Proper 20, Year B, 2012

Listen to the sermon here.

Have you ever been afraid to ask a question?

Have you ever sat in chemistry class as everyone is smiling and nodding and taking notes, while you’re still not quite sure how a covalent bond works?

Have you ever been to a party and happened into a conversation about Psy and something called Gangham style and you think everyone is talking about music, but you’re not entirely sure, so you keep your mouth shut?

Or more seriously, have you seen your significant other light up when someone else enters a room?

Or seen an unusually serious look on your physician’s face?

Or wondered why your kid seemed so spaced out lately?

There are questions we are afraid to ask.

There are questions the disciples were afraid to ask, too.

For the second time, Jesus warned the disciples he was going to be betrayed, die, and would rise again.  His statement just hangs in the air.  No one responds to him. The Gospel of Mark explains that the disciples did not understand and were afraid to ask Jesus anything.

I wonder why they were afraid. Were they afraid of Jesus dying?  Were they afraid Jesus was a little unstable with all this resurrection talk?  Were they afraid one of them might be the betrayer?

In any case, they do not respond to Jesus’ statement.  Instead they start talking amongst themselves about which of them is the greatest.  A few days earlier, they had seen Jesus transfigure before their eyes.  During that transfiguration they saw Elijah and Moses, back from the dead.  Instead of discussing what Jesus had just said about his own death, maybe they started thinking about this happy event instead.  Maybe they started wondering which one of them would get the privilege of glowing with Jesus at the next transfiguration event. Who would be the greatest? Maybe they started ribbing each other about how good they would look in glowing robes.  Anything, anything to avoid discussing the real issue.

And of course, that is the very moment Jesus turns around.  Like a mother, Jesus seems to have eyes in the back of his head when it comes to his disciples.  He just knows they are up to something.  When they sheepishly admit they have been arguing about who will be the greatest, he gives them an object lesson.

He pulls over a child and says, “Whoever wants to be first must be last and servant of all.  Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me”

In our culture, children are put up on a pedestal.   We read up about their development and schedule our lives around their naps.  We do our best to make sure they are in the best schools and include them in decision making in our households.  We buy them expensive clothes, toys, and electronics.

In Jesus’ time, children did not have such a valued status.  They were loved, of course, but children were thought of as lesser.  They were vulnerable.  They were on the fringes of society.

But certain things don’t change.  Children of any time ask questions.  One of the delightful things about working with children is their absolute inquisitiveness, especially four year olds.  At a Lenten Supper at Emmanuel Church five or six years ago, a four year old named Adelaide asked me a series of questions. “Why do you wear a white robe?  Why do we have communion?  What is heaven like? Where does God live?” Twenty minutes later still answering questions, I slowly backed out of a screen door trying to get on with my evening.  As I shut the screen she asked, “And why does that door have holes in it?”

If four-year-old Adelaide ran across Jesus she would ask him questions until he escaped up a mountain.  Children are vulnerable, yes, but they are also incredibly tenacious, even rude.  Children don’t understand taboos or social norms.  Children don’t understand that there are some questions they should be afraid to ask.

And Jesus wants his disciples to be more like children.  Jesus wants us to be more like children.

Jesus wants us to approach him, unafraid and ask him whatever is on our heart.

In some denominations, if you start asking too many questions, someone will tilt their head to the side and say sympathetically, “I’ll pray for your faith,” as if human questions have the ability to unravel the God of the Universe.

But one of the best things about the Episcopal Church is that we believe God is big enough to handle your toughest questions.

Why do the books of Deuteronomy and Joshua have such different perspectives on the same time frame?  Why don’t the Four Gospels agree with each other?  Why was the Apostle Paul so crabby about women?  How do we love a God that allows massive bloodshed in his name?  What if Mary wasn’t a virgin?  What if Jesus wasn’t perfect?

Why do Christians still cheat and lie and steal?  How can there be a God if there is no scientific evidence for it?

Tough questions about our faith do not undermine our faith. In fact, tough questions can be the beginning of adult faith.  We offer Christian Education for every age at this church, because we may know the Bible stories by heart by the time we get confirmed, but the real in depth understanding of Scripture and theology cannot begin until our brains are old enough to understand complex ideas.

Our faith is not a child’s faith.  Our faith hinges on a man being murdered for being obedient to God.  That’s not the subject of children’s books!  But in order to fully enter the stories and ideas of our faith we need to have open, curious minds in the same way that children have open and curious minds.

Jesus invites us to lose our inhibitions and fears so we can engage with him and with each other humbly, openly and with curiosity.   Jesus wants us to ask him the hard questions.

You may not find answers to all of your questions.  Your “Whys?” may be met with nothing more satisfying than with “Because I said so”, but in the asking, in the wrestling, you will encounter the living God.

Throughout the Gospel of Mark, the disciples bumble around, never fully comprehending Jesus.  Over and over again they tell Jesus they don’t understand him or just ignore really important things he says.  And yet the disciples follow him.  They don’t walk away because they are confused.  Jesus is too compelling for that.

Our God wants to communicate with us so much he becomes one of us.  He spoke our words with our voice box and mouth and tongue.  He encapsulates vast cosmic ideas in a human body and mind.  Empathetic doesn’t begin to describe a God that would literally walk in our shoes.  This is a God that has seen our worst.  He can handle your questions.  No matter what they are, no matter how shocking, no matter how the answers might up end your world.

So, if you were little Adelaide, what would you ask Jesus?

Amen.

 

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