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Learning > Convincing

A sermon on Mark 8:31-38

[for an audio recording of this sermon, click here. Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash.]

I have a story to tell on myself today.

Early in my first career in public policy I was working on a research project with a colleague who was significantly more senior and more knowledgeable than myself.

It was a project that I was responsible for, but she had substantive expertise in one of the areas that I needed to include, so we were meeting in order for me to learn from her. Despite that need, the way I decided to go about it was to go over what I knew about the topic, to get her input.

And there was this moment in our interaction when she turned to me, with this thoughtful look on her face, and said, “you are very good at convincing people that you know what you are talking about.”

It was an observation. Not a compliment, or a criticism, although I could have taken it either way.

I could have heard it as an expression of approval that I spoke with authority and clarity that engendered trust.

Or, I could have taken it as a passive-aggressive challenge, suggesting that I did not actually have the necessary expertise to back-up my confidence (which was probably true).

But I don’t think she meant for me to hear either approval or critique. I think she was presenting me with a self-assessment tool.

She was telling me that others might not always question me because of my ability to be convincing, and she was giving me the chance to ask myself the questions that others wouldn’t (but maybe should) ask.

To ask whether I really knew as much as I and others might assume I did.

To ask whether I ever needed to stop and listen before I aired my opinion.

To ask whether I might sometimes have more to learn.

It is one of the most powerful tools I have ever been offered:

an invitation to shift away from the cultural pressure I had absorbed up to that point, teaching me to leverage every ounce of influence I could manage over other people…

and to instead have the courage to prize curiosity over confidence, the openness to learning over the power of making people think I already knew.

I have to wonder how today’s gospel might have unfolded differently if Peter had been encouraged to ask himself such questions early in his life.

If, when Peter heard Jesus teaching the disciples something that sounded wrong to Peter, he had been prepared to question his own self-assurance about what must and must not happen, rather than questioning Jesus.

If he had stopped to question how likely it was that he, Peter, really knew more about the trajectory of Jesus’ ministry than Jesus himself.

If he had breathed through the instinct to interrupt and correct so that he could instead listen for what he was missing.

If his first assumption when he felt shocked and distressed was not to resist, but rather to lean in and learn more.

I imagine, at a minimum, he would not have gotten called Satan!

And maybe he also would have gotten a chance to ask questions to better understand the “must” in this unexpected prediction.…

And maybe Jesus wouldn’t have given up on his closest friends being able to handle more than the large crowds and he would have stayed with them a little longer and talked things through in a way that would have helped all of them….

And maybe, after he listened, and questioned, and learned what Jesus wanted him to hear… Peter could have expressed his fears about what this all meant… and he could have seen Jesus smile with gentle understanding and say, “I know. The first part about suffering and rejection and death all sounds terrifying… believe me I’m not thrilled about it either… but that’s not the end. The resurrection is actually the most important part. We can hold onto that hope together.”

Just imagine how different this teaching could have been in the context of openness, and trust, and a genuine willingness to learn.

And imagine how different the teaching to the crowd might sound to us in Mark’s re-telling if that were our context.

Imagine if – instead of confrontation and rebuke – the immediate context for Jesus’s teaching about taking up our crosses to follow him had been a context of curiosity and compassion.

Maybe it would be easier for us, now, to hear the call to the cross less as a test of our fortitude and more as an invitation to join with Jesus on his journey.

Maybe it would sound less like a binary choice between selfishness on the one hand and self-sacrifice on the other, and more like a wisdom teaching about what truly matters.

Maybe it would make us a bit less anxious and confused about how much of this stuff about “losing our lives” still applies to us.

OR… maybe that’s still on us.

Maybe it’s the way WE approach a difficult teaching with either openness to learning or an instinct to challenge that actually determines our emotional reaction to today’s gospel reading.

When I planned out my Lenten preaching theme for this year (connecting each gospel lesson to one of the five baptismal promises that we claim when we confirm our faith) my shorthand for this week’s theme was “learning.”

I think that an embrace of the attitude of learning is the core commitment we make when we promise “to hear the word of God and share in the Lord’s supper.”

On the surface this promise just sounds like “I will go to church”

After all, we call our Sunday liturgy the “Service of Word and Sacrament”:

Scripture and communion. That’s the center of our worship.

But I don’t think our baptismal promise is as shallow as “just go through the motions.”

And so, we need to pay attention to the verbs in this promise, the indications of what we are actually committing to do: to hear and to share.

When we hear the word of God it doesn’t just mean that sound waves vibrate the tiny bones in our ears and our brains convert those vibrations into concepts that we comprehend.

(After all, people with hearing impairments can “hear” the Word of God just as clearly as any of the rest of us.)

Hearing God’s word means opening our hearts and our minds to God’s teaching… listening for wisdom, and instruction, and challenge and comfort that we know we need.

And when we share the Lord’s supper, it means a lot more than just ingesting the little piece of bread and thimbleful of wine or juice…

It means sharing the experience with our community of bringing our individual and collective need for new life to God and hearing the assurance that Christ’s surrendered and resurrected life is for us.

Over and over.

Because we never get to the point where we know it all and no longer need to hear from scripture.

Because we never get to the point where we have life all figured out and we don’t need the gift of Jesus anymore.

We never stop needing to learn from the God who meets us in the word and at the altar each week.

We never stop needing to learn.

In preaching this sermon, I am very aware of the irony in the anecdote I shared to start it off.

Because… if there is any professional activity where the ability to “convince people that you know what you are talking about” is both useful and dangerous… it is preaching.

And that’s a responsibility that scares me at times.

I never want my preaching to be about convincing anyone of my authority or rightness.

But I do want to convince you today… convince myself… convince all of us, that today’s gospel is a call to genuinely be willing, eager even, to learn from Jesus even when his words are frightening, or confusing, or completely contrary to our expectations.

I do want to convince us all that our promise to hear the word of God and share in the Lord’s supper is a promise to come to worship with hearts open to be changed.

Because if it is Jesus whom we trust… more than Pastor, and more than ourselves… then our confidence will always be justified.

Thanks be to God.


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