Sermon for Sunday, September 23, 2012 || Proper 20, Year B || James 3:13 – 4:3, 7-8a; Mark 9: 30-37 ||
The Rev. Margot D. Critchfield
“They did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.”
Well, the little blond-haired boy with the enormous brown eyes who ambled casually into my office last week would not have been afraid to ask Jesus anything!
He looked first at the large painting on my wall, then at me—and with the kind of straightforward, absolutely guileless expression only a four-year-old child with the most earnest of intentions can lay claim to –he asked, “Is that Jesus after he was dead?”
“Yes, it is,” I answered—then hurriedly pointed to a Rembrandt print on my sofa that I hadn’t hung yet, adding as quickly as I could: “Have you ever seen this other picture of Jesus over here?”
My diversionary tactic worked, but now this precociously curious little man had even more questions: Was this after Jesus was dead too, or was this when he was, as the little boy said, “awive”? “This is Jesus while he’s alive,” I answered somewhat relieved, “and see, he’s healing people, making them all better.”
This was a much more comfortable path to be walking down than the one I’d just veered away from—the one with the limp body of Jesus being taken off the cross while his grieving mother looked on.
“Where is Jesus?” my inquisitive little visitor now wanted to know.
“Well,” I explained, becoming suddenly overwhelmed by the multiplicity of levels on which his question could be understood, “Jesus is here, see?” and I pointed to the center of Rembrandt’s engraving.
Then before I knew it I was violating the most fundamental principle of our Godly Play church school program and my favorite thing about Godly Play’s whole approach to the spiritual formation of children: Not only was I teaching didactically instead of engaging this child’s imagination by asking open-ended, wondering questions– but by launching into a long, overly-detailed explanation, I was giving this sweet young thing far more information than he wanted or needed, and at the very real risk of boring the delightfully-disarming and God-given curiosity right out of him!
“Jesus is in a house,” I heard myself running on, “and see all the people around him? They all want to be healed. They want Jesus to make them better.” Without pausing for a moment I kept going, “And over here there’s a man on a mat who can’t walk or move his body, see here? And the house that day was so crowded that this man’s friends had to lower him into the room through the roof, just so Jesus could heal him.”
“Did he bwake his leg?” my little friend finally managed to interrupt.
And on we went—this spiritually and intellectually hungry little boy, innocently and earnestly lobbing one question after another in my direction: “If I looked up in the sky and there was a cwoss-shaped cwoud, would I be able to see heaven?” –and me, utterly failing to deflect his questions back to his own wondering imagination, providing him instead with my own hasty and long-winded answer
“Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me,” Jesus tells us in this morning’s gospel.
Gosh I hope not! At least I hope I wouldn’t welcome Jesus the way I welcomed this one such wonder-filled child: by artfully avoiding tough subjects and talking incessantly–whether because of my own discomfort, or for fear of looking foolish, I’m still not sure. But I hope,–and I certainly like to think–that I would welcome Jesus the same way this little boy would: Openly, earnestly, and without guile—humbly and un-self-consciously asking one child-like question after another until I was sure I got it, sure I understood, sure it all made sense.
But then, that’s not easy for grown-ups, is it? Just look how childish, rather than child-like, the disciples behaved in this morning’s gospel story: Jesus had been going out of his way—yet again– to teach them that he was a very different kind of Messiah from what they’d come to expect. He taught them that he didn’t come to take on the Roman Empire like they thought—he came to take on the very powers of death and darkness that were fueling the Roman Empire. And in the process of taking THAT on, he was going to have to be killed. How else could he conquer death if not by overpowering and out-living it? And overpower it he would, by dying and rising again—fully alive– on the third day. Jesus told them this, but the disciples “did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.”
Kind of makes you wonder what they were they afraid to ask, and why…
But I feel certain that if my little blond haired brown-eyed friend had been there, he would’ve questioned Jesus fearlessly, just as he did me, with sincerity and earnestness. And I imagine he might have asked Jesus some pretty tough questions, too. Questions like,
“Why does someone have to betray you, Jesus?
“If you’re our Messiah, how can you be killed?”
“What do you mean you’ll rise again?”
Or just plain, “I don’t get it, Jesus. Who are you?”
And you know, I feel equally certain that Jesus would’ve been absolutely delighted by this boy’s questions, even grateful for them—because Jesus would’ve welcomed this boy’s questions as evidence that he cared deeply about things that matter and really yearned to understand. Jesus would’ve embraced these questions as opportunities for building a deeper relationship with the boy, and that would’ve made him so happy, don’t you think?
But I can also imagine this little prophet-to-be gathering up his whole four-year-old self and turning to those older, more experienced disciples and questioning them too. Asking them questions like,
“Why are you so afraid to talk to Jesus?”
“Are you afraid he’ll be mad, or that he won’t like you?
“Don’t you want to understand Jesus?”
Or, “Doesn’t Jesus like it when we ask questions?”
But of course by then the disciples would have employed their own diversionary tactic, filling the air with machismo banter about who among them was the greatest, much like I did with the Rembrandt print — each of us veering down a path of conversation that was much more comfortable for us than the one we were childishly trying to avoid out of fear. Fear of questions….questions to which we may not have answers…questions to which we may not want answers…questions we may be afraid of asking….faithful, child-like questions about God and life and what heaven looks like and why Jesus had to die. Questions that Jesus honors and loves and that God’s own spirit plants in our hearts.
“Who is wise and understanding among you?” James asks rhetorically. And the obvious answer is none of us. None of us can claim to be wise and understanding in the ways of God. We would be fools if we did, and we look like fools when we try.
But what if would be we were wise enough to acknowledge and coax gently back to life the fundamental sense of wonder that lies dormant in our hearts? What if we were to honor the innate curiosity and spiritual hunger, the earnest yearning for understanding, the fearless quest for answers, and above all else the child-like honesty and humility that would allow us to offer our questions—all of our questions– to God, in Jesus’ name?
So your mission this week, should you choose to accept it, is to think of one wonder-filled child-like question on your heart, and to offer that question to God by writing it down on the little piece of paper we gave you this morning—the one that says, “Dear God, I give you this question as an offering of my wondering heart.” Then, at the offertory this morning, we’re going to collect all of our questions and we’re going to offer them to God along with all of our other gifts at the altar. And we’re going to ask God to bless them, and to bless us.
And what happens then, one can only wonder….Amen.