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    Sep 30, 2018

    19th Sunday after Pentecost

    Passage: Mark 9:38-50

    Preacher: The Rev. Nathan M. Finnin

    Series: Year B: 2017-2018

    Category: Special Services

    Detail:

    Be honest: At the end of the gospel reading today,

    with all that stuff about cutting off your hands and feet,

    plucking out your eyes and hell-fire—

    did you really think “Praise to you Lord Christ”?

    If you’re like me, you probably thought

    “thanks but no thanks”;

    “I’m willing to remain open-minded, but I’m not sold on it”

    or, and this seems to be the disciples’ most typical response to the words of Jesus—

    “huh?”

     

    In fact, that seems to be a common response of the disciples in the 9th chapter of Mark.

    I remember reading a commentary a long time ago,

    either in seminary or shortly after I was ordained,

    where the author talked a lot about this.

    They referred to this chapter as “clueless in Capernaum.”

     

    And their point was that the disciples do not come off looking great.

    We start with the transfiguration,

    this extraordinary religious vision of Jesus with Moses and Elijah,

    which Peter ruins by rambling about putting up little huts.

     

     

    Then we get the story of the disciples arguing on the road.

    And when Jesus asks them what they’re fighting about

    they don’t want to tell him it was about who was the greatest.

     

     

    And then John pipes up with his line that opens today’s gospel:

    “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name,

    and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.”

    I suspect the disciples all nodded at John’s words—

    after all they were the official Jesus-followers

    and if they had trouble casting out a demon,

    no off-brand disciple should be doing it—

    and they certainly shouldn’t be doing it successfully.

     

    I can imagine the rest of the disciples standing behind him, nodding in approval,

    probably with their arms crossed.

    They’re trying hard to be supportive of John.

     

    But while this is all happening.

    While John is airing his grievances,

    while the disciples are likely comprising a chorus of “yeah, what he said,”

    Jesus stuns them.

    “Don’t stop him” he says.

    “for no one who does a deed of power in my name

    will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me.

    Whoever is not against us is for us.” 

     

    These  words of Jesus are important,

    because they are central to Jesus’ ministry.

    They strike at the heart of the disciples’ mistakes and misunderstandings,

    and they are crucial to our understanding and misunderstandings of the Christian faith.

     

     

    The disciples’ mistakes—

    on the mountain,

    on the road arguing about greatness,

    and then in John’s line this morning—

    all of these indicate a fundamental misunderstanding of the message of Jesus.

    Like many of us, most of the time..

    like most of Western society, most of the time...

    these guys are operating in scarcity mode.

    And that’s where we all go wrong.

     

    When you think about it,

    scarcity mode is ridiculous in the Christian life.

    The problem, though, is that we see the ridiculous absurdity more easily in the disciples,

    than we do in ourselves...

     

    When we read these stories of the disciples, we think “well that’s just silly.”

     

    But when we evaluate our own actions, conscious or not,

    it appears we seem to believe that there is just enough for a few of us....

    so whatever you do, be careful..

     

    Now the problem with that mode of thinking and living

    is that it is the opposite of what the Christian faith is about.

    Jesus’ way is a way of abundance:

    There’s plenty of glory,

    There is plenty of healing even for those who don’t believe enough;

    There is plenty of closeness to Jesus;

    There is plenty of spirit to go around,

    even if there are those who don’t belong to our exact group.

     

    And when John starts living from this place of scarcity...

    when, in our reading this morning, he says

    “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us,”

     

    Jesus responds  “Don’t stop him.”

    Jesus essentially says, “give others the benefit of the doubt,

    and exercise a little graciousness.”

    So far, so good. I can live with that.

     

    But then it takes a dark turn.

    A turn I don’t particularly like.

     

    Jesus shifts, from

    “whoever gives you a cup of water will by no means lose the reward…”

    give everyone the benefit of the doubt….

    immediately to

    “If any of you put a stumbling block…”

    and then on to millstones and cutting off hands and feet and plucking out eyes.

     

    So although we are to assume the best in others,

    although we are to be gracious in assuming that God is working in and through them,

    we are to take our own actions with utmost responsibility,

    so that we don’t cause others (or ourselves) to stumble.

     

    And then the whole rest of this passage is about stumbling,

    and the ruthlessness with which we should approach whatever causes people,

    others or ourselves, to stumble.

     

    First of all, Jesus addresses causing others to stumble.

    How might we cause others to stumble?

    Jesus doesn’t elaborate here,

    but it seems to me it’s about how we respond to those who are weaker than we are,

    the care with which we treat them.

    It seems to me it’s about how we respond to those who have traditionally not had a voice.

    It’s not just about not creating obstacles, it’s about removing them.

     

     

    Cause anyone to stumble and it’s the millstone for you, Jesus says.

    And here’s the truth about millstones.

    They’re heavy.

    They will weigh you down.

    And it doesn’t matter if you know you’re wearing one or not.

    The millstone’ ability to stunt your spiritual growth is not dependent upon you recognizing it.

     

    Conversely, our ability to grow spiritually IS dependent on us recognizing those things which weigh us down.

     

    This is a lesson I’ve learned time and time again in the 12-step recovery world.

    We don’t call them millstones.

    We call them defects of character.

    But it’s the same thing.

    It is the stuff that gets in the way of us being of service to God and one another.

    It is the stuff that we carry around, often for years,

    without even knowing it’s dragging us down.

     

    The problem with this is that those same things that drag us down,

    those things that separate us from God and one another,

    often work quite well for us in other situations.

     

    Sure, my hand may cause me to stumble,

    but it’s a whole lot easier to tie my shoes if I have both.

     

    Sure, my foot may cause me to stumble,

    but I feel more balanced when I have both.

     

    Sure, my eye may cause me to stumble,

    but I like having depth perception.

     

    You see, there is comfort in having a sense of stability,

    even if that sense of stability is false.

     

    There is comfort in having a sense of stability,

    even if that sense of stability will ultimately come back to bite me.

     

    There is comfort in having a sense of stability,

    even if that sense of stability takes away the stability of others.

     

    The events of this past week,

    with necessary conversations about how toxic masculinity continues to wreak havoc on our culture,

    with necessary conversations about how patriarchal comfort marginalizes women,

    have reminded me not only of the defective characteristics of our society,

    but also of the ways I continue to benefit from those defects.

    It has reminded me of the obstacles that still exist for many in our society.

    And even though I didn’t create the obstacles,

    I could certainly do more than I have to remove them.

     

    Now, I’m not proud of that.

    But I also know that I’m not unique.

    You don’t have to struggle with the disease of addiction to have character defects.

    But our Gospel reading this morning is clear.

    The way of Jesus requires not only an awareness of our character defects,

    but also the willingness to do something about them.

    Because awareness itself isn’t enough to cause change.

     

    As Richard Rohr observes,

    “you don’t become loving by saying to yourself, “Be loving!” Instead, you recognize your “shortcomings,” the moments when you were totally unloving, and you weep over them. That doesn’t feel like power at all, does it? No one wants to go there. But it is actually a negative capability that creates space, desire, and momentum, like a stretched rubber band.

    You might say to yourself, “I just did it again! I treated that person as if they were inferior to me. Where does that come from inside of me? What is the part of me that needs to do that—that needs to control other people and think of myself as superior?” Until you catch yourself being unloving, I don’t think you will change.

     

    Unfortunately, most of us have been trained to strive for perfection by willpower and determination...

    Yet all spiritual traditions at their more mature levels

    teach that the soul must be receptive before God and simply accept love,

    without heroic effort.

    It is a path of descent more than ascent,

    unlearning more than learning,

    letting go more than any performance principle.

    It takes a long time to believe this.

    If we try to fix ourselves,

    we’ll do it with the same energy that caused the problem in the first place—

    which only strengthens our ego style.

    Instead, the Twelve Steps ask God to do the work that only God can do.

    To reverse an old aphorism: We must pray as if it all depends on us, and work as if it all depends on God (yes, you read that correctly)!

    God is humble and never comes if not first invited,

    but God will find some clever way to get invited”[1]

     

    So my question this morning is this: what messes you up in your religious life?

    What keeps you from really seeking God?

    What keeps you from recognizing God continuously seeking you out?

    Maybe it’s materialism;

    maybe it’s power or control,

    maybe it’s benefiting from systems that are designed to benefit you,

    maybe it’s addiction to drugs, or alcohol, or sex, or food, or something else.

     

    Regardless, the way of Jesus is one that invites us to be free from those things.

    We are invited to get rid of them, no matter what it takes...

     

    Jesus asks a lot of us here.

    He asks us to believe that there is enough…

    Enough stuff,

    enough love,

    enough forgiveness,

    enough grace.

     

    Jesus asks a lot of us here.

    He asks us to be easy on others,

    to give them the benefit of the doubt, assume that God is working in them.

    Jesus asks a lot of us here.

    He asks us to be honest with ourselves about the things that aren’t working in our lives.

    About the things that we think provide stability, but actually hold us down.

     

    Jesus asks a lot of us here.

    He asks us to trust his ability to rid us of those things that get in the way.

    He asks us to let go of our false sense of security,

    and make space for hard work as we push toward spiritual growth.

     

    It’s tough work, being people of the gospel of God.

    But it’s good work.

    It’s life giving work.

    And ultimately, it is the work that sets us free to live in the abundance that is the Kingdom of God.

     

    1. https://cac.org/steps-six-seven-2016-06-05/

     

     

     

     

     

    [1] https://cac.org/steps-six-seven-2016-06-05/