Sunday, September 30, 2012

Pentecost 18B, Hard Sayings and Tentative Responses.

Some weeks you open the Gospel for Sunday and you think, Oh Boy, or Oh Dear, or, in the case of this Sunday, you just think, Oh… 

So I need to tell you that I prayed  about the Gospel for this week, a lot; I also did a good amount of research and read a number of commentaries on and elsewhere; and I finally came to the conclusion no one really knows for sure what this part of Mark is about!  So even in the Gospel of Mark, the “simplest” of the Four Gospels, some pretty complex stuff is going on.

It starts when John tells Jesus that he and the  other disciples  have tried to stop someone they didn’t know from casting out demons in his name.” But Jesus  tells then not to do that, and gives them three reasons. So let’s look at those three remarks before we look at the rest of today’s Gospel.

First, “No one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me.” Do you remember some writing by Marshall McLuhan in the late 1960s on the general topic, “The Medium is the Message”? McLuhan said that the medium we used (face-to-face speech or telegraph or radio or television – this was all before the Internet) determined how the message would be heard,  seen, understood, received; and it makes sense. We all know that sometimes a face-to-face meeting is better than a phone call, that sometimes a movie is better than a book for telling the  full-color truth of a long story, that the vehicle you use determines what kind of content you can carry; but it is also true that the message can transform the media. 

So maybe what Jesus is saying here, is that when you tell somebody about him, when you carry a Jesus story, even when you’re still working out what it means  for you; the story you carry has its way with you, changes you, makes you grow, gives you grace.

Two other things follow here: 

First; writers in the Orthodox Churches say that when you say the name of Jesus (even if you don’t believe it), God’s  presence, God’s person, God’s Spirit comes into your presence, your person, your spirit. So when we - or anyone - calls out, God answers!  

Then; when John Wesley was a new Anglican clergyman he decided he didn’t have a lot of faith and, as you might guess, found that his preaching was suffering a bit until a more experienced minister gave him this advice: “Preach faith until you have it, and then you will have faith.” And it worked! A modern six line slogan says something similar: “fake it till you make it.” 

It seems to me that Jesus opens a way for this unknown healer, and for us too, where his way opens us up as we begin to share it, to work it out, to live it out in our common conversations. So that’s why “no one who does a work of power in my name will be able to speak evil of me,” makes some sense: his Word ends up working in us; as we become the medium of his message.

For, even if our motives might be mixed, God takes us more seriously, more hopefully and lovingly than we take ourselves; and I think Jesus is saying to his disciples that they should do the same.

OK, Now, “Whoever is not against us is for us.”  what might this mean here? 

If anyone who does a good deed in Jesus’s name will come to carry his spirit, then maybe the deepest truth might be that Jesus face is the face of the the spirit deep in the heart of everything, that Jesus’ will will be done, Jesus’ love will prevail, Jesus will win everywhere because Jesus is Lord of all.

Maybe the meaning and ministry of Jesus, in wrestling with evil, in risking death, in rising from the dead, is to show that a new creation, the kingdom of God, the kingdom of heaven has come, and even when his life looks like it’ going to be a dead  end, it holds a lively hope, for not only does Jesus save, but Jesus wins!

On to Three: “For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.”  Why is he saying this here?  

During our diocesan clergy retreat last week, we heard about an early church father who changed his name to Christophorus, literally, Christ bearer. It points to a truth: just as the Virgin Mary opens the door to Christ joining humanity by saying Yes to God, so we say Yes to carrying Christ into the midst of the human family in all our lives and actions. 

And this comes in both the giving and the receiving; it isn’t just all about us! Anyone who receives a cup of water receives the reward, just as one who  gives the gift, who ministers in the name of Christ each becomes the medium by meeting the message.

So maybe when we look and live with eyes of faith, we might find God in Christ reconciling the world to himself not less than everywhere?

But we can just say No. We can stop the miracle from happening, we can keep the water from being given or received, we can stop  God’s good grace from having its way in the world. And then Jesus says it would be better for us if a great millstone were hung around our necks and we were thrown into the sea.”

And what I am wondering is this; is Jesus making the disciples, all of us, aware that our very own religious practices and prejudices can sometimes keep us from living life large enough and loving the world wide enough so that God’s reign can come into the whole cosmos and into everyone’s lives. 

Is Jesus saying, don’t judge the messenger? Is Jesus saying, listen for my word to be heard everywhere? Is Jesus saying, I am sowing a seed in the whole creation, and this grace can grow in  anyone, so stop judging, and be prepared to be surprise? And that might be why the last part of the gospel is so rude and so radical and why we need so much to hear it!

Jesus says: ”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 to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell.”

Losing a hand or a foot  or an eye all disqualify you from the Temple worship of the time; make you a cripple, unclean, unable to worship God according to all the rules and requirements, all the precepts and principles of the time. 

So maybe what Jesus is saying here is: don’t let your religious life keep you from finding God’s love and sharing it within the world. 

For it seems that doesn’t matter much to Jesus at all! Because Jesus will lose more than one hand or one foot or one eye; he will give his whole life to love, will die an unclean death at the edge of the city; and in doing so will gather the lost and the outsiders, all of us who hear the hope in the heart of his teaching, who come limping and running  as fast as we can, doing the best we can, with all our garbled speaking out words and living out lives we are almost beginning to believe.

It is not an easy way. In the end Jesus goes  through every kind of hell for us, “where the worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched,” in order to bring us back to life; a life larger than death. 

And it will never be easy, because this God in Christ is almost beyond belief, can only be learned and loved and lived into day after day after day until our unfinished existence is finally made whole by his complete love. 

But here, I believe we are invited, as one English theologian puts it, to exchange “our living death for his dying life.” That takes time and comes at a price, but Jesus has come to us in the middle of our human journey, has shown us the way home, and set us free. And therefore we can take heart, “Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.” 

In the name of Christ, Amen

No comments: