Good morning Christians, seekers, and friends:
How are you? …I am waiting because I really want to know! The other day my colleague Pam brought to my attention that after we had exchanged “good mornings,” in the Christie House kitchen where I was putting my lunch in the refrigerator, I then asked her “How are you?” as I was walking out the door. Did I really want to know how she was doing – well, yes, I certainly care about Pam as a person and a colleague—but I didn’t leave a moment for her to tell me: Did she need anything? Was she well? Was she feeling poorly? She didn’t have time to respond one way or the other. Sorry again, Pam.
And that got me to thinking about how often I link those two phrases together when greeting other friends – I bet some of you sitting here right now can recall me saying the same to you on Sunday mornings! So, I hope you know, in advance, that I DO want to know how you are, not just as your priest, but as your friend. But have you noticed how often we ask this question and don’t either have the time or bandwidth to hear the answer? We all kind of know the drill in pleasant conversation, right? How are you is a formulaic conversation starter with the expected answer of what? Good/Fine etc. Right? But, when we exchange pleasantries with folks, we aren’t usually looking for deep answers….Because the truth is that we are often too afraid to really ask or answer one another. Do we really want to know? Would our vulnerability make things all too real and difficult? Are we afraid that the person might ask us to do something we, deep down, might not want to do? But what if we did ask the important questions and take the time to truly listen? What would we learn? What would change?
In today’s gospel, we are revisiting, once again, a pattern we will see three different times in the gospel of Mark: Jesus’ clear foretelling that the Son of Man will suffer, die, and rise again, which the disciples reject or don’t understand, and then Jesus explaining what discipleship needs to look like. We can see this teaching first in last week’s gospel in chapter eight. Jesus tells his disciples that the “Son of Man 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.” In 8:32 we are assured that Jesus wasn’t holding back or speaking in parables. We read: “He said all this quite openly.”
Yet today—and again in chapter 10—with Jesus repeating almost verbatim his previous teaching, “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,” we have the disciples once again totally missing the point of Jesus’ teaching. However, today, maybe because of Jesus’ rebuking of Peter, the disciples, we are told, are afraid to even ask Jesus. And so their failure to understand, and their fear of asking Jesus, means that they have spent their time worrying about the very things Jesus is trying to tell them NOT to worry about. We can see this in their reluctance to tell Jesus what they were arguing about on the way to Capernaum.
Because what they were arguing about is who is the greatest disciple—Jesus’ protégé—his ‘right hand man.’ The disciples in Mark’s gospel are painted as a fairly clueless lot. Something big will happen. Let’s take for example the feeding of first the 5000 and then the 4000 men plus women and children with a few measly loaves of bread, and then the disciples getting into their boat immediately afterwards are worried about what they’ll eat with only one loaf of bread between them. Not understanding what Jesus is talking about when he tells them about the yeast of the Pharisees who asked for a sign after Jesus miraculously fed the huge crowd, they wonder if Jesus is mad at them for having only one loaf. In Chapter 8 Jesus says: “Why are you talking about having no bread? Do you still not perceive or understand? Are your hearts hardened? Do you have eyes, and fail to see? Do you have ears, and fail to hear? And do you not remember? When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you collect?” They say, “Twelve.“ “And the seven for the four thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you collect?” And they say to him, “Seven.” Then he says, “Do you not yet understand?” But, in Mark, the point is that they didn’t AND they don’t again and again. .
Since then, a lot more has occurred—Jesus has healed a blind man in Bethsaida, Peter has rightly identified him as the Messiah, Jesus is transfigured in dazzling light on the mountain where he is hanging with the prophets Moses and Elijah, and they have even heard, for themselves, a voice from heaven coming down and declaring not only that Jesus is his beloved son but that they should “Listen” to him, yet, in the midst of all these miraculous events and activity, Jesus’ disciples STILL don’t get it.
More than 2000 years later with the story written it is easy for us to be a little snarky and say, “What, are the disciples, total idiots?” And we can feel pretty good about ourselves thinking that they should have known, right? But if the disciples in the book of Mark are dense, if we are honest so are we. Because discipleship in the book of Mark doesn’t look like we want it too…It is not easy. What Jesus is telling them about their role as disciples are things that folks like us—don’t want to hear. Having given up their livelihoods and left their home and families to follow Jesus, their reward as followers of Jesus was to take up their cross.; to lose their life to quote/unquote “save” it?
Today’s gospel ends with Jesus again defining what discipleship looks like. He says: “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” Then he takes a little child puts it among them; and taking it in his arms, he says to them, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”
All these years later, hearing this, we might be tempted to lessen the sting of this story by softening what we don’t want to hear. Jesus is telling us about discipleship but by concentrating on the child Jesus sits amongst them and wraps in his arms, we make of it a lovely visual. Maybe you get to thinking of your children and grandchildren or a beloved niece or nephew. For me, I can imagine two of the littles in my life such as my goddaughter Elin or baby Aiko the daughter of my colleague and friend, Naomi Woodrum. And I truly believe that these little ones do teach us a lot about God. But if we look at the original Greek, says theologian C. Clifton Black, we will see that the word used here is paidion, “little child” which in Greek has the double meaning of “immediate offspring” and “slave.” In fact it is analogous to a “servant,” (an assistant who mediates for a superior). So, again Jesus’ response to his disciples bickering over their ranking as disciples is a paradoxical assertion that parallels 8:35 (from last week) by turning our worldly social assumptions inside out: just as Jesus teaches that the saving of one’s life requires its sacrifice for the gospel’s sake, so too does primacy [or greatness] in discipleship demand taking the place as last of all, as everyone’s servant (9:35).” Leaving us again with the same fact: discipleship is not easy. We don’t get a prize, a merit badge, or orchestra seats in God’s heavenly Kingdom. In fact, according to Jesus, being a disciple —a follower of Christ— not only doesn’t make our lives any easier – it seems to make it harder. Maybe that is why the disciples are too afraid to ask Jesus to explain his teaching in greater detail. They aren’t sure they want to know. But what if they had asked the question? Would they have understood that we do get the assurance of Christ’s abiding presence with us as we carry our cross, as we serve, as we spread the Good News.
What if we, as modern disciples do ask Jesus to help us learn more about being disciples in today’s world? What if we did ask Jesus about how to be a better Christian or how to help our fellow human beings see their importance to their God? Maybe by asking those questions we feel too afraid to ask we could open ourselves up to new ways to become the church that speaks and ministers to this generation. Are their places we’ve kept sealed or locked, that need to be opened, examined, illuminated, and changed in the light of God’s presence? Are there things that scare us but that our belief in Jesus’ Good News compels us to address? What does being a disciple of Jesus Christ demand us to do now?
I know it can seem frightening for we American Christians to open up to one another and to dare to enter into real relationship with God and with one another –especially with those who differ most from us. But that is what Jesus asks us to do. And while this may make us uncomfortable and make us feel vulnerable, we are never asked to do this alone. That was the thing that the disciples might have learned if they had asked Jesus. They might have come to understand that whenever we welcome (and this means here really invite in, offer hospitality to, engage in caring relationship with) one another, we also welcome Jesus and the presence of God. So while true discipleship asks a lot of us, it is never done alone. And we can do things we never even imagined we could do through the love of God. For nothing is impossible with God.
So how are we doing Christians? Let’s aim to answer that question with something better than FINE.