Arguing on the Way

A sermon for the 17th Sunday after Pentecost*, Preached September 30, 2012

May the words of my lips and the meditations of all our hearts, be now and always acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer.  Amen.


It is hard, in Mark, not to love those knuckleheads that follow him around.  After all, Jesus clearly does.  And there is something easy to love about the way that they just keep. notgetting it.


This morning’s Gospel reading is one of three similar stories in this section of Mark’s Gospel.  Three stories in which Jesus tells them something important about who he is.  And then the disciples fail to understand, and Jesus teaches them more.  The story we hear this morning is one part of an ongoing spiral towards seeing the truth.  (In fact Mark is big on seeing- this section, this spiral, is bookended on either side by stories of bind men who regain their sight).


And what haven’t the disciples seen?  This happens shortly after the transfiguration.  A day so significant in the life of Jesus’ ministry that it has its own feast day- at the end of Epiphany, the season of light and seeing.


Jesus has gone up to the top of the mountain and his face and clothes have been transfigured, so that they glow.  He has spoken with men who are identifiable, somehow, as Moses and Elijah.  He has had a neon flashing sign and a giant billboard, and skywriting… to let those few most trusted disciples who saw it that he is so much more than just another travelling rabbi.

And, in my favourite interpretation of this text- this argument about who is greatest is not a matter of ego gone out of control- not, in fact, the selfish ambition that James condemns in his letter.  


But rather, that men who have become a part of something that they know is important have been hearing that it is about to come crashing down.  Jesus has now told them, for the second time, that he is on his way to die.  Is it so hard to imagine that some few of the disciples might, upon hearing this, begin to do what all organizations do when they know that they are about to lose a leader.  Succession planning:  “Did you hear what he said, about dying, again…. You should be ready to take over when that happens” “Are you crazy? No! You should.  Those demons we couldn’t cast out?  You came closest” “Well, somebody has to take over, or else Peter’s going to open his big mouth and volunteer- and I’m not following that guy anywhere”.  That is also an argument about who is greatest.


But whether their conversation is rooted in selfish ambition or misguided succession planning, they have missed the point.


Do you watch TV?  Sit-coms?  I used to love them.  Beloved characters, and hilarious stories of mistaken identity.  Hijinks.  And so often, the core of the joke is so about the things that we, in the audience, know- but the characters don’t.  Wasn’t there, like, 1/2 a season of Friends centered around Monica and Chandler trying to keep their secret relationship a secret?


I find I’m losing patience with those storylines.  I end up yelling at the TV.  “Just tell him!”  “Just admit you made a mistake”.  “Talk to one another!!  Because as much as those hijinks are amusing for viewers- without the benefit of script-writers, all that not-asking, not-telling, covering-up and drama just never seems to make anything turn out funnier.  It just never seemto make things better.


And that part of me- the part that yells at the TV (admittedly, not my favourite part) is so frustrated with the disciples in this passage.  Not because, Mark tells us, they didn’t understand what Jesus said.  I can completely sympathise with that.  But because they were afraid to ask him about it.


Afraid of what?  Afraid to look foolish?  Afraid that they would not like his answers?  Afraid that he was going to bend their faith too far, and break something?  

So afraid that they can see no other option except to… argue amongst themselves about who is greatest.


Surely, Jesus’ divine nature is revealed in that he does not knock their heads together.  Here he is trying to tell them who he is.  To tell them the whole truth.  To teach them that God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son…

And just what if…

What if they had actually come to him with their questions?

What if they had shared their fear and confusion with him, and let him heal it?

What if they had let their trust in the man they followed over-rule their fear?


How could they, who were closest to him,

How could they, who had heard all his stories,

How could they, who had walked and talked and broken bread with him,

how could they not trust that his truth would be more than enough for their questions.


But then.  How can we?  

I mean- did you know this wasn’t even supposed to be the reading for today?  We changed it.  Because the readings assigned for today were too confusing, too problematic.  I didn’t want to deal with them on “Bring a Friend” Sunday.  I did not understand, and I was afraid to ask him about it.


This is, undoubtedly, a confusing book.  

A God who shows his Divinity by becoming human, who feeds with stories and who teaches with bread, a God who wins by losing.  


There is an awful lot we don’t understand.


And, God knows, there’s lots for us to argue about.  Hymn selection, new books vs. old books.  Whether or not artificial flowers can be used on the altar.  Who of those being considered by the Crown Nominations Committee is least badly suited to be the next Archbishop of Canterbury.


And I wonder– if we’re honest with ourselves, if we wouldn’t find fear at the core of many of our arguments.  If we are afraid  that if we don’t do things right- God will break God’s promises.  Afraid  that if we make a big enough mistake we won’t be forgiven.  Afraid that God’s love is for others, but not for ourselves.  Afraid that if we don’t keep doing Church the way it was done when Jesus found us, that Jesus won’t find our grandchildren.  Afraid that Jesus needs us as a human shield, to protect him from Mohammad, (Peace be upon him).  Afraid that “they” are right, that it is all an elaborate lie, that we have been duped.


Afraid someone might know that we have questions.  Afraid to look foolish.  Afraid we won’t like the answers.  Afraid that he might stretch our faith too far, and break something.  


But what if we didn’t need to be afraid?

What if we could trust that God really does love us that much.  

What if we could trust that God really does have the whole world in his hands.


What would you ask him.  If  you could put yourself on that road.  With nothing to do but talk, and listen, while you covered the miles between towns.


Who? What? How? Why?


What if?


What if this were a community that gathered specifically for the purpose of overcoming those fears.  For remembering how much we are loved, how much has been given to us, who it is that we follow.


A God who shows his Divinity by becoming human, who feeds with stories and who teaches with bread.  A God who wins by losing.  


This is the God whose disciples we are.

Lots of good reasons why we might not understand.

But not a single reason to be afraid.


Thanks be to God.



*Yeah, I know, the 30th is the 18th after Pentecost.  There’s sort of an explanation in there


One Response

  1. Thanks for posting this. I can’t resist sharing my thoughts. It’s so easy when one has already written something on one’s computer. Copy and paste, but I hope judiciously. Bill Heron

    How much more respectful of the disciples’ intelligence and integrity to interpret their discussion to be more like: “Well, if Jesus is determined to take his preaching right to Jerusalem and get himself into trouble and maybe get killed: (1) Which one of us is going to have the courage to take his place as leader? (2) Which one of us is best suited to take his place as figurehead of this movement? (3) Which one of us has the best understanding of his ideas to be the best spiritual leader of this group? (4) Which one of us has the most status to give our movement some credibility, respectability, stature— to withstand challenges from the establishment?”

    Then Jesus’s demonstration of the little child (and his earlier reaction to Peter’s “rebuke”) is more obviously an exhortation and reality check. He is saying, in effect: “If you follow me, it will not be easy. You will not have status and power, but will serve and maybe suffer. But it will be worth it. Get behind me, and some of you may get to see ‘the kingdom of God’ achieved here.”

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