Teaching and Learning

A sermon preached at the United Parish of Upton MA on September 20, 2015

Mark 9:30-37 . . . on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest.

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.

Last Wednesday night, I let the dog out into our fenced-in yard one more time before bedtime. As I watched him wander the yard, I sniffed the air and smelled skunk. Urgently, I called him back inside. . . he chases squirrels and I knew he’d chase a skunk if he saw it. Now, he knew what I wanted. He heard me call. He even turned his head toward me, for a second… and then he took off barking around the tool shed. The skunk smell got worse, and he came streaking back toward the house. . .

Well, the good news is that the skunk didn’t get him. My dog knows the meaning of coming when he’s called, but he’s a little weak on the practice. You could say he’s filled with head knowledge, but his practical living out of that knowledge is a little wonky.

If he were a human, he’d be first cousin to those disciples who, given an afternoon’s lesson with Jesus, closed their minds to what he was saying, refused to learn the lesson he was teaching, and instead began to argue among themselves about who would take over what job when their ship came in. They got the words ok, but they completely closed their eyes to the meaning.

That’s why this story from Mark is also included in Matthew, and in Luke. Because being a Christian isn’t really about scoring a top score on the religious SAT. It’s about living the teachings of our faith. That was hard then; it’s still hard today.

You’d think that wouldn’t be so. You’d think that after 2000ish years, we’d have gotten our acts together. You’d think that with all the gathered wisdom of the centuries, St. Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, John Calvin, Jonathan Edwards, John Wesley… Reinhold Niebuhr and on and on, we’d have gotten the memo, learned the lesson, and we’d be old, practiced hands at living our faith.

Tisn’t so. Tisn’t so.

I think that is, as much as anything, because actually living according to Jesus’ teaching is scary as all get out.

I’ve been pastoring for more than thirty-five years – preaching and teaching Bible – and over and over, I’ve watched people sit down and study the most profoundly moving books, only to get up from their reading to criticize the author’s use of quotation marks, or their personal translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy – or, my personal favorite, the time, just as we were getting into the kind of conversation which is intensely personal – a student burst out, “I just want to know, what do you think this author believes about the doctrine of the Trinity.” The book wasn’t about the Trinity; the question was a squirrel ploy to move the conversation away from the personal and onto the academic.

Living our faith is scary stuff.

That’s why, I think, we’re so easily lured into spending hours on whether or not this fact is right or that tenet must be believed in order to be a real Christian. It’s one thing to study it academically; it’s a whole ‘nother thing to study it experientially.

Look again at Mark. This time, look at what Jesus is talking about when he’s teaching them. He was saying, in the most explicit language possible that they were on a path to pain and death. They were close to the end of things and so he said to them, “The Son of Man is about to be betrayed to some people who want nothing to do with God. They will murder him. Three days after his murder, he will rise, alive.

No one wanted to hear that their faith, their agreement to follow Jesus was going to lead anywhere except to extravagant success. They’d quit their jobs, left homes and families; and it wasn’t so that they could be betrayed to the authorities…no sirreee! So they blew Jesus off. So little attention did they pay to his words that they spent the rest of the journey arguing among themselves as to which one would have the most authority in the coming days. Just who would be top dog, they ask, and each wanted to nominate himself.

They never heard a word he said – sure, the sound waves passed their ears, but it was like me asking my dog to come in. The skunk looked like more fun, and so it was, for a minute or two.

But that’s not faith. Jesus made it as clear as he could when he rebuked the disciples and said “whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”

Professor Micah Kiel writes that, “in Mark, faith is not intellectual assent to a series of ideas or articles to be believed. Faith is more about what is in your gut, fortitude.” . . .for me, that’s why we’d rather hide in the thickets of facts …. If we once get beyond knowing and move into living, it’s going to change us, change our lives… and change is downright scary.

Think about it… who here has not had a doctor tell them, with utter seriousness, that if they do something, or quit something – terrible things are going to happen. Stop smoking, cut back on burgers from McDonalds, give up cake (or at least cut way back)… I can remember a family conversation my brother and I had with our mother, telling her of the dangers of smoking. She took a long drag on her Camel and said, “well, at least I’ll know what killed me.” We hear the words, but we don’t let them change our lives… not quickly, not easily. It isn’t until we have trouble walking thru the grocery store, or can’t pick up a grandchild, or have that first stroke, that life gets our attention, maybe.

When we try to understand our faith, we focus on the facts because, until we get them right – we think – we don’t have to worry about action.

This week’s reading is a fascinating study of the relationship between fear and faith. Notice that the disciples do not ask Jesus any questions in response to his prediction of his impending crucifixion because they are afraid. And the next thing you know they’re talking about securing their place in the coming kingdom. Fear does that. It both paralyzes you and drives you to look out only for yourself.

Jesus had been teaching them as they walked along, teaching them about the ultimate way of life, about his purpose, about his life and his death (and by extension about what would happen to his followers).. and they did not want to hear it. So Jesus nattered on, and they tuned him out.

We’re no different. We find change challenging; we don’t want to delve too deeply into what following Christ might be. We’re really good at trying to avoid pain, or walking away from fear, or hunkering down until better days come.

But that’s not our world. Those are not our options. As much as we might prefer a world where there was no pain, no struggle, where we can close our eyes, click our heels threee times and go home, that world doesn’t exist. We might dream of living where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking and all the children are all above average, but that world only exists in Lake Wobegon, in Garrison Keillor’s mind.

We live in a real world, where people we love get sick and die, where forest fires can burn out of control and destroy a world, where our jobs may disappear overnight, where a country such as Syria can dissolve into chaos. . . or we might — less catastrophically – spend a couple of hours stuck on the MassPike trying to get to Boston in the morning.

In this world, we need more than facts to sustain our spirits. We need to allow the words of our faith to take root in our hearts. From those roots grow the courage to take each day as it comes, to step out without knowing for sure what tomorrow will bring, to live with the truth that none of us is perfect, and that life is filled with traps of expectations and disappointments.

That’s real life. Not certainty, not constant and everlasting good, but wonder, and hope. We’re horrified by the streams of refugees trying to get from Syria to Europe, and then, in wonder, see how Germany is welcoming these homeless, stateless people. We go to the hospital, almost shaking in fear for our diagnosis, and are welcomed by caregivers who see us as real people.

In our turn, we meet those we encounter with love as well, listen with compassion, reach out in generosity. The generosity of Germany moves us to share what we have with those self-same refugees; when one person lets us into the traffic stream we think to let someone else in, in our turn.

Life isn’t so much about facts, as it is about the application of facts. It’s not important to memorize all the books of the Bible; it is important to act with love, with acceptance, with generosity. We don’t need to recite this creed or that catechism, without thinking about the meaning of the words. We need to live the meaning of the words, to understand that the core of our beliefs is simply this: God is love. From that one belief, all else follows.

God is love.


© 2015, Virginia H. Child

. . . where they have to take you in (but will send you out)

A sermon preached at the United Parish of Upton on September 13, 2015

Mark 8: 27-38 . . . for what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.


The other day I read an article about a couple who’ve chosen to live in the Victorian era. That’s right, even though they are physically present in twenty-first century Washington state, they’ve given up electricity, refrigerators, indoor plumbing, washing machines…. And comfortable clothes…. So they can write with a dip pen, read by oil lamp (and wash the chimney’s every morning, I expect), and move around town on big wheel bicycles.

They’re not Sturbridge Village re-enactors, who go home at night and take a hot shower before sitting down to a cold drink and a baked chicken in a heated home. They do this 24/7, and glory in the work of emptying the pan of melted water under their icebox.

I’m going to step out on a limb, here, and say that these two people are living in a romantic dream…romantic and, for that matter, inconsistent, given that they use the internet, maintain a blog. I bet that when they go to the dentist, they ask for novocaine – and I hope both of them vote, even though in Victorian times, she would not have been allowed to do so.

They also want us to know that they understand themselves to be closer to the ethical center of life, that they use fewer of the world’s resources by wearing wool and cotton, and so on. From that, I gather they’ve never actually studied the working conditions in late Victorian-era mills, or thought about the conditions under which that cotton was harvested and so on.

We like what we like and we especially like what gives us comfort.   For these two people, comfort comes in corsets and long underwear.

For others – maybe even most of us – one place comfort is found in our real or idealized memories of home. I can’t give those two Victorians too much of a hard time; whenever I really miss my grandmother’s kitchen, all I need to do is go over to Sturbridge and visit the farmer’s home… we had more upholstered furniture, but the kitchen is familiar and reminds me in so many ways of that place I loved so much.

Today’s lesson from Mark is all about comfort. It’s just not the kind of comfort that two Victorians might recognize, not the kind of comfort that the nostalgia of Sturbridge offers us. It’s not even the kind of comfort Peter was looking for.

We’re not all that different: mostly, comfort, home – that idealized, remembered, theoretical (or even actual) home of our hearts is all about comfort. If we had it we remember it with love; if it wasn’t there, we wish it had been or we’re angry because it wasn’t, and maybe we dream that “if only”, it would have been.

Comfort, safety, security, home — and then Jesus, poking his head in the door to ask a question. “Who do you say that I am?”

Well, Peter, by then, knew the right answer. “You are the Messiah.” Jesus reacted the way Peter expected by saying “shh; we don’t want anyone to hear you”. And so Peter assumed that the home Jesus was building, building by becoming the Messiah, would be like the dreams they all had of a place where the rich were thrown down and the poor took over (Peter was poor. . . ). It would be a place where they could give up the tough work of fishing and become tax collectors, raking in the coins. It would be good; it would be comfortable; it would be the home of their dreams.

Then Jesus began to teach them that the Son of Man (that is, the Messiah), must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly.


That’s no way to mount a revolution! It’s no way to build that comfortable home for which Peter yearned. And so, Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan!

My older grand-niece started school this week. She has a loving home, two great parents, grand-parents, aunts, uncles & cousins who have surrounded her with love all her life. She even has the world’s most patient dog. Her home is indeed a haven of comfort and a place of peace. But if you look closely, it’s the most challenging, discomforting place she’s ever been. Sure, she’s loved, but she’s had to learn to stand up for herself, literally. Last year, her parents upset the apple cart by giving her a baby sister; oops, she’s no longer the only, well-loved offspring. And now, just as she’s gotten that kid under some control (she thinks! Her sister has learned to walk. . . ) she’s off to school.

We’d like to think that at least the best homes are places of constant comfort, but I want to suggest that the best places are places of constant challenge, of growth and outreach, of change and adaptation.

That’s what Peter learned. He learned that everything he’d ever known about what makes life worth living was built on a flawed foundation. The best life wasn’t one that said “what works for me is what works for you.” It turns out the best life is built on this: “what matters to you, matters to us”.

It turned out that home wasn’t a musty refuge like a dog’s bed, festooned with what had worked well years ago, little bits of this and that. Home is where we get the strength to go out and serve our world.

Peter whined to Jesus; he tried to get him to change, to give up this self-denying, self-sacrificing idea, and Jesus told him to step to the rear, to stop tempting him. Then Jesus said: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?


Life, the good life, the profitable life, the worthwhile life, is not about a total abandonment to comfort, but instead it’s about putting others first, not about self-indulgence, but about listening to the other. Jesus asks what the point is if, in our search for money, power, reputation and things, we lose that essential sense of home – real home, grounded home – that gives all we live and do its true value.

Because home really isn’t about a physical place, or even a particular gathering of people. It’s about the spirit we bring to those places, to those gatherings. For some of us, home is our AA group, family the friends we eat lunch with every week.

Good home, true home, points us outward, calls us to leave behind that which holds us back, invites us to reach out beyond our comfort zone.

Good home, true home, welcomes the refugee, reaches out to the different, stands up for the down-trodden, speaks up for the silenced.

Jesus said it best when he said:  “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?

 What would it profit us to gain the whole world but waste our lives?


© 2015, Virginia H. Child