Twentieth Sunday After Pentecost
The Rev. Ingrid Brown
Last week Rev. Ryan reflected on the verses immediately preceding these ones where Jesus reminds the disciples that whoever wants to be first must be last, and that whoever welcomes those in receiving mode, those in utter dependency, like the child, welcomes God himself. (You can read and/or listen to that sermon here.)
The reading we just heard is the very next thing.
I just want to paint a little picture here for you – there is Jesus, he has sat down, which signals to both the disciples and to us peering in through the window of Scripture, that he has entered into a time of formal teaching for his students. He is there, the disciples are all around, and he finds out they have been arguing over who is the greatest. No, he says, no, you aren’t getting it. Whoever wants to be first has to be last, the very servant of the slave. You can almost picture him looking at them and thinking, no they don’t get it yet. So he grabs one of the household kids running around, plunks this kid on his knee, points to the little one, the one whose life is completely dependent on others and has zero value in their culture and says, no, like this one, right here, you serve the lowest, you love the lowest, the neediest and when you do that you receive the very presence of God. Ok? Get it?
Then, as we just heard, John says, so there was this guy, and he was casting out demons in your name, but he wasn’t with US, so tried to make him stop.
Now, I am going to warrant a guess that FACEPALM wasn’t a thing in first century Palestine, but I can just picture Jesus (facepalm). OK. Don’t stop him, he is doing good work in my name, let him at it.
Sometimes I read Mark’s Gospel and think, these disciples are such doorknobs. They argue over who is the greatest, now they are worried about who is part of the in group and who is out. These guys just don’t get it.
But the truth is, I am as much of a doorknob as them some days.
Just like these disciples, I, we, need correction over and over again. What might start as something good ends up being intertwined with our own egos and gets distorted. Maybe what starts out as a community service project ends up with a fiery battle over control of the board to the detriment of the folks that were being served. And I know that in all of our theologically varied denominations, we are guilty of it as well: when we say I am a Christian but not that kind. Just like the disciples did way back then, we have judged folks for the “inadequate way” they follow Jesus, a way that is different than the way we do it.
Then it seems like Jesus does an about face, changing the subject altogether when he gets talking about the unquenchable fires of Gehenna – or as it came to be known, hell. More on that in a minute.
Jesus actually isn’t changing the subject, he is bringing the disciples back on topic. When we read blocks like this we sometimes lose the continuity of the writing. In the few verses just before, Jesus has performed a miracle, foretold his own death…been sidetracked by the disciples arguing about who is the greatest…Jesus brings them back around, teaching them about what it means to be a disciple….then they veer off again, complaining about someone else who isn’t doing it right…and here we have Jesus bringing them back around again.
It isn’t a tangent. Jesus isn’t talking about lopping off limbs for fear of eternal damnation. Jesus is pointing out the very thing that the disciples are doing! He is trying to keep them right here (right out front) and they keep eerch (off to the side). So he tries another tactic, another teaching method.
Remember, he still has this kid on his lap when he says, don’t interfere with others doing great things in my name. if you cause one of these ones to stumble, it ain’t no good, you are doing it wrong.
And then he has these passionate words: rather than causing another to lose faith, it would be better to hang a great stone around your neck and jump into the sea – drown yourself before you cause another to stumble. Whoa. Ok.
If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off! Wandering foot? Chop! Leering eye? Scoop it out! These are jarring, provocative metaphors on purpose. Jesus wants us to pay attention! He says, it is better to enter life maimed than to go as you are to Gehenna, to hell, to the unquenchable fire.
And this is so loaded…so very, very loaded. Hell? Eternal torment and punishment? This is a a big trigger – for some of us. In the same bucket as sin, devil, evil, shame. And some of us are really comfortable using this kind of language, it works. And there are so many different understandings of hell that we could really do a whole series on that alone (right Ryan??).
I want to pause for a minute and talk about this Gehenna – hell – that is written about here. This is a literal, physical place on the outskirts of Jerusalem. It was a giant pit that was essentially the garbage dump of the city. It was where human waste, dead bodies, animal carcasses, and every other kid of waste was dumped and burned – it was always on fire consuming their rather constant onslaught of garbage.
And so they had this literal eternal burning fire that was putrid, terrifying, and very real. There it was – always smoldering, filled with dead bodies and garbage and sewage - rotting, burning flesh and waste. This was literally the most disgusting terrifying place.
But what was he using it to illuminate exactly? By Jesus day it had become, not just for Jesus, a metaphor for the fate for those who reject God’s way. Jesus here uses the metaphor along with the physical and very sensory place to drive home his point.
Now, none of the books or journals or commentaries on this passage that I studied, none of them suggested that Jesus meant this literally, none of them suggested we take this literally.
This was the physical example Jesus uses to explain what life separated from God is like. Putrid, terrifying and very real.
This is the thing about sin, about those things which cause us to stumble. They are not issues of morality, they are all the ways we pull ourselves away from the generous, merciful, grace filled love of God. Jesus isn’t talking about a wandering eye that causes us to be morally bankrupt, he is talking about the very thing the disciples have been doing over the last sections of scripture we’ve been reading – he is talking about all those things which pull us away from our focus on God, from our work for the kingdom, our work alongside God for peace and the reconciliation of all things.
Jesus wants us here (centre) and even when we don’t mean to, even when he is right in front of us, we veer off the rails (off centre) worrying about who is greatest and who is following Jesus in the wrong way. Jesus says if it is your eyes that steer you off course, take em out, if it is your hand, get rid of it – it is better to be without a few things than to lose sight of the very most important thing: following.
And so this call to his disciples, to us, is, as I have said, not about chopping off our groping hand but to go within and take stock, take an inventory: what inside me is sending me off the rails? What is getting in the way of me moving towards love and justice and mercy and reconciliation?
Is it my need to be right? Gotta get rid of it. Is it my desire for status? Pluck it out. What about a seeking for more financial security? Truly that burns like an unquenchable fire within and steers us way off course from God’s dream of a level playing field where we all have enough (but not too much). That has got to go for us to follow.
And what is the promise? Jesus tells us that he came that we might live – that all of humanity might live life - live life – with abundance. These self-centered desires for power, wealth, dominance, authority, these drives that aren’t centered in love and justice and mercy have to, according to Jesus, be chopped off. These are the things that steer us away from the real abundant life. From the way Jesus is trying over and over and over to get through to his disciples, to get through to us.
Jesus struggles over and over to turn the disciples thoughts from human thoughts to Gods thoughts. The disciples have such great difficulty getting to where Jesus is leading them, and so do we. Our dis-ease with Jesus teaching is a symptom we are left with in the church to this day. A dis-ease that we treat by coming here on Sunday morning. Through showing up at other church events. By fostering spiritual friendships with other Christians who can, at times, be that voice of Jesus who says – whoa you are getting a bit far from the path we are walking here friend. This is why we read scripture, this is why we do service for others.
Jesus’ disciples, both then and now, are focused on personal fulfillment and satisfaction, even when we aren’t trying to be. We fool ourselves when we think this is a product of our modern culture – we might have different expressions of it, but here we are at the turn of the century listening to middle eastern Jews who do the very same things as us. This is not about who is the greatest, who will sit in at the right hand of the Father – or to put it in more modern terms – this is not about finding a spirituality that meets all of our felt needs.
Jesus tells us that God is at work in the world and there is no time or space for self indulgent spiritualites that shirk personal cost or responsibility or resist it on the grounds that all the desires and hopes one finds within must be God given and therefore realized.
This is about allowing God to prune away parts of ourselves that might even seem useful – like feet and hands and eyes - in order to stay on track. There is a cost: walking around without a hand is not ideal. The irony of this – the Christian life – is that we scoop out our eyes and we are given two eyes to see rightly. We chop off a hand and we realize that God has given us a new hand, a hand that reaches out across divides.
This takes tremendous faith. It is so scary to chop off a foot that we have been walking around with all. This. Time. And to trust Jesus when he says, no, really, this is a better way. I make all things new. Beginning with you. And starting right now. I will give you the feet you need to follow me.
This is a big ask. But let me tell you – I have seen it. I have seen this miracle over and over and over again. God always shows up, every single time. To get us back on track, to heal our wounds, to bring us out of the putrid pit of despair and into the newness of life in Christ. And in it all, we are not alone. Because we live in Gods world. We follow the one who does not stumble, who does not shame us or leave us when we stumble, but who finds new ways to bring us along, slowly replacing our objectionable parts with mercy and grace and love. May we be given the faith to follow today. Amen.