This sermon was preached on October 21st, 2012 at First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ); sermon audio can be found here.
Prayer: God of Truth, Shine with all your brilliance on these words of scripture, bring them to life so that they might settle in our hearts and direct our spirits. Now, O God, give us ears to hear and eyes to see; and make the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts pleasing to you, our Rock and Redeemer. Amen.
So by now you may have noticed a pattern. I’ll gladly own it. Each Sunday that I preach I usually include some kind of prayer after the reading of the scripture. I do this for many reasons. First, I hope to let the words of scripture settle in upon us. Scripture is filled with evocative images, strange sayings, familiar stories, puzzling characters and, I trust, somewhere in it all, God’s wisdom. I rely on prayer to set the stage for what we are doing together: turning to scripture to find a truth that will transform us and, through us, the world in which we live. That is no small task.
Second, I find prayer is a nice transition from an ancient, sacred text that we read to a live, embodied, oratory performance we call preaching. That is no small shift.
Third, by now you have noticed not only my pattern of prayer but the predictable words from Psalm 19:4, “May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be pleasing in your sight, O Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer.” The prayer after the sermon is not only an invitation for all of us to reflect on the words of scripture and work them into our souls, it is also a source of comfort and direction for me as a preacher. I lean on these words to preach with confidence, conviction, and purpose. After all, you’ve come here and entrusted me to say something of God, something more meaningful, inspiring, and encouraging than the home décor catalog waiting for you at home, or the cable news anchor analyzing the latest political slug-fest, or the South Korean pop star Psy singing Gangnam Style. You may take time for all those things, but for now, in this moment, you have given me your attention.Second, I find prayer is a nice transition from an ancient, sacred text that we read to a live, embodied, oratory performance we call preaching. That is no small shift.
And I take that seriously. So seriously I lean on prayer.
I also rely on another scriptural phrase in my pre-preaching prayer, one that is drawn from Jesus. I regularly pray “give us ears to hear and eyes to see.”
In the gospel of Mark, Jesus shares a parable with a crowd utterly fascinated by him. At the end of the parable, Jesus exhorts the crowd: “Let anyone with ears to hear listen!” (4:9). Often, Jesus’ teachings and parables fell on ears fully capable of hearing him, but unable to understand him or this mysterious kingdom he talked about.
This is the predicament of Jesus’ disciples. Again and again in the gospel of Mark we find the disciples just don’t get it. Jesus’ disciples are so dense in the gospel of
Mark that the New Testament scholar Burton Mack refers to them as “dumb bunnies.” Earlier in the gospel, Jesus openly teaches them that his mission is a servant’s mission that will lead him to the doorsteps of death, and Peter rebukes him (Mark 8:31-32). Jesus announces a second time that he is the Son of Man and that he is headed into the hand of betrayal and death (9:30-32)—the dunderheaded disciples follow that up with a question about which one of them is the greatest…
In our scripture passage, Jesus shares who he is and what his messianic mission entails, and again the dumb-bunny disciples go off somewhere in left field, like a politician or two we may know from a recent debate, “I’d like to answer that question by addressing a different topic entirely.” The disciples hear Jesus will be mocked, spit upon, beaten, and killed. Then two of them turn to Jesus and say, “So, we call dibs on the best seat at your banquet table once you are crowned emperor.”
Jesus, turns to them, “seriously guys?” Okay, Jesus is a bit more tactful and direct, he says, “You do not know what you are asking.” In other words, yet again, they just don’t get it.
Now the easy thing for us to do in our 21st century pews is look back on the disciples and simply shake our heads. But I’m not so sure that their repeated misunderstanding is simply a matter of cranial density. In other words, I’m not convinced that if Jesus had simply picked a more intelligent bunch, they would have gotten it either. To return to my prayer metaphor, I’m not sure a better trained set of eyes or a more sensitive pair of ears would have done the trick. I suspect something more was called for; something radical.
We tend to get a little nervous with the word radical—we may associate it with violence or religious extremism. But that connotation is a more recent, modern development. The word radical comes to us from the same Latin word as that bite-sized red vegetable, the radish. A radish is a root. And the word radical initially meant to be at the root of something, going to its origin, essential.
At the roots of the disciples, beneath their dense surface of misunderstanding, was something we might ourselves know very well. In verse 32, before James and John ever make their pitch to Jesus, we get a snapshot of the Jesus crew. There is a small crowd walking the road to Jerusalem with Jesus. Jesus is walking ahead of them all. As they walked, Jesus amazed them—his teaching, his mission, his healing, all these things were sinking in and leaving them in awe. But they were feeling something else, too: in the middle of verse 32 we read, “and those who followed were afraid.”
Fear. I suspect the disciples were, at their roots, fearful. Jesus was sharing with them that the road they were on would lead to betrayal, mockery, beatings, and even death. Jesus was talking about rising from the dead. What strange business is this? Jesus was turning their world upside down and inside out.
Given this, the disciples do what any of us might do, they wonder if there is a place for them in this new upside down and inside out world. Not only were they unsure of this world, they were afraid there might not be enough glory to go around to all the disciples. So out of fear and anxiety they ask Jesus to grant them seats of honor in his glory.
No wonder the other disciples were angry with them. When they heard of this special request, their fears were put on high alert—they too could not see Jesus’ glory extending very far; would they be left out in the cold because they didn’t jockey for position early on? Fear, panic…
Defined and consumed by their fear—the disciples could not see or hear what it meant for them to be disciples of Jesus, to truly walk this road with Jesus. Their fear drove them inwards, and so Jesus takes them aside and teaches them again: the greatest of all are the servants of all, the first shall be last and the last shall be first. The way of Jesus is not to be served, but to serve.
I suspect that the disciples did not have ears to hear or eyes to see because at their roots they were afraid.
I have with me this morning a beloved friend… Mr. Potato Head. He is a root of sorts, and he might help us to better understand what it means for us to have eyes to see and ears to hear.
Fear gives Mr. Potato Head a certain set of eyes and ears. These eyes and ears are turned downward and inward. They are aimed at self-preservation. Walking in the way of Jesus is difficult, if not impossible like this. No amount of lifting our head to better see or turning our head to more clearly hear will stop fear from having its way with our vision and our hearing. We need a radical change, a shift in the root of our being. We need new eyes and new ears.
Friends, the good news of Jesus Christ is that what was once spoken to Mary at Jesus’ birth, what was once spoken to the women at the empty tomb, and what was once spoken to the disciples in that locked upper room, is shared with us today: “do not be afraid.” Let that sink in… let that get at the root of your being.
The way of Jesus is the way of great risk. It calls us to see and hear with love, not fear. In love, we can risk serving others because our eyes now notice broken relationships, heavy hearts, confused minds; we can hear grief, pain, confusion and respond.
Journeying with Jesus is a call to receive something new at our roots—God’s gracious love. That love radically changes us, so much so we find ourselves with new eyes and new ears, the ones we need to serve.
With ears to hear, what will you hear? With eyes to see, what will you see?