I have always thought that one of the most powerful phrases in the human language is: what if? I realize that this phrase has the ability to go to the “left” or the “right” . . . to be “positive” or “negative; but, I believe that its power lies in its ability to make people think . . . to dream . . . and, to hope beyond their everyday situations . . . to think outside the box at all the possibilities and opportunities that there are and can be.
This morning I want us to consider our faith as individuals and as a congregation from the potential of “what if”.
The first “what if” . . . what if we, as followers of Jesus . . . as the church . . . stop controlling and predicting?
Jesus and the disciples are walking along. As they are walking Jesus is sharing—once again—the topic of his ministry; in particular, its ending and beginning. He tells them that he will be arrested, tried, killed, and rise from the dead. This is not the sort of information the disciples want to hear. It is contrary to what they are experiencing with Jesus. One has to admit that to this point Jesus and his tag-a-long disciples have experienced huge success and overwhelming popularity. The crowds have been huge . . . the adulation immense; so, why does Jesus keep raining on their parade? Why does Jesus keep bringing up this anti-thesis of what they expect?
The disciples do have expectations that are based on what they have experienced and what they know. In Jesus they see a movement . . . they see freedom . . . they see a kingdom restored out of oppression . . . they see power. The popularity of Jesus affirms this . . . Jesus and his disciples are on the move to establishing a new kingdom and new power. In that new kingdom and power the disciples see themselves in those cabinet positions—after all, they have stuck with Jesus through it all. This will be their reward.
Isn’t that the conversation that they confess to Jesus later in our reading this morning? Who among them was the greatest? Isn’t that what any of us would think . . . isn’t that how things go to those who win the game and the war?
Control and predictability . . . if we do this and this, then this should happen.
To that Jesus responds with a complete reversal of the logical and the predictable: “Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and servant of all.” Here Jesus challenges the thinking of his disciples . . . challenges them to think outside the box of conventional wisdom and expectations . . . to consider another way. To think of the “what if”.
In a TED talk I recently viewed, author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie from Nigeria, spoke about The Danger of a Single Story. In her presentation she stated that we—as human beings—have the tendency to allow a single story to define the world around us. She shares that we humans have a tendency to allow a single story that we hear or read to definitively define a person, a group, a nation, a religion, or anything as one thing and way only.
She shared about coming to the United States to attend college and meeting her American roommate: “Years later I thought about this when I left Nigeria to go to university in the United States. I was 19. My American roommate was shocked by me. She asked where I had learned to speak English so well, and was confused when I said that Nigeria happened to have English as its official language. She asked if she could listen to what she called my ‘tribal music,’ and was consequently very disappointed when I produced my tape of Mariah Carey.”
We are a people of the single story when we see the world through generalizations. When we live our lives based on a single story . . . or we view the world through a single story . . . we place God and God’s creation in a box that limits God’s love and grace.
Thus it is that Jesus challenges his disciples with another story . . . another way of thinking. Taking the child in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me does not welcome me but the one who sent me.”
Suddenly it is no longer about control and predictability . . . no longer about importance and power. What if it comes down to the notion of vulnerability? Isn’t that what children represent? Vulnerability.
With children you get what you get . . . they are who they are . . . they don’t try to be something they are not. They are open. They are honest. They live in the moment. They live whole-heartedly who God created them to be. They know their strengths and weaknesses . . . what they can and cannot do. They are open to life . . . open to others . . . and, we adults spend a lifetime knocking the vulnerability out of them.
In the eyes of many, vulnerability is seen as a weakness . . . something less than. Yet here is Jesus saying that it is this trait that is the key to all that he calls us to be in following him.
The disciples were not ready for this . . . nor are we if we are going to be honest with ourselves. Yet that is what we are called to as the followers of Jesus. We are called to be who God created us to be . . . wholly, holy, as imperfect as we are . . . we are to be who God created us to be. Not someone else, but ourselves. We are called to step into an intimate relationship with God . . . to offer ourselves as who we are . . . to receive the love and grace of God.
And, as Jesus implies, it begins with us. It begins with us accepting who we are with our strengths and weaknesses—as imperfect as we are. Accepting ourselves as we are and believing and living as if we are worthy—worthy of love . . . worthy of acceptance . . . worthy of belonging . . . worthy. Then we begin to live our lives wholeheartedly as we have been called by God to do. In the eyes of God we are all worthy.
No more games. No more single stories defining us. We are to be. God created us . . . the least we could do is to accept ourselves as one who God loves. We are called to live vulnerably. To do that we have to let go of control and predictability. We have to trust in God.
Lots of areas in our lives have been boxed by control and predictability—even religion. Religion has gone from a belief in faith and mystery to certainty. We say, “I’m right, you’re wrong. Shut up.” That’s it. Just certain.
If there is anything I have learned in my lifetime as a follower of Jesus, it is that there is a whole lot of room at the table for everyone. That there is no one certain story that defines what it means to be a follower of Jesus . . . a child of God . . . or what faith is. That there is whole lot about this God that I do not know . . . that it is a mystery. And, in knowing that, I have to admit that at times it scares me to death. Yet, that is a part of who I am as a follower of Jesus . . . as a child of God. It is a part of who you are. We are vulnerable as we try to be who God created us to be.
And, guess what? God can handle it. God still loves us.
So . . . what if . . . Jesus is right? What if we learn to let go and let God take the reins? What if—two simple words . . . two powerful words . . . that can change our lives forever. Think about it. Amen.