When we don’t talk about the important things–the things we need to talk about–we end up fighting about silly things. This is true of the disciples and it remains true today. (See the Gospel for yesterday, Mark 9:30-37.) So…do you have any questions?
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
“Any questions?” the teaching assistant of my astronomy lab asked, after she’d explained our first lab. I had so many questions. I’d taken this class my first semester in college to fulfill my physical science requirement. Science, and physics in particular, had never been my strong suit, so I thought astronomy might be a good fit. It was intro level, and I already knew most of my constellations, so this would be perfect. Turns out it was much more about physics than constellations.
But as I looked around the lab in confusion, everyone else was just getting to work. No one had any questions. So I never raised my hand. I pretended that I knew what was going on and let my lab partner carry me through the practical portions of class.
Have you ever been there? Being desperately confused and unsure of what’s happening, but you feel like you can’t ask questions? We’re always told that there’s no such thing as a stupid question, but still we don’t like to ask sometimes. We don’t like to reveal our ignorance, our lack of understanding. We assume that we’re the only ones who don’t get it, when that might not be true. Maybe others are just as scared as we are to ask.
It’s even harder when our questions are about things we think we should already know. Or things we think we shouldn’t have questions about in the first place. Often religion falls into this category. We think it’s somehow unfaithful to ask questions. That doing so reveals our doubts or lack of belief.
Maybe that’s why the disciples didn’t ask Jesus their questions. Jesus has just said for the second time that he would be handed over to the authorities, and be killed, and be resurrected. The scripture tells us that the disciples “did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.”
Maybe they thought they should understand. After all, this is the second time he’s told them. Maybe they were afraid of looking stupid. Maybe they didn’t want to be thought unfaithful. Maybe, they were afraid of what the answers might be.
I wonder what would have happened had they asked their questions. What might they have been? How do you know that this is going to happen, Jesus? Why do you have to die? Who is going to hand you over? What is going to happen to us?
But instead of talking about these important things, big questions, they start debating who is the greatest. I’d love to be a fly on the wall for that conversation. What criteria were they using to measure great discipleship? From Jesus’ response, we get the sense that they weren’t the right ones.
But it’s important for us to notice that this conversation about greatness, this posturing and debate, it only comes about because the disciples ignore their real questions. They refuse to ask Jesus what they really need to. And they’re left to their silly debate.
When we are not willing to engage what’s really important, we end up engaging in petty squabbles instead. The author of James would call it setting our minds on human things, instead of divine things. “Such wisdom does not come from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, devilish,” he writes, going on to say “for where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind.”
The disciples are living this out. Because they are too scared or too embarrassed to focus on what matters, they instead focus on their own envy and ambitions. How often do we do the same? How often would we be silent and embarrassed if Jesus asked us what we we’ve been talking about?
Have we been talking about how our company treats its employees, or are we instead focused on profit margins and bonuses? Have we been talking about how school board decisions affect the most vulnerable students, or are we instead focused on test scores? Have we been talking about how the church can be a safe space for the most vulnerable, can be a leading voice in working for justice, or are we instead focused on attendance and giving numbers?
The important conversations are often the hard conversations to have. Maybe that’s why we sometimes avoid them. These conversations—about what we value, what we stand for, what we’re willing to sacrifice—they ruffle feathers. But we can’t avoid them. To avoid these difficult questions and conversations leaves us like the disciples, missing the point and arguing about trivia.
Lest we turn these conversations into just one more competition, trying to prove who is right and who is wrong, Jesus has a word of caution: start with serving. Start with putting yourself last. As James says, “be peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy.” Listen to one another, seek understanding.
Jesus brings it concretely home to the disciples: if you want to be the greatest, the first, the most important, you have to make yourself last and a servant of all. Jesus is redefining greatness for us. He takes a little child in his arms and announces: whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.
We are welcoming a child today, when Hope Iverson will be baptized. We welcome Hope as a valued and beloved member of our community, even though she’s not old enough to walk or talk. We value her because God values her. We love her because God loves her. What Jesus has to say about welcoming children is even more radical than we think. Children in his time were not as precious and coveted as Hope is to her parents. Children in Jesus’ time were expendable, seen as burdens on society. Greatness is welcoming, loving, caring for those most vulnerable. Those most unable to repay the favor. Greatness is seeing Jesus in them and serving Jesus in them. What the disciples were arguing about doesn’t really matter, because to be the first, you must put yourself last.
Any questions? Let’s do our best not to avoid the real questions. They can be scary, there’s no doubt about that. But in asking them, we find ourselves in conversation with Jesus, on the road together. God does not abandon us to our questions and doubts, instead they are welcomed as signs of what they are: faith seeking understanding.
Let us be a place where all are welcomed; let us be open to the most vulnerable, those who are not considered great by any worldly standard. Let us be a place where our whole self is welcomed too: our questions and doubts, our worries and our fears. They are welcome here. In asking them, we will always find the God who became the last and the least by our side. Amen.