Sermon for the 16th Sunday After Pentecost

Audio Currently Unavailable

I have a computer program I use for Bible study. You can punch in a keyword. You hit 'enter.' It displays all the passages that contain that word. Then you can print out the whole list in that form. When you do it, it sometimes even looks like it was originally written in that sequence.

Today's reading from the Gospel of Mark makes me wonder if they had some system like that back then. Probably note cards because biblical archaeologists tell us that ancient computers didn't have all that much memory. But what seems to connect some parts of this passage to other parts is the occurrence of various keywords--like scandal or salt or fire.

It looks like the compilers of this section of Mark's Gospel didn't want to waste any of these sayings of Jesus', even though the sayings themselves probably originated in different contexts. So if when you just heard this passage read you thought it didn't make a lot of sense, the problem probably isn't with you.

Still, the church in ancient Rome, which we think was the community that produced what we call Mark's Gospel, collected these sayings for a distinct purpose. Even if they're only accidentally related to each other, the overarching theme of the Gospel of Mark itself does connect them. If you consider what the Gospel of Mark is about and how each of these sayings fits into it, you'll get some sense of what God wants us to do in response to this reading.

We think Mark's Gospel was compiled in Rome during the 7th and 8th decades of the first century. It probably constituted notes for what we would think of maybe as an adult confirmation class, an orientation course for new members.

Now what would new members of that church in that city in that century have needed to learn? I think they would have wanted to know if signing on with Jesus Christ is God's idea, why does the church keep having such bad luck? Like Peter and Paul were recently tortured and executed. That wasn't supposed to happen. And the police are starting to raid our services and arrest our people. Why? Have we made some mistake in joining this movement?

The Gospel of Mark was written to address that kind of anxiety. Now, on the one hand, the Gospel of Mark offers us wonderful promises of God's blessing in Jesus Christ: a fresh new family, an active ministry of healing, all of it expressing an intimate personal contact with God, the kind of contact that the prophets used to have in the Old Testament. The Gospel of Mark also promises persecution. It promises uprisings in which Jesus' followers get targeted, some of them indeed losing their lives.

It goes on to say, "If you and I are followers of a tragic hero," says the Gospel of Mark, "we shouldn't expect that our own lives will remain steadily mellow." This Gospel shows us that the way of the cross is the way God intends to lead us into life. No, joining Jesus' movement is not a mistake although it is quite costly and real dangerous.

Let's reflect on the likelihood that Paul had been among them as a teacher for a while. So this community wanted its new members to know that you're not a complete person until you share in what Paul called "the fellowship of Christ's sufferings." It's a terrifying phrase, isn't it? But that those sufferings are not worthy to be compared with the splendor that God has in store for us.

Mark's Gospel takes Paul's most frightening teachings and lodges it centrally in the life of Jesus. Now there was a particular cause of suffering that the church just then was experiencing in Rome and it was quite frightening. Under the emperor Claudius, reluctantly, and then Nero, enthusiastically, the traditional shelter the Jews had enjoyed in the Roman Empire had been ignored. Those emperors were not the first and they weren't the last to discover what good scapegoats the chosen people make.

Now we talk a lot in the church about how the Romans persecuted the Christians. What we disregard is that in the first century the first persecutions were aimed at Jews, not Christians per se. Now as a response to that persecution, some of the synagogues in Rome tried hard to purify their membership, to limit their membership to those they knew they could trust. Now, that list would not always have included non-Jewish Christians. And, of course, we could understand the Christian impulse in the face of anti-Jewish stirrings all around them to claw for distance, to get away from them. It certainly wouldn't be the last time that Christians have scrambled away from Jewish danger as our own previous century amply testifies. The setting of this Gospel, in other words, is one of social fragmentation, of people badly wanting to segregate themselves away both from their pagan neighbors and from their Jewish colleagues, to get real clear about who's "them" and who's "us." That temptation is what this passage of Mark's Gospel addresses. That concern is what these otherwise loosely related sayings have in common. In this passage Jesus is saying, "Don't try to be socially safe. Embrace those you think are dangerous." Now, does this passage really say that? If so, let's seek how.

The account is deftly recalled as occurring in Galilee. Now to our modern ears Galilee sounds like Israel. Back then it didn't. Galilee at that time had not been Jewish for about 700 years since the Assyrians had made off with all the Jewish people who really counted. When Jesus lived there, Galilee was pagan. It was a conglomerate of various peoples mostly from western Asia who were loosely administered by folks loyal to Rome. The governing speech was likely koine Greek. It was no more Jewish than Rome itself was. Now, there seemed to have been very few Jewish enclaves in that region. There were few Jews on the roads in proportion to pagans. So, the man John inhibited from doing exorcisms in Jesus' name without a franchise license probably was not even Jewish.

Peter, James, and John retained enough of the old Jewish sensibilities around purity that seeing a pagan use their rabbi's name would have felt like an obscenity. So they stopped him and they felt proud of themselves for doing so. Jesus, on the other hand, chuckled and made a wry remark. "Come on, guys, if he's using my name to drum up business, he'll probably have a hard time bad mouthing me later. Whoever is not against us is with us." That forms the core of Jesus' recommended attitude to people outside our own group. That's a diametric reversal of common wisdom up to that point in human history. Humanity had survived well enough to evolve by knowing who the enemy is and the enemy up to that point had always been anybody you don't know, anybody who looks different, who speaks a different language.

Jesus is now redirecting human evolution. You will now concentrate no longer on who your enemy is; you will concentrate on who your friend is. Jesus seems to have known the impact his humanity had on other people. A New Testament scholar, Walter Wink, recently suggested that the Marcan phrase "Son of Man" should be understood as the archetype of human perfection. When you and I see humanity fully embodied, it awakens longing in us. And we assume that that longing can only be satisfied by possession of the attractive person or at least by being able to bask in their affectionate approval. But the deepest longing is not to have them; the deepest longing is for the realization of human perfection within ourselves. That yearning was what Jesus routinely catalyzed in others and he knew it. So it didn't strike him as strange that even pagans might offer hospitality to those who bore Jesus' name. Even something as small as a cup of water might indicate the awakening of a fruitful spiritual restlessness. Jesus says, "They won't lose their reward." God honors that longing in everybody regardless of their religious allegiances.

And Jesus doesn't want his people, the people who assume they have it right, strewing the paths of pagan spiritual beginners with obstacles. When somebody is feeling the initial stirrings of longing for God and for God's release of full humanity within them, God is going to be blistered if some right-thinking orthodox believer crushes their spirits by telling them they're doing it all wrong. How blistered will God be? Here come the remarks about our hands, our feet, and eyes offending us--affording a scandal to us as the Greek text puts it.

When I read those warnings as though they were for a self-contained community of people like us, they mean one thing--like my hand means greedy theft and my feet means intruding some place I'm not supposed to go. My eye would mean something like bookmarking a dirty web site. But when Jesus fires those warning across the bow of my xenophobia, my eagerness to "pseudospeciate," that is, my pretense that the stranger occupies an alien species, those sayings come out meaning something else entirely. My offensive hand becomes the hand I raise against a stranger, my scandalous foot becomes the foot with which I kick the helpless. My offending eye becomes the eye with which I gaze on the non-member with contempt.

How blistered will God be? What's going to happen to people who offend against the stranger by thinking of them as "them" rather than as "us." Jesus lightheartedly mimicked the ways parents used for scaring obstreperous children into obedience. He said, "You'll get thrown out on the city dump where the fires never go out and the worms crawl in; the worms crawl out." Now that keyword fire attracts an unrelated saying here which also pertains to fire. It's unrelated but it's fitting. Jesus goes on to say, "Everyone will be salted with fire." That image likely refers to a way of preserving meat, by smoking it. What did Jesus mean by that? Likely, he meant, that a lot of our lives simply hurt; the pain toughens us and that suffering is both necessary and unavoidable. That's true for Jew, Christian, pagan alike. So by implication we ought to be real gentle with ourselves and with anyone we meet because we're all going through it even that guy doing the unlicensed exorcism, probably.

Now that further keyword salt attracts another saying: "Salt is good, but if it looses its power to preserve the meat it cures, you're in troubled. So be well-seasoned. See your job as preserving other people rather than preserving yourself from them. And live peaceably with other people. That's what you're here for--as a preservative for human society. You cannot do that in a way that's self-sparing." I think something like that summary is the sense of this passage.

Why should you and I heed it? In order to fulfill Jesus' purpose in introducing himself to us. That's why. Today it's a scandal to people who are trying to explore their own spirituality; it's an obstacle to trip them up, that people who wear the name of humanity's most winsome specimen should brandish our Christian identity as a license to be critical of other people. So much Christian talk in our day makes us suspect that Jesus somewhere must have instructed us to be right where others are wrong. But Jesus nowhere commands us to be right or to be unmistaken. Jesus commands us to love. Now that's scary, but nowhere near as scary or as risky as it was for the church of the Rome of the first century.

When I describe a conflict I'm in to my wife, Jean, expecting her to sympathize with my position and agree that my antagonist is a turkey, she often asks an annoying question, "Would you rather be right or be in relationship?" That's Jesus' challenge in this passage.

Religious correctness, Beloved, is not a gift of the Holy Spirit, and the charism of discernment was not given to the church to help us detect the flaws of outsiders. Rather, the Spirit's discerning gift is given as a means to detect and appreciate what God is already doing in the other person and to praise God for it in awed humility.

In a season where our very government is enacting policies which estrange the wealthy and the poor from one another, the Church needs to be real clear about Jesus' command.

We are momentarily in a political season in which candidates from more than two parties are acknowledging our stingy selfishness, spinning it as patriotism and offering it back to us as virtue.

A chorus of Christian voices is spouting the Bible to separate "us" from the "them" of sexual, racial, and economic minorities.

Our only bulwark against that corruption is the Bible on its own terms, with all its passionate concern for the unity of humanity in God--not in agreement about God but in divinely initiated fellowship with one another and with Jesus as he chooses to make himself known.

This passage makes it appear that God is serious about all that. It's time that we were serious as well. Amen.

Let us pray.

O God, accept our thanks and praise for the wonderful gift of the other, for the gift of the stranger, for the gift of the one different from ourselves, in whom we're privileged to see your image and mosaic. Give us grace to heed Jesus' call to move away from the old ways, of pseudospeciation and enmity into the glorious, worshipful appreciation of what your Spirit is already at work doing in our neighbor. We ask all this in Jesus' name and to his glory. Amen.

Audio Currently Unavailable