The Nagging Question
I used to play squash
I first learned to play the game when I was minister in Armstrong B.C and an Australian teacher, on exchange to Canada, took me to a squash court and taught me the game.
My son-in-law Grayson is a pretty good squash player and my son Andrew wanted to play.
So, several years ago Andrew and I started playing regularly
Since he was new at first I won most of the games, but it wasn’t long before he became my equal.
And it wasn’t that long after that, that winning became a rarer thing for me, maybe winning one game in five, sometimes less.
And you know I am quite competitive and it really bothered me losing….
And I mean it really bothered me, much more than losing ever had…
Swearing, throwing my racket…
One time I was even crying after playing squash….
After a little soul searching and a bit of prayer I realized what was happening…
Even though I loved playing squash with my son….I was grieving…
I was grieving not losing games…
But the loss of my body….
I was older, slower, weaker, not as sharp, making more mistakes… In fact, I retired from squash a couple of years ago after getting arthritis in the spine. My body can’t handle it.
At the end of playing squash I had to almost kill myself to keep us with my son who wasn’t even that tired.
And I realized: It is hard to admit that you are dying, and that you are diminishing and that you are one step closer to the grave…
But that is what is happened.
And I know there a bunch of you that are twenty years older or so thinking that I don’t even really know what it is like for the body to diminish, that I should count myself fortunate that I am as active as I am.
But, every once in a while, something happens in a life, whether major or minor and the truth of our mortality stares us right in the face….
And sometimes it hits us so forcefully that it is like a slap in the face.
I am mortal. We are mortal. Every day we take one step closer to death.
I think Jesus knew this as much as any human knew it. Every day Jesus was taking one step closer to his death and he knew it.
In fact he says so explicitly three times in close succession in Mark’s gospel.
In chapter 8 at Caesarea Philippi after Peter says that Jesus is the Christ, Jesus began to teach them that the son of Man must suffer, be rejected and be put to death and rise again.
Then in chapter 9 just before the disciples argue about who is the greatest, he says that he is to be betrayed and be killed and rise again.
And then the third announcement will come in chapter 10 when they are on the way to Jerusalem and Jesus will take his disciples aside to tell them that the authorities are are going to make fun of him, spit on him, whip him and kill him and after three days he will rise.
Three times he announces he is on his way to suffering and death and each time the disciples either don’t seem to get it, or oppose it, or seem to be even blinder to the message he is trying to say.
What is it the disciples do not see, but need to see if they want to progress spiritually?
What is the nagging question?
The nagging question is about suffering and death?
Are they willing to suffer and die to grow spiritually?
…to become what God wants them to be?
Maybe even the question could also be put:
Are they willing to accept their own suffering and death in order to grow spiritually?
And at this stage in the gospel, especially in Mark’s gospel they are not ready.
Their attention is focused elsewhere.
- They are concerned with the questions of personal status power and ambition.
Jesus even confronts them with this. What were you arguing about on the road?
- They are concerned with their own inadequacy and failure to heal the boy with the evil spirit.
- They are concerned with their own comfort and don’t want people around like children who might disturb things.
- They are concerned with their own privileged spiritual position as those who are closest to the master.
- They are concerned with their own salvation. When Jesus points out to the rich man about wealth being an obstacle, the disciples are exceedingly astonished and say “Who then can be saved?”
If a rich person cannot be saved, a person blessed by God, then who can make it?
And all of these concerns are concerns about the self.
The ego wants
- Wealth status power.
- Spiritual superiority.
- Assurance that all will be well.
All this comes in the midpoint of the gospel of Mark and seems to me to be much about what we call midlife in humans and specifically mid-life crisis.
The midlife is specifically at time of loss.
It is the time of life when we are frequently losing.
We lose some of our abilities and competencies.
We lose children who grow up and move away.
We lose parents who age and die.
We have losses in our physical prowess and being.
We are not longer such physical beauties and often are not as sexually attractive.
It is the time when our own mortality comes into play and we start thinking about all the things that might get us….or knock us down.. Heart, diabetes, stroke, cancer, artificial hips and knees, blood pressure, cholesterol…
It is hard.
We go through I think the five stages of grief that Elizabeth Kubler Ross talks about.
Denial, Sometimes one way to face the losses is to deny them. We go to the gym, get plastic surgery, eat better, work harder at our jobs and pretend like nothing is happening.
Anger, we get really angry about certain things, or little things or things we cannot face, or people who may remind of our failings or our losses.
Bargaining. Bargaining is the deals we make to try and get control of a situation that is really beyond our control.
Sometimes we do that with the medical authorities, by agreeing to follow all their instructions to try and gain control and beat whatever it is threatening us.
Or maybe we start maybe to try and make deals with God. God if you give me health I will do this. If I can live longer God then…or If my mum can live I will do this.
Depression. Sadness and regret are one form of depression when we realize that are losses are mounting up.
The other form of depression is found in withdrawal.
And finally acceptance. This is about making peace with your life and your situation. And yet some people never get to acceptance
But I want to say today how important this process is. The process of loss and facing one’s own mortality.
It is indeed what Jesus calls us to…
Because the soul is stripped away of illusion and falsehood the soul faces the truth and finds out what really matters…
And in so doing meaning is often found in things we didn’t think were nearly so important.
Did you know that seniors are actually one of the happiest groups of people in the world…
Why? Because all the things we often think are so important, they realize are not so important, and often they find joy and delight in some of the simple things in life.
So, what Jesus suggests to us about loss is to go with it. Accept it. Use it. Learn from it.
Let it transform you, change you… Jesus invites us to die.
May it force you into prayer and talking to God.
May it challenge you in new ways to see the world in a whole new way.
Noticing the little things, the simple things and how wonderful they are.
A meal, a walk, a tree, an act of kindness, a song, a hug…
May it teach us to appreciate each other and see the good in each other…
May it soften our need to be certain and teach us to trust in love, in God and in those who love us.
May it inspire us to compassion and care for others, especially as we now experience what so many in this world experience….loss…
For Jesus says
"If any of you put a stumbling-block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea. If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off;. And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out….
I love this text. Partially as one who interprets scripture in its historical context with multi-layered metaphorical meanings…
I love to throw this one out and dare people to interpret it literally.
The truth is we all interpret scripture literally, the scriptures we like.
I do it myself.
God is love.
Love your neighbour as yourself.
Everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.
Inasmuch as you do it unto the least of these you do it to me.
Lots of scriptures I interpret literally, but then I interpret metaphorically or historically many scriptures such as what has been called “texts of terror” which talk about God killing or destroying or asking people to do that.
I believe that is historically what people thought God wanted, but Jesus came to show that the ultimate sin is to believe God kills and hurts, and proves that Himself being killed and yet he stills loves and forgives everyone.
However I digress.
This text about millstone around the neck and cutting off hands and feet and gouging out eyes I interpret not too literally…
Except maybe to say one of the things we have to let go of is being a stumblingblock…
Part of the midlife crisis mortality thing as we face our own death is to learn to try and stop running everybody else’s life and everybody else’s faith and just work on our own relationship with God.
Dying to self we learn to stop imposing the self on others. …our theology, our morals, our culture, our customs, our rules.
Maybe one text we should take a whole lot more literally is Jesus words that we Judge not.
There is nothing more a stumbling block to people that those who are judging them and telling them how they have to be and how they have to live.
That is not our job. That is the job of the Holy Spirit and sometimes all we have to do is just love people, care for people and then get out of the way so God can be God.
When I was at the Festival of Homiletics the best speaker there was a Lutheran Minister, named Nadia Bolz-Weber. She is a recovering addict, former stand-up comedian, covered in tattoos, preaching in jeans and a muscle shirt.
She founded a church in Denver called The House for All Sinners and Saints.
One third of it is gays and lesbians and transgendered people and each week she preaches not only God’s unconditional love, but God’s forgiveness and our need to repent.
She writes: "My job is to point to Christ and to preach the Gospel and to remind people that they're absolutely loved ... and all of their mess-ups are not more powerful than God's mercy and God's ability to sort of redeem us and to bring good out of bad."
Her opinion why the church is declining is that the church is full of… male cow manure. She actually used a stronger term.
She goes on to say “I have this hunch that people really find Jesus compelling, and they see what Christianity really could be. But what they see instead, so often, is an institution that tries to protect itself and promote itself, I think they want to have a place where they can speak the actual truth about themselves in the world and they don’t have to pretend.”
Is it true that sometimes the biggest stumblingblock in the church is the people in the church who are stumblingblocks…who don’t want to welcome God’s little ones because they don’t like their clothes, their lifestyle, their theology, their morals, their gender, their sexuality or something…
Can we learn to let go of our tendency to judge others?
If your hand offends you cut it off.
Can you and I learn die to those things we grab and hold and accumulate?
Can we let go of the wealth and power and material possessions and all the things we grab with our hands that we think will make us happy…?
If your foot offends you cut it off.
Can we let go of trampling others, walking on others, stomping on others, putting the boots to others…?
Which is basically a metaphor for all the things we do to gain and keep control over others…
And just realize we are just another sinner in the world in need of love and grace.
If your eye offends you gouge it out.
Can you and I learn to let go of the way we view others as lesser, not important, immoral, bad, evil, enemies, reprobates, apostate or whatever bad term we label them…
And see that we are all in the same boat… that we all human… that we all are made in the image of God… that we are all flawed and all in need of love and grace and nobody is better than anybody else.
Jesus came for the sick and we are all sick.
Imagine a hospital that has a sign that read: “Only the perfect are welcome here.” No, the sicker you are the more you are welcome in a hospital.
How about a church? Everyone is welcome because we none of has perfect physical, emotional or spiritual health.
In fact we are all dying here in this church so come and die with us.
Midlife crisis and the facing of death is not this terrible thing which unfortunately we all have to go through.
It is a gift of God to soften us up, mellow us, relax us, reorient life to the things that really matter.
And maybe that is a different way to look at the church and its decline. Rather than lament it…
Maybe it is God’s way to soften the church up, mellow us, reorient us, change us, transform us, so that church itself can die and be born again into something more like Christ. More loving, more inclusive…
Less concerned with rules and doctrine and morals and judging others and more concerned with love and kindness and compassion.
And how freeing it is.
Haven’t you met certain elderly people who are have faced death in the face and been freed to be absolutely who they and they don’t care a fog for what others think.
Freed to not worry about what you look like in the eyes of others.
Freed to not worry about money and possessions.
Freed to not have to run anybody else’s life but your own.
Freed from having to have a certain level of competence in society to be valued.
Freed to not worry about who is better than anybody else.
Freed from worrying about whether I am good enough or bad enough for God.
Wouldn’t it be great?
Freed to enjoy each and every day and every little thing that you do, everything that you eat, every person you meet, every book you read, every song you sing, every animal you see, every tree and flower and rock you touch.
Because by dying to what you thought was life you found life.
It isn’t “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”
Spiritually speaking, I think it is:
“What kills you makes you stronger.” Amen.