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Mark 9:30-37; James 3:13-4:3, 7-8
I am always surprised by how many questions my kids have for me. Sometimes they are questions about how things work. “Mom, how does money come out of that plastic card?” or “ How do bones heal after they are broken?”
Sometimes they want to know what’s next—to frame the day, and plan things out. “What’s for dinner?” What’s happening this weekend?”
Sometimes they are questions of permission--
Mom, can I buy a pocketknife?” or “Can I have a sleepover with my friends?”
Sometimes, they are asking questions to push the boundaries—“Why can’t we watch TV on school nights?” “Do I have to practice my instrument?”
Often the questions can come at exactly the wrong time—“Mom, what’s the worst song you’ve ever heard?” comes just as I’m trying to talk on the phone, check my calendar online, and make dinner.”
But, in my heart, I’m glad for the questions. I’m glad they are still asking, and wanting to know how things work. They are still curious. They are still trying to seek understanding. At a certain point, it stops being a good thing in the minds of kids to ask questions. At some point, asking questions of clarity may seem to their peers like they are not paying attention, or aren’t’ smart enough to figure out how things work. This is—of course—not true. But, the questions—the curiousity—fades over time, and as children develop into adulthood a sense of certainty creeps in.
In the gospel of Mark, we hear a series of vignettes from Jesus’ ministry. First, Jesus told the disciples the disturbing truth; that “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.”
The disciples did not understand this news. They couldn’t process what Jesus just said to them. They wanted to ask questions, but “they were afraid to ask him.”
Instead, as they walked along towards Capernaum, the disciples argued about who was the greatest of all disciples.
Jesus must have put his head in his hands, wondered why God called him to such a group of disciples, before he told them to sit down. Here, sitting on the ground, Jesus pulled a child into the conversation , and said, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all. Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not only me but the one who sent me.”
Jesus addressed the immediate issue—the arguement about who was the greatest disciple—and he addressed it with a confounding statement. If you want to be first you must be last. You must be a servant.
When I was in my Christian elementary school, I remember a particular incident where this statement was invoked. My classmates were scrambling to get in line for the water fountain. I hung back a little—the tussling over the water fountain never made sense to me. I knew we’d all get a drink eventually. The teacher most have noticed this, and citing this text, “whoever wants to be first must be last”, she had us reverse the line. The person in the back of the line (me), got to be first to the water fountain. And I really enjoyed it. I recall taking a long slow drink from that water fountain, looking at my peers sideways as I drank. I savored the feeling of being first, while self-righteously rubbing it in to my thirsty classmates. I don’t think that’s what Jesus had in mind for the use of this text.
The disciples were self-seeking, pursuing ambition instead of serving the least of these. In fact, Jesus’ disciple, James, says in our other text today that “where there is jealousy and ambition, there is also disharmony and wickedness of every kind.” Today’s text proved it to be so among to disciples. I makes me wonder if—when James was writing these words—he wasn’t thinking about his fellow disciples and this particular disagreement, on this particular day.
While Jesus was calmly addressing the childish debate over who among the disciples was the greatest, I think he was also saying something about the other behavior of the disciples—I think he was reflecting on the disciples’ inability to ask important, clarifying questions to Jesus’ disturbing words.
Maybe Jesus’ words don’t sound so shocking to you right now. Perhaps you’ve heard them enough that they don’t upset you. But imagine hearing this for the first time, “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.”
This is the second time the disciples have heard Jesus say this so far in the gospel of Mark. It’s a lot to take in. They certainly had questions and concerns, but unfortunately, they were too busy worrying about who was the greatest, that they could not humble themselves and ask a simple question. “Jesus, what does this mean?”
And if the disciples were going to ask any questions about Jesus, his work and his ministry, this might be a good thing to ask about. “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.”
At my middle schooler’s school back to school night this week, several teachers encouraged the kids to ask questions. “Just because you are a smart kid doesn’t mean you know everything. Asking questions is how we expand our knowledge.”
Jesus brought a child into the midst of the disciples that day. It was a reminder to focus on the least instead of the greatest. But, it was also a reminder to them that they must humble themselves—and like a child—ask questions.
And what greater quality do children bring than their curiosity? Children’s desire to learn is encouraged when they ask questions. They learn by answering the questions that they develop as they interact in the world.
But that curiosity has potential to be squashed out of children by folks like the disciples who are so certain, so together, so positive that they are right. I recall the moment it happened to me.
I was 12 and I wanted to join the church. So I met with the Pastor and he explained to principles of the church and the particular holiness tradition to which we belonged. I remember this moment so vividly—I can still picture the basement Sunday school room, the musty smell of the damp room. I can picture my pastor, very stern and serious, all business.
And I remember asking questions about holiness—“Can we really be so holy that we become perfect? I thought that God was the only perfect one.” “We are sinners—how do we make ourselves perfect?”
I think my questions were getting on his nerves. Or maybe he was surprised that I was asking them. Or that I was persistent, or that I cared that much. But, he said to me, in a clearly irritated way, “Listen, if you don’t believe in this, don’t join the church.”
I had a choice to make—fit in and be a joiner, or persist in asking the questions, and be relegated (in this particular community) to the edges.
And while kids are curious, they also want to feel like they are part of something. Like they belong. So, I joined the church. I set aside my questions to belong.
It might be fun to question the motives of my pastor at that time, but it doesn’t seem especially fruitful. (Or maybe I’m a little sensitive about judging pastors, being that I am one.) What I took away from that as an adult is that there needs to be space to ask questions. There needs to be a space where questions from everyone can be heard, reflected on, discussed, challenged.
Jesus words and use of the child imagery reminded the disciples of the radically egalitarian nature of the movement and the ministry, but it also challenged the culture of silence around children. Serving the little children was a radical idea, but it was not just stooping to their level, but listening to their questions, engaging them where they were.
Perhaps we know this idea too well, and this is preaching to the choir. So maybe this is a sermon to just me. But, I’m aware that the curiosity, the enthusiasm of children, their insistence on asking a question—with persistence—is exhausting. I don’t always want to take the time. I’m tired. I’m on a singleminded path and don’t want to take a side trip somewhere. We do not always want to be bothered with questions. We don’t want to stoop. We have an agenda—we are certain of what we are to do.
Jesus suggests something much different—instead of seeking greatness, let us ask questions. Instead of worrying about our ambition, let us stop to listen to everyone—from the least to the greatest. Instead of rushing around, Jesus asks us to take our time.
Maybe we’ve heard these things enough that it doesn't seem so radical. But, even in the urgency of sharing the good news, Jesus is calling his disciples to slow down, to sit on the ground to listen. And perhaps even to learn from the child-like, the curious, and the questioning.
Even though the timing of my kid’s questions are not optimal, I’m so glad they ask them. It means they haven’t lost their curiousity, their child-like questions, their desire to make sense of the world. I hope they never do. I hope we never do. I hope we always make space for questions—even in the midst of our agendas, our busy lives, and our adult certainty.
For in welcoming the questions, the curiousity, the uncertainty and the wonder, we welcome Christ into our midst. AMEN.
What can I do?