The Rev. Dr. Stephen Smith
Sermon September 27, 2015, Mark 9:38-50
I am really glad the children are out for Sunday School during the reading of this Gospel. Jesus’ imagery about tying a millstone around someone’s neck and hurling them into the sea, or cutting off hands or feet, or plucking out eyes is pretty graphic stuff. I know we read a lot of the Gospel of Mark this year, but we don’t read it all. We could have left this part out.
I don’t like this reading because over 30 years ago I knew a young person who tried to pluck out his eye because he was afraid he would be sent to hell. And I have heard far too many Christians complain about other Christians they disagree with by quoting the passage about the millstone, as if it should be applied literally to their opponent.
To understand this lesson we need to remember that Jesus is using hyperbole. He is over-exaggerating to make a point. He does not want anyone to be thrown into the sea with a millstone around their neck. He does not want anyone to cut off hands or feet. Or pluck out eyes. Remember, all the tools of rhetoric were established hundreds of years before Jesus. Our ancient ancestors were pre-technological. They were not dumb. In some ways, language was their technology and they pondered over every word and phrase to get just the right message across. And in this case the use of exaggeration by Jesus gets across the message that he is angry; very angry.
To give a modern example it would be like what my mother used to say when the three of us boys were acting up. She would say, “You boys better shape up or I am selling you to an orphanage.” We knew she was exaggerating. We knew she wouldn’t sell us to an orphanage. But we also knew she was angry.
So what is Jesus so angry about? In general he is angry that his disciples do not get it. He is talking about servanthood and giving his life for the world, and all they can think about is, “What’s in it for us?”
But the specific issue that sets Jesus off, the straw that breaks the camel’s back (to use another hyperbole) is the disciples resorting to us and them thinking.
“Master,” they say. “We saw somebody casting out demons in your name and since he wasn’t one of US we tried to stop him.”
I hate to admit it but it has taken me over 35 years to see this connection. I have read this passage dozens, maybe hundreds of times, and only this week does it finally dawn on me. Jesus is angry because his disciples can’t see the good that is happening outside their own little group and so want to stop it. It is as if Jesus is saying, “Are you nuts!? People are being healed. Demons are being cast out. Good things are happening. And you can’t get on board with that simply because the people doing it are not in our group!? You idiots ought to have a millstone tied around your necks and be thrown into the sea. Cut off your hands and feet and pluck out your eyes for all the good you are.”
Now do you get the idea? He is ticked off and venting at his disciples for the stupidity of their “us” and “them” thinking.
Unfortunately we have been very fond of that kind of thinking in the Church. We are always quick to judge who has it right and how has it wrong, and name a “them” we would like to exclude. I know we have our disagreements but I try to remember that good things happened even with Christian groups with which I disagree. As you know I do not like fundamentalism. I do not think it is a proper way to interpret scripture. And if you read my column in the newsletter you know I am thrilled that fundamentalism is on the decline. Thank God. However, I know that there are countless fundamentalist churches where good things happen and where their pastors do great work. Demons are cast and people’s lives are made better. They are “us,” not “them.”
I do not like a lot of the theology of the Roman Catholic Church. I think it subjugates women and I think the celibacy requirement for priests is kind of silly. It does not change the fact that there are many good Catholic churches with excellent leadership where people’s lives are changed for the better, and the demons that hold them down are cast out. They are “us,” not “them.”
I am sure these Churches have their own complaints about us as well. But we still strive to do good work, to make people’s lives better and cast out the demons that hold them down. When we see our combined good work then there is no “them.” It is all “us.”
We could say the same about other religions, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, if they are working to make people’s lives better, to cast out demons that hold people down, then they are “us,” not “them.”
Now I am not so naïve to think we have no enemies. I will never sit down with the late Fred Phelps’ Westboro Baptist Church unless they make some changes. And ISIS is clearly the enemy of all who seek to do good through religion. They represent all that can be horrible about religion: extreme fundamentalism that leads to killing and atrocities, all in the name of God.
Yes, there are those who are not us. But most people of good will are closer to us than we think.
Sadly, the Pope’s visit last week contributed to even more “us” and “them” thinking, not because of what he said but the spin put on it by the media. On one side people said he spoke to “our” issues of sexuality and family. On the other side people said he spoke to “our” issues of immigration and climate change. I heard it all last week. I listened to all sides. I even listened to Rush Limbaugh. I wanted to hear what was out there. And it was all about choosing sides. Actually, the pope spoke to all kinds of issues on both sides of our political divide. Then he said that the leaders of the world need to work together for the benefit of humanity and the safeguarding of the planet. Work together. Do good. Nobody reported on that! The media was too busy picking sides. But I think the real story was his call for leaders to work together to create a better world. That’s news!
We are a long way form that. The “us” and ‘them” thinking is so dominant in our culture that when John Boehner stepped down as Speaker of the House he started singing “Zippity Do-Dah!” He was so glad to be out of that morass he broke forth in song.
And yet Jesus reminds his disciples and us that when we work together for good there is no “them” it is only “us.” And if we persist in this “us/them” thinking it only makes things worse. And it’s a really good way to tick off Jesus.
Let us pray:
O God the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, our only Savior, the Prince of Peace: Give us grace seriously to lay to heart the great dangers we are in by our unhappy divisions; take away all hatred and prejudice, and whatever else may hinder us from godly union and concord; that, as there is but one Body and one Spirit, one hope of our calling, one Lord, one Faith, one Baptism, one God and Father of us all, so we may be all of one heart and of one soul, united in one holy bond of truth and peace, of faith and charity, and may with one mind and one mouth glorify thee; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.