Growth > Fear
A sermon on Mark 9:30-37
[for an audio recording of this sermon, click here. Photo by Neuvalence on Unsplash]
I had a disheartening experience this week with someone in an online group for pastors. (Spoiler alert, pastors are people too.)
The context of the encounter was a post from one of the members asking for prayer connected with the accidental death of a young trans man whose family refused to recognize his name or pronouns. It was a heart-breaking situation on many levels, and many of us in the group offered our sympathy and prayers.
One of these responses, however, misgendered the deceased, referring to him as a “her.” Knowing the pain that this kind of misgendering could cause not only to the colleague asking for support, but also to any trans people or loved ones who might see it, I tried to respectfully suggest that the person correct the mistake.
The response was quick. The commenter wrote, in all caps, that the misgendering was UNINTENTIONAL
(Great! This wasn’t going to be a fight. I felt the tension ease out of my shoulders),
but then, the all caps continued, expressing the commenter’s anger that I SHOULD HAVE PRIVATE MESSAGED INSTEAD OF RESPONDING TO THE COMMENT PUBLICLY!
(whince. The tension’s back!)
I disagree with the premise that we should only offer such corrections “in private,” (for a number of reasons) but it had not been my intension to shame or rebuke – just to address the harm. So, I followed up with a private message. Unfortunately, the person immediately erased the comment and didn’t respond to my message. So, that was it: no chance for dialogue.
Now, this is not a colleague with whom I have ever had any interaction before, so there’s no lost relationship to grieve, but I do grieve the interaction.
I grieve that it escalated so automatically to defensiveness and anger.
I grieve that it so quickly shifted from being about prayer for a precious child of God, and respect for his identity, to being about the feelings and affront of the person who – a moment before – had been offering prayer for him.
And I grieve that this is not a solitary incident.
It’s a pattern that is all too common. A pattern I know I have fallen into myself (I can do defensive with the best of them, especially when I’m tired, or stressed, or otherwise feeling frayed).
Some people refer to this pattern as fragility. Others talk about “getting triggered.” Whatever we call it, it’s familiar, and it’s corrosive to our society, our relationships, and our own souls.
Because reactive defensiveness cuts us off from each other and from any chance to learn or grow.
Cultural observers have remarked on the apparent increase of this pattern in recent years, especially during the societal pressure-cooker of the pandemic, but today’s gospel reminds us that the root of this trend goes far deeper, and goes back far longer, that the current crisis.
It derives from the fundamental human emotion that gets activated when any of us are confronted with our own limitations and fallibility: that emotion is FEAR.
That’s right, even though the emotion that we most often see in defensive reactions is anger, anger is a secondary emotion. The root of our defensiveness is fear.
Fear of being judged. Fear of inadequacy. Fear of shame.
In the case of today’s gospel story, the pattern plays out this way:
Jesus tries to explain to his followers that his chosen path is leading him toward betrayal and death, and he has to go through that apparent defeat before God will raise him from the dead.
“Betrayal and death” is the kind of prediction that would scare anyone, but, strangely, that is not what the story highlights.
Rather, Mark tells us that the disciples don’t understand what Jesus is saying, and that their fear is about not wanting to admit their confusion… they were “afraid to ask him” to explain.
So, instead of facing the uncomfortable reality that they were struggling, the disciples went in the exact opposite direction. They tried to cover their confusion with bluster, arguing among themselves about who was the “greatest.”
As readers of the story, privileged with insight into Jesus’s perspective, we can easily recognize the tell-tale signs of a defensive reaction.
Jesus’s foresighted knowledge, and the prophetic language he uses, make the disciples feel ignorant and confused.
It’s not a great feeling, but there are two ways to overcome it.
The better option would be to admit their confusion, to treat Jesus as the teacher they claim he is, and to say, “Jesus, maybe we are being slow, or stupid, but…we don’t understand. Can you please help us?”
That option is the better option because it would open up the chance to learn, to actually remove their confusion and ignorance.
But that option would require them to admit their current inadequacy, to face the frightening truth that they didn’t actually know what was going on with this man they had abandoned their former lives to follow.
So, they opted to protect their egos, rather than admitting their ignorance.
They pretended like they weren’t confused. Not only that, they were GREAT. They didn’t need to have anything explained to them because they were already the GREATEST.
Clearly, I struggle to even tell this story without a strong dose of snark. But Jesus is far more compassionate than me.
Jesus doesn’t shame his disciples (perhaps because he knew that fear of being shamed was what made them pull back from admitting their confusion in the first place).
Instead, Jesus redefines the goal, so that not understanding won’t feel like a source of shame:
Instead of greatness… he calls them to service;
Instead of being first… he promotes being last;
Instead of the fear to ask for instruction… he embraces a child – the most dependent and demeaned member of his society – and tells them that welcoming a child means welcoming God.
Or, put another way, if we want to see how God shows up among us, don’t look for greatness, look for vulnerability.
Because the goal isn’t greatness. It’s not perfect understanding. It’s not getting everything right and never needing instruction or correction.
In fact, the goal is the exact opposite. It’s the vulnerability and openness to know how much we need God and each other. Because that openness is where love flourishes.
I start every sermon with a reminder that faith is a journey.
We aren’t done learning and growing yet.
Which means we don’t have to be afraid of not knowing, or even of getting things wrong.
Our ignorance and errors are not something to cause us shame, but rather a chance to ask, and learn, & grow. They are a chance to move closer to understanding, rather than hiding, or blustering, or snapping back.
This challenge to embrace our own imperfection applies not only to our faith, but also to life in general.
If I could go back and re-script that disappointing interaction with my clergy colleague, here’s what I wish could have happened.
I wish I could have been more effective at offering my correction as an invitation to open a conversation.
And I wish the response could have been: “Oh no, that “her” was unintentional. Thank you for pointing it out so that I can fix it. I know how much that matters.”
No anger and ego. Just learning and love – both for us and for the larger community.
And I wish that the interaction could have been a source of hope for those who’ve been misgendered – evidence that it doesn’t always have to be a fight, that people can welcome the chance to be corrected.
Because we CAN.
We can welcome the chance to learn and to grow.
We can open our hearts to the gift of underserved grace, and discover the freedom and relief that comes when we let go of pretending that we don’t need it.
We can be welcomed into the arms of Jesus, as he welcomed the little child, knowing that we don’t have to prove our right to be there, because being open to vulnerability is how we welcome God.
Thanks be to God.