September 28, 2015 by jmar198013
The transcript of my sermon at Central Church of Christ in Stockton, CA for September 27, 2015.
Act 1: No one has a monopoly on compassion
I suppose John thought Jesus would be proud of him when he ran up and announced: Teacher, we saw someone throwing demons out in your name, and we tried to stop him because he wasn’t following us.
I also strongly suspect that Jesus let out a deep, mournful sigh; slapped his forehead; and performed an exaggerated facepalm before saying: Don’t stop him. No one who does powerful acts in my name can quickly turn around and curse me. Whoever isn’t against us is for us.
I bet John’s face turned three shades of red when Jesus said that.
You know, maybe Jesus spoke too soon on that one. Skip forward a few chapters to the night Jesus was arrested. Someone who had done powerful acts in Jesus’ name did turn around and curse him. But it wasn’t some random undocumented exorcist. It was someone deep inside Jesus’ close community. It was his best friend Peter. But that’s another sermon. Just a little word of warning for us, church.
Something else had happened just a little while before John had fussed at the strange exorcist. And I’m sure it made Jesus’ words bite into John and the other disciples like a fiery serpent. It happened just a few verses back from our Gospel lesson today. In Mark 9.14ff, Jesus meets a guy whose son is being attacked by an evil spirit bent on killing him. So I spoke to your disciples to see if they could throw it out, the man explains, but they couldn’t. So Jesus chases away the evil spirit the disciples couldn’t.
I’m pretty sure that this incident had the disciples feeling a bit defensive. And when they saw some random dude doing what they had failed to do—casting out demons in Jesus’ name—it probably burned them up.
And I bet Jesus knew that’s really what was bothering John and the others. They were so insecure about their own status that when they saw a new guy healing people in Jesus’ name, they flipped. They were so focused on their their own reputation that they weren’t able to rejoice over people being healed. They were too busy fuming over the person doing the healing.
Jesus was basically telling them: Look, if people are being healed, that’s awesome. And if I inspired someone to reach out and offer healing to others, that’s even cooler!
You know what I think Jesus could see in this situation? His disciples were so focused on their own performance that they were blind to other work that God was doing in the world around them. They were so jealous for success on Jesus’ account that they were turning into jerks.
When Jesus tells the disciples, Whoever isn’t against us is for us, he’s saying: You don’t have a monopoly on compassion.
And to underscore his point that they don’t have a monopoly on compassion, he adds: I assure you that whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you belong to Christ will certainly be rewarded.
It’s like Jesus is saying: What if, instead of casting demons out of others in my name, he was giving water to you? Would you be so quick to nit-pick?
Jesus doesn’t want a church that goes around telling everyone else they’re wrong. Jesus doesn’t want a church that belittles the good work other people are doing in the world. Jesus doesn’t want disciples who are threatened by change. Jesus doesn’t want a church full of people who are always alarmed and defensive. Jesus doesn’t need us to get ourselves on the news and have politicians fawning over us. Jesus doesn’t need a success-driven church. And he certainly doesn’t want us putting other people down to prop up our egos.
Jesus doesn’t want a church that thinks we have the market cornered on doing the right thing.
Jesus wants disciples and a church who see the work God is already doing in the world. Even if it doesn’t have Jesus’ logo stamped all over it. And if hungry people are fed, or sick people are cared for, or hopeless people are given hope, or slaves are being set free, and it’s being done in Jesus’ name—that’s even better. Even if the people involved in that good work aren’t our brand of Jesus people, there’s a reason to celebrate.
You know, Mr. Rogers recalled how his mother used to say, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” That’s what Jesus was trying to get across to John and the other disciples when he told them, Whoever isn’t against us is for us. I assure you that whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you belong to Christ will certainly be rewarded. Jesus was saying, Look for the helpers. Welcome the helpers. Celebrate the helpers. Embrace the helpers. Join the helpers. Wherever the helpers came from. However they got there.
Act 2: Confronting the threats within
See, when John and the other disciples saw the strange guy throwing out demons in Jesus’ name, they didn’t see a helper. They saw a threat.
Jesus warns them that the worst threats don’t come from outside. They come from within. The threat we need to be most concerned about lives in our own church communities. The most dangerous stuff lurks in our own hearts and actions.
I suspect that’s what Jesus was getting at when he said: Whoever isn’t against us is for us. Recognize your allies. They’re helpers. They’re nurturers. They’re the ones who will give you a cup of water when you’re thirsty. They may not be who you expect them to be. And they may show up in surprising places. As for whoever causes these little ones who believe in me to trip and fall into sin, it would be better for them to have a huge stone hung around their necks and to be thrown into the lake. Recognize threats, too. They’re not on the outside. They’re within you. Among you.
It’s like that famous bit from the old Pogo comic strip: “We have seen the enemy, and he is us!”
The most dangerous threat faced by the church comes from within. Jesus names this threat whoever causes these little ones who believe in me to trip and fall into sin. The Greek word translated here as trip and fall into sin is also the root for our English word scandal. And Mark uses it throughout his Gospel. You see this term in Mark 6.3, when Jesus preaches for the first time in his home town, his neighbors don’t believe him. They reject Jesus and his teaching. And Mark says they were repulsed by him and fell into sin. We see this word on the night Jesus is arrested. Jesus tells his disciples they will all desert him that night. Peter brags, Even if everyone else stumbles, I won’t (Mark 14.29). When Peter talks about stumbling, it’s that same word.
Of course, Peter was wrong. He did stumble. He did desert Jesus.
So this word Mark uses—this scandalous word, variously translated as trip, stumble, fall away, fall into sin—it’s about rejecting the message of the kingdom. It’s about abandoning the way of Jesus. It’s about getting so beat down or tired or lonely or afraid that you just can’t go on anymore.
And did you notice how Jesus described the people in danger of tripping and falling? He called them these little ones who believe in me.
Who do you suppose these little ones are?
Well, just a few verses earlier, the disciples had been arguing over which one of them was the greatest. And Jesus had brought a little child into the circle and said: Whoever wants to be first must be least of all and the servant of all. Whoever welcomes one of these children in my name welcomes me.
So was Jesus talking about children? Making children stumble off the way? Doing things to make them lose their faith? Possibly. And obviously, we have tragic examples of this in our time. Cynical adults in the church who put down childlike faith. Sunday school teachers who berate kids for asking difficult questions. Christian parents who boot their gay kids out of the house. And perhaps worst of all, trusted ministers who sexually abuse kids. And church members who refuse to trust the children who are brave enough to speak out. Who sweep it under the rug. Maybe even tell the victims that they were asking for it.
Or perhaps when Jesus talks about the little ones who believe in him, he means new or developing disciples. People who are still trying to get untangled from all kinds of sins and hang-ups: addictions, abusive relationships, odd doctrinal ideas, baggage from their childhood. Whatever. People who have hard-living hangovers. Some folks who have been in church a hot minute are impatient and insensitive with these Extra-Grace-Required sisters and brothers. And that cuts them off from healing and growing and thriving. It can even chase them back into the world.
Then again, maybe Jesus had in mind the hungry, thirsty, sick, and imprisoned people he called the least of these brothers and sisters of mine (Matt. 25.40). Maybe he was talking about disciples who ignore them, or who say if they’re poor or in prison, they deserve to be there because of poor life choices. Having that door slammed in your face might surely cause you to trip and fall. Why would you want to follow Jesus if following Jesus makes you act like that?
I’m actually pretty sure that Jesus meant all of the above.
I think the catalyst for Jesus saying that is John trying to stifle the undocumented exorcist. Jesus really doesn’t dig that. When Jesus hears about this bootleg exorcist, his position is, That’s great. My message about the kingdom of God is getting out. People are being healed. People are being liberated. People are getting their lives back. But John and the other disciples want to slam the door in the guy’s face. Notice what John says: we tried to stop him because he wasn’t following us. Not because he wasn’t following Jesus. But because he wasn’t following the Jesus-clique. Because he wasn’t part of the in-crowd. Because he didn’t do things their way.
So I think Jesus had John and the other disciples in mind when he said: whoever causes these little ones who believe in me to trip and fall into sin, it would be better for them to have a huge stone hung around their necks and to be thrown into the lake. He wanted them to understand that it’s not cool to push anybody away just because they aren’t part of your tribe or because they don’t think or live like you do.
And I’m pretty sure he means the same for the church today, too.
If we pooh-pooh young people who expose our hypocrisy. If we’re not sensitive to the beaten down people we convert—the ones who have miraculously come to believe that Jesus loves them even if the rest of the world has written them off. If we brush off the cries for justice from our poor or black or brown or red brothers and sisters and say: Get over it. The Gospel is about saving souls, not that stuff. If we throw away these strange gifts God gives us to help in our repentance—because that’s really what these little ones and least of these are here for—then Jesus says to us: it would be better for you to have a huge stone hung around your necks and to be thrown into the lake.
And just to make sure that he is understood that the real threat comes from within the disciple community, the church, Jesus adds: If your hand causes you to fall into sin, chop it off. It’s better for you to enter into life crippled than to go away with two hands into the fire of hell, which can’t be put out. If your foot causes you to fall into sin, chop it off. It’s better for you to enter life lame than to be thrown into hell with two feet. If your eye causes you to fall into sin, tear it out. It’s better for you to enter God’s kingdom with one eye than to be thrown into hell with two.
Really Jesus? One-handed, gimped-up, half-blind people can’t be cantankerous? Did Jesus really have such a low view of the ability of physically disabled people to cause a ruckus?
I think we should take this teaching corporately—as a church. In Romans 12, 1 Corinthians 12, and Ephesians 4, Paul uses this extended metaphor for the church as the body of Christ. So each member of the church is like a part of the body. What Jesus could be saying in this passage in Mark is that there are people who should be the eyes for the church—they should be looking for the helpers, looking for people who need help. But they only see threats and people to avoid and people to shun. There are people who should be feet for the church—bravely going to people and places that need to hear God’s good news of healing and reconciliation. But they stay firmly planted and won’t budge. There are people who should be the hands of the church—reaching out to help and to hold up people who are already helping. But those hands are stingy and tight-fisted. Jesus may be saying that people who act like that are so toxic in the church that they may need to be amputated. Otherwise, the whole church is infected.
Jesus wants us to know that the greatest threat to the church isn’t other churches who don’t do things the way we do. The greatest threat to the church isn’t an increasingly secular culture. It isn’t ISIS. It isn’t gay marriage. It isn’t activist judges. It isn’t the wrong guy getting into the White House.
It’s you. It’s me. It’s us. It’s my hands pushing people away. It’s your feet kicking people while they’re down. It’s our eyes who don’t look for Jesus among the hungry and thirsty and homeless and prisoners.
And the only thing to do is chop off our stingy hands so God can give us open hands. To cut off our stubborn feet so that God can give us feet willing to go where he is leading. To pluck out our hateful eyes so God gan give us merciful eyes.
Act 3: Pass the salt, keep the peace
Our Gospel lesson today ends with Jesus telling his disciples: Everyone will be salted with fire. Salt is good; but if salt loses its saltiness, how will it become salty again? Maintain salt among yourselves and keep peace with each other. This is the alternative to cutting people off. To being cut off because you push others off the way. To tripping and falling into sin. To having a huge stone hung around your neck and being thrown into the lake. To being thrown into hell, where worms don’t die and the fire never goes out.
Jesus says if we want to avoid those things, we must maintain salt among ourselves and keep peace with each other.
Of course, that means we have to figure out how sharing salt makes us peaceful. You know, Jesus has this annoying habit. If you have a problem, he doesn’t offer a solution in three easy steps. His solutions tend to be ambiguous proverbs that might make more sense if you were a first-century Palestinian Jew. It’s downright frustrating! We can see the problem here clearly. The disciples are being jerks and chasing people away from Jesus. And Jesus says, Alright, guys. Y’all need to stop that. Share the salt!
I bet the disciples were like, Yeah! That’s it! We need to share the salt! Thanks, Jesus! We get it now.
I don’t know about you, but I sometimes I wish Jesus spoke concise, 21st century American English!
How doe we maintain salt among ourselves so that we can keep peace with each other?
A lot of interpreters see a reference to sacrifice here. Lev. 2.13 says, Do not omit the salt of your God’s covenant from your grain offering. You must offer salt with all your offerings. So Jesus is saying we have to be willing to make sacrifices—like our judgmental eyes and pushy hands and stomping feet—in in the name of peaceful relationships. That way, we won’t be chasing people away from Jesus and undermining our witness. Others hear an echo of 2 Chron. 13.5: the Lord God of Israel gave the kingship over Israel forever to David and his sons by a covenant of salt. A covenant of salt is one that endures forever. It can’t be broken. So maybe Jesus is telling us that we must always be willing to renew a covenant of peace with each other. Even if we disagree. Even if we sometimes hurt each other. We need to understand that we are bound by a covenant of salt. Then we won’t go around pushing each other around and cutting ourselves off from each other. Still others note that there was a common Near Eastern saying at the time that went: We have salt between us. We’re like family. We share a table. There’s a actually a version of this saying in Ezra 4.14: we share the salt of the palace and it is not fitting for us to witness the king’s dishonor. So Jesus wants the church to know that we are a welcoming, supportive family. We’re not a feuding tribe. We don’t pick fights. We welcome strangers as honored guests. We’re a people who have salt between us.
Personally, I think Jesus meant all of the above.
I also think Paul was trying to say the same thing when he told the Colossians: Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer everyone (Col. 4.6). I love how Eugene Peterson renders this verse: Be gracious in your speech. The goal is to bring out the best in others in a conversation, not put them down, not cut them out (MSG).
Be salty. You will have conflicts. People will rub you the wrong way. You will be challenged. But be generous. Respect the differences between each other. Fight fair. Listen well. Understand what is at stake. Learn from people who don’t share your perspective. Don’t call someone else’s good evil. Be hospitable. Accept the hospitality of others well. Maintain salt among yourselves and be at peace with each other.
It’s a hard saying. Those are often difficult things to do. But the alternative is amputating hands and feet. Yanking out evil eyes. Or having a huge stone hung around your neck and being thrown into the lake.
I’d rather be salty and keep the peace. Wouldn’t you?