Published by Ronald Steed,
Sermon for Sunday, September 30, 2018 (Proper 21 Year B)
St. James Episcopal Church, Poquetanuck, CT
Grace Church, Yantic, CT
Today’s gospel is difficult. There are hard saying here that suggest that maybe we should be wacking off arms, legs, and other body parts. We might not think that Jesus is completely serious here, but is there a way to make sense of this? There are at least three ways to read scripture; what the story meant for Jesus and his disciples, what it meant for the Gospel writer Mark and his community of early Christians. After all, Mark could have chosen many stories about Jesus to help his people, but he chose to tell these particular ones. And, what it might mean to us today. The Spirit is alive and active in the world today, and continues to work on the hearts of Christians everywhere when the Gospel is proclaimed, heard, and engaged. These are three very different contexts, and we modern Americans do not see the world in quite the way that Jesus and his second-temple disciples did. And many scholars think that Mark’s community was enduring persecution by the Romans when he wrote this Gospel. What is common to all three contexts, is that God seems to be telling us what it means to be disciples of Jesus; how we as disciples should treat people who are NOT disciples, and how we might need to grow as members of our Christian community when we cause others, "little ones", to fall away from faith.
The story begins with the John complaining to Jesus that they had caught someone casting out demons in Jesus’ name. "We tried to stop him because HE was not following US". It is as though someone from this Parish were to burst through the doors shouting "Reverend Kim, there are Agnostics in Gales Ferry healing the sick… we tried to stop them because they are not Episcopalians! John is making a statement about power; power that John thinks should be reserved to those who are disciples of Jesus; or members of Mark’s early Christian community; or members of this Parish, over and against people who are on the outside.
Jesus wants nothing to do with this idea of power and exclusion, and he gives three reasons to reject this idea. First, someone who is not a disciple of Jesus but who is working on God’s mission of healing, reconciliation, or restoration is doing so with God’s power behind them. The fact that God’s mission is moving forward in this way is a sign that their hearts are in the right place, and before long, they won’t be able to speak ill of Jesus. A great example of this occurred in Groton just this week. Someone mailed an envelop of white powder and a note cursing the prophet Mohammed to the Islamic Center of New London. On the following Saturday, people from all over the region held a vigil of support at the Islamic Center. Some of the people at that vigil were Christians, but many were not. So here is a deed of power, reconciliation, being done in Southeast Connecticut, by people who do not follow Jesus. Should we stop them because they are not Christians like us? Jesus is saying "no!", where God’s mission is being done, Christians should not try to stop them… exclusion is not the way.
The second reason Jesus cites for rejecting John’s power play is that whoever is not against us is for us. That is a pretty inclusive statement there. The one who mailed the powder and the curse is one who might be working against God’s mission, so just about everyone else then must be regarded as "for us" Jesus seems to be saying.
And the third argument against John is the most interesting. Jesus says that if you, as a disciple… as one who bears the name of Christ, engages with a neighbor and that neighbor gives you the slightest hospitality because you bear that name, even as little as a cup of water, that neighbor is in good standing with Jesus. They don’t have to be a Christian to have that good standing do they? We had a great conversation at Tuesday Bible study about what to do about neighbors who don’t do to church. Well, maybe we should just let them offer us a cup of coffee and have a conversation with them about their lives. What are their joys? What is breaking their hearts? What keeps them up at night? Maybe we should just be with them as ones who bear the name of Jesus in just they way that God is with us; God is WITH us… we could be with our neighbor. God does not restrict God’s mission within these four walls, God is out there at work in your neighborhood, in hospitals and shopping centers, in the hearts of Jews and Muslims and Atheists. Maybe we should just go out there with our neighbors where God is at work, and if they come to church fine, but if not, we don’t have to worry about it. That seems to be what Jesus was telling his disciples, and Mark was telling his community, and the Spirit is telling us.
In the second half of the story, Jesus seems to be telling us to cut off sinful hands and feet and eyes. As Americans we might tend to over-individualize this message and believe that if we sin against the God with whom we have a personal relationship, we should do something drastic for our personal salvation. I’m thinking Jesus is talking to his community of disciples as a community, and that Mark chose this particular story to say something about his community as the Body of Christ under persecution by the Romans, and that we, as a part of the Body of Christ should see this as a story about our Parish, our diocese, our denomination, and the whole catholic church. As Paul puts it (and I can’t say with certainty that Mark meant it this way), Christ is the head of the church, and we as members with different gifts and talents are the various body parts. So if our Parish or diocese or denomination is causing believers to stumble in some way (maybe in ways that cause them to give up their faith), a part of discipleship is to discern which part of that body is causing that harm and cut it out. There is a lot of work going on in The Episcopal Church now about racism for example; we’re trying to cut out our complicity in that sin and grow together in newness of life. Now, a key part of the text is this line; "For EVERYONE will be salted with fire." In Jesus’ time, if a leg or arm was cut off, the wound would be cauterized with fire and salt. That really had to hurt! And Jesus is saying EVERY disciple will have wounds that need to be cauterized… we ALL will have to cut off something dear to us that is causing us to sin. That’s what happens as we grow as disciples and as communities of disciples; we get pruned.
Finally, Jesus shifts the salt metaphor just a little. "Have salt in yourselves and be at peace with one another". Salt in this case is not just a useful cauterizing agent, but rather an essential part of table fellowship with our neighbors. Remember the movie "It’s a Wonderful Life" where Mary Bailey gives the Martini family a gift of salt, bread, and wine? Eucharist, right? That salt is a sign of neighborliness and table fellowship. Mahatma Gandhi and nearly 60,000 Indians were arrested for making salt, an essential substance needed for their very survival, but monopolized in India by the British. So Jesus is asking us to have salt like that in ourselves; to have something within us that we share with our neighbors and which is essential to life; the life that Jesus calls us to have.
So this difficult reading is about how to be a community of Jesus’ disciples. Jesus seems to be telling his disciples not to worry about the people who aren’t his disciples; the same Spirit at work in John is at work in the man who was casting out demons. God is out there at work in the world. We are not to erect walls around our church to keep the heathens out… it’s not "us" against "them". In fact, we might just roll up our sleeves and get out there to join them. And who knows, we might witness moments of grace from our neighbors. Even a cup of water is more than enough. At the same time, Jesus is telling us that, as part of the Body of Christ, we are also part of the problem. Where that body are causing us to sin, cut it out! All of us are going to grow in discipleship in this way, both as individuals and as communities of Christians. It hurts to die to self… it hurts to cut away our power and privilege as a church. I tell you what though, we’ll know that we’re getting it right when 60,000 people will want to get arrested for us because we bear the name of Christ… to get arrested for the sake of the salt that we have within ourselves and want to share with others. So, have salt in yourselves and be at peace with one another. Amen.