September 20, 2015
“Our Anxious Hearts”
“They (the disciples and Jesus) went on from there and passed through Galilee. He (Jesus) 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 one 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.”
Haven’t you heard examples of the disciples’ thick-headedness sprinkled throughout the gospels, and wondered, “What is wrong with these guys? How can they be so oblivious! How can they miss what is right under their noses? How can they get it so wrong?
Like this week, when Jesus tells them for the second time – This isn’t the first time they’ve heard that he will be betrayed, killed, and will rise again. They’ve heard it before, and there aren’t any big words in Jesus’ message. Seems pretty straightforward to us. What’s there to not understand? And if they didn’t understand, why didn’t they ask him to explain himself? Don’t they know the old adage, “There’s no such thing as a bad question?”
Ah, when things are so obvious in other people’s lives, it’s hard to remember that we are blind to the obvious in our own lives. It just so happens that this week I’ve been reading a book by Margaret Heffernan called “Willful Blindness: Why we ignore the obvious at our peril.” And she explains it so brilliantly, and it turns out, we are literally “blind” to what we don’t want to see – In this case, what the disciples did not want to hear.
Of course the disciples don’t understand what Jesus is talking about – First of all, it completely contradicts what they have learned from the moment they were born into a Jewish family and culture: The Messiah won’t be killed – He will overthrow the government! He will be a powerful political leader! What Jesus is saying does not fit in with their current understanding of who Jesus is and what he is about.
It happens all the time – We have a certain picture of how things should be, and we ignore anything that doesn’t fit that picture. On a small scale, think parents who miss the signs of drug addiction in their child. On a large scale think Enron. Think Countryside Mortgages and the whole banking industry. Think Abu Grahib. For that matter, think the Holocaust. Think about all those people who had to have known something was up, and who ignored it. Now that we have a better understanding of brain functioning, we realize we don’t even necessarily make a conscious decision to willfully ignore what contradicts our belief system. Soemtimes, we truly do not see it in our conscious brain (but our brain does register it – all the while deciding below our conscious awareness to ignore it.) In this case of the disciples, they did not hear it. It didn’t fit in with what they expected. They couldn’t make sense of it.
Not only that, you’ve got the issue of how much they wanted Jesus to think highly of them; his approval meant the world to them – They had left everything behind to follow him. No one wanted to be the one to question why they were following someone who was going to be killed. No one wanted to admit they didn’t understand. We’ve all been there, too – Either in a classroom, or a meeting, or with people at our workplace. Maybe even here at church. “Obviously everyone else gets it; I’ll just go along and it will make sense after awhile.”
But what happens next with the disciples? I find this so curious: My guess is that while they didn’t understand what Jesus was saying, it unsettled them even if they weren’t acknowledging just how unsettled they were at having their vision of Messiah challenged and the death of their dear friend predicted. And the way they tried to deal with that anxiety was to debate who was the best, the greatest, the most important, among them. Because knowing where we stand really helps us feel secure. In fact, knowing we’re better off than others gives us temporary relief from the uncertainty of the future.
I say temporary relief, because usually all the ways we seek to soothe our anxious hearts don’t last. Even though we still try. It’s our insecurity, our anxiety, that drives the comfort we take from our address, our degrees, our gpa, our job title, how many hours we work, how busy we are, how crucial we are to the workforce, or the family, or the church.
This same author, Margaret Heffernan, talks about what happens when people keep trying to prove their worth: We get tunnel vision. We forget what we are striving for; we forget to analyze how well our striving is working to achieve our goal – The goal of security. She tells story after story of companies who were all about acquisitions – taking over other companies - to the point where everyone was exhausted, but hooked on the chase. But no one stopped to analyze the results, so that in the end, all those deals ended up losing the companies money over 50% of the time. But everyone was so busy proving their importance, no one stopped to realize how futile and counterproductive. Just like these disciples’ discussion about who is the greatest.
But of course, not only was that discussion futile and counterproductive, the disciples had enough sense to know not to admit to the topic. Doesn’t matter – Jesus knew anyway, and challenged them to consider that this non-person in their midst – They probably hadn’t even noticed the child there – Because in that culture, children really weren’t to be seen or heard; they were considered property and not very valuable property at that, good only for perhaps bringing the water to wash the guests’ feet.
Here’s part of the challenge – On one
hand, children are no longer invisible in our world. So when Jesus pulls a child into their midst
and says, “Anyone who welcomes this child, welcomes me – and not only that,
welcomes the God who sent me,” well, it’s hard for us to get just how
incredibly radical that is. And yet in
some cases it is still true. I did catch
the tail end of a story this week on a sports’ radio show – One of the hosts
mentioned he had seen the Texas Ranger baseball coach go around high fiving
everyone he saw when his team won – He was so excited! But when he realized he was high-fiving the
ball boy – He immediately shoved him out of the way. It’s actually a pretty shocking video of how
we sometimes treat those we think less of.
So there are times we fail.
But I was pondering what Jesus was saying to the disciples, first telling them he’s going to die, then telling them it’s ridiculous to worry about who is greater, and they need to completely overhaul how they think about even the smallest and least significant in their midst – How if they want to be first, they have to be last and servant of all. And that’s just today’s small scripture lesson. To follow Jesus takes a lot of hard work – work that doesn’t have an obvious payoff, at least by the world’s standards. Plus it takes a lot of brain energy to change how we think and how we behave and how we treat each other and all creation.
And I wondered, really wondered, just why do we follow Jesus? Think about that for a moment. Why do you follow Jesus?
It’s not for the money – in spite of the “prosperity gospel,” which might as well be called the “blasphemy bunk” or “b.s.” It’s not for the prestige – I’m going out on a limb to say none of us will ever be as famous as Mother Teresa for our faith, and from her journals, we know it was no joyful walk in the park for her, either, to follow Jesus. It won’t get us a job, a raise, a promotion, job security. It won’t get us a spouse, friends, or network opportunities with the rich and powerful. So what are you hoping for, to follow Jesus? Because dang, it’s hard. Why do we do it? Why do you do it?
I think there is a small part of us that recognizes how fleeting the promises of our culture, of our world. We know that to be good by the world standards is like running on a treadmill – hard and long days and years – only to get nowhere. In our heart of faith, we know all the degrees in the world don’t make us matter more; all the job titles, all the money in the bank, even all the friends we have on facebook. Even as we’re running this race of proving our worth through our busyness and even as we’re trying to build up our importance with our long hours, that small voice keeps whispering: This is all pointless. Sometimes we try harder to drown out that voice; but sometimes it catches us by surprise, and we realize the truth: We truly are nothing more and nothing less that a beloved child of God. And that is the identity that lasts, the identity that matters.
And so we follow Jesus, because we know little matters more than a life of meaning, of connecting with something bigger, something more real, something sacred. Money and degrees and work won’t give us that meaning. In fact, they will get in the way of who God made us to be. We don’t follow Jesus because we want to get into heaven – If that were the case, we’d all be about the deathbed conversion. We follow Jesus, because we suspect living as a disciple is truer and more real and more lasting than anything else. We trust we will find true security for our anxious hearts, and peace and joy with Jesus that we won’t find anywhere, any way, else. Thanks be to God.