Joan Chittister in her book Wisdom Distilled From The Daily, says, “The function of prayer is to change my own mind, to put on the mind of Christ, to enable grace to break into me.” She says, “Prayer leads us and leavens us and enlightens us. And changes us. It makes us something bigger than we are.” It is God who makes us great, not ourselves. And only in humbling ourselves before God can we be changed.
We don’t have to wait to say something to God until we feel we have something intelligent to say. After all, how can anything we say be intelligent compared to the Almighty Sovereign God of the Universe? We are small, and insignificant compared to God. Jesus held up the little child in Mark’s gospel as an example of where greatness can be found – not in those who have all the answers, but those willing to ask the questions, those willing to be the least in society. God lifts us up and because of that God accomplishes great things through us. We don’t have to be perfect; greatness is found in servant-hood, in following the One who is the greatest of all, who became the servant of all.
There are many people in the 20th century that we consider great – Mother Theresa, Martin Luther King, Jr., Gandhi, Nelson Mandela. All these people were servant-leaders. They did not strive to be great or perfect, but strove to be servants of the Living God. In following Jesus’ example to care for the least in society, God achieved great things through them. Each of these individuals was not afraid to go to God in prayer, to speak their fears, and doubts, and anxieties to God. In order to understand anyone and have a good relationship with them, we must communicate with them. Prayer is our opportunity to communicate with the Living God. It needs to be an ongoing dialogue. We are to pour our burdens before God and then listen for the answer. If we hear no answer, we must still continue to pray, for prayer may not always change the situation, but it will change us. It will open our hearts. It will teach us to be servants, for we as Christians are called to follow Jesus to the cross even when we do not understand. For how can we understand fully the power of the cross, the power of Jesus made perfect in weakness? Jesus embraces us in prayer.
And just as Jesus embraces us, we are called to embrace others. We are called to embrace those who seem insignificant. We must not be silent in our prayers and we must not be silent in speaking the truth, even if it means ridicule, even if it means possible failure. A famous quote by Edmund Burke says, “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” We cannot be silent in speaking up for those in society who have no voice. We cannot be silent when things are being taken from the poor. We cannot be silent when people are being bullied for who they are or what they believe. We cannot be silent in going to God in prayer because in doing so we can come to more fully understand this Jesus whom we claim to follow.
Like the disciples, we strive for greatness instead of following the One who is the greatest. There is only one Savior and we are not Him. We have questions but are afraid to ask. Today I’m going to ask that we offer God not only our time and talents but our doubts and fears as well. Please take the time – if you haven’t already done so – and write on the slips of paper handed to you by the children, a question you have about God, about Scripture, or about faith. Don’t write your names on them. These are your questions. And when the ushers come around to collect your offerings, please place those in the offering plate too. Just as we give God our time, talents, and money, we can give God our questions, frustrations, and doubts as well. We may feel weak, but our God is strong. Our God is bigger than our questions. Let us not keep silent. Amen.