09/19/21 – Don’t Be Afraid to Ask

DON’T BE AFRAID TO ASK

September 19, 2021
17th Sunday after Pentecost
Prov. 31: 10-31; Ps.1; Jas. 3:13-4:3, 7-8a; Mk. 9:30-37
Rev. Denise Clark-Jones

A few years ago, the obituary page from the Lynchburg, VA daily News and Advance began appearing in my e-mail box. Having spent the first fourteen years of my life in Raleigh, NC before moving to Lynchburg, which might be considered my hometown, the answer to the often-asked question: “Where are you from?” But when I started reading the obituary page, I realized my “hometown” is really Lynchburg. I spent the all-important high school years there. My parents continued to live there until their deaths. I returned to live there for eight years as an adult. When I read the obituary page, I see the names of people I knew. This past week I read the obituary of my tenth-grade journalism teacher. In my reminiscences, I recalled the first lesson she taught. First, a reporter must ask questions. Second, the questions must be written so as to answer these questions for the reader: who, what, when, where, how, and why? When I think back to all the various places I received an education, the most important lesson was how to ask questions and how to go about finding the answers.

In today’s reading from Mark’s Gospel, we hear the second of three times that Jesus warns his disciples of his impending death and resurrection. The first time Peter objected: “Lord, this shall never happen to you!” In response, Jesus rebuked Peter for trying to prevent his sufferings: “You do not have in mind the things of God but the things of man” (Mark 8:33). In this second prediction Jesus adds a kicker: before he is killed, he will be betrayed. You would think that new piece of information would surely raise the question: ‘Who would betray Jesus?’ They do not understand what Jesus tells them, but they do not ask him, their teacher, any probing questions. Why not? Were they so disturbed by the idea of losing Jesus, they went into denial? Or were they afraid to hear the answer?

Continuing on their journey to Jerusalem, the disciples argued among themselves about who was the greatest (Mark 9:34). Ironically, in the previous passage, we read that the disciples were unable to heal a little boy. The disciples were distressed that they could not perform a healing miracle as Jesus had done. The disciples were focused on their own lack of success in publicly demonstrating power. Now after hearing Jesus’ second prediction of his impending death and resurrection, the disciples not only fail to ask Jesus any pertinent questions, but they also ask the wrong question and argue among themselves.

Stopping at Capernaum for a rest, perhaps at Peter’s house, Jesus inquires as to the source of the argument he heard among them along the way. He was dismayed to learn they were arguing over the question of which one of them was the greatest disciple. Again, they are stuck in worldly wisdom. You know, if you don’t have ambition and succeed, you’re lazy and a failure. Life is about climbing the ladder of success, reaching for more power, wealth, and prestige with each step up. Not that some kinds of ambition are not good, but when all our ambitions are focused on ourselves, we disconnect from the well-being of others and our relationships suffer, our communities suffer.

Furthermore, self-centered ambition often leads to seeking success by any means to the end. We read in our epistle passage for today that James was very concerned about this inclination to succeed at all costs. He writes: “where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind.” For James, the better alternative is “wisdom that comes from above.” The wisdom of which James speaks understands that the meaning of life is walking in God’s ways – with humility, gentleness, peace, and justice. Similarly, Jesus tells his disciples that God’s kingdom is exemplified by love expressed in self-sacrifice.

While pointing to the example of a child, Jesus declares that “whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” No wonder the disciples didn’t ask any questions! Jesus wasn’t giving them the answer they wanted to hear. Only a fool would aspire to be a servant! Jesus demonstrated his point by inviting a little child to join them, embraced the child lovingly, and said: 37“Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” In Matthew 25 we hear Jesus express the same sentiment: “Whatever you do to the least of these my brothers and sisters, you do to me.” Thus, Jesus explains the definition of a great disciple. It is one who looks for the weak, the vulnerable, and the marginalized and embraces them as part of the community of God’s children. Similarly, when asked by the Pharisees the question of which is the greatest commandment, Jesus replied that we demonstrate our love for God by ‘loving our neighbors as ourselves.’

The disciples obviously should have asked more questions because they clearly did not understand Jesus encouraging humility and service. In the last of Jesus’ three predictions of his death and resurrection in Mark, James and John ask Jesus for positions of glory in heaven and the other ten disciples argue that the two are trying to best them in a competition for divine favor.

This isn’t the last time Mark shows Jesus using children as an example of true faith. In the next chapter, Jesus says: “I tell you the truth, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it'” (10:13–16). For Jesus, welcoming a child is to show love to those who society deems insignificant because they have no accomplishments or status, no means of reciprocating a gift. For a world that operates on a quid pro quo model, a little child has no bargaining power. Even the simplest act of welcoming another for no worldly gain is, according to Jesus, the same as to welcome him into our lives. I make it a practice to smile whenever a child makes eye contact with me in public. It isn’t much, but it conveys a welcome and the message that they are welcome have value to others in the world.

Perhaps I’m going off on a tangent, but I see another source of comparison with children and discipleship. Children ask questions. As soon as they are able to have conversations, the word “why” becomes a favorite. The deep divisions, prejudices and injustices we see in our society today are exacerbated from our fear of asking questions and listening for answers. We would rather pass judgment and condemn others than learn about them. We are afraid if we understood another’s need, we would have to act, to sacrifice something to fulfill the need.

This past week we saw a tragic example of human disregard and the failure to ask questions. Four young adult gymnasts testified in Congress about the failure of FBI agents to pay attention to their reports of sexual abuse by a doctor employed by the National Gymnastic Organization. One young woman tearfully testified that she spoke for hours to an FBI field agent, describing the abuse she suffered. She reported that when she finished telling the agent, his only question was: “Is that all?” He put the report in his desk drawer and took no action. A year later, after many new reports of abuse, someone in the FBI started asking questions.

Today’s reading from James, together with the readings from this epistle the past two Sundays, reminds us that wisdom and understanding are demonstrated by gentleness, peace, mercy, a willingness to yield, no partiality or hypocrisy. It looks like a child: welcomed, loved, cared for, protected. Understanding Jesus – what he says, who he is – is demonstrated in how we treat the least, not in being great. While we argue over how much our government can afford to spend on the one in five children in our country who do not know when they will receive their next meal, the better question is: How can we afford not to spend money to feed them? How can we not afford to supply medicine for people whose lives depend on receiving it? If we can spend money to go to war, why can we not spend money for peace, for life?

So go ahead and ask questions. Remember Jesus taught his followers by asking questions. Asking questions that spring from gentleness, mercy, and justice. And to paraphrase a statement by the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke: ‘Ask the questions, live the answers.’

 

Amen. May it be so!

 

 

 

© Rev. Denise Clark-Jones, 2021, All Rights Reserved
Westminster Presbyterian Church | 1420 W. Moss Ave. | Peoria, Illinois 61606
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