The Word of the Lord?

Sermon for the 18th Sunday after Pentecost
James 5:13-20 and Mark 9:38-50

To listen as tonight’s text from the gospel according to Mark was read aloud, and to hear it concluded with the phrase “the Word of the Lord” to which we were all expected to answer “Thanks be to God,” might have caused a raised eyebrow or two. Seriously, once it really gets rolling this section of Mark’s account gets us into some pretty tough, uncompromising, even violent territory. All of those words about cutting off body parts if they cause you to stumble—to say nothing of the line about it being better to have “a great millstone hung around your neck and be thrown into the sea” than to face the consequences of causing one of the “little ones” to stumble; not exactly the stuff for making us all feel good and spiritual on a Sunday night…

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There’s this character named Brownie in Frederick Buechner’s series of four darkly comic “Bebb” novels (“The Book of Bebb”: Lion Country, Open Heart, Love Feast, Treasure Hunt) who has long struck me as the figure preachers should most fear resembling. A preacher himself, Brownie can manage to turn even the toughest of Jesus’ words into feel-good material. In one of these novels Brownie is faced with tonight’s passage:

In explicating the passage, Brownie drew attention, as might have been expected, to some facts about the ancient world that illuminated the meaning and prevented the possibility of certain obvious misunderstandings. In the time of Jesus, he pointed out, the grain was of such poor quality and so easily pulverized that millstones were often made of a very light, porous stone resembling pumice. This stone was, indeed, so unusually aerated almost in the manner of styrofoam that, combined with the fact the salt content of the Dead Sea was so notoriously high that even fat men could float in it like corks, a millstone around the neck might under certain circumstance serve the function of a life-preserver. And this was clearly what the passage intended, Brownie argued: it was better not to cause one of the little ones to sin—there could be no question about that—but if you slipped up, then out went the life-line with a floating millstone tied to the working end, and very few people ever drowned in the Dead Sea anyway. (Buechner, Lion Country)

I re-read this series of novels over the summer, which include a further half dozen instances of Brownie’s interpretive gymnastics. Each time one came up I found myself delighting over Buechner’s tongue-in-cheek portrayal of a preacher who will do anything to make Jesus nice. But this preacher would also feel a twinge of uneasiness; to what degree am I inclined to do something of the same? To soften, explain away, or politely account for Jesus when he gets really wound up? Which is part of Buechner’s point, of course…

Brownie’s interpretive gymnastics aside, these are not particularly “nice” words, and there is simply no way around that fact. But why should we expect otherwise? Jesus is never portrayed as being in any sense “nice.” In the gospels he is certainly portrayed as merciful, even marked by a deep kindness and compassion, but that is quite different from being thinly nice. As Amy Oden observes in her comments on this passage, “The violence of Jesus’ hyperbole here is inescapable. He uses an over-the-top, BOLDED AND ALL CAPS format to get the disciples’, and our, attention.”

To what does he want the disciples—and us—to attend? In the case of not placing a stumbling-block in the path of “one of these little ones,” he’s pressing them to be aware of the ways in which they might cause another person in the community to fall away, and the ways in which we can do real injury to one another. And while at several points in the gospels Jesus does say some very powerful things about the place of children, here the phrase “these little ones” means more than just that. Here it points to everyone in the community who for any number of reasons are vulnerable to being hurt. Sure, it includes the children, but it is a bigger picture than that; it really means all of us. Don’t start doing damage to one another—undermining, manipulating, or leading one another off down the garden path—there are serious consequences at stake here.

As Mark structures this passage, it then rolls forward from the ways we might cause another person to stumble to a series of verses on the way we end up stumbling ourselves. “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.” Same thing for your foot or your eye; rid yourself of them if they are getting you in trouble. To return to Amy Oden’s comments, the violence of the hyperbole is inescapable; unsettlingly so. It is, of course, hyperbole—“extravagant exaggeration” as the Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines it—though there are tragic stories of people taking these words literally and mutilating their bodies… frankly the last thing Jesus would have wanted anyone to do. No, he’s not talking about mutilation as a way to somehow prevent sin—and after all, at an early point in Mark (7.21) Jesus had said very clearly that it is “from the human heart, that evil intentions come.” But what do your hands grasp for? Where do your feet lead you? What catches your eye in a way that starts you obsessing? His BOLDED AND ALL CAPS language is an invitation to look hard for the “Achilles’ heel” or, to use a more current image, for the default settings to which we too easily and automatically return.

This whole section of the gospel is meant to be a robust challenge to our assumptions. It is intended to startle and unbalance the hearer, and in doing so to actually tip us back toward the road we really should be on. These were never intended to be nice words to make us feel good about “just me and Jesus” on a Sunday night. I appreciate the way N.T. Wright deals with the challenge of these words: “Many today write and speak as if the only purpose in following Jesus were to find complete personal fulfillment and satisfaction, to follow a way or path of personal spirituality which will meet our felt needs. That is hardly the point.”

The point, rather, is to find the courage to name the self-serving and self-absorbed default settings in our own selves, and to get on with resetting them. Not always easy, of course; in fact, it isn’t always easy to see what’s really going on within one’s own self, much less to change it.

“Be at peace with one another,” are the words with which this section closes, which in some real sense dovetails with some of the words from the Epistle of James that we heard read tonight: “Confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed.” (5:16) It might just be that the only way to really recognize what is going on inside of the self and to begin to change that is in the context of “being at peace with one another.” Such peace means being sufficiently open and transparent with your fellow travelers such that they can help you to recognize your complexities and failings, which in turn allows you—me—to treat each other in a way that is not manipulative, damaging, or a cause of stumbling.

You see, for all of the discomfort these gospel words might have caused us, they are indeed the Word of the Lord.

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