September 30, 2018

Pentecost 19 September 30, 2018   (Psalm 124, Numbers 11:24-29, James 5:10-11, 13-20)   Mark 9:38-40

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Disciples report back to Jesus, saying ‘we ran into this guy casting out demons who we didn’t know – and we told him to cease and desist, because he’s not following us.’ But Jesus says ‘nobody who does what I’m doing in my name will be able soon to speak a word against me’ and – ‘anyone who’s not against us is for us.’

Disciples want exclusive rights to the Messiah… But Jesus is inclusive. Like Moses, who we’ve heard today, when assistants try to get him to shut down a pair of unauthorized prophets, saying to Moses, ‘Make them stop” – thinking the gift of prophesy ought to be restricted just to Moses and elders closest to him. But Moses says ‘I wish all God’s people would prophesy… and be filled with God’s Spirit…’ And so, also –

Jesus hopes his disciples remember Moses… But disciples, once again, don’t seem to remember the scriptures of old, or understand Jesus in the present day. As John, son of Zebedee, implicitly speaking for all the disciples, says, ‘Teacher, we saw a non-franchise exorcist casting out demons in your name and we tried to stop him because he’s not following us.’ Not following us, notice, John says – rather than ‘not following you – Jesus.’

But Jesus doubles down on grace again, saying “whoever gives you even a cup of water because you carry my name won’t lose their reward…” Which sounds like setting the bar mighty low. You mean – all we need to do to receive a blessing is to give a cup of water to a follower of Jesus? Shucks, I’ve even done that… more than once…

But of course this is not the only thing Jesus says today… And whenever Jesus seems to be setting the blessings-bar low… Wait a minute. Like a good track and field coach, when we make a good entry-level grade school high-jump – bar set three or four feet off the ground… Expect coach Jesus to raise the bar of blessing… a little higher…

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We don’t know how much time if any has gone by between our first paragraph in Mark’s gospel today and the second… But – as we read on we’re reminded –  when Jesus says “whoever isn’t against us is for us” – he says this in a particular context. He’s talking about someone casting out demons in his name.

Elsewhere in the gospels Jesus says “Whoever’s not with me is against me, and whoever doesn’t gather with me scatters.” The context then (in Matthew ch 12 and Luke ch 11) is religious leaders accusing him of being demon-possessed… Scattering flocks Jesus is trying to gather to God. In that context – whoever isn’t for Jesus – is against him…

In yet another context (near the end of the sermon on the mount in Mathew ch 7) Jesus says ‘many will come to me saying ‘Lord, didn’t we prophesy and cast out demons and do deeds of power in your name?’ And I’ll have to say ‘I never knew you, get away from me, you evil doers…’ In end-of-the-age-judgement context, Jesus says, what we say will be measured against what we’ve done, and assessed not according to our self-assessment, but according to the standard of Jesus – who is endlessly merciful to the humble and merciful. And unceasingly tough with those who are puffed-up with great opinions about themselves…and  the imagining of their own alleged great accomplishments.

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Context is always hugely important. What we say – and how we say it – should always be adjusted for context – as anyone who, like me, has ever put their foot in their mouth surely learns…and surely has to keep learning…

In our second paragraph in Mark today, Jesus’ tone of voice suddenly seems very different – as he warns, sternly now, against causing “one of these little ones who belong to me” to sin. Saying ‘better to be tossed in the sea with a ship’s anchor tied to your neck… than to cause one of these little ones to sink… And we notice how Jesus shifts from speaking about others, now – to speaking directly to his disciples. Speaking no longer about other people’s behaviors, but speaking now very directly to their own… And…

Jesus may still be holding a small child in his lap, when he talks about little ones who believe in him. (We haven’t heard that he’s gone anywhere since last week, when he brought a little child before the disciples and told them ‘anyone who receives a little child receives me, and whoever receives me receives the One who sent me.)

Then again, Jesus could be speaking about all disciples, metaphorically, as “little ones.” Quite probably he means it both ways. (And both ways is usually the safest way to interpret Jesus… If in any doubt, interpret Jesus inclusively. As he is inclusive… And be on guard against leading anyone astray…) Anyway –

Now we hear Jesus saying it’s far better to amputate any body part that gets you in trouble… than to lose your whole body in the pit… And I think – I hope – I’m pretty sure – Jesus is speaking hyperbolically here – when he says it’s better to cut off your hand or foot or pluck out your eye if they cause you to stumble. At least this is  how nearly everyone has historically interpreted Jesus. Even strict biblical literalists tend to draw the line at amputation of offending body parts. Most of us across the theological spectrum agree – body parts don’t sin – hearts and minds sin… Body parts are implicated in implementation of sin, but the root cause is deeper… Jesus isn’t suggesting literal frontal lobotomies… But radical spiritual surgery does seem to be in view… As…

Again, I hope, Jesus is speaking hyperbolically, exaggerating to make his point about dire consequences – but now I’m not so sure – when he tells us – those who mislead little children or impressionable disciples are in very real danger of Gehenna – the name of the metro Jerusalem dump, where trash fires burned and their fire never went out. Even before the time of Jesus, Gehenna was a metaphor for what we now call hell. Most contemporary translations use the word hell here. But the original language says Gehenna, and scholars note neither Gehenna or hell by any other name are terms whose meaning and definition are universally agreed on. Some of the ancient Jewish Rabbis portray Gehenna as a place of annihilation for most sinners – but a place of endless torment for anyone who willfully leads others astray…. Other Rabbis viewed Gehenna as more like purgatory, where souls are purged with fire… in hope of eventual rehabilitation and restoration…

Jesus perhaps tilts just a little in this latter direction in his closing verses, where he says ‘all must be salted with fire.’ Salt and fire are both preservatives… And Jesus may be adding this otherwise hard to interpret saying (versions of which appear also in Matthew and Luke) as a way of letting us know to expect trials, testings and tribulations… as part of the salvation by faith and grace process… As the beloved hymn says “When through fiery trials thy pathway shall lie, my grace, all sufficient, shall be thy supply; the flame shall not hurt thee, I only design thy dross to consume, and thy gold to refine.”

Jesus is warning of very serious consequences… if we lead others astray…But I believe we’re on solid interpretive ground when we hear the stern warnings of Jesus as warnings – not predictions. Warnings designed to provoke deep repentance and proper changes of behavior. Warnings designed to prevent anyone and everyone, insofar as possible, from ever actually going to Gehenna…

But the warnings are there because God knows most of us need stern warnings at times… God knows, Jesus knows, even good football coaches know… Even the best first round draft choices, even disciples with all-star credentials, need to know – there are consequences for skipping practice… or breaking team rules… Breaking God’s rules…

So it’s probably no accident that – Jesus gives this warning to his disciples immediately after telling them not to try to stop others from doing God’s work – rather to regard others who we don’t know – as with us, not against us, till further notice from Jesus.

Jesus thus rebukes the church across the ages, in advance, for all our divisions and sectarian behaviors that have kept us through the centuries, too often at war with each other – Christian against Christian… Christians against people of God of other faith traditions…Disunited in ways that give no glory to God but – cause people to fall away or walk away from Jesus… because of things we, the members of Christ’s church, have said or done… that don’t look at all like Jesus… Hard words… to hear…

But… The hardest part for me this week in the gospel and in the world… here in this town… in the nation… and within myself… has been… how Jesus leaves me with so many open-ended questions… about what it is that I or we might do… that could drive someone – young and impressionable… or otherwise… away from faith in Jesus…

We understand the most obvious behaviors to avoid… without having to name them aloud… What’s harder to know is… exactly when to keep silent… When to speak… What to say and how… And how best to let our actions reflect the love of Jesus…when situations are not entirely crystal clear and transparent…

One thing I have been learning in such times… is to pause more often… for silent reflection and prayer…. So let’s take a moment now… and pray in silence….

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And may our prayers continue… And as we pray, may we hear, more and more clearly… Jesus say – those who are not against us – are for us… And even those we think are against us – can be for us – and we for them… When we give all our opinions and decisions to Jesus in prayer…

So let’s keep asking Jesus to sort it all out – with us – for God’s glory and the greater good of all…

Something, Jesus – thanks be to God – is always very willing – and able – to do.

Thanks be to God. Amen.