September 23, 2018
The past few weeks, we’ve been chugging along through Mark’s Gospel without skipping much. This week, though, we’ve skipped a few things. Last week we heard about Peter’s confession, as he named that Jesus is in fact the Messiah they have been waiting for. Jesus responded by saying, “Yes, and also the Son of Man has to suffer and die.” Peter didn’t think that was such a good thing to be talking about (a Messiah should be strong, not suffering!), and he rebukes Jesus, and Jesus turns around and rebukes him right back, accusing him of putting his mind on human things, not divine things.
From there, and here’s the part we miss, Jesus heads up the mountain, where the disciples witness Jesus’ transfiguration – you know, where he turns bright white, and Moses and Elijah appear with him and a voice from heaven says, “This is my Son, the beloved. Listen to him!” It’s the first time they really hear who Jesus is. Of course, in keeping with his pattern in Mark of not wanting anyone to know who he is, Jesus tells them not to tell anyone, and they head back down the mountain.
That event, the Transfiguration, is, in each Gospel, the point where Jesus starts really heading toward the cross. As they head down the mountain, Jesus, who they now know is the Son of God, will predict once again his death – not unlike the prediction we will also hear from Jeremiah in a moment. Peter doesn’t rebuke him this time, but the disciples still don’t seem to quite know what to make of these things Jesus says. In fact, in Mark, Jesus’ disciples are characterized as especially clueless, never really understanding what Jesus is all about – yet willing to follow him nonetheless. It’s sort of funny to witness, but also quite telling, for in the disciples’ sheer ignorance and humanness, Mark allows us to see quite a bit of ourselves and our own folly in them. So let’s listen to how they respond, and how Jesus then responds to that.
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
We’re at a point in Grace’s development, where she has become convinced that our house is full of monsters. It’s a veritable infestation of monsters – in my room, her room, the living room, the yard, and obviously, in the potty. Despite that I made for her a “monster dispeller” (a wand), it is still a real problem. These monsters are everywhere. (If anyone has a number for a good monster exterminator, let me know!)
It’s pretty cute out of the mouth of a 3 year old, and though it can be fun to play along (running and hiding, or fighting back bravely, whatever), in the end the child’s fear of monsters is easy to dismiss, at least for the grown-ups in the room. We know there is no such thing as monsters, and so we are in a good position to hold the children tightly, assure them they are safe, tell them there are no monsters (and that even if there were, Jesus would no doubt defeat them handily), and get on with our day.
Yes, children’s monsters are easy enough to dispel. Not so much the monsters we face in adulthood. I resonate with Jesus’ disciples on this one, as they are walking along with a very big, hairy monster on their backs: Jesus’ second prediction of his death. Can you imagine? They’re on a Transfiguration high, having just witnessed it on the mountain. They have heard the voice of God telling them that Jesus is, in fact, the Son of God, and they should listen to him. And then, they come down the mountain and at almost the first opportunity, what he tells them is, “I’m going to be betrayed and die and rise again.” Can you imagine the fear and uncertainty they must be feeling? The insecurity? They have given up a lot for this guy who they believed, as we learned last week, was the Messiah, and so what would it mean for them if these predictions were true – that Jesus would be betrayed and die? And what could it possibly mean that he would rise again? Was this metaphorical? Or was he serious?
I have long thought the disciples’ response to this prediction – to begin bickering with one another about who was the greatest – was a strange one. Why would they go from a heavy prediction like this one, to immediately arguing over some petty thing like “who’s the best?” But as I have grown older, and experienced more of the human condition, I actually think it is just right. Of course they change the subject, and think about something else entirely. Who wants to dwell in their fear? Of course they argue about who is the greatest. If they can convince others that they are great, they can ignore how fearful and insecure they feel. Of course they pick a fight with their comrades. Don’t we all, when we are feeling afraid, sometimes lash out at the people who matter most to us?
Of course the monsters we face in our lives are a bit different, though they have a similar effect. There are plenty of things in life from which we’d rather change the subject, and pretend they don’t exist. I don’t want to hear about clergy sexual abuse, for example, or any sort of sexual abuse of a minor, or an adult for that matter. I don’t want to hear about another mass shooting. I don’t want to hear about the 500 kids still in detention centers at the border, whose parents can’t be found. I don’t want to hear about another person I love being diagnosed with cancer. I don’t want to hear about an infant and mother killed when a tree falls on their house during a hurricane, nor that such bigger, wetter hurricanes are the new normal as a result of warmer ocean temperatures. And that’s just some stuff you can read in the news. Never mind the insecurities we may feel in our jobs, in our abilities, in our failures that we deal with every day. These are monsters from which I want to change the subject. They are monsters that sometimes make me lash out at my loved ones, in fear and discouragement. They are even monsters that threaten to make me feel worse about myself, and beat myself up, and then compensate by trying to make myself look extra good – if others believe it, I think, maybe I can believe it, too.
Yes, these monsters can bring out the worst in us, just like the disciples’ own fear about Jesus’ and their uncertain but inevitably painful future brought out the worst in them. Worse yet, these monsters can block our ability to see how to live a faithful life. They set us off track, distract us from our calling as children of God. That is the issue that Jesus addresses in his response. He turns their attention away from their own fears, their own belly buttons, their own inward thinking, their own insecurities, and back toward what a life of faith looks like. “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all,” he says. With this, he flips greatness right on its head! No more is greatness defined by blustery arguments about being great, even, the greatest, the best. No more is it measured by how much money we have, or what we can get away with doing without consequence, or by how powerful we are. It’s not even measured by our ability to avoid monsters. It is measured instead by selflessness, by a willingness to serve another’s interests before our own. It is measured by surrounding ourselves not with people we believe to be strong and powerful, but rather, by finding the weakest and most vulnerable, and standing by them – indeed, by seeing in them the very face of God.
Who would that be, in our world today? Who would be the weakest and most vulnerable? In Jesus’ day, it was a child. Children in the first century were not highly thought of – they had little value, no power, few rights, and were completely dependent. They were seen as useless. So Jesus lifted up a child. Who would Jesus lift up today, and tell us to welcome in his name?
Perhaps it would still be a child – maybe a refugee child left in a detention center with no parents. “Welcome this child in my name, and you welcome me.” Perhaps it would be a child who is a victim of abuse by someone he trusted, or a child who is unsure of where her next meal will come from. “Welcome this child in my name and you welcome me.” Perhaps Jesus would have embraced a woman escaping an abusive husband, or a father who lost his daughter in a school shooting. Maybe he’d lift up the grieving mother whose black son was shot in her own backyard, who doesn’t feel her voice or her pain is being heard by the country she loves. Perhaps Jesus would lift up an older couple whose home has flooded – again – and who have lost everything this time. Or maybe he’d lift up a veteran who returned home from serving his country with PTSD and one less leg.
Jesus would lift up and embrace all the people in those monstrous stories from which we would rather change the subject. You see, Jesus will always point us toward the life of faith, the life in which we look for the most vulnerable among us, and rather than dismissing their stories, or saying, “That’s sad, but it doesn’t have anything to do with me,” we instead take the time to listen, to learn, and to stand with these most vulnerable. Jesus will always point us toward a life which heads for the cross – it heads there, and arrives there, but it does not end there. No, the story of the cross is a story that ends with resurrection, with finding new life in the suffering, with assurance that when we are brave enough to stand with the weak, we will find God there.
There are some monsters that we should try to avoid. But let us not avoid the monsters that are bringing down the beloved children of God who are most vulnerable. These are monsters we must face, armed with the best monster dispeller of all: the love of God, the assurance of God’s embrace, and the promise that with Christ, death will always be followed by new and abundant life.
Let us pray… Vulnerable God, you come to us in the weak, in those to whom the world would turn a blind eye. Keep us ever aware of who those people are, so that we might lift them up, and see in their faces the very face of Christ. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.