I grew up as a child of the 80s. In the 80s, as in each decade I suppose, there were lots of quirky cultural entertainment outlets. One of those was “Choose Your Own Adventure” books. I love these stories because they were like a game in a book and, as you likely know, I love games! These were also some of the first games I could play solo – which is something I started doing because I often wanted to play games more often than the folks around me – and also because I enjoy solo gaming. Choose Your Own Adventure novels allow you to take part in choosing the path that the story takes. When reading a book like this you get to decide which path to follow – and if you don’t like the outcome of your choices, or if you possibly end up dying in the path you choose – you can rewind and take a different path. That kind of freedom is stressful (the possibility of terrible things happening) and exhilarating (the exciting mystery of possibilities).
Today we’re going to put that into action as a sermon or at least we’re going to try. What that means is that throughout this sermon I will pause and ask you a question with multiple choice options. The question will show up on the screen in the form of a poll. You will then be given the opportunity to respond to that poll. Your response to these polls is anonymous so feel free to choose whichever answer you are truly feeling in the moment. One big difference between this experience and reading a Choose Your Own Adventure book on your own is that, because we are doing this in community, you may not always get to follow the path that you would prefer. Each household/sign-on will be able to voice their opinion through the poll – but the path will follow the choice of the majority. This is one of the opportunities of community – sometimes we are invited to stretch ourselves by moving and exploring in directions we wouldn’t have chosen on our own…and perhaps we’ll encounter something that connects. And, if the group doesn’t go in the direction you are curious about – you can always also explore that other path in your own time, wondering and considering what you might have found and then perhaps bringing those questions and experiences back to the community.
Let’s do a sample question just to give you a sense of how this is going to work. The question is [Poll I] – When you see the sermon title: Holy Curiosity
- You immediately think it should be followed by the word: Batman!
- That thought never entered your mind but upon hearing it in this moment, it is making you chuckle.
- You have no idea what I am talking about.
Go ahead and enter your answer to the poll now.
This question was low risk because it doesn’t actually affect the outcome of the sermon path – future questions will! This was mostly an opportunity to get you used to submitting your answer via poll technology and to recognize that this sermon isn’t going to give you a lot of space to dive into your standard Sunday sermon daydream, so you’ll have to take time for that later.
If you did answer C – that you had no idea what I was referring to – fear not – you are in good company! The company of Jesus’ disciples. Just as we heard at the beginning of the Mark 9 text that was read today. Jesus says to them:
“The Promised One is going to be delivered into the hands of others and will be put to death but three days later this One will rise again.”
To our ears this isn’t such a mysterious statement. We have already read the story beyond this moment – we know the outcome of the path that Jesus is traveling and so it may be somewhat challenging for us to sympathize with the disciples who hear this statement, yet just don’t get it. They do not understand what Jesus is telling them. And the text says that fear prevents them from asking Jesus questions.
[Poll II] – Here is your first opportunity to guide the path of this sermon. Do you choose to:
- Break with the fear of the disciples and ask Jesus some questions about what he is talking about.
- Stick with the disciples by avoiding what are bound to be complex questions and see what comes next in their experience.
II-A – Congratulations! You have chosen to prioritize curiosity over fear. In so doing, you have also begun the journey of releasing a tight hold on your own ego. The disciples that wouldn’t ask questions of Jesus when they didn’t understand what he was telling them were likely avoiding speaking up as a way to manage their own image in the eyes of their community. Instead of approaching Jesus with curiosity, they leaned into the fear of being vulnerable in front of others. Curiosity allows us to lean into vulnerability with authenticity. It recognizes that there is so much we don’t know in this life and that being in real relationship with the world means opening ourselves up in potentially vulnerable ways. Being willing to be vulnerable and to admit we don’t have all the answers is essential in being open to the possibilities of learning and growth. As Dr Carolyn Pressler, Professor of Biblical Interpretation at the seminary I attended said: “In order to do study at the graduate level [one needs] the ability to feel stupid.” Now we don’t use the word stupid in our house as its not a very friendly word [although we are allowed to say stupid covid when the complexities of pandemic life are real] – but what this is getting at is the need for an open spirit of curiosity in life. And that open spirit of curiosity can only thrive if we are willing to release a tight hold on our egos. Remember those disciples who weren’t curious because of their fear – instead of exploring the expansive possibilities of curiosity, they end up quietly arguing with each other behind Jesus’ back about who among them is the greatest.
Which brings us to the next question on our path…
[Poll III] – You and your friends have been bantering about who is the greatest among you. When Jesus asks what you are talking about, do you:
III A – Own up to the conversation topic at hand, confess that you are wondering amongst yourselves who is the greatest, and, since you have each voted for yourselves, ask Jesus to cast a tie-breaking vote to settle the matter once and for all.
III B – Fall awkwardly silent suspecting that, if you confess what you are really talking about, Jesus ain’t gonna be too impressed. And perhaps desperately offer him a cup of tea in hope of distracting him from the reverberating silence.
III A & B – Trick question! It turns out that, either way, Jesus is like the ultimate intuitive parent figure who can sense what is actually at play no matter what we try to use as distraction. And if you voted for A – just a hint that Jesus likely wouldn’t cast a tie-breaker vote so don’t be too disappointed in not learning the outcome of who is the greatest.
Actually, while Jesus wouldn’t offer a tie-breaking vote, he does offer insight into how to achieve greatness. Only his suggestion comes at this expense of our societal understanding of prestige and power. Jesus says the recipe for greatness is service. That those who desire to be first in the eyes of Love, must focus energy towards others for the sake of Love. It seems somewhat counterintuitive, at least according to our cultural standards, that in order to become great we should spotlight others instead of highlighting ourselves.
I read an article this week about a study recently published in the journal Nature about what causes a creative hot streak. It turns out that before slipping into a period of focused creative success, artists are most successful at finding that creative success if they have first spent time exploring a vast array of mediums and styles. A period of diverse exploration seems to offer a rich foundation for ideas and energy to coalesce into a successful space of focused creative output. Once again, it seems to be the message that curiosity opens us up to possibilities. The study’s lead author Dashun Wang states it like this: “Although exploration is considered a risk because it might not lead anywhere, it increases the likelihood of stumbling upon a great idea.”
What I hear in that statement is that, in order to become great at something, we will be more successful if we turn our energy towards other things first. Hhhhmmm…sounds familiar. If there were such a thing as a hierarchy of greatness in terms of kin-dom living, which is to say, making space for and living God’s love into the world, success is not a reflection of your own greatness, success is the fruit of sharing love with others by promoting justice and through acts of service.
Let’s pause here and test the waters of this community…
[Poll IV] – About this whole, “in order to be first you need to become last” thing…
IV – A – I’m all for it! The mystery of illogical teachings is one of my favorite parts of being on a faith journey…tell me more about how to put this into practice in my life.
IV – B – I’m skeptical. I can strangely wrap my head around the theory, yet I struggle to see it actually being helpful guidance for the real world that I live in day to day.
IV – A – The mysteries of faith are, indeed, an intriguing part of learning to live out God’s love in the world. Luckily for us, Jesus himself offers an example of how to put this idea of becoming first by being last into practice right in the scripture story.
Then Jesus brought a little child into their midst and putting his arm around the child, said to them, “Whoever welcomes a child such as this for my sake welcomes me. And whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the One who sent me.”
In the cultural context that Jesus was living in, children had no power or status as individuals. The choice Jesus makes to center the child in the group, embrace the child, and tie his own welcome to the welcoming of such as this is a total disruption of the cultural hierarchy of power and prestige. Jesus’ action is counter to the cultural norms and expectations of his time – and of ours. It is an act that explicitly empowers and makes space for the vulnerable and marginalized.
You may or may not have heard that Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong died this past week at the age of 90. Bishop Spong was an early proponent of welcome and inclusion for LGBTQ people in the church and in ministry. He ordained the first openly gay male Episcopal priest in 1989 and when on to ordain more than 3 dozen LGBTQ+ folks before his retirement in 2013. He was also an advocate for women in ministry and made sure women candidates were actively interviewed and considered when positions were open.
Book publicist Kelly Hughes worked with Spong on several publications. In a report about his life and work Hughes reflected that “on book tours, Spong would draw crowds of hundreds of people…many of them LGBTQ+ Christians and seekers or their parents. A pastor at heart, Spong would spend time talking with people at those book events and making them feel seen and welcomed.”
One of Spong’s colleagues, Bishop Bonnie Perry was also interviewed about Bishop Spong. Perry said “Spong was a “wonderful, amazing Southern gentleman” who used his position and privilege for the benefit of others and believed in both inclusion and fairness.” This is the kind of welcome that Jesus was speaking of – a welcome that uses one’s own position and privilege not for one’s own gain, instead to make space for others through justice and service.
Beyond the literal turning of the societal tables that Jesus exemplifies in his welcoming of a child, are the less tangible lessons that we can learn when in the presence of children. Children are vulnerable, and reliant on others in many, many ways – to welcome a child reminds us that we are all part of a web of relationship and connection – we are needed and in need. Children are also creative, playful, energetic, and full of curiosity. Once again there is that word: curiosity.
Poll V – Are you starting to get curious about curiosity and what it might mean as a spiritual practice?
V-A – Yes! I’m curious about curiosity and want to consider it as a spiritual practice more!
V-B – I’m kind of tired of theology at this point and am ready to move on to the interlude so we can get to the conversation time and the Star Wars paraphernalia show & tell more quickly!
V-A – You are my kind of people!! I think curiosity is one of the most intriguing theological terms we have to explore. And when I think of this scripture passage, I find curiosity hiding in it from the beginning to the end. I hear Jesus trying to peak the disciples’ curiosity when he foreshadows his impending journey. I see the disciples avoiding curiosity when they fear asking Jesus clarifying questions. I experience Jesus inviting them into a space of curiosity when he confronts their misguided ideas about privilege, position, and power and turns their cultural expectations of status and worth upside down. And I witness Jesus modeling curiosity for them when he chooses to make space for another – a child – in their midst – embracing that child with affection and honoring their presence in the circle. In this tangible act we find the heart of holy curiosity: living out a love that focuses outward, noticing patterns, systems, structures, and even small moments that push people to the margins, and taking action to remove those barriers so that all may thrive. Holy curiosity moves us to connection and relationship, not for the sake of our own power and glory, instead, for the sake of making space to share love and care which, in turn, makes space for the presence of God.
And with that we come to the final question – it isn’t one I am going to post in a poll with pre-fabricated answers – it is one that we are each invited to consider and reflect on as we move into the week ahead, choosing the path from moment to moment: How might I lean with holy curiosity into this moment?