(A sermon on Mark 9:38-50, preached at All Saints' Episcopal Church 9/27/2009)My mentors have always told me that the simple key of preaching the gospel is to share the good news found in the text.
Sometimes, when you have a text that does not seem to cooperate in bringing much good news, the preacher has a few options. There are, after all, two other readings to choose from. If the preacher feels obligated to preach on the Gospel, one can focus on a snippet of the text. This morning the best candidates are the little bit about saltiness at the end, and the statement “Whoever is not against us is for us.” A legitimate and often used technique of preaching would be to cling onto one of these images for dear life...hoping the good news found in the highlighted text will outweigh the uninspiring or disturbing images found in the rest of the passage.
The other option for the non-fire and brimstone preacher is to attempt to put the entire passage in the original context, and hope that there is good news to be found in the understanding of what the passage as a whole likely means.
I’m going to try this technique this morning, but I’m going to keep the snippets in play to perhaps bail me out with good news at the end.
The overall question of the morning again concerns community. John, one of the core disciples along with Peter and James, brings forth a troubling encounter with someone who is casting out of demons using Jesus’ name...someone who is not a disciple of Jesus...someone who was living by different standards and customs then those who followed Jesus. The very human desire of the disciples was to stop this person, or at least be sure that the rules are followed:
Hey, that’s trademarked material! Don’t you know that there rules associated in invoking Jesus? Do you know who we are? We’re Jesus’ inner core...and we’ve been doing this a lot longer than you. If you’re going to heal people using the Jesus system, you have to live by our rules and work within our framework.
When the disciples report back to Jesus, they want to hear from him that, by virtue of their closeness to him and the things they have left behind to become disciples, that they have some control over the transformation that is happening in the world. They want to hear from Jesus that everything that they have done to follow Jesus is the way things should be done...that their path is the right path. Part of the way that belief is affirmed is declaring different ways to be wrong, or at least inferior. At the very least, the disciples want to hear from Jesus that because of all the work that they have done, that they have special privilege to use his name for good than others...a privilege others should not have until they do everything they’ve done. Let others pay the dues we have, and THEN they can start using your name to heal others.
Jesus rejects this type of thinking. It is not a rebuke to the path of the disciples, but it is a message that not everyone needs to take the same path as them. Jesus says that those that do deeds of power with his name are clearly for you, not against you, and that the power of transformation is just as present with them as with the disciples.
The next paragraph is directed to the community that follows Jesus. Just because you have followed my path and advanced in knowledge and power does not give you special rights and privileges over others. The statements that follow seem harsh and gruesome...millstone around the neck and thrown into the sea...cutting off hands and feet and tearing out eyes. Icky stuff. Jesus is really graphic here, but if you look closely, we can see that he’s not really talking about self-mutilation.
The subject matter here is “putting a stumbling block in front of little ones.” This often gets used as a message to protect children...but that’s only part of the meaning. In the prior passage, little ones, a child, were compared to the “servant of all,” meaning the one without power and the one who is vulnerable. So in terms of a community, the “little ones” would include anyone with less power than others in the community. So, for a community like ours, this would not only include children, but a number of other groups of people. Newcomers would fall into this category...for they rely on the experience of those who have been here longer to find their way. Shut-ins depend on those with more mobility to keep them connected to the community. In addition to groups, there are the individual relationships where some have more power...either real or perceived.
The most obvious starts right here with me, the priest. The potential is there in the midst of any conversation about the church for me to pause, point to my clergy collar, and effectively end the conversation. That potential of using power is this way is true for wardens and vestry members, for heads of ministries, as well as senior members of the church, and anyone who does a lot of work in the community.
The passage this morning is a warning for those with power in the church community. Jesus earlier used the metaphor of the body to explain how we all function as one while doing different things for the whole: some are the feet, the hands, the eyes, and ears of the church community. This time, Jesus uses the same metaphor to discuss power. If a foot causes the stumble, it’s better to cut it off. That’s a direct message to those in community: if you use your power or your ministry to push people around or to kick people down, then it doesn’t matter how effective you are at the task...it’s better to cut you off then to say “well, at least the job is getting done.”
So: is there good news to be found here? Verse 49 says, “Everyone is salted with fire.” Salt, in Jesus’ time, was very precious...and pure salt a true rarity. Jesus has emphatically called his disciples to be salt with fire: to use their gifts, along with their experience, to make a difference in the world. We are all called in different ways to give of ourselves to each other. When we do so, we gain power...it’s a fact...name of Jesus is powerful...with it we can out the demons of this world: poverty, shame, famine, violence, and even fear.
Managing our power, however, is no easy task, and it is of primary concern to Jesus. Power is always to be approached as the servant of others...used to build up each other, and never to destroy. The world has always struggled with this tension...we see big examples of it in the way nations act towards each other, but just as often it gets played out in our individual lives. The new school year often brings one teacher who makes you feel like you don’t know anything. The new job you take always has at least one person who makes it clear that they have the expertise, not you. The new group of friends often has someone ready to test your worthiness to belong. Even the random gathering you attend often has someone there who feels that his or her place is higher than yours. The church community is called to model power in a different way: the one with the most authority is to be the servant...the one with the most money receives the least reward...the one with the greatest claim of privilege from time and experience is to be last...and our worthiness to God is never a matter of comparison between each other
All this from the One who gave away his power for the sake of all.
This morning’s Gospel news is powerful, thought-provoking, and challenging…and it just might even be good news as well.