sermon on Mark9:30-37
I have two confessions that may sound shocking at first: One, I am an agnostic. The second confession may sound subsequently less surprising: that I am agnostic is also to say I’m ignorant.
You probably suspect that I’m going to qualify these confessions, and you’re right. See, we normally equate the term “agnostic” with one who doesn’t believe in God. To use it more precisely would be for somebody who’s uncertain, who doesn’t know if they believe in God. And “ignorant” we take to be the same as stupid, a dummy, a half-wit, nincompoop, a doofus, a little slow…Sorry, there are so many synonyms! But ignorant doesn’t exactly fit that list.
Ignorant and agnostic are both from a Greek word, and that word was part of our Gospel reading. It is a word that really means “not knowing.” So to be ignorant isn’t to be idiotic, but just that you don’t know (though we’ll also discuss whether that’s from not having all the facts or if ignorance is related to what you ignore). And again, we typically call somebody an agnostic when they’re leaning toward not believing in God, but at its core it’s just that they don’t have all the knowledge.
Which should be something we’re all able to confess, that we are ignorant. We’re agnostic. We just plain don’t know everything about God and faith and church and life in this world. I’m guessing when I said I was ignorant, you were thinking, “yeah, tell me something I don’t already know.” But I know that I’m also implicating you, that last week I called you losers and this week I’m saying you’re ignorant. So I’ll beg your indulgence, to hang with me and maybe find grace in this.
To dig in, let’s start back in the Gospel reading, which got all of this going in the first place. The reading has the 2nd of 3 so-called “passion predictions” from Jesus. We heard the first last week, where Jesus went on to invite us also to take up our own cross, to follow him in losing our lives, and denying ourselves. In this 2nd time, just a chapter later, Jesus says he will “be betrayed into human hands, they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.”
Now, we may take those as fairly basic details about Jesus. We go back to saying our creed today that sums up for us that he “was crucified, died, and was buried…On the third day he rose again.” We’ve got these details down, at least enough to repeat them back.
The disciples, on the other hand, seem caught off guard. Even though they also had just heard it in the last chapter, still this is coming as a fresh idea to them, or is shocking enough that it won’t sink in. It says “they did not understand” (that’s the Greek agnostic or ignorant word right there) “did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.”
They don’t know what’s going on, but instead of trying to figure it out or simply being willing to question, they take our typical illogical human tack and change the subject. This is the ignoring part of ignorance, of not trying to understand, of giving up and turning your attention to something else instead. So the disciples start arguing about who’s the greatest. Which must’ve been an interesting conversation, filled with bluster, each trying to seem better and brawnier and brainier than the rest, all while entirely refusing to admit even just a tiny bit that they don’t know.
Thinking about bluster among the ignorant may make us think these days of politicians, particularly in the contrast with Jesus’ notion that to be truly great means to be a servant of all.
But it’s not just a television problem. We good people here are also prone to fall into distractions instead of focusing on the heart of the matter. Even here at church, we like to talk smart and prefer to think we know plenty and imagine it’s better to have answers than to have questions. So congregations and, yes, even pastors are diverted into talking probably way too much about budgets and forms and lightbulbs and emails and attendance numbers and straight up gossip about people.
All that when there are much better things to be focusing on and pondering and wondering about, even to be asking questions of. Like Jesus, God in Christ, what in the world the Holy Spirit is and what she’s up to. Or why it’s so great to be a servant and whom we should be serving. Or what resurrection means or why the cross or how this passion prediction compares to other Bible readings. These are great kinds of questions, but we get stymied all too quickly because we’re recognize they don’t have easy answers.
This is especially obvious as Sunday School resumes, and may be a reason that Jesus talks about welcoming children today. A case in point: at the wedding I officiated a week ago, a 5-year-old boy was there, whom I had baptized. He was sitting with his grandmother during the wedding and evidently found himself in a situation sort of like the disciples, because this boy didn’t understand what was being said. “Who is Jesus?” he asked. “God’s son,” the grandmother whispered back. “Oh, I didn’t know he had a kid,” the boy pressed in questioning. “We’ll talk about it more later,” the grandmother tried to conclude.
My first response was relief he was asking her and not me. That fits with the start of Sunday School. Kids ask darn hard questions that seem to get right to the point. Rather than trying to ponder theology with wee ones, we’d prefer the distractions of talking about art projects or about lunch plans or sports or school. We’re reluctant to engage those huge, deep questions.
But it should be obvious that we’ll be left with such questions, since God is huger and deeper than anything contained in our universe. There’s no way we can fully get a handle on God.
And even what we can grasp is bound to raise more questions. Jesus today tries to point to the truest revelation we have of God—in the cross and empty tomb, embodied in one who humbled himself and took the form of a slave. That can’t help but leave us confused and wanting to ask questions: was Jesus really God in the flesh? What’s the deal with the virgin birth? What about other religions? Did God die? Why did Jesus pray? How did he come back from the dead? Where is he now? Why aren’t there more miracles today? What’s supposed to happen in Communion? Did Jesus have to die? What about other deaths, and cancer and genocide and extinctions? What about all the tough ethical and moral dilemmas we face? These are honest and faithful questions, that agnostic part of our confidence, the doubting part of our belief. We don’t have just blind trust; this pondering is part of who we are.
In the verses of Mark’s Gospel we skipped past since last week is contained a line, a prayer that is somehow among the most real lines anybody has ever said. A father of a sick child cries out in confession, “I believe; help my unbelief.” Today we are invited to live with that honesty, with an expansive and questioning faith, struggling with our uncertainties and wrestling with wishes and wonderings. I believe; help my unbelief. I know; help my ignorance. I trust; help my agnosticism.
The disciples don’t ask because they are afraid. But when you’re worried, asking questions of God is the last problem you should be having. God is especially there for conversation in your fears or confusion or insecurity or doubts.
So as a moment of reflection here and honesty in what we don’t know and would really like to know, I’m going to invite you to take out your slip of paper and a writing utensil and write your question. Be inquisitive or demanding, but don’t be afraid and don’t just hold this in your head; be serious and write something down. As they say, there are no dumb questions. But if you don’t ask you’re sure to remain ignorant.
When you’re done, you have three options: first, if it’s really personal and private, you can keep it to yourself, between you and God. Second, you can put it in the offering plate in just a few minutes and maybe we can do something more with these shared questions in coming weeks. Third, if you’re hoping for conversation or an answer or my sharing in ignorance, you can write your name. Ask your questions of God and Jesus and life.
Hymn: Unexpected and Mysterious (ELW #258)