Lesson: Mark 9:30-37
When you were a student, at whatever age or stage, and you had a choice of where to sit in the classroom, did you choose the front of the classroom, or the back of the classroom?
Until about halfway through college, I was a back-of-the-class student, mostly because I was afraid to ask questions. We’ve all heard the saying, “There are no stupid questions,” but it takes courage to raise your hand, stop the lecture, risk the annoyance of the professor, face the eye rolls of our fellow students and say, “I have no idea what you are talking about.” I bet most of us can remember being shamed because we didn’t know something, or because we didn’t understand something that we were sure everybody else understood. So we’re afraid to ask. Maybe we hope it will all be clear after we’ve read the assigned readings. But it isn’t always, is it? When a school subject builds on prior understanding, pretty soon you can find yourself in over your head. We bluff our way through algebra only to be totally overwhelmed in Algebra II. Or – was that just me?
This fear of asking questions seems even more common for folks when it comes to questions about our faith, about God, about the Bible. Somehow the stakes seem higher, but there’s more to it. Many folks grow up thinking our spirituality, our connection with God, is all about what we believe: do we believe the right things about God and Jesus, do we interpret the Bible the right way? So asking questions might mean we don’t have the correct beliefs. A pastor in the East Bay, Ryan Timpte, tells a story about a conversation with a teenager, Lilah. Lilah came to him with a question she said was keeping her from being a Christian. Ryan had assumed she already was a Christian; she taught their church’s first grade Sunday school, after all. He told her to ask away. “How do we know for sure that Christianity is right?” she asked. Ryan’s first thought was, “We don’t,” but he didn’t say anything because he wanted to know what it was that concerned Lilah. She continued, “I mean, a lot of my friends at school are Buddhist or Jewish or atheists, you know? Are they wrong?” What followed was a great discussion that ranged from how God is revealed to different people, to why bad things happen, to baptism. Ryan was honest about his own doubts, and Lilah, in turn, was unafraid to ask her questions. Ryan still wondered why Lilah didn’t consider herself a Christian, until she made this comment toward the end of the conversation: “It’s just that, I don’t think I can take the next step yet. I can’t become a Christian and get baptized until I can answer these questions like you can, right?”
It turned out that Lilah believed that her “becoming a Christian” depended on her ability to grapple with abstract theological questions – questions with which highly educated theologians have struggled for centuries, by the way – and then to answer them “correctly.” She also seemed to believe that, even if she couldn’t answer all those questions, her pastor could. Yikes.
I wonder if something like this was going on for the disciples in today’s passage in Mark. We’re more than halfway through Mark’s gospel; the disciples have been with Jesus; they’ve watched him teach and heal. Yet they’re afraid to ask Jesus what he means when he talks about betrayal, death and resurrection. Why? What would have been the harm in asking, “Jesus, we have no idea what you are talking about. What do you mean? Who will betray you? How could you be killed, and yet rise again?” Did the disciples think that they should already know the “right” answers? Have the correct beliefs? Were they afraid they’d look bad?
It turns out that they were, in fact, concerned about image. The next thing we read, they’ve been bickering about who is the greatest. My, oh my; the relevance of Scripture never ceases to amaze me. People like being great, don’t they? People want to be great again, and great always, no matter who pays the price for our greatness.
Jesus knows exactly what they’ve been talking about. True greatness, Jesus says, is not to be above others, but to be least of all and servant of all. It is not to ascend the social ladder or to seek the company of the powerful, but to welcome and care for those without status, such as the child that Jesus embraces and places before his disciples. Hmmmm. Maybe the disciples should have been asking more questions. Just like me in algebra, it looks like the disciples have fallen behind.
Let’s look at what Jesus is telling the disciples, and us. In any culture, children are vulnerable; they’re dependent on others for their survival and well-being. In the ancient world, that vulnerability was magnified by the fact that they had no legal protection, no rights. A child certainly had nothing to offer anyone in terms of honor or status. But it is precisely these little ones with whom Jesus identifies. “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”
Greatness, says Jesus, isn’t importance, status, wealth, power. It’s about service. It isn’t already knowing the correct answers. It’s welcoming. Welcoming the vulnerable, which includes welcoming the questions. What is more child-like, after all, than questions? I did indeed sit quietly in the back of the class until about halfway through college. But when I was a little kid, I was full of questions. Most kids are. I was always asking, “Who invented this?” or “Who first thought of that?” My mother bought me picture books about how things work and how things are made because I pestered her with so many questions. But the older we get, the harder it is to ask questions. We believe on some level that the more you know, the smarter you are. That need to know already – it’s part of that obsession with looking great. But just maybe what really makes us smart – and great – is knowing how much we don’t know.
Jesus always seemed to be more interested in questions then answers. When people asked Jesus a question, he often answered with another question. In fact, he hardly ever gave a direct answer to anything. He told stories – parables – that required his listeners to go away and figure out the answer for themselves. Jesus loved questions. Perhaps we should, too.
Our questions – about God, about faith, about Scripture, about whatever – are crucial to the life of faith. Which means we need to nurture a culture in which faith questions are invited and encouraged. Why? Because it’s by admitting what we don’t know and asking questions that we learn more and grow in our faith. How might the disciples have grown if they’d been humble enough, if they’d had the childlike humility to admit that they didn’t know what Jesus was talking about?
But besides learning more, encouraging questions about faith puts us on the same journey as Jesus, a journey of faith side by side with others who had questions. The Jesus we encounter in Scripture wasn’t at all impressed by people who knew the “correct” answers or did the “right” religious deeds. Jesus didn’t come to indoctrinate us. He came to free us. Brian McLaren reminds us, “Based on the priorities of many Christian leaders and institutions, we might conclude that Jesus said, ‘By their beliefs you shall know them,’ or ‘This is my command, that you believe the right doctrines.’” Rather than what Jesus actually said: “By their fruits” – that is, by their actions – “you will know them,” and “This is my command, that you love one another.”
Jesus saw how pat answers and certainty create insiders and outsiders. Insider groups love simple, definitive answers, because those answers reinforce that their group is right, and everyone else is wrong. Questions, on the other hand, stimulate thought, and honest thought leads us to accept how uncertain everything really is. Which leads, in turn, to humility, and to vulnerability, like that child Jesus welcomed into the circle.
There was a time when becoming a Christian meant being stuffed full of all the right answers. Some of you can remember that time. But certainty isn’t faith at all. We all have doubts; we all have questions. That’s why we call it faith, not knowledge. We might even say that faith is more accurately measured by the courage within our questions than the certainty of our answers.
I pray that we can strive to be a community where questions are welcome – vulnerable questions, courageous questions, all questions. Godly Play, our children’s Sunday school, is built around wondering and asking questions. I pray we can continue to encourage our children and youth to ask all of their hardest questions, not only through Godly Play, but by modeling for them that we grownups aren’t afraid to ask our own hard questions.
I’ve spent many years as a student. I’m still a student. Over time I figured out that if I didn’t get what the teacher was saying, it was most likely the case that at least a few other people didn’t get it either. That’s when I started asking questions. And that’s when I moved to the front row. There, if people were rolling their eyes, at least I couldn’t see it.
May it be so for you, and for me. Amen.
© Joanne Whitt 2018 all rights reserved.
 Ryan Timpte, “Entertaining Questions,” 2011, https://www.lopc.org/youth-ministry/entertaining-questions/.
 Elisabeth Johnson, “Commentary on Mark 9:30-37,” http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3785.
 Mark 9:37.
 Brian D. McLaren, The Great Spiritual Migration (New York: Convergent, 2016), 20.
 Mick Mooney, “Why Jesus Taught With Questions Instead of Answers,” October 9, 2014, https://www.huffingtonpost.com/mick-mooney/jesus-didnt-teach-with-an_b_5957772.html
 McLaren, 19.
 Matthew 7:16.
 John 15:12-15.
 Mooney, ibid.