September 23, 2018, You’re Never Too Old to Be a Fool – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
To listen to this sermon, click here: Z0000099
We have a motto at St. Philip’s that you have hopefully noticed on our newsletter heading that goes like this: “Welcoming the weary, dedicated to discipleship.” It’s not something I made up out of the blue. It’s actually a kind of Reader’s Digest Condensed version of Jesus’s wonderful words in Matthew chapter 11: “Come unto me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy. And my burden is light.” I love these verses because they describe what it means for us to come to Jesus and how we follow in his footsteps.
Because we have each been welcomed by our Lord in our own weakness and weariness, we make sure that our doors and our arms are wide open to all those in need. That begins with us as a church family. We are here to support one another, to listen to one another and encourage one another, to pray for each other. If someone is sick or just having a really rough time, we might make dinner and bring it to them. If somebody’s car breaks down and they can’t afford to fix it, we might chip in and help them pay for car repairs. If somebody is sad, we might send them a card to cheer them up. That’s a really important part of who we are as a church.
But the love of God is infinitely wide and deep and big, so he doesn’t want us to only be a cozy little self-contained family unit. We welcome every child of God who walks through those front doors: rich, poor, black, white, gay, straight, foreign or domestic – “Come unto me,” Jesus says, “ALL who are weary and heavy-laden.” We welcome anyone and everyone who wants to join us for our community dinners. We welcome neighbors of all kinds to our Thrift Shop. We’re here to welcome the weary, to share the love we have received with those who need it. We talk about that quite a lot, one way or another.
But we haven’t spent quite as much time, I don’t think, talking about the second part of our motto: “Dedicated to discipleship.” And maybe that’s because it is the harder part. We know what it means to be Christians: it means we’ve been baptised, and we believe the basic claims of the Creeds. We know what it means that we’re Episcopalians: it means we’ve been confirmed or received into the Episcopal Church by the Bishop. But what exactly does it mean to be disciples of Jesus Christ?
In the passage we read today from Mark Jesus’ hand-chosen disciples teach us some important lessons about how to be disciples – or to be more accurate, how NOT to be disciples, because once again, they seem to be getting it all wrong. Jesus was traveling with the Twelve quietly at this time, sort of keeping under the radar, because he really needed to prepare them for what they would be facing in the coming days. He told them that he was going to be betrayed, and given into the hands of their enemies, the Jewish leaders who had been opposing him and making threats against him. He told them that his enemies were going to put him to death. And he told them that after three days he would rise again. He told them everything, plainly, clearly. And they were completely bewildered. It seems as if it just went right over their heads; they just didn’t get it.
Instead, among themselves, as they walked along they were having an ongoing squabble about a completely different subject. “Which of us is the greatest?” They’d all gone out on their mission trips; Jesus had sent them out, two by two. And they had all done pretty spectacularly; they all came back feeling really good about themselves. They had preached. They had healed the sick. People who were oppressed by demonic spirits had come to them and when they commanded the demons to be gone, the demons had actually obeyed them. They were the inner circle of the most amazing man anyone had ever known. It had to be pretty heady stuff, and so it was no wonder, being no more than human, that now they were comparing notes and arguing about who was discipler than who – until they stopped at Capernaum for the night, and Jesus turned to them casually and asked them, “So guys, what was it you were so intent on discussing back there?” And they all got really quiet.
In the minds of the Twelve, Great Discipleship meant having the kind of awesome power and wisdom they had seen in their teacher and Lord. Great Discipleship meant doing and saying great things. It was impressive. It was big. Great Discipleship was Billy Graham and Nigel Mumford and Chuck Swindoll rolled into one. Because nothing less than that could possibly be good enough for someone like Jesus.
And of course Jesus knew exactly what they were all thinking, though none of them had the courage to say anything. He sat down, and gathered the Twelve around him. And he called one person over and set that person right in the middle of the disciples, and he said, “This is what Great Discipleship looks like.” The thing is, that person wasn’t anything like Billy Graham or Nigel Mumford or Chuck Swindoll. He was a lot more like Noah Hargrave, or Loxlin. He was just a little kid.
“If you really want to be the biggest and the best,” Jesus said to them, “then you’ve got to be the littlest and the least important. You’ve got to be the servant of all the rest, not the one everybody looks up to.” He was showing them first of all what Great Discipleship was NOT. Great Discipleship is NOT about power. Great Discipleship is NOT about superior wisdom. Great Discipleship is certainly NOT about impressing people. A little child, in that ancient world, was the very epitome of powerlessness and simplicity and unimportance.
But on top of all those things that discipleship is NOT, children have a lot to teach us about what Great Discipleship should BE.
Remember, the Twelve got into their argument about greatness while they were walking along the road not really understanding Jesus, who was trying to teach them what was about to happen to him and to them. It wasn’t an easy message for them to hear, far from it. They just couldn’t comprehend what their teacher was trying to say to them. But even though they had no idea what he was talking about – maybe even because they had no idea – they were afraid to admit it – they were afraid to ask him questions. Basically, they were afraid to look like fools. And that is a very grownup kind of foolishness.
But a child never worries about looking like a fool, because a child expects not to know everything. A child is always ready to ask “why” and “how” and “when” and “where” and “what” and “who”. One important way that Great Discipleship is childlike is because it isn’t too proud to look foolish. Great Discipleship doesn’t expect to have all the answers, it is never too proud to admit it doesn’t understand, it is always eager to learn.
No matter how old we get, we are never too old to risk looking like fools. It’s the only way to learn. And that has everything to do with discipleship because a disciple is first of all a student – that’s the meaning of the word “disciple”. And a disciple of Jesus Christ is a student whose teacher is possessed of all wisdom and all knowledge and all understanding. Our lives should be absolutely full of questions.
And we know that Jesus never rebuked his disciples for asking. When he preached to the multitudes in parables, his disciples would take him aside afterward and ask him to explain them. And he did. When Thomas just couldn’t believe that Jesus had risen from the dead and wanted proof, Jesus held out his hands and his feet and let Thomas be convinced. Jesus doesn’t reject disciples who have doubts. He doesn’t despise disciples who don’t understand. Great Disciples can even be fools sometimes. That is really perfectly OK. What is not OK is to be too proud to admit it.
No matter how old we are, we are apprentices of the greatest Master there is, and there is no end to what he wants to teach us. That’s why we meet to study the Bible every Tuesday morning. That’s why we’re studying why we pray and worship the way we do, as Episcopalians, this year. That’s why we join together with our sister churches at Thanksgiving to learn from each other’s different ways of worshiping God. It’s why Christians study science and math and poetry and art and music and history – because the whole Creation is out there to teach us about who our God is. If we have the humility and curiosity of a child, acknowledging that we are often fools, but willing to be teachable, then we are truly his disciples.
But a child doesn’t trot along at his father’s side asking a billion questions and watching everything he does just so that he can be smart, or so he can know everything there is to know about him. He wants more than that. He wants to grow up to be just like him. So a disciple is not just a student in an intellectual kind of way. A disciple is an apprentice, somebody who studies everything there is to know about the Master because he wants to do the things the Master does, just like the Master does them. If we are disciples, then our goal every day is to be growing up to be more and more like Jesus, just like a child’s whole heart and soul is devoted to growing up to be just like his father.
And for the Twelve, as much as they truly loved and honored Jesus, that had to be a terrifying thing. Because Jesus was showing them the road he was following, and where it was all leading, and that was to betrayal, and to suffering, and to death. Is it any wonder they heard Jesus and were afraid to ask him to explain further? Is it any wonder they heard him and just felt bewilderment? Any sensible man or woman would have misgivings. Only the trust of a little child would keep following when the road ahead looks like it was coming to a really bad end.
Christian discipleship was never a way to greatness, or to prosperity, or to comfort. It was never a way of avoiding the suffering and betrayal and death that every human being suffers. Because Jesus wasn’t traveling the road of dishonor and betrayal and suffering and death because he was God. He traveled that dark and horrible road because he chose to be like us. At communion we pray to the Father: “when we had fallen into sin, and become subject to evil and death, you, in your mercy sent Jesus Christ, your only and eternal Son, to share our human nature, to live and die as one of us, to reconcile us to you, the God and Father of all.” Jesus wasn’t teaching us the road to human greatness – he was showing us the way out of the “valley of the shadow of death” that humanity created for ourselves in our rebellion and foolishness. Discipleship is trusting that if we follow him, we will find light in the darkness and joy in suffering and life in the midst of death, and that we will come at last to the Father, standing on the front porch with his arms wide open, ready to welcome his little children home.