The following sermon was preached on Sunday September 27, 2015 at Trinity Episcopal Church, Hartford CT (my seminarian internship site for the year). The Gospel text for the sermon is Mark 9:38-50, and can be found here. You can also listen to the sermon as preached at the 10am liturgy over on SoundCloud.
When I sat down to begin preparing this sermon, I cracked open my Bible and read the gospel appointed for today. When I finished reading the text I sat back, took a deep breath, and thought, “What have I gotten myself into?” Last week the rector got “whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me,” and this week I get, “if your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off.” What sort of new seminarian hazing is this!? But the more I think about it, the more thankful I am to be preaching on such a difficult passage. This text, just like life, is hard, difficult, and messy. It seems to me that it offers and reveals a few very important lessons for those of us attempting to walk this hard, difficult, and messy road we call the Christian journey – that we call the Jesus movement.
Held together with last week’s Gospel these two passages offer to us what is effectively Mark’s discipleship catechism – Mark’s teachings on what it means to be a disciple of Jesus. The part we hear today, in the concluding verses of chapter nine, is a sort of mash up on discipleship. It consists of a series of originally independent sayings that are linked together with various catchwords, phrases, and roughly speaking, are linking together by subject matter. For those of you interested in theories of biblical interpretation this is what scholars refer to as redaction criticism. All this is to say that what we have before us are two clusters of teachings concluded with a trio of salty sayings.
“John said to Jesus, ‘Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.’ But Jesus said, ‘Do not stop him for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me.” If you look between the lines you can almost see Jesus shaking his head and thinking, “these guys really don’t get it.” What the disciples are mad about isn’t that someone is casting out demons in the name of Jesus – they are upset because this person isn’t one of them. They are upset because, as they see it, this person doesn’t have the right qualifications. He hangs out with the wrong group of people; he doesn’t think the right way; he went to that other seminary. But, Jesus is clear. Those things that divide the 12 and this other man – the things that divide us and them – do not matter. What matters is that the power of Jesus’ name is spreading, casting out demons, rooting out sin and evil, and making people whole again. “Whoever is not against us is for us.” Whoever proclaims the name of Jesus in order to heal this broken and hurting world is for us.
The next cluster, the next teaching, directs our attention from worrying about what others are doing to worrying and paying attention to what we are doing. “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. If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and go to hell, to the unquenchable fire.”
The language Jesus uses here is figurative and hyperbolic, intense and harsh. Now let’s be clear, the “cut it off” command is not to be taken literally, but it is to be taken seriously. These words are an incredibly vivid way of saying that entering into the Kingdom of God is worth any sacrifice necessary to attain it.
In saying, “if any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones,” Jesus is drawing attention to the way our actions impact others. This alludes to how, at times, our actions and social structures can hold others captive resulting in harmful consequences; be it marginalization, dehumanization, or worse. When Jesus speaks of “these little one,” he is not just talking about children. He is talking about anyone, and everyone, who is vulnerable in society. He is talking about women, children, the orphaned, the widowed, those who live on the margin, even those who are new believers. He is talking about people of color, people who are differently abled, members of the LGBT community. He is talking about people who are under educated, under housed, and under employed. We hear these words of Jesus echoed elsewhere in Scripture when Paul says, it is better not to do something than to do it and cause your brother or sister to fall.
Jesus’ moral barometer is always, the welfare of the vulnerable – the welfare of the “least” of these. This barometer is incredibly clear in the part of Mark’s Gospel we currently find ourselves in. We are not to do anything that will cause someone else to sin, or prevent them from growing closer in the knowledge and love of God.
Next Jesus turns to our actions, “if your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off.” The amputation of a limb or the excision of a part of the body by surgical means is sometimes the only way to preserve the life of the whole body. In the spiritual life, the same kind of thing can happen.
Ched Myers, author and theologian, uses the image of addiction in reflecting on this passage:
A recovering addict knows in her flesh the searing truth that kicking a habit is very much like cutting off a part of oneself, and such “amputation” is life-saving surgery on the cancer of our illusions and appetites. . . Recovery is a life-or-death discipline, and Jesus’ metaphor captures that urgency.
I wonder, if Jesus were giving this teaching today what might he say?
If your drive to get ahead causes you to ignore those who hunger, cut it out. If your need for the newest, shiniest, and fastest stuff causes you to forget those who go without, cut it out. If your focus on your favorite sports team causes you to neglect your own prayer life, cut it out.
Jesus is calling on all of us to do the hard work of stripping away every disillusioned idea we have about what matters in life that does not conform to the Gospel of Jesus. For it is better to be deformed than to conform to what oppresses the most vulnerable members of our community and the society at large.
Finally, the Gospel passage ends with three sayings about salt. The phrase, “Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it?” hints at the nature of salt as flavor and as a preservative. In cooking salt adds flavors to food, more importantly it enhances the natural flavors already present in the dish. When salt has lost its saltiness it looses the ability to spice things up and highlight the natural deliciousness of what we eat. Elsewhere in Scripture we are called to be the salt of the earth. So disciples whose lives are not characterized by lowly service, nor by openness to Christians who are different, nor by care for those who are young in the faith, nor by rigorous self-discipline are like flavorless salt. They have lost the sharpness, which sets them apart from their environment and which constitutes their usefulness.
In addition to a flavor enhancer, salt is also the earliest of all preservatives. The Greeks used to say that salt acted like a soul in a dead body. Dead meat left to itself went bad, but, pickled in salt, it retained its freshness. The salt seemed to put a kind of life into it. Salt defended against corruption.
The world in which the disciples lived was so corrupt that Rome itself was compared to a filthy sewer. Purity was gone and chastity was unknown. It is into this world that the disciples practiced their ministry. Here Jesus is saying to the disciples, “The world needs the flavor and the purity that only my followers can bring. And if they themselves have lost the thrill and the purity of Christian life, where will the world get what it needs?”
Just as Jesus calls on us to strip away everything that gets in our way of inheriting the Kingdom of God, so too is he calling us to remember the purity and faithfulness of our call as Christians.
This morning we hear the urgent reminder to live this Christian journey faithfully, making every sacrifice necessary, because it is not only our lives that are at stake, the lives of the whole world are at hand. This is a daunting and overwhelming challenge, but it is not impossible.
Week by week we gather together in this space, like Christians around the world have been gathering for centuries. We listen to the word of God revealed to us in Holy Scripture. We share the ministry of prayer for our own needs and the needs of others. Most importantly we participate in the most holy meal at this altar. We receive the body and blood of Jesus, and invite the very incarnate nature of God into the depths of our beings. We are being fed, pardoned, strengthened, and healed so that we might go out and be the salt of the earth. This sacrament of bread and wine allows us to focus on what truly matters and sacrifice the rest – to discard all the extra stuff we’ve picked up along the way. This meal gives us the nourishment to be salt.
In a few moments as we gathered at this rail let us pray together that Christ strengthens us to cut off all that binds us to sin and gives us the strength, grace, and courage to stand that we may go forth from this place and change the world.