Toorak Uniting Church

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Disciples are always new beginners

Mark 9: 33 – 37
Rev. Pr Wolfgang Stahlberg
Pentecost 17
20 September 2015

Grace and peace

"Are you listening?" Parents ask that question all the time, when they try to explain something to their children. And of course most of the time, the children are not listening. They are following the dreams and desires of their own hearts. After all, they are children, and they have imaginations to grow, and visions to seek, and they need to explore their own hearts. Children are not born to obedience. They are not robots to be programmed.

Jesus had similar problems. He was talking to the disciples with some urgency about hardship and consequences of his message and their life in the kingdom of God. But when he had finished, and they were talking among themselves, they did not discuss what Jesus had said, they spoke only about glory and their own positions of glory that they imagined.

Which brings our thoughts to us here. Have you ever secretly looked around in church on Sunday, looking at your fellow churchgoers, and, deep inside, grading them, coming out as leading them, as being better Christians than they are, having done more for the church than they have, and so on. Deep inside, aren’t we all sometimes thinking like that?

Often in church, our hearts are held by dreams of comfort and glory, and our conversations are more about good times – mostly in the past – than about challenges in our life and time, more about a glorious afterlife than about transformation of ourselves and the world here and now. Jesus spoke about being servants of all as the path in the kingdom of God. Then, to make his point, he drew a child into their midst and counselled the disciples to become like that child.

But a child does not know anything, we might think. As a culture, we tend to equate intelligence with knowing things. Smart people seem to know a lot of stuff. But our knowing needs to be balanced by our not knowing, because only that gives us a larger frame of wisdom. It is a gift from God to live with the freedom of not knowing. What if we measure intelligence not simply by what we know, but by how eager we are to learn more? What if we understand that we don’t understand? When we are not bound to all the data of our reality, we can go back to square one, we can start over like a child, we can go back to a beginner’s mind, and forget labels, certitudes, and a false sense of security. We can just look around in awe…

In our story, the disciples are too afraid to ask any questions. Sometimes people in church do not want to ask questions, because they think it is unfaithful, they have been told that doubt is the opposite of faith. But that is rubbish! Questions are often a sign of faith well lived, in fact, faith grows in the soil of questions and challenges.

Jesus teaches us that as followers, we should be like children – always having a beginner’s mind, always asking questions, always being in awe and open to learn something new. Jesus invites us to stay away from the assumption that we know everything, and instead start from the assumption of knowing nothing. That puts us directly in a position to review the standards of the world, to question the assumptions of our own culture.

Marcus Borg retold a story about a three-year-old girl. She was the only child in the family, but now her mother was pregnant again, and the girl was very excited about having a new sibling. Within a few hours of the parents bringing home a new baby boy from the hospital, the girl made a request: she wanted to be alone with her new brother in his room with the door shut. The parents were a bit uneasy, but then remembered that they had installed an intercom system in anticipation of the baby’s arrival. So they realized they could let their daughter do this. They let the little girl go into the baby’s room, shut the door, and raced to the intercom. They heard her footsteps across the room, and then they heard her saying to the three-day-old baby, "Tell me about God – I’ve almost forgotten."

This story suggests that we come from God, and that when we are very young, we can still remember this. But the process of growing up, of learning about the world we live in, is a process of increasingly forgetting the one from whom we came and in whom we live.

Let the Spirit inspire us to ask questions, to doubt, to become unsure of what we are sure of, to balance our knowledge with the humility that the way we know could be wrong, that we do not know everything, but that we are open and curious to learning new things, to let go of things we think we know for sure, and to let God change our hearts and our minds.


© Rev. Pr Wolfgang Stahlberg, 2015

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