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.

Self-evaluation

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.

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