As I was reading our gospel for this week, I found myself thinking back to what it was like to be in elementary school. Do you remember your school days? (I know it was longer ago for some of us than others!) Did any of you ever get in trouble with any of your teachers? (of course not; I’m sure you were all perfect little angels!) I’ll admit that I sometimes got in trouble with my teachers, mostly for daydreaming and spacing off — and for doodling all over my homework. And every once in a while, I’d get an assignment back with those four dreaded words written at the top: “See me after class.”
The disciples in our gospel reading for today are not getting very good grades on their report cards. In fact, the gospel of Mark is the gospel that most clearly shows us just how much the disciples struggled to understand Jesus and his mission. We saw last week that the disciples didn’t understand what it meant for Jesus to be the Messiah. And this week, we see that they still don’t understand what he’s telling them, but now they’re scared to say anything about it.
We actually skipped over a couple of familiar stories earlier in this chapter that I also want to touch on real quick. The first is the story of the transfiguration. Jesus takes Peter, James, and John on a trip up a mountain. At the top of the mountain, there’s suddenly a blinding light and Moses and Elijah are standing there with him. And Mark perfectly captures Peter’s totally freaked out reaction: “Uhhh… tents! Let’s make tents! Three tents, one for each of you,” and Jesus is like, “What are you talking about? No.” Mark just says, “Peter did not know what to say – for he was terrified.”
Then when these four come back down the mountain, they find the other eight disciples arguing with some scribes. A young man had come to them desperate for help. His son was possessed by a demon that kept him from speaking and that kept violently convulsing him and trying to drown him or burn him. But neither the scribes nor the disciples were able to cast out the demon. So they started fighting with each other about it. Jesus has pity on the father asking for help and tells the demon to get out and stay out – and it does. When the disciples ask him, “Hey! Why couldn’t we do that?” Jesus tells them, “Well, this kind only comes out with prayer.” Ouch.
So after this long string of failures and misunderstandings, it’s no wonder that Jesus is keeping his disciples close. As it says in the first verse of our gospel reading, Jesus was going through Galilee, but he didn’t want anyone to know it, because he was focused on teaching his disciples. This was the “see me after class” part of his ministry. The disciples needed a little extra help understanding what Jesus was trying to teach them. And it makes sense that they would. Jesus is trying to prepare them for what is coming next. It will be their job to carry on Jesus’ mission after his death and resurrection. And so he keeps telling them, “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.” I mean, that’s a lot to take in. Honestly, even though we now have the New Testament scriptures and know how the story ends, I’m still not totally convinced that we understand it.
And this lack of understanding can lead us to live in a way that doesn’t always best reflect the kingdom of God. I mean, look at the disciples. (not to keep picking on them, but they’re easy targets.) They don’t get what Jesus’ mission is as the Messiah at all, they completely freak out when they see Jesus in his full, heavenly glory, and they totally fail to cast out the demon tormenting a boy because they can’t be bothered to pray. And now they’re arguing about which one of them is the greatest? Seriously??
But as silly as this all sounds, I think it’s safe to say that we are often guilty of this too. We even begin our weekly worship services by confessing the things we have done and the things we have left undone. We get caught up in the day to day busy-ness and self-importance of our lives and we lose sight of our life in God. I’ll be the first to admit that I struggle with this – and I get paid to think about God all the time! But even when I’m preparing for worship or writing a sermon, I get caught up in the details, thinking, oh this part’s going to be too boring, or oh, I need to talk about xyz in the sermon, or I wonder how people would react to me saying this… And oftentimes I end up spending more time thinking about that stuff than praying to God about what to say!
In all of our lives, we have to contend with the daily details that demand our attention: stress at work, getting the kids off to school on time, squabbles with our neighbors, or trying to keep up with watering the lawn and cleaning the house – and on and on. And it’s easy to let all those little details overshadow the fact that our lives are lived in God. It’s easy to stay focused on the small stuff – until something happens that catches us off guard and forces us to look at a bigger picture. In the disciples’ case, this was the death and resurrection of Christ. But in our cases, it’s often something like a serious illness or the death of a loved one that suddenly makes all of our daily busy-ness pale in comparison.
I think again of the story of the father whose son was possessed by a demon in the story before our gospel reading for today. He too was probably just going about the business of living his life until his son got very sick. And then he discovered that the ordinary business of his life just wasn’t enough anymore. He begs Jesus to help his son. And Jesus says to him, “All things can be done for one who believes.” And so the father cries out, “I believe; help my unbelief!” And, of course, Jesus does help.
Just as with the disciples, Jesus is constantly pulling us in close and trying to show us the bigger picture, trying to help our unbelief. He’s constantly having us “stay after class” so that he can teach us how the stories of our lives are all part of God’s great story. In our second reading, James writes, “Draw near to God, and God will draw near to you,” but I think that what Jesus is showing us in our gospel reading is that when we draw near to him, we find that he is already there, all up in our business.
Both James and Jesus call us to turn and open ourselves to God’s nearness. We open ourselves to God through going to God in prayer. And James also shows us that we draw near to God by living a good life, a life of gentleness and compassion and wisdom, a life of peacemaking. And it’s this time together – our weekly gathering of worship and prayer and feasting on the Word – that strengthens us to live such a life. We support one another in faith, and through our prayers, we open ourselves to God and slowly allow God to transform us more and more into the image of Christ.
These practices are what prepare us for life in God’s kingdom. And they help us to find our place the epic story that our lives are part of. We are learning to see and tell our stories as part of God’s story. We are learning to see that our daily lives and vocations are sacred. There is no separation between what we do here together and what we do the rest of the week. Our mission to spread God’s love and peace, to be agents of the kingdom, flows through everything we do. It doesn’t matter if you’re harvesting a cornfield, or selling groceries, or helping a kid with their homework, or even preaching a sermon; our lives and vocations are sacred, because God is always at work in us and through us. We are always being called to the mission of Christ.
It may not feel like every moment of your life is holy – in fact, most of the moments of our lives probably don’t feel very holy at all – but that’s the point of staying close to Christ and practicing, as we do together here.
So please, see God after class. Draw near to God, and see how close God already is to you.