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