A Time to Keep Silence, and a Time to Speak

Passage: Mark 9:30-37
Date: September 23, 2018
Preacher: Rev. Beth Neel
Guest Preacher:

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A while back I heard a scholar say that the gospel of Mark can be understood as a circular thing. The gospel begins with the adult Jesus in Galilee, starting his ministry, and it ends with an angel in the empty tomb telling the women to go back to Galilee and the risen Jesus will meet them there. This scholar suggested that that is how we are supposed to read Mark – in light of the resurrection.

Mark’s is the shortest gospel, so it’s the easiest to go back and reread. Every time we go back and reread it, we understand it differently, maybe in light of the resurrection, or in light of what’s happening in the world or our own lives, or in light of how our own faith has changed.

So let’s look more closely at Mark 9:30-37. This may be your first time to hear this passage or maybe your 100th. According to my records, I’ve not preached on this before here but have twice in my ministerial career. You’ll be glad I did not recycle either of those sermons for today.

This time when I read this passage, I see something new. This time I think this story invites us to look more deeply at what Jesus is saying, especially the parts that are hard. This passage shows up a little more than halfway through the gospel. It’s the second time that Jesus tells his disciples that he will be killed and then rise from the dead, and it comes after the revelation at the transfiguration and the miraculous healing of a child. Jesus has begun his journey to Jerusalem, to his death.

Laurie’s sermon last week helped me to consider this story in light of who says what, and especially, in light of whether what is said is true, kind, or necessary. Jesus says things that are true and necessary: he will be killed; he will rise; those who would follow him must be servant of all; whoever welcomes a child welcomes him and welcomes God. We might not read his words as being kind because his words are hard to hear.

The disciples, on the other hand, say things that might reflect what they truly think or feel, but their words aren’t particularly kind and certainly aren’t necessary. Jesus invites them to go deeper, to wrestle with the prediction that he will die. They choose not to go deeper but if anything, they choose to go shallow. They argue about who’s the greatest, who will get to sit next to King Jesus at the head of the table. 

Isn’t that so human? It’s the rare individual who doesn’t consciously or unconsciously put their own needs first, or the needs of their tribe, their family, their friends. It’s not natural for us to think about what strangers need or what enemies need. But given how much information from across the world is so readily available to us, and given that we live with a greater sense of global identity, how can we ignore the desperate situation of some strangers and enemies? What does it mean, in this day and age, to be the servants of all? If wrestling with that is not an opportunity to deepen one’s faith, I’m not sure what is.

Two commentators I read this week put it all quite clearly, what it means to deepen in faith as we follow Jesus. The first, Douglas Hare, wrote this.“[Jesus’ followers] must submit to a drastic reorientation of their priorities.” The second, Eduard Schweizer, wrote this.“Jesus’ special teaching cannot import his divine revelation to anyone who is not ready to enter into discipleship and [as a disciple] become a ‘last’ and a ‘servant.’” (Douglas Hare, Mark (Westminster Bible Companion),1996, and Eduard Schweizer, The Good News According to Mark, trans.D.H. Madvig, 1971.) One must go deep in order to reorient priorities and become a servant to all.

The real question, and the real challenge, is to figure out if we want to deepen our faith. Because life is pretty good in the shallows. Answers are yes or no, black and white. Nothing ever gets too troublesome or hard. There’s usually immediate satisfaction, and the way we live isn’t called into question.

But occasionally we experience something that wakes us up, that makes us realize the easy answers are about as fulfilling as one of those desserts made from Jell-O and Cool Whip. Sometimes it’s a crisis or a loss that makes us want to look at life differently. Sometimes it’s a just a matter of getting older. Sometimes we have tried every which way we can think of to understand or change a situation and nothing works – the same ol’ same ol’ still faces us.

Do you remember the movie “Groundhog Day”? A pretty schmucky weatherman named Phil, through a series of unexplained machinations, keeps waking up at 6 a.m. on Groundhog Day to the dulcet sounds of Sonny and Cher singing “I Got You, Babe.” The first few times it happens he thinks it’s a joke. Then he realizes that he knows exactly where and when his antagonists will be somewhere, so he has the maximum potential to cause them pain or embarrassment. He keeps trying to seduce the same woman, and she keeps resisting him. After a while he tries to end his life to get out of the cycle, but next thing he knows, Sonny and Cher are telling him it’s 6a.m. on Groundhog Day. He fakes his way through being nice – to no avail.

Finally, for reasons that aren’t entirely clear, he has a true change of heart. He helps who he can. He respects the woman he finds attractive. She still says no. And the old drunk, whom he saves and takes to the hospital, still dies. Nevertheless he keeps on living the good life, and eventually, it’s February 3, and the movie ends.

You and I might not keep living the same day over and over again but we do often live with the same challenges that keep on showing up.
We can’t cure our best friend’s cancer.
We can’t provide a home for all the refugees.
We need that wine after work, after dinner to unwind, to sleep.
We’re not ready to make the hard phone call to the person who won’t speak to us.
We spend way too much time on our phones.
We have way too much credit card debt.
We see ourselves as worthless, as bad, as untalented, as ugly, as fat, as lazy when we are anything but.
We’re in a cycle and we can’t get out.

Pain is a pretty great motivator.Love is a better one, but pain wakes us up and tells us something isn’t right.We might have physical or emotional pain or we might have something best called existential pain.

People stranded by floods, sitting on the roofs of their houses awaiting rescue – does that move you?
Thousands of children in detention centers still separated from their parents – does that enrage you?
That kid from down the street who as an adult is so lost – does that cause you anguish?
And do you ever wonder where God fits into all of it?

As I tried to take a fresh look at this passage this week, I challenged myself to ask hard questions. I looked particularly at Jesus’ teaching about his passion. “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.” I noticed somethings.

There is an odd use of the passive voice – Jesus will be betrayed; a better translation is “Jesus will be handed over” or “Jesus will be delivered.” Sometimes the passive voice is used when one wants to hide the identity of the subject. But someone hands Jesus over. Someone delivers him. And it appears that that someone is God.

I’m not sure anyone’s faith is deep enough to understand that. I know people who easily say God allowed events to unfold so that Jesus suffered and was tortured and killed but to a greater end. I know people who say that yes, that happened, but Jesus was also God. But what on earth does that say about God? Why on earth would we trust this God? How did Jesus not feel completely forsaken? Is this really the God to whom I pray “Thy will be done”?

But I cannot put it all on God. The next part of that sentence is that Jesus will be betrayed into human hands. Not into the hands of the Jewish leaders. Not into the hands of the Roman authorities. But into human hands. Ordinary people did this to Jesus. And still are. How do I betray Jesus? How do I keep letting myself to be distracted by being seen as the greatest and ignoring the call to be a servant? How do I fail to welcome the child, to welcome the vulnerable, to welcome the dependent?

 I haven’t answered any of my questions. But I have learned not to take for granted that I know what Jesus says and means. As I try to move more deeply into my own faith, I want to wrestle with this idea that some people feel betrayed by God. I want to wrestle with the way I follow Jesus by becoming a servant, by welcoming those who can never do one thing to help me or advance my cause.

We know people who have chosen to deepen their faith. By that, I mean they want to let go of a childish faith, an unexamined acceptance of what they were taught when they were kids in Sunday School. They want to allow questions and crises and joy to intersect with those childhood teachings so their faith is new.

Some of them do that by being in a group – a group that prays together, a group that reads together, a group that studies the Bible or theology together. 
Some of them read things or listen to people who are completely different from them – they read womanist Bible scholars, or theologians from the southern hemisphere, or they listen to atheists’ critique of the church.
Some keep journals, and write down what they notice about how God is present or absent in the world and in their day.
Some meditate. 
Some protest the things they believe are contrary to God.Some suffer on behalf of others.
Some meet regularly with a spiritual director.
A few go to seminary, but I can tell you that is not the best way to deepen faith.

In this last year, my father’s death has been an invitation for me to deepen my faith, to try to figure out where God was in my dad’s dying and where God is in my continuing grief. Some in my immediate family are practicing Christians, some are not. When we were together during Dad’s last week, we didn’t talk theology or resurrection. We did try to help Dad when he was uncomfortable, and we tried to help each other when we were overcome with such sadness.

After Dad died, I started to really question, as I never had, if resurrection is true, as I had always believed it to be.I panicked a little – what if there is no afterlife, and I never see him again? Then I started to expect a sign from the other side, a signal that he had moved on to a place where I would, eventually, see him again.It came to a head on a day when I was meeting my spiritual director, and I wept and wept that I had not yet heard from him. We prayed about it, and I went home.

I was looking for something in my desk, and I was going through every drawer, not finding it.I went through one stack of papers and there I found it – not the thing that I had been looking for, but a letter Dad had written me three years before, telling me how proud he was of me. I looked up to the ceiling, beyond the ceiling, and said “thank you.”

Maybe it was a well-timed coincidence. Maybe it was a sign from my dad, or maybe it was God nudging me to look for something in my desk, knowing what I would find. I’m still not sure.

What I am sure of is that love was present in that moment. My dad’s death has been the catalyst for me to go deeper in my faith, and what I’ve found is that more than dogma, more than creeds, more than orthodoxy, more than words and deeds, faith is about this unshakeable love that is God. I’m still trying to figure out what that has to do with Jesus’ suffering and death. I’m still trying to figure out what I’m supposed to do with this love. I’m still working to go deep.

Would you like to join me?