A sermon based on Isaiah 58:1-12 and Mark 9:30-37 preached on September 20th, 2015
This week I’ve been reading through a best selling book about darkness by Barbara Brown Taylor. Darkness is one of those words that means many things, and none of them are good. That’s the idea Brown challenges in the pages of her book. She asks us why we’re so scared of darkness. She wants us to grow more comfortable with darkness. The book is called Learning to Walk in the Dark.
We’ve been taught to fear the dark. We’ve been told that bad things can hide inside of it. From childhood monsters lurking in our closets to, in our adulthood, comparing our unknowing, our depression, our death to “darkness.”
Darkness is shorthand for anything that scares us. Even the ways we talk about each other have much to do with equating darkness with what we fear. The ways we talk about dark-skinned people fuels our fear of them. All we need to do is pay attention to the words we use everyday: Black sheep, black plague, black mark, black eye, blackmail, blacklisted. On the other hand, a white lie is a small, harmless lie; angels glow white. Angel food cake is white. Devil’s food cake is black. The word denigrate means to look down on someone, but before it meant that, it meant to blacken a person.
Our language exposes our fear of darkness. Childhood, adulthood, doesn’t matter—we fear the dark in more ways than we realize.
Even the bible doesn’t help us out here. Jesus uses the language of light and dark to talk to us about salvation. Light means safety, warmth, understanding, confidence. We don’t like being in the dark and not knowing. We like it when someone sheds light on a situation and gives us answers, makes us more sure and certain of ourselves. We’ve never really embraced the dark, have we?
Because I was reading Barbara Brown Taylor’s Learning to Walk in the Dark this week, I posted a question on social media. I asked folks for their answers and some responded, and it led to some interesting insights. My question was: What questions are you afraid to ask God? or What questions are you afraid to ask in church? The answers confirmed my suspicions. One friend said,
I have some questions. But, I’m even more afraid to ask them on Facebook than I am in church.
“Decent point,” I responded.
Another friend said,
There’s not much I won’t ask God, but if I’m not comfortable saying it in church, there’s no way I’m saying it on Facebook.
Now, these two responses may have more to do with the ridicule that we fear we might face when we risk being vulnerable on social media than when we risk being vulnerable in church, but what that 2nd friend said was interesting: There’s not much he won’t ask God personally, but asking questions in church is uncomfortable.
This speaks to my great disappointment with the Church. Throughout the centuries, we’ve convinced ourselves that church is where we put away our questions, our vulnerabilities, our wonder. Where we hide our bruises and scars, and take deep breaths and swallow hard, and tell ourselves to keep it together because there are people watching.
Somehow, we’ve convinced ourselves that Church isn’t so much the place where broken people find safe space to be broken and ask for healing as much as it’s the place where we all pretend we have to have it together. It isn’t so much the place where confused people come with their questions, brave enough to ask them as much as it’s the place where we all pretend we know everything we need to know. And that doesn’t sound right.
But this problem isn’t new. Not at all. Our tendency to keep our uncertainty and our questions to ourselves is an ancient one. It’s a survival strategy. And here we have it playing out in our passage for today. In these verses from the end of Mark chapter 9, we have Jesus’ 2nd attempt to tell the disciples about his upcoming death and resurrection. He comes right out and says it to them.
It’s a bit unfair of us, I think, to give the disciples a hard time about not understanding what Jesus was saying to them. We, after all, have the luxury of looking backwards on the entire story—the betrayal, the arrest, the cross, the burial, and then Easter Sunday. The disciples don’t know about any of these things, but since this is Jesus’ second attempt to tell them about what’s going to happen to him, don’t you think the disciples should have asked for more information? In their cluelessness and misunderstanding, wouldn’t a question go far in clearing things up? But yet, as Mark writes, they were afraid to ask Jesus anything.
I know the feeling. Think of all the unasked questions you’ve had. Think of sitting in Math or Science or in English class. Remember that feeling of slipping backward, getting farther and farther behind whenever you didn’t get something the teacher said—think of the avalanche of unknowing that began in your brain. It all started when you didn’t understand something small, you didn’t say anything, and then all the unasked questions that piled heavy on top of it, until you felt buried, in over your head. I’m envious of people who speak up right away whenever they don’t get something. They risk asking questions when no one else will, but invariably the thing they ask is what everyone else is wondering about, too.
If I could do school all over again, I’d be more curious. Braver. Unashamed of my ignorance. And, I know I’d come out knowing and understanding more, being more confident. Maybe even more intelligent. We’ll talk about intelligence in a bit.
What questions did the disciples want to ask but were too afraid to? Instead of continuing to walk through the dark like they did, suppose one of them spoke up, took the chance to look clueless or stupid and asked a question. What would it be? The first one I can think of is:
Uh, what? Jesus, you keep talking this nonsense about being killed and then rising up. We don’t get it!
Jesus, this doesn’t seem right. You’re the Messiah, and Messiah’s are strong and victorious. What’s this about suffering and servanthood?
Imagine the conversation that could have happened if one of them risked asking questions like these! Imagine the transformation that could have occurred among them if they stopped Jesus right there and asked him to explain all this “suffering servant” mumbo-jumbo! But instead, in their silence, they remain clueless. In fact, the very next conversation the disciples have amongst each other shows how much they don’t understand their Master. They debate amongst each other who was the greatest one among them! Here they are on their walk to Capernaum jostling each other for rank and position, totally misunderstanding what kind of person Jesus was saying they should be, all because they were afraid to be vulnerable and ask their questions of Jesus. In their ignorance, the disciples go to the other extreme of puffing themselves up. They ask “How can I be the greatest?” whenever they should have been asking “How can I be more faithful?” or “How can I be more curious in my walk with Jesus?”
Back to the thought about intelligence. I think our resistance to asking questions comes from our wrong ideas about intelligence. We’ve convinced ourselves that intelligence is about knowing more stuff. And if we don’t know what other people think we know, the game plan becomes Fake It ‘Til You Make It. We go to all sorts of effort to find out what we need to know without asking questions. We just hope that one day someone will say something that will clue us into what we needed to know all along. But that doesn’t sound like a very intelligent approach, does it? Intelligence is more about being curious—having an adventurous mind. Wondering more out loud, admitting what we don’t know, realizing that we’ll never been done learning, and voicing our need and desire to grow.
Discipleship is fueled by our curiosity—our audacity to walk with Jesus, to know what he knows, feel what he feels, to ask how we can grow closer to Him—closer in image, and in mind, and in heart. And that’s why Jesus reached for a little child. Children are eager, always curious. Children are never done wondering. They’ll ask you countless questions. The ways they can grow are only hindered by their imaginations, and their imaginations are vast. They’re not afraid of a thing! Jesus wants us to become more like that! Brave with our questions!
You have index cards in the pew in front of you. Pencils too. Between now and the offering, I would invite you to write down a question about your faith, God, or the bible. Something that you’ve often wonder about. It doesn’t have to be a big question. Fold it up and put it into the offering plate a little later on. Think of your question as an offering. Just as we give our time, talents, and our treasures, so also we hand God our questions, our challenges, our doubts and fears.
In 1902, Russian poet Rainer Maria Rilke began a correspondence with an anxious young writer who didn’t know what exactly to do with his creative gifts. Rilke’s letters to this young man were later compiled into a book called Letters to a Young Poet. There are many quotable passages in these letters, but one stands out. Rilke gives this piece of advice to the young poet:
…I would like to beg you dear Sir, as well as I can, to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.
How would our stories be different if we took the chance to ask Jesus our questions, if we thought of Church as a lab where faith is built, if we shared in our unknowing together? If we practiced being safe space for each other in our unknowing. Doesn’t that sound like Church?!
The darkness is never a bad thing. In fact, learning to walk in it sounds like a good definition of faith.
All praises to the One who made it all and finds it beautiful!