What We Don’t Know, That We Need To Get At

A Sermon for Proper 20; Proverbs 31:10-31, Psalm 1, James 3:13-4:3,7-8a, Mark 9:30-37

Play Shilo https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=98mxTslGjbs

Thursday Night Angie and I went to see Jack Wright’s Tribute to Neil Diamond at the Ritz. It was a wonderful show. Jack was comfortable with his own voice; it was not Neil’s but it was good. My favorite bits were the stories about Neil Diamond. I did not know he was always a poet. As a kid, he would write little poems about himself, his life and his feeling. When he was a young teen, or thereabouts, his parents gave him a guitar; he learned 3 chords and kept on kept writing poems. His parents wanted him to be successful, and so he enrolled in pre-med at NYU on a fencing scholarship. He was a good student but an excellent fencer; one of his NYU teams won a NACCA Championship. And through it all, he kept writing poetry, some too simple music in 3 cords. 1 quarter shy graduation Neil was offered a 16-week contract at $50 week to write poem-songs. He spent the next 7 years on Tin Pan Alley before he wrote his first hit. There were many more stories and many great songs that like Shilo, we heard just a bit ago, stirred thoughts.

My bedtime reading, Thursday, was Agatha Christie’s ABC Murders, a Poirot mystery. Poirot receives a letter taunting him and telling when and in what city a murder will happen. I picked up the story after the third murder. Families of victims are together, trying to help the police and Poirot’s investigations, neither of which are making any headway. We pick up as one family members speaks “We know nothing about him.” [Poirot replies]

No, no, mademoiselle that is not true. Each one of us knows something about him -if we only knew what it is we know. I am convinced that knowledge is there if we could only get at it. (Christie 126)

His comment reminded me of Donald Rumsfeld’s comment

 You know what you know. You know what you don’t know. It’s what you don’t know, that you don’t know, that kills you.

Thanks to the inspiration of the divine muse I recalled a Facebook conversation about today’s Gospel wording [Jesus] took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, (Mark 9:36), objecting to referring to the child as ’it’. One person connected their pain at being referred to as ‘it’ to the child being referred to as it. Another diddled around the trouble using pronouns to refer to pronouns. Another mentioned the effort to be gender neutral. It all came together in the question What bit of knowledge do we need to get at, which reveals what we don’t know we don’t know, about Shilo, which reveals the love of God who always comes?

We might as well start with the Greek translated ‘it.’ The word is αὐτὸ (auto) is a singular, neuter, personal pronoun, the object of a verb (Olive Tree) So ‘it’ is grammatically correct. But what about the concerns of the Facebook conversation? The big question of this week’s Gospel reading is the same as last week “Who do the disciples think Jesus is?” It requires us to struggle with the same existential question the disciples face, in the context of our understanding of scripture, the world we live in and history, “Who is Jesus?” (Carroll) To do that, we need to set aside our experiences of childhood as a privileged time of innocence (Perkins). As a culture we value children. That is not true in the 1st century. Children were not welcome until they were old enough to be a working economic asset. They were essentially property until boys were old enough to own themselves, or girls were old enough to be sold into marriage. They had no rights, no privileges (Peters-Mathews). no legal protection, and no status, (Epperly). They were acted upon by the powerful, which was everyone, who wasn’t a child (Zee).

I expect you have heard before, that this story it is part of the continuing stories of Jesus welcoming the powerless and rejected:

• a Gentile woman (Mark 7:24-30),
• a bleeding woman (Mark 5:24-34),
• lepers (Mark 1:40-45),
• raging demoniacs (Mark 5:1-20),
• tax collectors and
• other notorious “sinners” (Mark 1:13-17) (Johnson)

We hear how, as Christians, we are to welcome the least of these, the marginalized, and all those we tend to put undesirable labels on. And that is true. But there is more.

In the verses just before this Jesus tells his disciples that, The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again (Mark 9:31). It mirrors exactly last week when just after Peter says Jesus is the Messiah, Jesus begins to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again (Mark 8:31). Remember that part of the definition of ‘it’ is “the object of a verb” In Jesus’ teaching he is the object of all the verbs, betrayed, suffering, rejection, and killed. In every one of these verbs, Jesus is the one who is acted upon by the powerful. Jesus, the long-awaited Messiah, will be powerless as children before the combined authority of the Jewish religious leaders and the all-powerful Roman state (Zee). In short, Jesus is ‘it’ ~ in the disciples’ presence. Jesus is ‘it’ ~ in our presence.

My gleaning from the Facebook conversation is that in our rush to eliminate the offensive language of ‘it’ we miss what we don’t know, that we need to get at. I’m beginning to wonder if what we need to get at, is that we are not the disciples; we are ‘it’; we are those acted upon, we really are in the same uncomfortable situation Jesus is. We cannot separate ourselves from the other or God, even when we or the other, or God is in a position we normally deem offensive or weak (Epperly). The Gospel story is not personally singular, [point] you, [point at me] or me, but [draw a circle] but all of us, meaning every single living soul, together; and that likely include all creation also (Epperly).

Joseph Peters-Mathews wrote that in last week’s story of the first revelation of Jesus betrayal, rejection, death and resurrection, the Transfiguration in between, and their arguing about which of them is the greatest after Jesus second teaching of his death and resurrection, the disciples show a remarkable lack of imagination (Peters-Mathews). They are so locked into the centuries-old hope for a great and mighty leader who will throw the enemy out they cannot see the power of God’s love.

I wonder how limited our imaginations are? I wonder if in the depths of our loneliness, in the depths of our fear we can sense Shilo who always came? I wonder if can we ask Shilo to come today? I wonder if we can trust the love of God in Jesus and Spirit, that was, and is, and always will be, to come?


Carroll, Bill. Who do WE think Jesus is? 16 9 2018. <http://www.episcopalcafe.com&gt;.

Christie, Agatha. ABC Murders. New York: Bantam Books, 1983.

Epperly, Bruce. The Adventurous Lectionary. 23 9 2018. <http://www.patheos.com/blogs/livingaholyadventure/author/bruceepperly&gt;.

Gaventa, Beverly Roberts and David Petersen. New Interpreter’s One Volume Commentary. Nashville, n.d.

Harrelson, Walter J. The New Interpreters’ Study Bible. Abingdon Press, 2003. E-book.

Johnson, Elisabeth. Commentary on Mark 9:30-37. 23 9 2018. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/&gt;.

Keener, Craig and John Walton. NKJV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible Notes. Nashville: Zondervan, 2017.

Olive Tree. NKJV Greek-English Interlinear New Testament. Olive Tree Bible Software, 22014.

Perkins, Pheme. New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary The Gospel of Mark. Ed. Leander E. Keck (NIBC) Bel and the Dragon. Vol. VII. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2015. XII vols.

Peters-Mathews, Joseph. “Vulnerable, Pentecost 18 (B).” 23 9 2018. Sermons that Work.

Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob. New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Nashville: Abingdon, 2009.

Zee, Leonard Vander. The Lectionary Gospel Mark Mark 9:30-37. 23 9 2018.






Advent Sacrament

A sermon for Advent 2: Isaiah 11:1-10, Romans 15:4-13, Matthew 3:1-12, Psalm 72:17, 18-19

I grew up in metro Atlanta GA which, a score and more years ago, as I started seminary, was some 200 times the size of Blytheville. I have served churches in communities of 28,000, 15,000, 7,100, 2,400 and 743. In all these communities, people would ask the same question: “Where are you from?” What they really wanted to know is “Who are your people?” If anyone actually asks you who your people are, you are either in a lot of trouble or standing on the verge of being accepted wholeheartedly into their community family.

In this week’s commentary Karoline Lewis suggest that we are way too quick to skip past the opening phrase of the Gospel, especially the last half “appeared in the wilderness.” Her point is well made. To do so is to skip knowing where a prophet is from; and who a prophet’s people are (Lewis). Prophets are not soothsayers who by various means can see into the future. No ~ prophets are relentless truth tellers; pulling back the carefully woven curtain of our view of the present exposing deliberate ignorance and willful blindness to the sufferings of others; exposing the clever forms of evasion we use to deny pollution, climate change, food insecurity, the lack of clean water, burgeoning prisons, a failing cultural understanding of marriage, the plethora of single parent homes, that a quarter of our kids are living in poverty, acts of violence, our fragile access to healthcare, and exposing the illusions, we use to hide injustice and just plain ole meanness (Lewis; Lose). It is their clear vision of the truth of today that allows prophets to see the ill fortunes of the future that we do not want to hear. Prophets know where they are, they know the people they speak to. Prophets know where we are from; they know our people.

We all know that Advent is a season to cast aside the distractions of this world to make room for divinely inspired imagination. It is a season to imagine a Festival of the Incarnation. Not just the birth of Jesus, but a mystical divine fusion of God with all humanity. It is a season also to imagine Christ’s arrival – 2 (Lose). Only we allow ourselves to be distracted by illusions of a Christmas that are as false as the illusions of grandeur of the Kings of Israel. And we know this because John the Baptist is nowhere to be found in Advent unless you happen to be in a church that reads one the gospel stories like we heard this morning. I have never heard a Christmas Carol that features John the Baptist (Allen). It is a small wonder; can you begin to imagine caroling “You brood of vipers!”

Lewis’ insight leads us to examine John’s use of Isaiah’s prophecy:

 The voice of one crying in the wilderness: [pause] ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’

Only in the original books there is no punctuation so it can also read

The voice of one crying: [pause] ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight’ (Allen).

The first way tells of someone crying in the wilderness and it is certainly John the Baptist. The second way tells of someone crying “go into the wilderness;” and this, I believe, is the subtle call to a fruitful Advent imagination. And it is all comes from our understanding of wilderness.

When we hear wilderness, I expect we see a wild, unsettled, inhospitable place. If it is in a bible setting it is vast dry landscape, with barren hills, some with scrub brushes and the occasional lost sheep. It is a dangerous, chaotic place to be. The wilderness is likely inhabited by equally inhospitable, dangerous people. But, when we think carefully about the story the bible tells us we may remember that the wilderness is a thin place; a place where we discover the edges of space and time. It is in the wilderness that God forms Abraham’s people. It is in the wilderness where the Hebrew people are tested and further formed. The wilderness is a place of chaos, but it is also a place of formation, a place of testing, and a place of purification (Sakenfeld). It is only in the heartfelt wilderness of our existence or our imagination that we experience the sacrament of Advent.

And yes, I know there is no such sacrament in the Book of Common Prayer. But, as you know, a sacrament is a visible and outward sign of an invisible and inward grace. And here both the visible and the invisible are repentance, which you remember, is about changing the orientation of your life.

Your Advent sacrament is invisible because you recognize and accept that you have a problem that is bigger you are (Benoit). It is invisible as you daydream about God’s vision for you as you face your problem, or your life, as a whole. It is invisible as you commit to start making one change. It is invisible as you commit to how that change is becoming a part of your relationships in your community (Lose).

Your Advent sacrament is visible as your commitments are witnessed in how you live life (Benoit). It is visible as people witness your continual discernment gradually transforming your spirit, your emotional well-being, your physical wellbeing, and your social wellbeing. It is visible as others witness you turn from “I” toward “us” and towards God. It is visible as your transformation mystically inspires all of us to turn towards each other and towards God.

It is Advent. It is the season for us, individually and as a community, to confront our inner viper, the quiet hissing voice that whispers “You too can be like God.” It is the season for us, individually and as a community, to see and be the prophet. It is the season for us, individually and as a community, to speak and hear the truth that pulls back our carefully woven curtain exposing the reality we would just as soon ignore. It is the season for us, individually and as a community, to trust the God, who came to us, lo those centuries ago as a mother’s child, will walk with us through this transforming wilderness, and will come again welcoming all into God’s eternal grace.



Allen, Ron. Commentary on Matthew 3:112. 4 12 2016. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/&gt;.

Beck, Norman. Lectionary Scriture Notes. 4 12 2016. <http://www.lectionaryscripturenotes.com/&gt;.

Benoit, Arlette. “Bear Fruit Worthy of the Gift of Repentance Advent 2(A).” 4 12 2016. Sermons that Work.

Boring, M. Eugene. The Gospel of Matthew. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2015. App Olivetree.

Epperly, Bruce. The Adventurous Lectionary. 4 12 2016. <http://www.patheos.com/blogs/livingaholyadventure/author/bruceepperly&gt;.

Harrelson, Walter J. The New Interpreters’ Study Bible. Abingdon Press, 2003. E-book.

Hoezee, Scott. Advent 1 A | Matthew. 4 12 2016. <http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermon-starters/advent-3c/?type=the_lectionary_gospel&gt;.

Jacobson, Rolf, Karoline Lewis and Matt Skinner. Sermon Brain Wave. 4 12 2016.

Lewis, Karoline. In the Wilderness. 4 12 2016. <workingpreacher.org>.

Lose, David. Advent 2 A: Reclaiming Repentance. 4 12 2016.

Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob. New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Nashville: Abingdon, 2009.