PRAYER OF INVOCATION: Maker of heaven and earth, remind us today that you are our strength and our shield. When enemies seek to destroy us, you offer counsel and strength to avoid disaster. When we suffer in body and spirit, the prayers of the faithful restore us to health. We come to you Lord that we might be rescued and healed. We come to worship and to praise your holy name. Amen.
Let us pray: Holy Spirit, come; open our hearts and our minds when the Scriptures are read and the Word preached that we might follow Jesus into more loving and obedient lives. Amen.
This week’s Gospel lesson from Mark is confusing and convoluted. With all Jesus’ talk about cutting off hands and feet, plucking out eyes, unquenchable fires and worms that never die, I feel that we’re heading into a Boris Karloff silent horror flick. Jesus has announced that he must go to Jerusalem and die, but the disciples have consistently rejected this vision of the future. Jesus has been trying to get the disciples to understand what the journey is about, who the Messiah is, but they haven’t been paying attention, so Jesus bears down, stretching language to its breaking point.
John still doesn’t get it. “Teacher,” he says to Jesus, “we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” In other words, John believes he’s part of the real deal and this other person is not; yet the one who is apparently not a disciple is able to cast out demons in Jesus’ name while the disciples have failed. When Jesus responds to John the way he does, Jesus is saying there are no “unregistered” disciples: “Do not stop him...(and later)....For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.” Microsoft, Apple, Coke, IBM, and Amazon spend millions of dollars in legal fees every year protecting their corporate names. Jesus, though, invites us to use his name with abandon. Jesus explains that “whoever is not against us is for us,” which means that Jesus has followers and potential followers that the disciples have not even considered because they believe they are part of the inner circle. There is no inner circle in God’s Kingdom.
Jesus launches into the child imagery again as he did in last week’s lesson: “If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea.” Then comes all the business of cutting of hands and feet: “It is better for you to enter life maimed than have two hands and go to hell,” Jesus says, and “It is better for you to enter life lame than have two feet and be thrown into hell.” Using extreme language, Jesus is trying to get the disciples’ attention. If you had leprosy or were missing a limb, you could not go into the temple, so Jesus is telling them that there are big-time costs to being a stumbling block to others- by blocking their access, you also block your own.
A pastor friend was at a contemporary service, which isn’t quite as reverential, introspective, or restrained as she likes. There was a lot of boisterous singing and clapping to the beat. But just as her heart was closing and her mind judging, a little girl beside her said: “I just love worship!” When I was a teacher, I had a lot of students who came from very different backgrounds. In one of my classes was a middle-aged African American woman who spoke and wrote about her religious tradition – one that is very different from Reformation theology and Presbyterianism. One day in the cafeteria line she told me that she had been a heroin addict, and it was only her ties with this religious group, which tends to set strict rules of behavior and to see Scriptural issues in black and white terms, that saved her life and let her get back on her feet, get a job, and provide for her two children. One of the ministers in my lectionary group said this week that if it hadn’t been for Christian music on the radio, she would not be a minister today. I often refer to this music as Jesus is my boyfriend music. See how easy it is to be a stumbling block to others?
It will not be a surprise to you that I am a terrible klutz. You saw it my first Sunday here when I fell head first into the Communion Table. But, wait, there’s more! When I was a junior in high school I was invited to the senior prom by the man of my dreams – the class president, a handsome hockey player who made my heart flutter. When he picked me up and made the requisite small talk with my parents, we headed to the dance, he in his tux and I in my Scarlett O’Hara dress complete with bustle and my hair swept up in a sophisticated twist. Unfortunately, when my date parked the car, I opened my door instead of waiting for him, and stumbled head first into a ditch. When I emerged, my hair was undone and my beautiful dress had grass stains and dirt up to my knees. Nevertheless, I held my held high and went to the ball as Scarlett herself would have done. Alas, my Rhett Butler never asked me out again.
A few years ago, when we had enough snow in Virginia to ski, Dave and I got out our cross- country skis and decided to get a little exercise on the farm. Dave is a pretty good skier, but I’m a klutz, even on the gentlest of slopes. I skied straight into a ditch, and ended up with a skies buckled underneath me, unable to get up. The more I tried, the deeper my skies lodged themselves in the snow. Finally, Dave said, “Well, I could go get the tractor.” Perhaps it was the humiliating image of being hauled out by the tractor that gave me the adrenalin push I needed to launch myself upright. Although it’s pretty obvious the ways in which I physically stumble, it’s not so obvious how my judgments, especially about worship, put stumbling blocks in front of others.
The Greek world for “stumble” appears no less than four times in this short pericope. Jesus doesn’t say that there won’t be stumbling blocks, just that we shouldn’t place them in front of one another. Throughout Mark’s gospel, when Jesus heals someone or casts out a demon, he sends them back into their community. Jesus is trying to create a new community of disciples where there are no insiders or outsiders, but rather a hospitable community able to master ourselves in order to love God and to love all God’s children.
Richard Fairchild tells the story of a small rural church, perhaps not unlike South Plains, where there had been a major dispute about where the pies should be placed in the kitchen prior to serving them for the annual Thanksgiving Dinner. One newcomer to the church actually convinced the rest of the preparers that it would be more efficient to put the pies on the counter beside the sink instead of the counter next to the refrigerator. “It’s not the right way to do it,” said one woman, “We’ve never done it that way before, and I am not going to be part of doing it that way now. I won’t have any part of that kind of thing. Those new people are going to ruin this church. They don’t know anything. They aren’t even from around here.”
Now this is an amusing little church anecdote, but if someone new comes to a church and sees infighting, why would they want to have anything to do with it? As South Plains launches into its next phase of growth, with much more complicated decisions than where to place the pies, we’re all going to be mindful that this anecdote doesn’t become our story. None of us, the first disciples or any contemporary Christians, should think so highly of themselves that we get in the way of God’s ministry. Ambition, rivalry, and adversarial attitudes have no place in the kitchen or in the Kingdom.
The ministry of Jesus is ultimately about hospitality. This doesn’t just mean lots of food in the kitchen, pies on the shelf. It means God’s welcome. It means expansive love. Hospitality overrides all the categories of the world: race, religion, social class, gender, and sexual orientation. It gives way to a better world where all God’s children are welcomed and loved.
Jesus ends with the image of salt. “For everyone will be salted with fire. Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.” This imagery is not clear, but in the first century, salt was very valuable; in fact, wages were often paid in salt. What is Jesus telling the disciples to preserve? Because the language in verses 42-48 is so reminiscent of Hebrew scripture, I think what needs to be preserved is the covenant. The covenant is all about hospitality, love, and peace. Therefore, be salt: be preserved from sin, do not be a stumbling block to others, love one another, and live in peace.