Sermon for the eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost
You know, this is one of those Sundays when the lectionary keeps a preacher honest. Were I just selecting the readings for the week, the chances of my picking these verses from the Gospel according to Mark would be rather slim. All this talk about lopping off limbs in order to be saved from the fires of Gehanna, to say nothing of a having a great millstone being hung around your neck as you’re tossed into the sea being a better fate than facing Jesus’ wrath over leading “one of these little ones” astray… all of this on a beautiful autumn evening. I mean seriously, give me last week’s gospel reading about “welcoming the child,” or maybe one of the great parables of grace, anytime. Which, of course, is why we follow the lectionary. It takes us away from our favourites and into the tougher material, ensuring that we actually wrestle with Jesus in all that he says to his people.
- To listen to the sermon press play:
The passage begins with this somewhat odd matter that John brings to Jesus’ attention. Apparently there is some unnamed character who has been casting out demons in the name of Jesus; something John thinks is really bad form. “We tried to stop him,” John says, “because he was not following us.” Jesus’ answer, though, is hardly what John had expected. “Don’t even try to stop him,” Jesus says, then adds, “Whoever is not against us is for us.” What sense to make of this little episode?
Maybe we should begin by recalling last week’s gospel text, which immediately precedes this one. As the disciples had been walking along the road to Capernaum, they’d been caught up in an argument as to which of them was the greatest disciple; an argument about position and prestige. To this Jesus had called them into servanthood, and suggested that what they most needed to learn was to “welcome the child.” Drop your petty concerns about rank, in other words. This kingdom isn’t going to work like that.
Now John has again come and raised another matter of position. That outsider is using your name, Jesus, and he isn’t even following us… and here us means us insiders. John, this kingdom isn’t going to work like that. The lines of who is in and who is out aren’t yours to draw.
It is at this point, though, that Jesus’ words get really tough, and really unsettling. “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.” Better to be cast to a quick drowning, in other words, than to be confronted by the reality of what you’ve done in causing one of these “little ones” to stumble. That’s serious business. Now given that in the preceding section Jesus had spoken of “welcoming the child,” it might be reasonable to think that in speaking here of the “little ones” he’s again speaking about children. And while children may be numbered among the little ones, in all likelihood he is speaking more broadly of all of the people who will in time come under the authority of the disciples. These are, after all, the people who will become the leaders of the early church, and to whom real authority is to be given. Yet the exercise of legitimate authority can sometime slip, be misused, even abused. Remember, he’s in the midst of pressing them toward the realization that his kingdom is not about prestige and rank, and so here what he is doing is raising the stakes considerably. When you teach, when you offer counsel, when you exercise your leadership, watch that you don’t do damage by leading people off in the wrong direction.
Preachers, pastors, chaplains, and spiritual directors should probably take a deep breath whenever this passage is read, and then take a hard look at what our words, our counsel, our behaviors and actions are communicating to those who have placed themselves under our care and authority. He’s serious here… don’t be messing up the lives of others.
And then right away there is more talk of stumbling, drawing on what Larry Hurtado calls “the vivid language of Semitic speech.” “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 Gehanna, to the unquenchable fire.” Same for you foot, and same for your eye. Cut it off, tear it out. This is serious stuff.
I hardly have to tell you that in all of the commentaries I consulted as I prepared to write this sermon, every one of the biblical scholars was careful to say that this instruction is not meant to be taken literally; it isn’t meant to be put into practice. And so, for instance, Hurtado writes that, “The hyperbole in the sayings should not be pressed literally,” to which he adds a really helpful set of observations. “The organs mentioned here are really symbols for various types of activity, for example, the hand that grasps for things it should not, the foot that goes where it should not, or the eye that desires what it ought not.” Again, recall that Jesus is addressing his disciples, his closest circle followers and the ones who will in time lead the early church. Yet by extension he is also speaking to us, in our lives and choices and decisions. “Jesus’ followers,” Hurtado says, “must take extremely seriously their responsibility to avoid acts that would drive away other disciples from the circle of discipleship.” What you do with the faith and truth that has been entrusted to you—how you live, in other words—actually matters. If it is in a way that either leads someone astray or pushes someone out… well, he takes that seriously. It matters.
There are some common themes raised in the reading from the Epistle of James. Here James begins with some words about prayer; prayer in suffering, prayer in celebration of good things, prayer over those who are sick, and prayer in confession of sin. Give it all over to God in prayer, he counsels, and tell the truth of your life to one another. If you’re sick, call the elders or leaders of the community and have them anoint you and pray with you. If you have sinned, confess that to one another, and pray together for restoration and a new beginning. Don’t do these things “solo”, so to speak. They’re matters to be shared—burdens to be shared by the wider community; by the Body of Christ.
Now that’s not necessarily an easy thing to do, and it requires not only that you trust those with whom you share these burdens, but also that they show themselves to be trustworthy. That’s true when someone is sick—maybe sick in body, but maybe heart-sick or soul-sick—and dares to ask for prayer over their vulnerable self. It is even more true when it comes to confessing some sin; that your hand has grasped for something or your feet have taken you somewhere, or your eye is moving you into desires that are distorting you. You have to be able to trust that such truthful speech will be heard and carried with great care and grace. You have to know that what you’re struggling with won’t be taken into a gossip mill that is only very thinly disguised as a prayer chain. “We need to pray for Bill… because you know what he’s been up to? No? Well, let me tell you…” And of course, that’s also doing damage to one of the little ones…
Do you see? In this Gospel reading, Jesus is intent on shaking his people awake, letting them know that their words and actions matter. And he does it with the strongest words and images he can lay his hands on. James, too, wants his community to wake up to their calling to actually be the Body of Christ, and to do it in a way that is both grace-ful and truth-ful. Much as I might have chosen to preach on an easier text, I’m thankful the lectionary has landed these ones on our collective plate. Because how we live and what we say, one to another, really matters. Live and speak truthfully, gracefully, and with the great integrity Jesus knows is in us all.