Such a lovely room

Such a lovely room

Sunday, September 26, 2021

YEAR B 2021 pentecost 18

Pentecost 18, 2021
Numbers 11:4-6,10-16,24-29
Psalm 19:7-14
James 5:13-20
Mark 9:38-50

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

Though I don’t have the authority to re-write the gospel as I please, I do feel empowered to approach it in the order that works best, which is what I’m going to do today.  So, I’m going to split it up, so that the first shall be last and the last shall be first.  Start with the ending, you could say.

So, in what I will call the “first part” of today’s gospel, Jesus is giving a series of warnings to various people.  For those who put a stumbling block in front of one of these “little ones,” it would be better to have a millstone tied around their neck and be thrown into the sea. 

Now, at the risk of doing what every preaching professor tells you not to do, I have to make a clarification about the original Greek language here. The phrase that gets translated as “little ones who believe in me” is mikron pisteuonton.  If you’re like me, when you hear the phrase “little ones,” you probably imagine little children.  But it doesn’t mean, “children;” it means “little faith ones.”  It’s like a term of endearment:  My little faith ones.  Better to have a millstone tied around your neck than to cause a little faith one to stumble.

A millstone!  Have you ever seen a millstone?  Huge chunk of rock with a hole in the middle.  Like a giant stone bagel.  Tied around the neck.  This is Jesus saying this.  I find it compelling and important to note: this is not a punishment for causing a little faith one to stumble.  No, Jesus is just saying, “Given the choice between causing a little faith one to lose faith, and swimming with the cement necklace, you should choose the river.”  Now, I am not clear on how much hyperbole to read into this statement.  But I think the point is clear.

We then move forward into our next section, which is where we get to the severed limbs and stuff.  This is violent, bloody, gruesome, horrific language.  And yet, the words seem to be delivered like advice from the Farmer’s Almanac. “If your hands get cold, put on your gloves.  If your eye causes you pain, see a doctor.  If your foot causes you to stumble, have that heel checked.”  The lack of passion in the phrases makes me think it is a teaching moment, not a damning moment.  After all, Jesus is talking to his friends here.  I would guess he’s using dramatic language to make a dramatic point.  And I think the dramatic point is this: 

Before you go throwing someone out because he or she is an obstacle to faith, consider whether you would just as likely cut off your hand.  Before you reject someone from the community on the grounds that they are different, consider whether you would cut off your foot for this.

By all means, there are times when drastic action is called for.  It’s better to lose one part of the body than for the whole thing to be destroyed.  But, Jesus is saying, think carefully.  Remember the example with the severed limbs.  (And how could they not?)  That’s the kind of damage you’ll do to the body of believers.  Dramatic language to make a dramatic point.

Now we move the “the end” of today’s reading, by which I mean the beginning, where we find the gospel in today’s gospel.

The set up is, the disciples come to Jesus and say, “Hey, some guys are casting out demons in your name and they forgot to make a pledge with the church treasurer.”  Jesus responds, “Whoever is not against us is for us.”  Whoever is not against us is for us . . . where have we heard that phrase before?  From the rubble at Ground Zero?  In political campaign stops?  Not quite.  What we heard in those instances (and many more) was this: Whoever is not for us is against us.  Jesus is saying, “Whoever is not against us is for us.”  A drastically different thing.  To say that the ones not “with you” are your enemies is in fact the exact opposite of what Jesus is saying.

The politician rules out all who do not tow the line.  The savior of the world rules in all who do not exclude themselves.  The politician says agree or get out.  The savior says agree or disagree; all are welcome.  The politician draws a line of rejection in the sand.  The savior draws all people to himself.  As I say, a dramatic difference.

Jesus does not count people out.  Jesus does not throw people out, or cut them off, or hunt them down and kill them.  Jesus welcomes all people.  Jesus welcomes all sinners.  And this is truly good news.  Because that means you and I are welcome, no matter what—even if we didn’t fill out the pledge card at the church office.  If we are not against Jesus, we are on his side.  Simple as that.

And we saw a similar thing in the first reading, from the book of Numbers.  Someone runs up to Moses and says, “Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp.” And Joshua says, “My lord Moses, stop them!” And Moses asks, “Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit on them!”

The disciples in the gospel reading, and Joshua in the book of Numbers are both trying to set up an exclusive club.  Trying to limit God to using the canonically approved resources.  Their position is that exclusive one the politicians use:  If you’re not for us, you are against us.  But both Jesus and Moses start from the other end:  If you are not against us, you are with us.  If you are not actively against Jesus, then you are for Jesus.  Simple as that.

And the best news of all is this:  even when we are against Jesus, even when we are not loving God with our whole heart, even when we are not loving our neighbor as ourself, Jesus is still with us, still for us.  Literally.  When we come to this table, Jesus is for us.  In the body broken and the blood poured, Jesus is for us.  Freely offered to all, even though we confess that we have against God in thought, word, and deed.  And that’s the whole point.  Jesus offers himself for our sinful fallen world, laying down his life for all.  He is not against us.  He is for us.  He is for me.  He is for you.  He is given, for you.


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