Preached at St. Mary’s Palms
Mark’s Gospel ushers in the Reign of God with startling staccato force. John Baptist appears Elijah-like, and immediately Jesus rises from watery baptismal grave, born-again as God’s well-beloved Son. And immediately Holy Spirit drives him into the desert to wrestle with demons… And immediately Jesus strides into ministry… And immediately the disciples leave their nets… And immediately Messiah invades the synagogue, casts out demons… And immediately… And immediately… And immediately…
Make no mistake about it, Mark fires every rhetorical symbol possible: Now is the time, when God rends the heavens to come down! Now is the time, when Son of Man descends apocalyptically, shattering every-day worlds. Now is the hour of decision, now time to turn again, now drop everything, abandon leaky ships and splendid careers, now (or never?) follow!!!
Now if we were silently awe-struck, gently but deeply moved before God-made-vulnerable in a manger, Mark’s demanding approach makes our defenses shoot right back up like the Berlin Wall. Rationalization runs wild. How could Jesus approve, much less require those fisher brothers to leave their old father in the boat? Besides abrupt reversals of life-commitments like tent-meeting conversions are unstable, apt to come unglued as quickly as they were sealed. To bear fruit, a seed needs time to bury itself deep, let its roots network out, infilitrate the heart’s every fiber; time to push upward, spread branches, venture leaves, gain nourishment in sunshine, build strength through wind and rain. St. Paul seems to be on our side, with his cautious advice to “grow where you’re planted.” How can the Gospel thrust run so counter to our very human nature which God has made?
This pseudo-problem is an artifact of our otherwise laudable lectionary practice of reading the Gospel through in course, roughly one story at a time. Accurate charting of a discipleship career requires us to read the whole book (which incidentally–and yes, this is an advertisement–can be done in a single sitting). Once we take the big picture, and distinguish rhetorical form from event-level content, we see that God does not begin by “blowing the disciples’ minds” with naked divinity. No, Jesus comes as a charismatic teacher, delivering a personal invitation to register for a course! With beginning-of-term enthusiasm, students push and shove to sign up, jockey for position! The first half of the syllabus features our favorite miracles, parables, and Galilean controversies, and climaxes in the mid-term exam at Caesarea Philippi, when Jesus poses a single all-or-nothing question: “Who do you say that I am?” The winking, tongue-in-cheek evangelist lets us know that the disciples are pulling a “B-/C+,” still seeing men as trees walking, confusing Satan’s wiles with God’s right hand. Despite study retreats, private tutorials and review sessions, they are AWOL for the final exam. The short end of Mark’s Gospel leaves us wondering whether those truants ever managed to make up their incomplete.
In short, we can take heart. Though the divine course material is guaranteed to be “over our heads,” God does not expect us to swallow, digest it all like jello, immediately in one swift gulp. On the contrary, God shows remarkable patience, resourceful willingness to deal with impossibly slow pupils, who–like us–improve, but never get fully up-to-speed. Nutshelled, the demands of discipleship are simple: at any given time, at all times and all places, to say ‘yes’ as much as we can.
The disciples set a good example, trying with all their might to “get with” Jesus’ program. But, like theirs, our “yes” will always be filtered through an imperfect conceptual grasp. Their own impulse was to silence the competing exorcist who stole the mighty name of ‘Jesus’ for his own magic sell, like Elijah to call down fire from heaven on the unwelcoming village. On Passion’s Eve, they were still arguing about who was the greatest; even after Pentecost inclined to reserve the Gospel for strictly observant, kosher-keeping Jews. Their preconceptions were peeled away, not immediately, but one by one until eventually they found their worlds turned upside down.
Second, we are called as disciples to trust the teacher enough to voice our questions. Jesus encourages us to ask, knock, seek, find. Mary isn’t bashful with her, “But how can this be?” Patience finally exhausted, Abraham implores, “How can I know that you will make me the father of many nations, when Sarah and I are getting so old? the gospels are full of disciples’ stupid, silly questions. Remember Thomas’ plea: “Lord, we don’t know where you are going; how can we know the way?” However embarrassing it was for him to stick his neck out, the Church down the centuries has been grateful to know the answer: “I AM the way, the truth, and the life.” Who knows what our queries may yet discover?
Innocent and naive, bungling and confused questions are one thing. They are raised with a child’s humility and curiousity and we have plenty of them. If God is everywhere, is God in the cereal box with the magic decoder ring? Does God really love cockroaches? Is there life on other planets? If God, well, even the stars and galaxies are so big and we are so small, why does God care about human beings at all?
Yet, many of our most important religious questions aren’t exploratory, but accusatory. Why do bad things happen to good people? The patriarchs understood God’s readiness for candor, girded up their loins and took their chances in sassing God back. Abraham challenged: “Shall not the judge of the world do right?” only to discover God’s mercy dancing out ahead. Moses contended with God not to abandon Israel over the Golden Calf incident, only to find himself “conned” into more leadership commitment than before. Crying out in agony, Job called God more chaos monster than Creator. Surprisingly, angry hostile questions not only draw a scold and require an apology; they win the reward of face-to-face intimacy with God.
Like most students, we don’t always do our homework. And we pay for it later with diminished ability to say “yes.” The disciples couldn’t exorcize epilepsy. They didn’t have enough strength for Gethsemane’s trial, because they had slept through their prayer life. Like children pretending to be grown-ups, they had bluffed it, not been out in the open with Jesus about their fears. Yet, how often have we wept through the night, crying out to God with tears of terror, only to find ourselves strong to face Goliath in the morning. Refusing to admit resentment at the harsh demanding God made in their own image, Pharisees and Sadducees took matters into their own hands, shrunk Messianic hopes down to human-sized ethnic preservation.
Imagine Peter’s remorse, humiliation… someone who said “yes” as much as he could, only to find there wasn’t enough to him to be loyal when it counts. Imagine Judas, who threw himself into a cause, only in his confusion to feel cut out, betrayed by it… who, betraying in return, shredded his integrity, dismembered his soul before killing his body. The deep truth about us is that we are all morally flimsy, covertly willing to sell out at some terrible price.
Does this mean we flunk the course without the possibility of a re-write? Not according to our baptismal vows! god doesn’t call us to be heroes with stamina to do it by ourselves, but saints who–however much we fall and hurt–turn again immediately. God our creator is recreator, healing, repairing, confronting, consoling, forgiving, sending us out with power to strengthen one another, right now, immediately!