Questions Jesus Asked: Do You Believe I Can Do This?

Scripture: Matthew 9:27-31

This is the second week in a row, now, that our Question Jesus Asked is part of an account of a miraculous healing.  Last week, Jesus healed a paralyzed man by the pool of Beth-zatha after asking him if he wanted to be made well.  This week we meet back up with Jesus as he restores sight to two blind men who follow him as he travels around in the region of Galilee.

And I have to admit that this week’s question was the one I was most dreading preaching on.  In fact, as I was going through the Gospels trying to compile the questions for this series I seriously thought about leaving this one out, just so I wouldn’t have to deal with it.

That’s because every once in a while I will hear an account of what we sometimes call a “faith healing” – usually the healing of a physical disease or ailment in some miraculous way, without the intervention of anything involving modern science but simply through faith and prayer and perhaps the laying on of hands – and I have to admit that I never quite know what to make of these accounts.  On the one hand I would never want to limit what God is able to do, but on the other hand, these things are simply not really a part of my religious experience or tradition.  I think that I probably speak on behalf of some but not all of you when I say that.

And that makes these stories hard to preach on – especially when Jesus explicitly brings faith into the mix.  If I preach what the story seems to say, that God will heal your infirmities if you just have enough faith, I feel a little icky about that, because there certainly seem to be a lot of cases where that does not hold up.  But if I only preach about how that’s probably not really how it works, I feel a little icky about that, because the point isn’t simply to deconstruct a story – and besides, I’m afraid I might come off as not having very much faith, myself.

So you can see why it was tempting to just leave this story alone.

Ultimately I decided that that wasn’t the most honest way to go about things, and besides, as I say sometimes, it is often the texts I struggle with where I experience God speaking to me the most in the midst of them.

If you also are someone who struggles with texts like these, then I guess we can struggle through it together.

The story takes place after the conclusion of the Sermon on the Mount, when Jesus is traveling around Galilee performing miracles and healing people.  First it is a man with a skin disease, then the paralyzed servant of a Roman centurion, a demon-possessed man in Gadarene country, and a woman who has been bleeding for twelve years – along with many others along the way.  Jesus has just healed the daughter of a local leader after she’s already been declared dead, after the musicians are already beginning to show up for the funeral, even; and as he takes his leave of the crowds, two men begin to follow him.  Unlike the first disciples we heard about a couple weeks ago, they don’t walk along in silence until Jesus happens to glance back and notice them.  Instead, they follow loudly, crying out, “Have mercy on us, Son of David!”

Jesus must not answer right away because we are told they follow Jesus all the way into the next house he’s going to, and then, it seems, just kind of stand in front of him wordlessly, as if to say, “Well?”

And Jesus asks them our question of the day: Do you believe I can do this?

“Yes, Lord,” they say, and he says, “Then it will be done for you according to your faith.”

And it is, and their eyes are opened.

Like I told you, this is all a little bit uncomfortable for me.

Am I really supposed to believe, I wonder, that this is how it works?  What would have happened if they hadn’t said yes?  What if they said, “Well, we’re maybe not 100% sure, but it seemed worth a shot?”  Would Jesus then have judged them unworthy of his mercy?  Would he have somehow been unable to perform a miracle for them?  Does Jesus need people to believe in him for his power to take effect, like Tinkerbell?

Is this a question that Jesus is asking me, and if so, what about?  And might I also be judged unworthy of his mercy if I answer incorrectly?

I’m slightly comforted to realize that out of all the miracles that Jesus performs in these several chapters after the Sermon on the Mount, these blind men are the only ones who get asked that question.

But then, as I read through the accounts of those other miracles, I’m forced to realize that faith plays a big part in many of them, too.  The first, the man with the skin disease, kneels at Jesus’ feet and says, “Lord, if you choose, you can make me clean” (8:2).  The centurion with the paralyzed servant stops Jesus from coming to his house and instead says, “No, just say the word from here; I know how these things work” (8:9).  The ruler whose daughter has just died says to Jesus, “Place your hand on her, and she’ll live” (9:18). And the bleeding woman takes enough of a risk just to reach out and touch the hem of Jesus’ clothes despite her ritual uncleanliness that she had to have believed she was going to get something out of it.  Like it or not, at least in this section of Matthew, faith and healing seem to go hand in hand.

But then in Matthew 8:16 we do learn that many people are bringing their demon-possessed friends and relatives to Jesus and it simply says, “He healed everyone who was sick.”  As far as I can tell, no questions asked.

I was slightly comforted again when my commentaries told me that the healing itself wasn’t really the point of the story at all.  In the Old Testament, and especially in the prophet Isaiah, the coming of the Messiah, the Son of David – as the blind men call Jesus – was depicted as a time when the lepers would be cleansed and the paralyzed would “leap like a deer” and the voiceless would cry out and, of course, the blind would see.  And in these passages in this section of Matthew, these are the things we see happening, one by one.  This story isn’t about two blind men who miraculously receive their sight – it’s about two blind men who are able to see the Messiah for who he is.

That did help some.

But then it doesn’t really answer my questions, either, about how Jesus seems to imply that these messianic age healings work.

So I don’t know, Jesus, I guess I still have some questions for you.  Is your mercy reserved for those with great faith?  Isn’t there something in the Bible about the rain falling on the just and the unjust? What if I have some faith, but not enough?  If I ask you for healing or anything else and I don’t get it, does that mean that my faith wasn’t great enough?  Does that mean I can look around and tell who is faithful by who gets what they want?

Oh, and while we’re at it, does that make faith really just a tool to get what I want?

Like I said, I struggled some with this text.

But I think somewhere in the midst of it all I heard Jesus saying, “I’ll ask the questions here.”

And I began to realize that I had perhaps gotten so caught up in the logistics of healing that I failed to hear Jesus’ question for what it was.  And then it began to occur to me that, obvious miracles aside, there are actually a whole lot of situations where God’s ability to work in my life does, actually, require at least a little bit of faith on my part.  Not necessarily because God is up there in heaven doling out mercy to people according to the measure of their faith and withholding it from people who don’t measure up – but because a lot of the time, what God wants to do in and through my life requires some participation on my part.  And that participation does often take faith – the recognition of just who I am dealing with and just what he can do.

So I hope Jesus won’t mind if I rephrase his question a little: What might God want to do in your life right now that requires some faith on your part?

This week I asked some of my friends for their examples of things God had been able to do in their lives or through them that required faith from them.  One of my friends, another pastor, said that when he was considering going to seminary, he looked over his budget, and he found that after rent, tuition, travel costs, and books, and fees, he would have about $10 left over each month – and that was before buying food or any other necessities.  He said more than one person told him to reconsider.  But he also believed that God had called him into ministry and that this was what God wanted him to do.

Do you believe I can do this?  He believed that God would make a way, and he never went hungry.

Another friend also related a story of God calling her to a particular career, but she is not a pastor, she’s a teacher.  She teaches kindergarten in a Title 1 school where every day kids come in hungry, sad, angry, hurt, and, she said, “everything in between.”  It’s a job, she says, that she could not do if she didn’t believe it was where God needed her to be right now.  For her, faith is what means she shows up every day.

Do you believe I can do this?  Maybe she couldn’t do that job on her own.  But with the power and the strength that God gives her, she’s making a difference in the lives of the children she teaches.

Yet another friend did tell a story of healing.  For years she struggled with depression and was even suicidal for a time.  There seemed to be no way out of the darkness.  And acting on her own, maybe there wasn’t.

Do you believe I can do this?  Through the power of God and good professional help, she is living, in her own words “well and normally most days.”  Of course, that’s not a miraculous healing – or is it?

I think of all of the questions I had to answer when I was ordained – “Will you do your best to pattern your life in accordance with the teachings of Christ?”  “Will you, in the exercise of your ministry, lead the people of God to faith in Jesus Christ, to participate in the life and work of the community, and to seek peace, justice, and freedom for all people?”  “Will you be faithful in prayer…and continually rekindle the gift of God that is in you?”

And the answer to all of them: “I will, with the help of God.”

Because as much as society might tell me that I can accomplish anything if I just believe in myself – sometimes it’s about more than just believing in myself – because there are some things I just can’t do through my own power, skill, or will.  And the only thing to do is to pray: Son of David, have mercy on me.

What does God want to do in your life that is going to take a little faith from you?

What if we made this more of a collective question?  When we pray for peace in Syria and other places devastated by war and terrorism, week in and week out, do we really believe that God can do that?  Don’t we have to, in order to be willing to do anything and not just give the people there up for lost?

You all know that reading and learning about the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa and its faith leaders played a big role in my first sensing a call to ministry, and I remember how people like Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Bishop Peter Storey of the Methodist Church in South Africa would preach in the thick of the struggle that God had already won.

Do you believe I can do this?  Yes, God, so much that I’m willing to put it in the past tense, and then get out there and march.

And I even think about the future of the United Methodist Church here, as the threat of a denominational split looms ever closer over our disagreements over same-sex marriage and the ordination of gay people.  Does God have a good future in store for us, even when we seem incapable of finding the way forward ourselves?

Do you believe I can do this?  Well, I don’t always know, God.  But I believe after 40 years of fighting that if we do, it won’t be our own doing; and that if we don’t believe in what you can do, then we definitely don’t stand a chance.

Like I said, sometimes it’s the passages I struggle with most that end up having something to say to me.

Do you believe God can do this?  Do you believe God has the power to heal, the power to make peace where there is no peace, the power to reconcile, the power to establish justice, the power bring you through challenging times, the power to help you respond to whatever call God has placed on your life?

Then, says Jesus, it will be done for you according to your faith.

Your faith, like mine, may not always be perfect.

But may it be just enough for God to work some miracles through us.

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Questions Jesus Asked: Do You Want to Be Made Well?

Scripture: John 5:2-9

Our story today begins at a certain pool outside Jerusalem’s Sheep Gate, called Beth-zatha or Bethsaida or Bethesda.  It was not just any pool, decorating the entrance to the city.  Its waters were known to have healing powers.  At certain times, apparently, the otherwise still waters would begin to stir, or bubble.  By some accounts the waves turned purple-red, like blood.  Some said it was an angel who periodically came down from heaven to make this happen, and when it did, the blind and the lame and the paralyzed would make their way to the edge of the pool, on their own or with help, and they would enter, anticipating that whatever infirmity they had was about to be healed.

It may seem like an old-fashioned kind of belief, but even today, water is one of the first places we go to look for healing.  Every year millions of people make their way to Lourdes, France, where the Virgin Mary is said to have appeared once, to get in or even drink the water in hopes of curing everything from blindness to cancer.   Sometimes it’s secular and at least semi-scientific– my father-in-law, for example, made regular trips for a while to the Blue Lagoon in Iceland, whose geothermal spa always seemed to help with his pain and mobility, at least for a while.  Even Garth Brooks sings that heartache is healed by the sea.

So it’s not so hard to believe that the waters of Beth-zatha had something in store for those who gathered around it to wait for the waters to stir.  I don’t know how long they typically had to wait, or if the waters began to stir regularly or only sporadically.   But we are told in John 5:1 that it is a festival time, which one we don’t know, so the crowds were probably pretty big, and when Jesus happened upon the scene, he found himself surrounded by people with physical disabilities who were hoping to be healed.  But there was one man in particular who caught his eye.

We don’t know what it was about this man that made him stand out to Jesus.  We do know that, especially as John tells it, Jesus has the ability to see through people, to know their hearts and intentions before they act or speak.  Maybe there was something in what he saw that made him approach this one man.  Maybe it’s because Jesus knew, somehow, that he had been waiting for 38 years.  Or maybe Jesus simply noticed the obvious – this man had no one to help him get into the water, and probably couldn’t do it himself.

John doesn’t actually tell us that this man was paralyzed – it’s interesting how we assume things sometimes, even me – but since Jesus does eventually tell him to get up and walk, I think that will work to help us imagine the scene.   Whatever is wrong, he will walk away from the scene a healed man, without ever stepping in that purple-red water.  But first, he has to have a little encounter with Jesus.

The question that Jesus asks this man, the first words he speaks to him, is I think one of the most poignant of all of the questions Jesus asks.  Because Jesus goes right up to this man, who has been paralyzed for 38 years and is sitting by the edge of the pool that has the power to heal him, and asks: “Do you want to be made well?”

If you were in his position, how would you have reacted to that?

Do I want to be made well?  What kind of question is that?

I’ve been paralyzed for 38 years, Jesus.  Of course I want to be made well.  Besides, why do you think I’m sitting here by the pool with the healing waters, just for fun?  Oh, no thanks, I’m good.

Remember a couple weeks ago, when the first disciples began to follow Jesus and Jesus asked them what they were looking for?  And they were so caught off guard by the question that all they could do was sputter back, “Where are you staying?”  Well, once again, Jesus’ question solicits an answer that isn’t really an answer – this time, I think because the paralyzed man struggles to answer this completely inane sounding question – and he responds, “Well, I don’t have anyone to help me into the water, and by the time I can get there, there’s no room in the pool for me.”

To me it sounds almost defensive: Don’t you imply that I somehow don’t want to be made well, just because I have been sick for all these years.

Jesus, it seems, takes this as a yes.  “Take your mat,” he says, “get up, and go.”  And our paralyzed man gets up, picks up his mat, and walks off.  It’s not quite the end of the story.  We find out just afterwards that it happens to be the Sabbath, and the religious leaders aren’t too happy about Jesus going around healing people on the Sabbath, because that counted as work; and they are even less happy when they confront him about it and he responds, “My Father is still working, and so am I.”  It is one of many such confrontations to come.

But for me it is that question that hangs there: Do you want to be made well?

Because it was possible, of course, that he didn’t.  It’s possible, first of all, that his illness or disability was a core part of who he knew himself to be, that he had even learned to find some strength and pride in that.  Certainly there are disabled, deaf, or blind people who feel like this today.  But then, that seems like a rather modern way of looking at things, and besides, the man was sitting there by the pool with the healing waters.

It’s also possible that over the past 38 years, this man had learned to live this life where he sat by the waters that might begin to stir, day in and day out, relying on the pity of people who passed by, maybe gave him some money or some food once in a while.  It’s possible that while this might not have been what he once imagined for his life, it was what he knew how to do, and it had become comfortable.   It’s possible, even, that he thought he wanted to be healed, but deep down he was kind of scared to be; because if he was healed, he would have to walk, and he didn’t know how to walk, or to live life as a walking person.  In this case his answer maybe sounds a little more like an excuse: Did he want to be made well?  Well, it doesn’t matter what I want, Jesus, here are all the reasons why it’s just not going to happen!

Did he want to be made well?  Well, that was a very complicated question.  It’s no wonder he didn’t exactly answer.

I imagine some of us might hear this question and think immediately of someone else we know: someone with some sort of addiction, maybe.  We are always told, “they have to want to get better.”  Or the heart attack survivor who still eats terribly.  Or the panhandler we pass on the way to work every day, and we wonder why they don’t avail themselves of the resources made available to them, or we wonder why they don’t just get a job.

Of course, if one of those situations applies to you, then Jesus’ question stands: Do you want to be made well?

But this is not a question that invites us to judge others based on what their intentions deep down may or may not be.  I don’t want to hear at the end of the service, “I know some people who really need to hear that sermon.”

Because Jesus’ question is for each one of us, ourselves:  Do you want to be made well?

If we are going to answer yes, which I think we suspect is the right answer, then I guess the first thing we need to do is admit that we are sick or broken.

For some of us that might come more easily than for others.  Though we may all recite the same confession and we may all quote Romans to say that “we’ve all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” – certainly some days we know that in the core of our being more than others, don’t we?  Some days when all is right with the world we might not feel the need to get better at all.  But on other days, days when we are particularly honest with ourselves and our brokenness is particularly evident, when we are hurting or afraid or grieving or desperate or guilty – we might honestly and easily answer no, we are not well, and yes, we want to be.

On some days when it is made evident to us just how much our hearts, as Martin Luther put it, are “curved in on themselves,” we can imagine what it might be like to be sitting by the pool, waiting for those waters to bubble.

But even then, do you want to be made well?

Or would it sometimes be easier to sit and wait by the pool as if we wanted that, but to keep clinging to whatever it is that makes us unwell – that guilt, that grief, that anger, that sin – because it is actually, it turns out, pretty hard to let go of?

Here’s an example from my life at the moment: for my Lenten discipline this year, I decided to give up getting angry in traffic.  This is especially pertinent for me now because we moved last summer and my commute went from a five-minute walk up the hill to maybe a good 40 minutes crawling up 395 with twenty thousand of my closest friends.  And let me tell you, there have been mornings when I sit in traffic gripping the wheel and yelling at people who won’t let me in and generally letting my day be ruined by 8:45 in the morning.  So I could honestly answer – all was not well with my soul.

But it’s more than that, too, because I think driving can so often be a metaphor for the rest of life, and that when I can’t extend grace and forgiveness to other drivers on the road, it’s about more than just other drivers on the road.  Nothing gets me like when I’m sitting in a half-mile backup waiting to get off at Exit 8A and some other car just comes shooting down the lane next us and tries to squeeze in right at the end.  And so I sit there hugging the bumper of the car in front of me, determined that AT ALL COSTS I will NOT LET THIS PERSON IN.  And the thing is, how much of a difference would that actually make in my life, if this one person squeezed in?  Not actually that much.  But it’s the PRINCIPLE of the thing, right?  This is a JUSTICE ISSUE.  They shouldn’t think that they can get away with something like that.

What does that say about me?

So the day before Ash Wednesday, as I sat in traffic on my way home, I thought how much I would like to not be that person anymore, how I would like instead to be the kind of person who is gracious and magnanimous and doesn’t get so caught up in the injustice of minor slights and who exudes inner peace.

What I’m discovering is that being made well costs me something.  In this case that cost is the anger and self-righteousness I have to give up every single morning, the deep breath I have to take every time someone cuts me off or squeezes in in front of me, the way I have to intentionally not call the person an idiot who honked at me to make my left turn while I was waiting for a pedestrian to cross.  I can’t just automatically begin to exude inner peace – I have to give it up to God each time, and let God make me well, a little bit, each time.

And to do that, I have to want it – not just as an idea, but really.

If you say you want to be healed of your sin, are you ready to give up whatever that sin is – gossip or gambling or selfishness?  If you say you want to be healed of the guilt you carry around, are you ready to let it go and accept God’s grace?  If you say you want to be healed of your fear, are you willing to get out there and do whatever that thing is that you are afraid of?  Because it will be hard.  And your life is going to change.  And maybe you were comfortable, if not happy, the ways things were.

Do you want to be made well?

And if so are you willing to get up and walk?

Again, to the credit of the man in this story, he seems to be for real.  It’s possible that he could have gotten comfortable with his own brokenness of body and/or soul, but as far as we can tell, he hadn’t.  Jesus tells him to pick up his mat and walk and he does.

It’s possible, also, that the question was about more than just his ability to walk.

And it’s possible that that question continued to linger, long after he took his mat, long after the man who healed him was put to death and rose again.

Do you want to be made well?

It’s not as easy a question as it seems.  But if the answer is yes, God does have the power to heal you of the things that are holding you back and weighing you down.  If the answer is yes, then what are you waiting for?  Pick up your mat and get going.

Questions Jesus Asked: Why Are You Afraid?

 

Scripture: Mark 4:35-41

I want you to think for a minute – if you are willing to go there – about the time when you were the most scared you’ve ever been in your life.

I tried to decide when that would have been for me, and honestly, I couldn’t.  I did think of the time in sixth grade on our class camping trip that I got lost in the woods in the middle of the night on my way back from the latrine.  And I did think of the time I thought I had broken my arm on a trip to Egypt and thought I was going to have to navigate a thoroughly unfamiliar healthcare system that was perhaps not as first-world as I was used to.  And I thought of the night not so long ago that Jon and I had to bring Evelyn to the ER, although she turned out to be fine.  I’m not sure that any of those count as the time in my life when I was the most scared ever, but putting myself back in those moments, I do appreciate a little better how the disciples must have been feeling in this story.

It’s a familiar story.  It has been a long day.  Jesus has been teaching on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, telling parables to the crowd.  That is – he started out on the shore; the crowds grew so big that Jesus climbed into a boat just off the shore and stood and taught from there, telling stories of mustard seeds and soil of varying quality and lamps under bushel baskets, stories of the Kingdom of God.  But now the crowds have dispersed, Jesus and his disciples are on their way across the lake in that same boat; Jesus, who must be exhausted, has fallen asleep on a pillow in the stern, and the storm clouds have begun to gather.

All of a sudden the storm hits, and it’s very dark, and the rain is falling and the lightning is flashing and the boat is being tossed violently on the waves.  The waves are swamping the boat and the disciples are frantically and fruitlessly bailing water out of the boat and pulling at the rigging as they try to keep their balance.  Meanwhile Jesus is still snoozing away in the back, oblivious to it all – or so it seems.

“Teacher!” the disciples cry desperately.  “Don’t you even CARE that we are going to drown here?”

It sounds a little dramatic, but remember that a number of the disciples are fishermen by trade, and this is hardly the first storm they have ever seen on the Sea of Galilee.  If they think it’s bad, it must be pretty bad.

Jesus – in my mind at least – takes his time waking up, maybe sits up, shakes his head, rubs his eyes a little, takes in the whole scene, shakes his head again, tells the wind and the waves to knock it off, which they do, and then asks the disciples our question for the day: Why are you afraid?

Leaving the disciples with their mouths hanging open, of course.

A week or so ago when I was searching for some cover art for this week’s bulletin, I typed Jesus’ question into Google image search, and about a hundred visual representations of it came up, right in my face: Why are you afraid?  Why are you afraid?  Why are you so afraid?

Some of them got specific: Why are you afraid of love?  Why are you afraid of greatness?  Why are you so afraid of fear?

Why are you afraid?  Why are you afraid?  Why are you so afraid?

I admit that as I looked at them all I got to feeling a little defensive.  Why am I afraid? Even when I’m not facing any particular scary moment in my life, I have plenty of good reasons to be afraid.

I’m afraid for my parents’ health as they get older – more and more these days.  I’m afraid of something bad happening to my child, enough that it sometimes keeps me up at night even when she is sleeping.  I’m afraid of being a failure at my job, my calling, my relationships.

But we all have our reasons to be afraid, right?

We are afraid of death and we are afraid of change and we are afraid of failure and we are afraid of what the future might hold and we are afraid of not having enough, and probably a lot of other things.

And what about collectively, as a nation, right now?  Some of us are afraid of what this administration’s next move will be.  Some of us are afraid of who’s coming into our country.  Some of us are afraid that we are losing the America we thought we knew.  On both sides of the aisle, the fear is palpable.

Hey Jesus and Google image search, why are we afraid?  We have plenty of good reasons, thank you very much.

Putting ourselves back in the place of the disciples in this story, don’t you think that’s probably how they felt when he asked them that question, too?  Why are you afraid?  Well, maybe if you would WAKE UP, Jesus, you would see that we’ve almost CAPSIZED, here, and you would see that we’re all probably going to DROWN.  Why are we afraid?  We have plenty of good reasons, thank you very much.

Yes, from the very immediate to the more existential, there are plenty of things for us to be afraid of.

But it did occur to me somewhere along the way that that wasn’t quite the question Jesus asked.

Sure, I can hear him saying to me.  Death, change, failure, bad things happening to yourself or your parents or your children or to your country.  You’re right.  There are plenty of things to be afraid of. 

But why are you afraid?

It occurs to me also that he asks this question of his disciples after storm has already receded, after, Mark tells us, there was “a dead calm,” as if Jesus wanted to make a point.  There is nothing to be afraid of anymore, and yet Jesus still asks them, “Why are you afraid?” not “Why were you afraid?”

It’s as if the question isn’t just about this one time; Not, “why are you afraid of some wind and waves,” but, “why does fear still have this power over you?”

After all, the disciples have already chosen to leave everything they knew behind to follow Jesus – a pretty bold move.  And they’ve already been given authority to cast out demons, right there in chapter 3 – a pretty big power.  So what reason do they have to be afraid?

Then Jesus answers his own question, though he answers it, rhetorically, with another question: “Do you still have no faith?”

I have a bone to pick with Jesus here, I think, because he seems to be assuming that just because I am afraid of things, something must be lacking in my faith.

I don’t really like that.  No matter how much you believe in Jesus, being lost in the woods is a scary thing.  Taking your child to the ER is a scary thing.  Facing eviction with no place to go is a scary thing.  Being in a boat that is about to capsize in a storm is a scary thing.  As good and faithful Christians as we may be, I’m not sure we can get around that.

And what about the things Jesus asks us to do – take up your cross and follow me?  How could we not be at least a little bit afraid?

And yet, Jesus seems to say, faith and fear cannot co-exist.

Maybe that is, as William Sloane Coffin once put it, because “Faith isn’t believing without proof – it’s trusting without reservation.”

But trusting what?  That Jesus does have power over the storms we face?  That Jesus does in fact care, even when he seems to be sleeping on the job?  That Jesus is in the boat with us, no matter what kind of wind and waves we face?  That “all things work together for good for those who love God” (Romans 8:28) and that “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor heights, nor depths, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord?”

Martin Copenhaver, in his book Jesus is the Question, tells the story of one of his parishioners named Dorothy, who found out her cancer had returned.  Copenhaver went to visit her and her husband in the hospital when they had just gotten this news, and Copenhaver said Dorothy told him, “I’ll be OK.”

Her husband rushed to agree with her, to assure her that of course she would be OK, the doctors all said the treatment was very effective –

But she put her hand up and stopped him and said, “No.  I’ll be OK either way.”

That, right there, is the kind of faith that leaves no room for fear – recognizing that sometimes, the storm Jesus calms isn’t the one outside of us.  And it’s the kind of faith I aspire to – not a life where I have no reason to be scared, but a faith that won’t grant those those fears power over me – because I know that God has power even over death, and so no matter what, I’ll be OK.

You know, when I have read this story I have always imagined Jesus as kind of annoyed at the whole thing – annoyed at being woken up and annoyed that the disciples are bothering him and annoyed that his has to do this thing for them.  That’s probably not a bad reading, because Jesus is annoyed with the disciples a lot in Mark.  There’s a lot that they don’t get.  But I started wondering if it’s possible to hear these words in a different tone.  I wonder if they could be gentle, even compassionate: This kind of fear isn’t what I want for you.  This kind of fear isn’t what I’ve called you to.  I want something better for you: I want you to be able to trust me, to know that you are going to be OK.

So I heard Jesus asking me a new question, then: what keeps you from trusting in me?

Well, doubt, I suppose – doubt that it is going to make any difference whether I do or don’t.  And maybe some self-centeredness – because if I fully put my trust in God, I have to accept that  God’s outcome might not be the one I hoped for.  God might be able to calm my inner storm but what I’d really like is for God to calm the outer storm.  And maybe there is the fact that the thing I fear, whatever it is at the time, seems very near, right in front of me, pressing in around me, swamping the boat – while trust in God requires me to look beyond and see something bigger, and that is hard to do.

Those, I suppose, are the real reasons I am afraid.

The disciples, for their part, will continue to face some scary things in their lives.  They will see their leader arrested and killed, and they will face the danger of being associated with him.  They will be thrown in prison themselves, not knowing whether they will live or die.  They will, according to tradition, eventually face their own deaths as martyrs – things that make a little storm on the Sea of Galilee seem tame by comparison.

And they won’t always face these things without fear.  At Jesus’ arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane, after all, they run.  Peter will later deny, three times, that he ever knew this man.  But later they will preach boldly in the face of persecution and sign hymns for their jailers.  It takes a while, but gradually the disciples learn to put their trust in Jesus and not to let the scary things they face have power over them.  It takes a while, but gradually the disciples, long after they left everything to follow, learn to have faith.

The question is, will we?

Why are you afraid? Jesus asks.  Oh, Jesus, we have plenty of good reasons.  But may we learn to trust that with you in our boat, we will be OK, either way.

Questions Jesus Asked: What Are You Looking For?

 

Scripture: John 1:35-46

 

There are a lot of things I love about this exchange between Jesus and his first disciples in the Gospel of John.

I love, first of all, that John the Baptist’s disciples hear him make this strange claim about Jesus – “Look, here is the Lamb of God!” and their immediate response is to follow him.  No questions, no clarifications necessary – not even, “What does that even mean?”  I imagine them shrugging.  “Oh, well, that’s the Lamb of God.  OK, let’s go.”  Like, what else are you going to do?

I love, then, that the story makes it sound like they’re walking along ten paces behind and Jesus happens at some point to turn around and notice they are there.  “Oh, hey, guys,” I imagine him saying.  “Been there long?”  I read that the Greek might mean something more like “observed,” though, so it might be more than a casual glance over his shoulder.  Perhaps Jesus knows they are there, even turns around and acknowledges them at some point, but simply lets them walk along in silence for a little bit, like he doesn’t want it all to be too much too soon.  For now, they are following, and that’s enough.

I love his question when he finally does speak to them – “What are you looking for?”  It’s so simple and direct and yet has so many levels to it all at once that it seems to catch them off guard.  You can almost hear them stammering as they try to answer this question, and when they finally do it’s not really an answer at all: “Rabbi, where are you staying?”  Jesus himself has a tendency to answer questions with questions, but you get the sense that here it’s less of a rhetorical device and more just the first thing that managed to come out because honestly the answer isn’t on the tip of their tongues.

I love Jesus’ response.  “Come and see,” he says, and once again in this dialogue, a question is answered with something that isn’t really an answer, but this time, it’s an invitation.  They don’t need an exact answer to keep following; the answers, they have to trust, will be revealed along the way.  So the disciples keep going on this new journey they find themselves on.

I love, after having read one commentary on the subject, that John includes the time of day: it was four o’clock in the afternoon; because as this writer put it, “we don’t say, ‘our wedding was in the evening sometime’ or ‘our baby was born sometime in the morning’ or ‘grandpa died sometime in the afternoon.’ No, we remember these moments with particularity. It was a Tuesday. It was 5:01. The event started at 4:00.”[1] Meeting Jesus for the first time is that kind of event.

And finally, I love that those first disciples immediately go out and rustle up more disciples.  “We have found the Messiah,” Andrew says to his brother Simon Peter.  And then Philip – who, by the way, is the one person here lucky enough to get an actual “Follow me” from Jesus – Philip repeats Jesus’ own invitation to the highly skeptical Nathanael: “Come and see.”

So yeah, there’s some good stuff here.

As you know, this past Wednesday was Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the season of Lent, and as I said before, Lent is a good time for some introspection, for doing some self-examination of our hearts and intentions and actions, both to deepen our relationship with God and to see where we might need to open ourselves to God doing a little work on us.  That’s why we are spending Lent letting Jesus ask us some of the questions he first asked others in the Gospels.  So I want to go back to the one he asks here, at that moment when he turns around and raises his eyebrows at these two guys who are following him: What are you looking for?

This is a question the first disciples get asked on the very beginning of their journey, and it’s clear that they don’t yet know the answer to that question.  But I wonder how many of us are much further along in our own journeys of faith and discipleship – in terms of pure time, at least – and still don’t really have an answer to that question.  That’s one of those things that’s good to go back and ask ourselves every once in a while.  Why are we here?  Why are you here?  Why did you get up on a Sunday morning to be here when you didn’t have to, when you surely had other things you could be doing?  Why do you call yourself a Christian?  Why do you try to do the things that are part of a life of following Jesus – praying, reading the Bible, serving others, practicing generosity, working for justice?

I know a lot of people like to go away from a sermon feeling like they’ve been giving something to do, but for these next weeks of Lent, I hope you will more than anything leave here with something to chew on for the rest of the week.

What are you looking for?  What do you expect from it all?  What do you hope to gain?

I think there’s an obvious answer to that question, maybe, and I think it is something like “eternal life.”  But I think that’s far from the only honest answer, maybe even far from the only good answer, and I think even among those of us who would give that answer we might understand it differently.  Are you here because you are looking to go to heaven instead of hell when you die?  Are you here because you want the kind of eternal, abundant life that begins now when we accept God’s grace and extend it to others?  Or both?

Again, I think there are other good answers to that question.  What are you looking for? A sense of genuine community, maybe?  A way to express thankfulness, or a way to make a difference in the world?  Comfort and forgiveness?  Are you looking to satisfy some curiosity?

What are you looking for?  There are some bad answers, too, I think:  social propriety; networking; to gain someone else’s approval; currying favor with God and adding jewels to your heavenly crown?  I think those are bad answers, but then again, there’s probably a little of those answers or some other equally bad ones in all of us, if we are honest, and that’s one reason it’s important to ask the question.  And – there are probably a lot of other answers neither good nor bad floating around out there, too.

Luckily, as John writes, Jesus doesn’t need a good or even coherent answer from us in order for us to be invited to keep coming along.  We stammer out some answer that isn’t even really an answer and Jesus just says, “Well, let’s keep going then, shall we?”  A lot will be revealed on the journey itself, about us and about him.

So Jesus doesn’t need a specific answer, but I still think it’s important for us to think about the answer to the question – and in fact I imagine that the disciples might have kept thinking about it as they followed Jesus to the place where he was staying.  It’s important because I believe that very often, the things we are honestly looking for are the things we will find – for better or for worse.

I thought about how I would answer this question myself – I have a feeling you’ll be hearing a lot of my own introspection as I work through these questions this Lent. That’s not because my own answers are so important or revelatory themselves, but I do hope they will get you thinking about your own.

For me, a word or phrase isn’t enough to answer this question, and I think my answer has changed over time, and it’s possible I can only understand what I was once looking for in retrospect.  I grew up in church, so I think my answer begins less with what I was looking for and more of what I found and was looking for more of.  What I found in church was a community that I loved, from the other kids in Sunday School and then youth group with me—including Jon!, to old people who treated me like I had something to share and something to give.  That is one of the main things that kept me coming back once it was my choice.  I still believe in the power of meeting Christ in community.

I’ve also always been the kind of person who seeks success in following instructions, and in meeting and exceeding clearly defined expectations; and so I think there was a part of me that always said that if the ultimate expectations come from God, then my job was to throw myself into trying to follow God’s instructions and meet God’s expectations for my life.  And here I am.  So I was – and, if I am very honest, probably still am – looking for God’s affirmation, for that “Well done, good and faithful servant,” for that “With you I am well pleased.  There’s some good in that answer, I think (wanting to please God is a good thing, right?) but there’s something for me to examine about myself in there, too. Grace is a hard concept for people who know they’re supposed to accept the fact that it’s not all about what you’re supposed to do.

Another answer really does take me back to the whole “eternal life” thing.  I always say that I am a Christian because even on days when I don’t believe anything else, I truly, firmly believe at the core of my being that the way Jesus teaches us how to live is from God, and that it is the best way to live, serving and welcoming and giving and forgiving and loving in a way that demands something of us.  And so I come to church and try to follow Jesus – not just because it is my job, but because I am looking for reminders of how to live that kind of life, and inspiration in seeing what life can be like when it is lived that way, as part of something bigger than myself.

That’s how I would answer that now.

I believe that by delving into those answers, whether they are “good” or not, Jesus invites me into deeper relationship with him.  He uses wherever we are as a starting place to bring us somewhere new.  It’s when the disciples stammer out their non-answer answer of “Rabbi, where are you staying?” that Jesus invites them to come and see – to come and see where he is staying, sure, but also come along and see all the ways Jesus will respond to the answers they couldn’t quite even voice yet.  And I believe, again, that we very often find the things we earnestly seek.  Jesus even said something about that once.

So what are you looking for?  Community?  Purpose?   Inner peace?   Life?

Jesus will show you that, and more.

Checking the box for eternal life?  Well, if that is what we’re looking for, we might not in the end be so happy with what we find.

I want to switch gears slightly for a bit of trivia, now.  Do you know what the day of the year is with the highest church attendance after Christmas and Easter?  In the Catholic Church, at least, it’s Ash Wednesday (I’ve also heard it’s a higher attendance day than either Christmas or Easter.)  I’m not sure that’s quite true for Protestant churches – I know some people who would claim it’s Mother’s Day – but I can tell you that last year we got more than twice as many people on Ash Wednesday as we did on Maundy Thursday or Good Friday.

I wonder what that says about what people are looking for when they come to church.

Some might say it’s the free ashes – a little holy swag – but I also can’t help but wonder if it’s that Ash Wednesday is kind of the hipster of church holidays.  It’s the day when we talk about all the things that aren’t cool to talk about, like sin and repentance and death.  It’s the least cool church holiday, so that makes it cool.

But maybe it’s more than that, and there’s something in Ash Wednesday that we, collectively, are seeking.

Are we looking for someone to tell us the deep truth about our lives?  The truth that we try to skirt around so much of the time?  Are we looking, once in a while, for someone to look us in the eyes and tell us that yes, it’s true, our bodies will one day return to the dust that they were created from in the first place?  Are we looking to hear that we are sinful and broken and mortal, and that’s OK, it’s not a secret, and we don’t need to try to keep it hidden anymore?  Are we looking to hear that yes, it’s true, your suspicions were right, you’re not enough – but God’s grace is enough for you?

Are you looking for any of those things?

Come and see, Jesus says.

And to those of us who examine ourselves and find perhaps we are looking for some of the wrong things, and to those of us who don’t know what we’re looking for at all – rest assured you are in good company.  These first disciples of Jesus included not only a couple of guys who couldn’t answer the question, but also Peter, who came simply because his brother brought him, but who would become the rock the church was built on; and Nathanael, the skeptic, who came to see if, in fact, anything good could come out of Nazareth.  And I seem to recall a later conversation between the disciples about who was the greatest and who would get to sit to Jesus’ right and to his left in the coming Kingdom.  If they answered honestly what they were looking for in following Jesus, they might have said power and status.  Those, by the way, are not the right answers, and if they found those things at all, I think they would have found them to be hollow.  Jesus welcomed them to keep following, anyway.  After all, the right answers would emerge as the journey continued to unfold.  They didn’t have to have them all now.

And, still, it’s worth it to think about our answers to that question.  What are we looking for, really?

May our hearts seek the things God wants us to seek – and may we find them along the journey.

 

[1]     Karoline Lewis, “Timely Matters,” http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=4793