Afraid to Question – Lectionary 09/19/2021

Mark 9:30-37

They went on from there and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it; for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, “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.” But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.

Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest. He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said 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.”

Sermon Text

            I like questions. I like to ask them, and I like to answer them. Curiosity is how we learn and inevitably curiosity leads to questions. When we go into the world and look around, it is best that we let our mind wander to the things we see. The bird that flits from one tree to another is amazing. The dog barking far away from us is a suddenly attracts our interest, and the flower blooming between two fence posts speaks to the power of life itself. These sights all produce wonder in plain ways. The miracle of creation as expressed through the living things within it are among the first things to call us to look toward God. Those experiences of nature, those first furtive questions which we allow ourselves to have, are often lost to us as we age.

The ability to question naturally extends beyond how we react to nature and into the relationships we have with one another. It is all well and good to ask about birds and dogs, its even better to study them and see how they come to be in the way they are, but it is in conversation with others that we truly learn. More than simply speaking, we are able to join together to perfect two senses within us. The first is our sense of hearing, or more specifically, the ability to engage with what we are told as we are told it. Secondly, we engage with our sense of Wonder, the awe that comes when we meet something new, or that is somehow different than us.

When we speak to one another, we convey more than just information. The tone of our voice, the volume of our speech, and even the particular words we choose, all carry a great deal of meaning beyond their literal definitions. When we really listen to one another, we are not just picking out words and running them through a dictionary. Instead, we are engaging with a person’s soul. As we said last week, our mouth and our heart are closely intertwined, and if we allow ourselves, we can learn a lot from just shutting our mouth and opening up our ears. Whether we are seeking to know nature, one another, or God, we will always find that reaching out beyond ourselves produces some amount of wonder – the realization of a world beyond and bigger than ourselves.

In our scripture today, like so many describing Jesus’s ministry, we see that the truth of Jesus’s teachings are often sidelined because his audience is unwilling to really listen and, as a result, unwilling to question. The path Jesus takes from Galilee to Capernaum is meant to be a long way off from the crowds that usually surround Jesus. As many of us have done in our life for people we care about, Jesus is taking the backroad so that he can spend a bit more time with his disciples. This is not just sentimental on Jesus’s part, but also allows the disciples to have unrestricted access to Jesus. Yet, when given the chance, we are told that the disciples were afraid to ask Jesus anything.

It is impossible to say why the disciples were afraid to question Jesus. I think Mark may be purposely vague here, hoping for us to see ourselves in the petrified disciples. Perhaps they, like us, were afraid that questioning Jesus would set them up as outsiders among the disciples – as someone who did not “get it.” Maybe they were once confident they knew Jesus well, but this most recent teaching hit their ears and made them doubt their knowledge of God. Most dangerously of all, the disciples may have reached a point where they were confident they knew everything about Jesus and simply ignored the possibility that he had anything new to offer them.

This teaching in particular would challenge people at any level of faith in or knowledge about Jesus. If Jesus really meant what he said, then this whole countrywide ministry was going to end with Jesus dying by public execution. Even with a promised, almost immediate, resurrection, this would have lodged in the pit of the disciples’ stomachs and left them perplexed. There was no single idea about what the Messiah was going to be like in Jesus’s day, but none of the differing perspectives included death on a cross. To die in such a way was shameful, not the work of a victorious savior! If Jesus really meant this, then the Kingdom was not to be found in crushing Judea’s enemies, but in something else. To question Jesus here would shatter everyone’s world because the question, “Do you really mean it?” Would necessitate a “Yes.”

Whatever fears we have in questioning something, it is seldom worse to know an answer than to not know it. “In much Wisdom is much vexation,” (Ecl. 1:18,) yet that vexation is worth more than ignorance. The more we learn about the world around us, the more troubled we will become. There are a lot of things wrong with the world and the deeper you dig the more tangled the roots seem to be. Yet, at the same time it is only in digging through those roots that we begin to find the real fruits of knowledge. Adam and Eve erred by seeking knowledge from a goodly looking fruit on a high branch, if only they had sought something more terrestrial, we might still be in Eden.

When we begin to learn of God, we usually experience something similar. We initially rush into the Kingdom when we see the salvation we are offered, but then we get caught up in the muck and mire of this life. We study scripture and find ourselves confused by its teachings, or perhaps disturbed by some of the history it records. We live in the Church and find that the people inside the walls are often as broken as anyone outside of them. We experience the raw pain and frustration of life, and we realize that there is more to life than singing, “Trust and Obey,” on a Sunday morning. Yet, even in the midst of all that, the light of God shines through. As we learn more, as our heart is grieved by the brokenness of the world and the challenges we face, there is always hope that God can explain things a bit more clearly or that our tears may turn sooner than we expect into laughter.

Sometimes, all the same, we do not want to dig any deeper. We become content in what we know and look at these difficulties we face and try to cram them into the worldview that has served us just fine until now. For the disciples, this meant denying a suffering Messiah by arguing amongst themselves who would be greatest – not only in the world to come, but in their imitation of Jesus. If they were really imitating Jesus though, they would be seeking to live a life like his – a life that ended on a cross for the crime of loving others too much. The disciples were so sure of themselves that when Jesus told them he must suffer, they could only think of what that meant for their own good fortune. They were not listening anymore, they did not allow themselves a single question, because they knew everything they cared to know.

Today we have a term for this sort of intentional ignorance that comes from an over estimation of our knowledge and abilities. The Dunning-Kruger effect is a theory that describes several stages of knowledge. People who know nothing about something know they are ignorant, and those who know a lot tend to be realistic about what they don’t know. Yet, there are two dangerous points on that progression from one to the other, the first being a state of extreme confidence, and the second being a complete lack of the same. The high point of our confidence at the lower end of our actual capabilities is often called “Mount Stupid.” This term is a bit critical, but effective in what it conveys. It is here where we make a lot of ill-informed statements or give simple answers to complex questions. The second low point is sometimes called, “The Pit of Despair,” and is where we are likely to give up questioning for a different reason, out of the desperation that we will never truly be able to learn about a subject.

Both these places are dangerous to be in as we pursue any subject in life, but especially in our pursuit of God. From the height of one extreme, we command those around us to see God exactly as we do, to do and speak and act as we do. From the depths of the other extreme we abandon God except in rote repetitions of old prayers and creeds. At one point we are the Sanhedrin condemning God to die for supposed sins against our sensibilities, at the other we are Job finally throwing up his hands and giving up his interrogation of God. Neither is a good place to be, although I think one is more dangerous than the other. A person who is convinced they know nothing causes harm to their own wellbeing; a person who thinks they know everything harms anyone who listens to them.

What would the world look like if we allowed ourselves some honesty about what we knew and did not know? More than that, what if we remained inquisitive all the way along the paths of life which we take? There is something beyond the heights of pride and the depths of self-doubt and that is the humility of true knowledge. Beyond those hills and valleys is the understanding that we do not know everything and that that is ok. It is also the knowledge that we can have questions, we can ask them, and that by asking them we will find some kind of answer to see us through the struggles of this life.

Primarily, we learn about God through scripture. As daunting as these pages can seem, they are a source of knowledge which we can always depend upon. When we are unsure what the scriptures mean, then we turn to scholars, commentators, and pastors to help us understand what they have for us. Sometimes finding honest examples of these is difficult, but if you ever have a specific question or interest, let me know and I will try and find out. Beyond these two textual sources, there comes the knowledge we gain together. As we share our troubles and our joys, we hopefully begin to see God working in the community of faith we call our own. In the moments we find that nothing seems to have a satisfactory answer for us, we can at least rest in the knowledge we have one another, and we have God to sit beside us in uncertain times.

The key to all our pursuits is to take hold of the opportunities we have to learn, whatever form they take. Together, that means listening carefully to one another. With God that means studying scripture carefully. In prayer, it means being unafraid to ask, “How Long O’ Lord.” At every turn we must see the way from where we are to where we must be as it is presented in our scripture today. We walk alongside Christ and one another. Do we take time to argue and elevate ourselves? Or do we seek after God and ask questions of God and one another that lead to us all growing and flourishing? Today, let us commit to question everything, not out of mistrust, but trusting that we will receive an answer. – Amen.

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