those who went before are with us still

Films offer us compelling narrative and visual images that can stand in for other more complicated ideas in our lives. The scenes figured in Revelation 7 and Hebrews 12 remind me of two stories in particular, one of which I’ve seen again this week and the other I’d forgotten till someone mentioned it recently. The second film is Places in the Heart. The last scene of which depicts the dead and departed gathered together with the living while the congregation shares the Lord’s Supper. Reconciliation is embodied as the sinners and sinned against break bread and share a common cup.

More familiar to me is the Harry Potter series. In several of the books and films Harry is met by those who have died and yet continue to love and encourage him – first his parents, then a gathering of family and friends and again, and finally his mentor. In each instance Harry receives first hope, then strength, courage and finally wisdom – the very things we would want from a “great cloud of witnesses”.

These are not allegories for the texts or other biblical truths – that would risk abuse of both the scriptures and the cultural narratives. They do illustrate this longing we have to believe that we are indeed surrounded by those who have gone before, and that their presence is a help to us.

This is the hope that Hebrews 12 affirms. In our struggles, of faith and otherwise, we are not alone. We are not the first, and we won’t be the last. Others have endured trials perhaps more arduous or lengthy and triumphed. Whether our adversary is physical or mental illness, political or social injustice, theological confusion, or temptation to sin, Christ is our shepherd and all these saints prepare the way of The Lord before us that we might walk in it. To “prepare the way of the Lord” (Lk 3:4) means to make a clear path for God in the world and in people’s lives (first our own). It also means that, like a group of people walking or cross country skiing through deep snow, the first person clears a path so those who follow will have an easier time of it.

footsteps in snow
Shore of Lake Michigan. Chicago, IL © Ken G. Crawford, 2014

In chapter 7 of his Revelation John sees these witnesses who have remained faithful to Christ in the face of great struggle standing around the throne of God in worship. They lead us in worship of God just as in discipleship to Jesus. They go before us to prepare the way, to show us how to worship. When we enter into intentional, focused worship of God we recognize that they are already there. We are “returning to the show already in progress.”

c.1020 CE, artist unknown [i]

I appreciate Bob Cornwall’s reflections – in particular that they remind us of the global nature of this cloud of witnesses – they come from “every nation and tribe and people and language” in other words every demographic group imaginable. This is reminiscent of Matthew 28:16-20 “go into all the world and make disciples from every nation” and Luke 10 where Jesus appoints 70 additional disciple missionaries to go (70 thought to represent the nations of the ancient world because of the 70 family names descended from Noah in Genesis 10).

As I look at these texts, several things come to mind.

  1. We are not the first ones to walk this faith journey. Often it feels as though the challenges before us are insurmountable and no one has ever faced them before. Clearly that is not the case. Despite technical and political developments, life is really not so different. We live, we love, we get hurt, we forgive, we create.
  2. We will also die. One day the arguments we are having will be in the past of another dimension and we will be with God, worshipping in fullness that which we only know in part today.
  3. Others will be where we now are. As we remember those who have gone before us, one day someone will light a candle, speak our names, and remember us, shedding a tear at the same time that they smile for having known and loved us.
  4. Those who have gone before us may have some lessons to teach us, not the least of which could be to relax just a bit. The things we think, say and do matter, to be certain. They impact the lives of others and the world. But they are not permanent. They too will pass away. Others will need to live with the consequences of our choices, but those consequences are not permanent. Perhaps, as a result, we might learn to hold on to our opinions and needs more loosely, and hold on to God and one another more faithfully.

As I light candles in memory of those I’ve loved and lost, I will be considering how my life might be more filled by God’s grace and mercy. How might I find courage and hope in the witnesses who surround me and cheer me on, even as they surround God’s throne in worship and praise? What might I try, risk, strive, during this next year because I know I’m not alone, because they’ve gone before, because others are coming behind? I’m stirred yet again by Mary Oliver’s words:

“Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?”

Mary Oliver, The Summer Day

Written as a reflection on for All Saints Sunday, 11/2/14, at St. Paul UCC in Dallas. Based on Revelation 7 and Hebrews 12.


Learning to Ask Questions

Notes for a sermon from 07152012

Mark 8:27-38

How many of us had a teacher in school who said, “There are no dumb questions”?

And yet, what percentage of our education was about asking questions versus memorizing answers or collections of information?

We learned who did what to whom where and when.

Did we learn to ask and explore why?

We learned that John Wilkes Booth shot Abraham Lincoln on April 14, 1865 at the Ford Theatre during a production of “Our American Cousin”.

Did we learn to ask why? Or what other explanations there may have been? No.

We learned that Lee Harvey Oswald shot John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963 near Dealy Plaza.

Did we learn to ask why? Or what other explanations there may have been? No. Oliver Stone asked these questions in his 1991 movie JFK, but he was mocked by many as a conspiracy theorist.

Why do we mock someone who questions the predominant view? Why is the skeptic ridiculed?

I want us to think together about the role of questions in our faith, and how we might learn to ask questions.

Listen for the word of God in our scripture reading from Mark 8:27-38.

In this text we hear Jesus ask the disciples two questions. “Who do people say that I am?” and “Who do you say that I am?” Why did Jesus do this? Why ask questions of the disciples, and why these questions?

Are we to conclude that Jesus did not know what people thought about him? Was Jesus doing what many of us have done – wondered what other people thought of him? Have you ever been in a group and wondered what the people around you thought of you? Have you secretly wished that you could read their minds and know what they thought? Or perhaps you decided you are better off not knowing what some of them think.

And then the focus shifts from the crowd to Jesus’ closest associates. “Who do you say that I am?” Never mind what all those strangers, groupies and hangers on think. What about you, my closest companions – what do you think of me? Who do you think that I am?

It is important to recognize that this question is not asked in John’s gospel – there would be no point, because by the time John is telling his story of Jesus, we have a messiah who is boldly standing in the market and in the temple making “I am” statements to anyone who will listen. John’s Jesus tells everyone who he is, so there is no need to ask what people are saying.

Not so with the Jesus of Mark. In fact, Mark’s account, likely the earliest written of the four biblical gospels, includes what is called the messianic secret. Here we see Jesus repeatedly heal people and then require that they tell no one what has happened to them or who has accomplished this work. Mark’s Jesus is determined to keep as low a profile as possible. So then it makes sense for Jesus to ask, “Who do people say that I am?” and “Who do you say that I am?” Because Jesus had been pretty vague and evasive about who he is. He kept talking about himself in the third person as the Son of Man – 13 time in fact (8:31, 38; 10:33, 45).

But again, we are left wondering why he is asking the questions. Is it because he doesn’t know the answers? Perhaps, since scripture is clear that Jesus’ knowledge was limited – in Mark 13 we learn that only the Father knows the details of the consummation of history – the Son does not know. So it is reasonable to think that he lacked other information as well. Yet we also know that Jesus seemed able to know the thoughts of the Pharisees when they doubted him.

This line of our questioning is worthwhile in itself. It invites us into a deeper curiosity about Jesus and his ways, in which we are to walk.

Let’s say for the sake of argument that Jesus is not seeking information – either he already has it, or doesn’t really need it. Jesus’ interest is not to be told what others think about him. Jesus’ desire is to invite the disciples into a journey of reflection and discovery. Perhaps they had not really stopped to think about all of the different things that were being said about Jesus. “Some say John the Baptist” who by this time had been beheaded. “Some say Elijah” who it was said would precede the Messiah – which is why Jesus said that John came as Elijah. “Some say one of the prophets” – a leader after the example of the Old Testament prophets who came to call the people of Israel back to more faithful worship in their covenant relationship with God – to restore justice and lift up the downtrodden.

It is worth our stopping to note these three things that were said. Jesus’ behavior fit into some preexisting categories and familiar frames of reference – Prophet, Elijah, John the Baptist. Jesus was unusual, but not unique in the way others saw and experienced him.

As we think about who Jesus is to us, we might stop and spend some time asking Jesus’ first question for ourselves. Who do the people around us say that Jesus is? Who do our neighbors and coworkers think Jesus is? Who do the people at the mall or the ball field know Jesus to be? What can we learn about Jesus from asking this question humbly and really listening to the answers? Are we willing to do this, and then to listen to what other people say? We will talk next week about learning to listen and hear. For now, it is enough to learn to ask questions. The questions Jesus asks of his disciples, we might ask of ourselves.

It does not stop there though. Jesus also asks, “Who do you say that I am?” This is so important. Jesus has not said publically that he is anything other than the son of Joseph the carpenter and Mary from Nazareth. In Mark’s gospel we do not even have the benefit of the Holy Spirit’s confirmation at Jesus’ baptism, nor Jesus public proclamation as he reads from Isaiah 60 in his home synagogue. We have to figure out for ourselves from the evidence given – from watching and listening to Jesus. And after a while, he asks us, “Who do you say that I am?”

Peter’s answer is the only one we hear, and that answer is partial. “You are the Messiah.” In contrast to the answers of others that Jesus is one who would precede the Messiah, Peter has determined, perhaps in conversation with the other disciples, that Jesus is the Messiah. The messiah was to be a political revolutionary – we might liken him to George Washington and Thomas Jefferson rolled together – a wise military and political figure who would bring freedom and would become the next king of Israel, deposing both the Emperor and his todies – Pilot and Herod.

Mark’s Jesus also does not say, “Blessed are you, for only God has revealed this to you.” (Matthew 16:17)

He says, “Don’t tell anyone!” “Sternly ordered” is how Mark puts it.

That’s not really our point here, but it is interesting, how Mark handles the story of Jesus.

Anyway, back to questions.

If the questions are intended to prompt reflection on the part of the disciples, then Mark intends that we do the same – that we wonder about who Jesus is; that we learn to ask these questions.

Why not just tell us who he is? Why did Jesus approach his ministry in this way? Why did Mark tell his story in this way? What is with all of these questions? Would somebody please just give me a straight answer for a change?

Well, it won’t be Jesus. Did you hear how Jesus answered the question asked of him – by asking his own question? Granted, the Pharisees were trying to trick him, but still. Jesus certainly could have given a direct answer if he had wanted to. Again, there is something about questions.

We have one other question to consider.

Jesus calls a blind man to him and asks, “What do you want me to do for you?”

Is he serious? The man is a blind beggar. What does Jesus think the guy wants? Though to be fair, Jesus does have a history of not meeting the most obvious need people have. Remember the paralytic on the mat who was lowered through a hole in the roof by his four friends (Mark 2:1-12). Jesus pronounces that his sins are forgiven first, and only later proclaims physical healing. Over in John’s gospel Jesus asks a man who has been ill for 38 years whether he wants to be made well (John 5:1-9). That sounds like another crazy question, similar to the one addressed to the blind man from Mark’s story.

Why ask these questions?
Does Jesus not know what they need? Can he not guess what they want?
The answer to both these questions is probably yes. So what is going on?

Again, I’m suggesting that Jesus wants these people to think about what they want and need. Mark is asking us to do the same. We need to learn to ask ourselves these questions and make them the object of our meditation and prayer. What do I really want? What do I really need? Do I really want to be made well? Am I willing to accept the changes that will entail? If I pursue the dream that I have, if I pursue wholeness and vitality and a life lived fully for God, what will it cost me? What is at risk? Bartimaeus had only known blindness and begging for his whole adult life – he would have to completely relearn how to function in society. None of his old coping mechanisms or ways of relating to others will work any longer if he accepts healing of his blindness. So Jesus is right to ask him and us this question. Mark is right to ask us this question. We are right to ask ourselves, and one another. What do we want God to do for us? Do we want to be made well?

I want to suggest one final thing. I think that questions about God are the most powerful language we have. It is more powerful to ask someone a question about God than to make a statement about God. When we ask someone about what they want or need, or about who they understand God to be, we are engaging their own faith. When we tell them what we think they need, or what we think the right answers are, or even who we think God is, then we are not engaging the part of their brain where faith is formed. The part of the brain that takes in data is different from that which dreams, imagines, asks and discovers.