September 27, 2015
If you were here last week, you remember, I hope, that we talked about that story in Mark 9 where the disciples were arguing about who was the greatest among them. Jesus talked to them about the last being first and took this little girl and set her down in their midst and said whoever welcomes her welcomes Jesus and the one who sent him. Remember we got up and made lines that we turned into a circle and talked about what it feels like to be welcomed and unwelcomed. Well, we are going to keep looking at the 9th chapter of Mark this morning which is a weird, fascinating, gruesome chapter that seems kind of stream of consciousness, but I don’t think really is. If you don’t have your Bible or smartphone or tablet with you, there are probably Bibles nearby in the pews you can look at Mark 9 with me, if you want to.
Toward the end of the chapter there is this story that begins like this, “John said to Jesus, ‘Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.’” This, as they would say in some places, is rich. Just before the story about how the disciples argued about who among them was the greatest there is another argument. Here is how that story begins. “When the whole crowd saw Jesus, they were immediately overcome with awe, and they ran forward to greet him. He asked them, ‘What are you arguing about with my disciples?’ Someone from the crowd answered him, ‘Teacher, I brought you my son; he has a spirit that makes him unable to speak; and whenever it seizes him, it dashes him down; and he foams and grinds his teeth and becomes rigid; and I asked your disciples to cast it out, but they could not do so.’”
So the disciples have this public and spectacular failure at ridding this child of his demon. Then right after that they come across this person who isn’t a part of the group who is able to cast out demons in the name of Jesus, and they tell him or her to stop. Can you imagine them coming up to Jesus right after he has had to clean up their mess and tell him that they tried to stop this person from doing what they couldn’t do? That is rich. And it’s kind of funny and kind of sad.
And one of the reasons it is sad is because it comes right after the story where Jesus talked about welcoming the child. There is this person who is doing the work of Jesus, no less. Instead of welcoming him, instead of breaking out of the lines that Jesus had just challenged when he put that little child in their midst, the disciples reject that person. Whoever wrote the book of Mark was not hesitant to knock the disciples off the pedestals that they were being placed on in the early church.
The disciples got a much different response from Jesus that they were expecting. He did not perceive the threat to the brand that they did, and said it’s okay. “Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. Whoever is not against us is for us.” Do you hear what a welcoming statement that is? He may not be one of us, but he gets it. There he goes, Jesus turning lines into circles again.
The very next story in this chapter gets us back to the children. “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. 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,[ where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched.”
I told you this chapter was gruesome, weird, and fascinating. It’s better being tossed into the sea with a weight around our neck, cutting off our arms and legs, or plucking out our eyeballs than putting a stumbling block in front of the little ones. What is that stumbling block?
Jesus calls them the little ones who believe in him. Remember how I keep saying that just about every time you see the word believe or belief in the New Testament you should substitute the word trust? The word is legitimately translated as belief, but the way we use the word belief has changed, and the word trust gets more to what that word really meant.
There is a difference between belief and trust. Have you ever helped a child jump or even take the steps down into a swimming pool when they didn’t want to do that? What they believe is they are going to drown. But when they jump from the side into your arms, or walk down the steps to you, they trust that they aren’t. And the trust is not that there is magic that prevents them from drowning, but that you won’t let that happen.
One of the things that really sets me off is those politicians and others who say they believe that every child needs a father and a mother. From the age of three, I was raised by my widowed grandmother. Here is the brief, sad summary of what I have been able to piece together of why that happened to me. Evidently, my mother did the best she could to spend all of my father’s paycheck on alcohol before he lost it all gambling. You may believe all you want that every child needs a mother and a father, but my mother and father could not be trusted to raise my brothers and me. They weren’t bad people, just not able to raise my brothers and me. But my grandmother and my larger family I could trust. Fortunately, those stumbling blocks that were put in front of me didn’t trip me up forever.
I think this is the stumbling block that Jesus was talking about. The little ones, the vulnerable ones are trusting us. They are willing to jump into that pool not because of what they believe, or what they have been told they are supposed to believe, but because of trust. Jesus is saying we need to go to extreme measures, “pluck your eyeballs out if you have to,” to make sure we don’t violate or sabotage their trust. We are called to be trusted, to make the church and the world more trustworthy. There are plenty of stumbling blocks along the way to challenge their trust, we don’t want to add to them. And this is not just about children, though they are the most vulnerable ones and, often, the most trusting ones. It’s about all the vulnerable ones in our lives and this world. And when we, when the church, welcomes the vulnerable ones we are honoring or rebuilding their trust. They feel the welcome of Jesus.
This is how chapter 9 ends. “For everyone will be salted with fire. Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.” “Be at peace with one another.” That takes us right back to that story about the dispute about who is the greatest. This chapter, maybe, holds together a bit more than it appears. Maybe Jesus is saying one of the ways we can stop from putting stumbling blocks in front of the little ones is to live more peacefully, more graciously, with a more welcoming attitude with everyone. If we turn those lines into circles, where there is no first or last, nobody at the front or the back, and welcome everyone into the circle, the little ones will surely have more reasons to live in trust. What would it be like for the little ones, the vulnerable ones if the ‘adults’ decided the children are more important than our wars and ideologies, and our lines and borders? What if we made children and the vulnerable ones more important than our politics decided to welcome each other because it would make the world a more trusting place, a better place for the little ones?
That’s the end of Mark 9, but not the end of the story. Jesus has been talking to the disciples and showing them about welcoming the outsider and the vulnerable, turning our lines into circles, living in peace with everybody. Could somebody read Mark 10:13-16 for us? Do you understand why Jesus was so indignant, so frustrated and upset with the disciples? They had just gone over this. But, again, as we talked about last week it is so hard to turn those lines of exclusion and competition into circles of welcome and community.
I want to close with something I’ve been thinking a lot about this week. At last Sunday’s ECO discussion, we talked about that age old question of if God is all loving and all powerful, why do so many people in this world experience so much crap in their lives. There’s obviously a lot to that question and the discussion was a good one. But one of the things we talked about was that thing you will often hear people say, “God will not give you more than you can handle.” Now I understand why people say that and it does seem to be a way of saying that I am going to trust God no matter what.
But think about it. Why do we imagine these hard things are gifts from God? “I am going to give you the opportunity to be unemployed. Your job is going to be outsourced, and the day after your benefits end, I’m also going to give you a heart attack. That’s not a gift that’s too much for you, is it?” “And you. I am happy to give you the gift of a very ill child. That’s not too much is it?” “And you. I know I have a gift for a bunch of you. A war. And I will let you be a refugee. You also get a boat, well kind of a boat.” “And you. You’re 12 now. How about I give you this? You get to work in the sex industry. I can get a guy into town tonight who can set you up. That’s not too much for you is it?” And, frankly, there is no two year old with an mentally ill and alcoholic mother and a gambling addicted father for whom that’s not too much. I would not trust a God who gives us things like that, whether it’s too much or not.
Here’s another way to think about all of that. The Apostle Paul wrote some things that are just down right sketchy. But there are times where he really comes across for us and shows us a more excellent way. He had such an amazing trust in God. And instead of believing that God wouldn’t give him more than he could handle, he showed his trust in God when he wrote this at the end of Romans 8. 35 Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? 36 As it is written,
“For your sake we are being killed all day long;
we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.”
37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through The One who first loved us. 38 For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
That’s the kind of God I can trust. The God who gives us love and welcomes us, who gives us healing, and forgiveness, new life, and each other, and empowers us, and tears down walls that divide us, and turns lines into circles, and calls us to follow Jesus and seek God’s Realm, and, yes, trusts us. That’s the God Jesus was talking about in Mark 9; not the God Jesus believed in, but the God Jesus trusted all the way to an empty grave. Those little ones, the vulnerable ones. They don’t care what we believe about God. It’s what we trust about God that matters. How willing are we to jump into the pool?