Sermon on Lectionary, Mark 9:38-50, 26th Ordinary, Year B for Sept. 27, 2009

Mark 9:38-50

Spare Body Parts

neck-sized millstone in Capernaum
neck-sized millstone in Capernaum

There are many things that are odd and jarring about this morning’s gospel text. Of course the images of little ones stumbling, millstones around the necks of sinking people, and body parts being cut off and poked out are disturbing But so too is the combination of these sayings that begin with a an unauthorized exorcist and end with reflections on salt. What do these odd teachings mean? what do they mean together? and what do they mean to us here today? are our questions. I believe that they are indeed meaningful, even powerful, and we need the message here, so let us look at the text together.

First let us notice this: these teachings begin with the problem of the unauthorized exorcist, a problem person, and end with the words “be at peace with one another.” The theme that links these odd sayings is our common life together; how to live in such a way that we will be a community of shalom – or peace and wholeness between each other.

Picture the setting

What do you think about when you think of the word “church”? I’m assuming that you well might imagine a local church, like this one, viewed from the outside – a pretty, tidy building set on a well-kept suburban lawn, sporting a pointy steeple – right? – Well, stop thinking about it that way.

Now think abut this: picture a room in a small house in the evening; it’s dim, lit by a small oil lamp on a table around which a dozen people are crowded. These are the the disciples at Peter’s house in Capernaum. This is the beginning of the Jesus movement that eventually will become the church. But right now, it is a group of people who have attached themselves as followers of a preacher-teacher-healer-exorcist-wonder-worker named Joshua – or in our language, Jesus.

They are there with him in that room trying to understand what this whole thing is about; it is crucial to them to comprehend. They have left their homes, their sources of income like the fishing business, and have risked being seen with someone who could get them all killed by the Romans, on the one hand, or get them all excommunicated from their own faith. Nobody wants to end up on the wrong end of a Roman sword – or cross – nor suffering in hell. The risk these people were taking was enormous on both counts.

Why risk body and soul?

Why would they take it? Because they saw and heard in Jesus, a radically new understanding of God – what God is like, what God expects, and what it means to be a part of the people of God.

The central need we have today is the same: we all want to know God, what God wants and expects of us, how to be in a right relationship with God, how to experience life as God intends for us to live it – and also what it means to be a part of his family – the community of faith.

This is so much deeper than thinking abut what it means to be a part of a local church today – in worship or in a committee meeting; let’s keep our minds on what those people in that dim room in Capernaum were focused on: it’s the root question – what does God want from me?

The Coming Fire

Jesus was a deeply spiritual person who spent long hours alone with God the Father, and as the unique Son of God, had a connection with God that we can barely grasp. That being said, however, it did not take a prophet to see what was coming in Jesus’ day: the fires of revolution had already been started, and more was certainly on its way. The whole area was ready to burst into flames of rebellion and war, and Jesus knew it. He even predicted it, and of course we all know that it happened with ruthless Roman finality.

So, when that core group of followers gathered around that table, Jesus was not teaching them rules of etiquette – how to be polite to each other, or even Roberts Rules of order for their coming meetings. Jesus was preparing his people to be a radically transformed community. They were going to be in danger – they were going to need each other; they were going to be “salted with fire.” They had to learn how to be the family of God for each other. It was a matter of survival.

How about us? We live in quite different times. Most of our needs are met by sophisticated social institutions: pension funds, health care systems, well-run , safe communities. We are a long way from that dangerous, dimly-lit table gathering in Capernaum.
And yet the truth is that we cannot survive living in our nice suburban homes alone, can we? We were created to live in community. We do need each other at a level that is so deep that it goes to our very core. We were created for life together. Loneliness is a huge problem in our culture, and the TV remote and the computer mouse in our hands sometimes just makes the problem worse. We need to know that we are loved and cared for by real people, who know us as we really are, accept us as we are, and who are there for us in our good and our bad moments.

Jesus’ teaching is about how to be the community of shalom – of wholeness, of healing and of peace – the kind of community that will be nurturing and health-giving. The opposite is so frequently found: many communities of people become toxic. Relationships become poisoned; the group only makes each other more diseased the more they meet. Some families are toxic – certainly some churches are – and that is nothing short of tragic. There is another way to be.

How to be a community of shalom

So how do we become a community of shalom, instead of a toxic group? First, in the way we refuse to divide up the world into “us vs. them.” This is the point of the unauthorized exorcist teaching. Was there someone casting out demons in Jesus’ name who was not part of the inner circle? Apparently so. But Jesus did not see the world as “the authentic ‘us’ vs. ‘them’ the bad guys.” Was that other exorcist trying to help people overcome evil? Well then, leave him be. Don’t be so quick to castigate people who do not join your club. God is bigger than that: we need to be as well.

So, if that’s how we respond to outsiders, the question is, how should we respond to insiders; to each other in this radically new community of shalom?

First, the millstone saying: the measure of our authenticity is our willingness to go out of our way for our weaker members. The little ones cannot be overlooked – in fact, they have to be specially cared for. The weaker members of our community, those who cannot protect themselves are the objects of our special concern. We wold no more overlook their needs than we would tie a millstone around our necks and jump overboard. No way; this community is known not by how well our leaders are pampered but by how well we watch out for the little guys among us.

Hand-chopping & etc.

No community is perfect, of course, because humans are not perfect. In other words, to be perfectly frank, we sin. We do things we know we should not do – we sin with our intentional acts – pictured as our hands. We would often rather have the TV remote in our hands than a serving spoon or a hammer, or even a telephone when a call is needed, to go out of our way to help someone in need. What should we do about hands that cause us to sin?

We are often found walking our well-worn paths of comfort and safety, of low-risk and of entertainment instead of walking to places of uncertainty and need where we could bring hope and help – and so we sin with our feet. What should we do with feet that cause us to sin?

And we are quite prone to sinning with our eyes: seeing things that shine and thinking, “I need it.” Seeing things that would increase our pleasure, our comfort, our entertainment, and overlooking the suffering and pain that is obvious in our world. What should we do with eyes that cause us to sin?

Lots of sin goes on among us. What are we to do with all these sinners in this shalom community? The toxic community uses its standards of behavior as justifications for judging and condemning each other. Fingers are pointed, accusations are made, rumors circulate, criticism abounds, bitterness follows, parties and factions take up positions, form alliances, and disease and rottenness are the result.

The Jesus-community of shalom is radically different. The sword of judgment in our hands is wielded by ourselves, only against ourselves, never against each other. In this community, I am not worried about your hands, your feet, or your eyes – I am worried about mine; my sin is what I am to be ruthless about. My responsibility in this radically new shalom community is to be hard on myself; to admit my own hypocrisy – because no, I do not live up to the standards that I publicly affirm. I am to look at the man in the mirror, to not believe my own excuses, to stop the denial and the drop the pretense. The sword of judgment in my hands is aimed only at my sinfulness; it is not for anyone else. We are not a community of execution, but of examination.

Salt and Shalom

There are communities that survive, but do not thrive – like meals that may keep you alive with nutrition but which taste like prison food – like unsalted burgers. We are meant to be a community that blesses each other when we come together – like a well seasoned plate of steamed veggies. Our gatherings should bring us in contact with the God who loves us and with real humans who can be his instruments of healing and love – his hands, his feet, and his eyes. We are hard on ourselves so that we can be sources of shalom for each other, and for our community.


So, this odd teaching does lead us to a moment of reflection. How are we doing?
Are there changes we need to make in how we spend our time? In what we give our hands to do? Do they hold the remote more than they fold in prayer or hold the hand of a hurting person?

Are there changes we need to make in where we go? Are we stuck in habits of taking the path of least resistance? Are we going to where we can hear God speak, hear him instruct us, and where we can minister a cup of cold water in his name?

Are there changes we need to make in our eyes – what we allow to seduce us into acquiring? Are we looking squarely at the pain that exists right around us and that presents itself on our TV screens as we see the daily news?

And if we have high standards of behavior for the use of hands, feet, and eyes, are we using those standards to be critical of ourselves, or are we judging others?

This text is critical and serious – and designed to create a community that we desperately need the church to be; a community of the experience of God’s presence; a community of shalom – wholeness – healing – peace.

Sermon on Lectionary for 25th Ordinary, B, Mark 9:30-37, Sept. 20, 2009

Mark 9:30-37

Being the child, wrapped up

The main highway through Galilee from Egypt to Mesopotamia
The main highway through Galilee from Egypt to Mesopotamia

Today’s text is all about places; lots of places are mentioned – the open road, the town of Capernaum, the house, the place in the middle of the gathering of disciples, and finally the place right in the arms of the Lord Jesus himself.

The text starts with a question that has to do with a conversation in one of those places; Jesus asks his followers what they were talking about as they were walking on that road in Galilee.  It was no backroad that led to the town of Capernaum – in fact, for the ancient world, it was the equivalent of a major highway.  It was the road everyone took: every businessman, every trader, every government person and every soldier going anywhere from Egypt to Mesopotamia.

A good family on Main Street

Peter lived in Capernaum which, as I learned on my recent trip to Israel, sits on that main highway,  and was right on the shores of the fresh water lake that we call the Sea of Galilee – so Peter lived in a prominent town on main street.  In fact Peter’s house sat between the synagogue in the center of town and the nearby shore where he worked as a small businessman – a fisherman.  Peter was not a poor person – his family had enough means to have a house in town and a boat, which was a substantial purchase.  There are no trees that grow in that region whose wood is suitable for making boats – olive trees are of no use at all, and anyway, before modern irrigation, there were precious few trees of any kind.  Lumber had to be purchased from Lebanon and imported – so the cost was  high.  Fishing boats were expensive.

Peter's House: between the Synagogue and the shoreline in Capernaum center
Peter's House: between the Synagogue and the shoreline in Capernaum center

Jesus himself took that main road as he left his little hamlet of Nazareth and walked the 20 miles to Capernaum where he met Peter. Peter knew that before he came to make Capernaum his headquarters Jesus started out in the tiny no-account town of only 400 people called Nazareth.  It was so small and insignificant that it is not even mentioned in the Old Testament – none of the prophets predicted that anyone important would come from Nazareth.  There was little work there for people in the building trades like Jesus’ father Joseph.  They probably hiked the four miles down into the valley, up over the hill, into the next valley and finally up to a new city under construction in those days called Sepphoris.

For Jewish builders to go work on Sepphoris, though it provided badly needed employment for builders, must have brought up mixed feelings.  The reason it was being built was that it had been intentionally razed to the ground about the time Jesus was born.  A Jewish man from Sepphoris named Judas or, in Hebrew, Judah led a revolt against Rome which Rome quickly, violently and completely crushed.  Now it was under construction as a Roman city complete with amphitheater, Roman baths, and all things pagan.

Sepphoris theater for the best in Greek and Roman drama
Sepphoris theater for the best in Greek and Roman drama

Somehow, Peter was willing to leave his thriving business to follow this man from Nazareth, when Jesus called him.  What Peter thought this would mean for him is a mystery that the gospels never reveal – but the question is intriguing.  Who did he think this man from Nazareth was and what was that going to mean for him in the future?

Did Peter imagine that Jesus, the builder turned preacher and healer from Nazareth who spent maybe 20 years of his life working on the reconstruction a pagan Roman city on the site of a massacre of Jewish patriots might possibly have in mind a solution?  How would that solution involve Peter?  Maybe it was worth leaving the family business on main street to find out.  Of course Peter would have expected that Jesus would have to be cryptic with his language in the mean time, or risk raising Rome’s suspicions and ending up a victim like Judah before him.

So, walking down super-highway number one to the city where his family was prominent and established, is it any wonder that Peter and the others were discussing the expected roles they might have when the new administration finally came to power after the revolution.  Maybe a man with business experience who lived on the main highway like Peter would be minister of foreign trade, or perhaps he would be responsible for collecting the toll-tax that every traveler had to pay.  Anyway, surely his position would be enough to compensate him for what he gave up to join the preacher.

So it was undoubtably confusing to hear Jesus talk about his impending death – even if he did introduce the caveat that he expected not to stay dead.  Clearly this was confusing for the disciples, but no one wanted to ask for clarification.

We would never do that – right?

I think the story should pause here, because it is way too easy to continue it like this: poor, pathetic, misunderstanding and frankly selfish disciples are only with Jesus for the benefit they think will come to them when he wins the war they mistakenly believe he is going to start.  We would never make that mistake.

I’m not so sure.  I think there are lots of reasons to take up Jesus’ banner and ride on main street with it flying overhead for the sake of the advantage it brings.  Lots of people speak for Jesus these days; he seems to get connected to all kinds of causes and agendas out on the road.

But our question must always be, what cause and what agenda is authentically Jesus’ own?  How do we know?

Going indoors

Jesus brings us in off the busy highway and leads us in to the house – probably Peter’s house.  This is not a setting of power and commerce, it is the setting of family where relationships are not defined by political force nor by economics, but by family blood and marriage.  In this setting it is already embarrassing to be asked about what we were talking about out on the road to power.  He asked – they were silent as fish in a net.

So, taking the position of a teacher, sitting down, Jesus said,

35 “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”

Follow the movement from outside open space to increasingly close, inside space.  From the road, to the house, to the center of the gathered community, the circle gets closer and more intimate:

36 Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them,  37 “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

Welcome” sounds like what the hostess at the restaurant says; but the word is much stronger; more like “takes in and receives” as in the angels’ speech to Joseph: don’t be afraid to take in and receive Mary as your wife” (using the synonym).

Where are we?

all the way in
all the way in

The question we face is this: in which place are we in this story?  Are we out on the road to power and influence where the concern is with positions of authority?  Or are we in the house – part of a family, brothers, sisters, parents and children who are connected with each other at level that is far deeper and lasting than political agendas or common causes?

Let’s say we are in the house – or at least we can say that we want to be in the  house. We want to understand our place in the world as part of God’s family, at home and at peace with him and with our brothers and sisters.  This is a good first step, but if we are still in the place of adults in that group, we are not inside far enough.  There is more.  Importantly more – because an adult’s world comes and goes from the house back out to that highway.

So Jesus takes a member of the house whose life has nothing to do with that highway,  nothing to do with relationships based on power interests or economics – a child.  He brings that child to the center of that group of adults and makes the child the model of what his agenda is about.  It is about weakness, not strength; about vulnerability, not force; about needing the people in that house, not about being independent of them.

So how will a person leave behind the strong inner drive for protection and security that consumes us as we walk on the highway between empires and among the commercial caravans and menacing legion convoys?  How can we possibly assume the role of the unprotected child?

From in-the-house to in-the-arms

Only by moving to the final destination – not just in the house, not just in the center of that group of family, but closer still – all the way into the strong, protective arms of the Lord can we manage the threatening world without resorting to its power and control agendas.

36 Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them,  37 “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me,

Where do you want to be in this story?  We are invited to come all the way from the road into the very arms of Jesus, our Lord, where we are secure, protected, and loved without condition.

King of the Universe – security enough to be children

Jewish people have a whole set of prayers for blessings that they pray which start with a common phrase:

“Baruch atah Adonai eloheynu melech ha-olam,” which means,

“Blessed are you, O Lord our God, king of the universe”

M$DlwøoDh JKRl∞Rm …wny`EhølTa hGÎwh◊y h¶D;tAa JK…wërD;b

It is powerfully true that the God we worship is the king of the universe, or, to say it another way, “He’s got the whole world, in his hands.”  It is important to begin each day saying, “Our Father who art in Heaven, hallowed is your name.”  The universe is not a random place of accidents in which we are left to fend for ourselves.  We are in God’s world, under God’s Kingly power.

But we are much more than merely citizens of a benevolent king.  Though this is a good place to start, it is far too impersonal and distant.  In order to have the strength we need to resist being seduced into the power agendas of the highway, in order to feel secure enough to be willing to be like children without the need for titles and leverage over each other, we must take our place in that house, in the center of that family, and be the child in the loving, protective arms of our Lord himself.  Come all the way in: be the child, wrapped up in those arms.

From those arms, the street’s caravans and entourages do not tempt us; the marching boots do not intimidate us; the toll taxes being collected do not concern us.  From those arms we feel secure enough to call everyone family and sit at table with them.

From those arms we have the security to open the door to the house to let more people in off the streets; we know that the love in those arms is inexhaustible – in fact the more the family grows, the more love fills that house.

Our task is to spread the love – to invite others into those arms – to embrace more and more people with the message that the King of the Universe is a Loving Father: this is the God that Jesus came to open our eyes to so that we could come all the way in – into the arms, and be the children, wrapped up, secure.

What kind of: church are we / pastor am I / future should we aim for?

The "Vision Group" at the "Acts 16:5" seminar
The "Vision Group" at the "Acts 16:5" seminar

We – I and some folks from Gulf Shores First Presbyterian Church – just attended a seminar which brought up some important questions about who we are and where we are going as a congregation.  Of course that means it has something to do with who I am as a pastor and what I am able/willing/ready/open enough to be/do.  (I hope these thoughts get over the / impulse soon; probably it’s distracting as a writing technique.  Sorry.)  It also has to do with the congregation – our demographics, location, history, composition and all that kind of thing.  Here is how the research tells the story: it’s about size.  There are different kinds of congregations of course, but size puts them into categories that are   pretty well definable.  Here is how it goes in membership terms, according to the Small Church Typology Information Packet, (Presbyterian Church, USA) citing:

Arlin J. Rothauge – Sizing Up A Congregation for New Member Ministry New York, NY: Episcopal Church Center, 1983

Family size congregations have up to 50 adults and children at worship. They operate like an extended family, organized around one or two key leaders, who are often not elected to the session. Relationships are more important than anything else in the family size congregation, and the pastor often serves part-time, leading worship and offering pastoral care. Decisions are likely to be made informally by consensus so long as the key leaders of the congregation are involved.

Pastoral size congregations have between 50 and 150 in worship. They are made up of several family and friendship groups, unified around the pastor who plays a key role in the decisions and ministry of the congregation. Decisions are likely to be made based on the pastor’s interests and skills.

Program size churches have 151-350 in worship. They are organized around programs serving the needs of the members for nurture, involvement and mission outreach. Decisions are made by the session with involvement by the pastor and other staff persons. Committees are likely to play a key role in program-size congregations.

Corporate size churches have 350-1,000+ in worship. They are organizationally complex and the pastor in this size church often functions as a CEO. Staffing reflects the complexity of the organization, with a cadre of specialists providing excellent quality programs and services to a number of different constituencies. In order to provide opportunities for greater intimacy, corporate size churches often offer a variety of small group experiences focused on particular needs or stages of life. Decisions are likely to be made by the senior staff with the blessing of the session.

This maps up to (comes from?) reasearch by the Alban Institute, described in Roy Oswald’s article:

Traditional service
Traditional service

How to Minister Effectively in Family, Pastoral, Program, and Corporate Sized Churches

OK, for us this means that we are on the knife-edge between Pastoral size and Program size.  We have about 125 members now.  We used to be bigger (were we a Program Church back then, before I was pastor?  or just an over-sized Pastoral church?   either is possible).

Being on the edge of two types of churches brings up all kinds of questions:

  • Is one “better” than another?  (in what way better?)
  • Is one more “correct” than another (more what a church “should be like” than the other?)
  • Which kind of church do our people want to be in?
  • Which kind of church do I want to be the pastor of – or am able to be the pastor of? (each kind entails different skill sets and ministry models)
  • Which kind of church can survive in our context – time and place?
  • What does “success” mean? – that you are doing it right or that you sold out to please the crowds?

Here are some provisional thoughts about these questions.

Which one is “better”?  Well, if you want  a youth group and Sunday school for all ages and something for young families as well as retired people – which we say we want (and yes, this is what I want for us) then you better be a Program Church because a Pastor size church just can’t handle this.  Also, if you want to have resources available for ministry you need to have a few more people around to share the load.   That’s pretty brutally practial, but that’s also realistic – from my perspective.

Which one is more “correct”?  Well, the New Testament model is that the pastor trains (equips) people (“the saints) to do the work of ministry (service) – not that the Pastor does it all – so it seems to me that the Pastoral church is a little problematic.  cf. Eph. 4

11 And He agave some as apostles, and some as prophets, and some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers,  12 for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of bthe body of Christ;

Which kind of church do I want to be pastor of – or am I able to be pastor for?   This is a little tough – I like being involved in lots of different ministries – but I especially love teaching / training / equipping – which means I tend toward the Program set of things.

Which kind of church do our people want to be in?  This is harder for me to answer – but it seems to me that there is a pretty high expectation that the minister will show up at most things/meetings/bedsides – can/should/must this change?  At what cost?  There are plenty of stories of burn out for pastors who try to be all things to all people when it’s just not possible to.  Even ruined families.  That’s scary.

Which kind of church can survive in our context?  Well, the small ones seem to keep shrinking while the bigger ones seem to grow – what does that say?  This area in Gulf Shores (they tell me) used to be a sleepy little sand-dune, vacation-cabin place on a dirt road.  Those days are now a distant memory.  Maybe the days of a Pastoral church are similarly over and done.  Am I talking myself into a conclusion here?

What does “success” mean?  Just because the crowds come, doesn’t mean you are being faithful to the demands of the gospel.  But failure to thrive is not necessarily a sign of faithfulness either.  The old expression may be valid here: those who are married to this generation will be widowed in the next generation.   On the other hand, ministry is about meeting people where they are – not where they should be – and helping them get from here to there.  If what you are doing is not reaching them – maybe its our fault.

the contemporary service
the contemporary service

One more issue is really important to me: we have two tracks we need to be running on at the same time.  We have a core that is at the heart of this church.  They are retired people who love traditional ways and means.  They have spiritual needs that are legitimate and must be honored and must be ministered to.   Whatever we do or become, we are a church that must meet the needs of retired persons.

We also have a second track: the people who live all around us who are not yet retired, who have families, kids (the high school is just down the street from us!) who have legitimate spiritual needs that are met in a more contemporary style, and we are missing most of them.   To me, this is a problem that needs a solution.

So, this is the “text” I’m in right now.  What do you think?