After the last few weeks of “fun” sermons, of talking about ice, drawing the circle wider, of singing Whitney Houston and Jesus Loves Me, the Gospel of Mark draws me not to humor, but to hell. Preparing for Sunday, I wondered if I could just skip the gospel all together. I mean, who wants to talk about hell, cutting off of body parts or poking out their eyes? But then again, the gospel is meant to challenge us….
In this passage from Mark (9:38-50), the disciples question Jesus about someone who is exorcising demons in the name of Jesus, but who isn’t part of the group. When we read this, perhaps we’re thinking “why does this matter…who exorcises demons anymore?” But it matters because it’s another question of who’s in and who’s out.
What if the gospel passage read: Jesus, we saw someone feeding the hungry, but they weren’t one of us, so we tried to stop them? Or how ‘bout if it read: Jesus, we saw someone give clothes away to a mother in need, or give a tent to someone who was without shelter, or medicine to someone without insurance …but they weren’t one of us, so we tried to stop them. Sounds ridiculous, huh? But if we look honestly in our hearts, how often do we think “but they’re not one of us, so they should stop that (fill in the blank with works of love, healing and reconciliation)…”? It’s an ugly truth, something we’d prefer to deny, but it’s there.
And this is the challenge that Jesus is faced with as he continues to nurture his disciples. So he tells them, as long as good is being done, there’s no reason to stop good work. Don’t create a stumbling block…a set of rules or expectations…for those trying to do the work of the kingdom. Let them be! Let them do works of love, healing and reconciliation with wild abandon because it is bringing about the Kingdom of God!
So what happens when we create stumbling blocks? Well, we create hell instead. In the original text, the word for “hell” is actually “Gehenna”. And Gehenna is a real place. It is a valley outside of Jerusalem that was and still is used as a garbage dump. Gehenna has become a metaphor for what happens to those who have no regard for others; it’s a place where we dump our “stuff”—both the literal garbage of our lives, and the emotional and spiritual garbage that we have accumulated. When we worry about who’s in and who’s out, we’re putting our garbage on them. We’re actively creating Gehenna, or hell.
This is not what Jesus wanted for his disciples, or for us. Instead, he wants us to be the salt of the earth…the purifying, peace-making, reconciling builders of the Kingdom; not the ones who contribute to the continual creation of Gehenna.
Let’s look for a moment at our Baptismal Covenant (BCP 416). In our covenant, we say that we will continue in the apostles’ teaching, breaking of bread and prayers. We say that we will persevere in resisting evil, that we will proclaim the Good News, that we will serve Christ in all persons and love our neighbor. We say that we will strive for justice, peace and the respect of every human being. No where do we say we will do all these things…so long as the “other” is one of us. No where do we say that we will be a stumbling block for those who aren’t like us. No where do we say that we will consciously participate in the creation of Gehenna.
No…we say that we will continue to be disciples, with God’s help.
So today we are faced with a choice as we continue our journey with Jesus. We can choose to say, “Jesus, I saw this person bringing peace into the world and it was awesome!” or we can say “yeah, that was great, but you’re not one of us”. Which is it going to be?
As children, we learn the song “Jesus Loves Me”. At the time, we probably didn’t think much about it. It’s was an easy song to learn, with a fairly predictable rhythm pattern. As children it didn’t matter if we sang it in the right key or got all the hand motions right. Most of the time what matter is that we knew a simple truth—that Jesus loves us. Perhaps the other thing that matter was that we got to sing it in front of the church…which surely must have meant that we were important! And of course we were important…we were precious, innocent, little chatter boxes that could make all the adult “ahh” and “ohh”. In many ways we continue this with our own children today. Let’s be honest; isn’t it wonderful when the kids play or sing music together? It doesn’t matter if it’s not professional quality; what matters is that we love them and honor them. We value our children and try to raise them as responsible, loving, children of God.
In 1986, Whitney Houston recorded the song “Greatest Love of All”. As an 11 year old girl, I would sing this song loud and proud in my bedroom. Why? Because as a young person, a child, it empowered me. The opening lyrics are “I believe the children are our future. Teach them well and let them lead the way. Show them all the beauty they possess inside. Give them a sense of pride to make it easier. Let the children’s laughter remind us how we used to be.” The children are the future! The children will lead the way! The children are beautiful! I was one of those children! Whitney believed in my potential!
Lately, I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about children. They are my hope. They are a reminder of God’s great love for the world…that creation continues through children. Most of the time, children make me laugh, they amaze me with their curiosity and intelligence, and I often find myself in great admiration and awe of the wonderful children I have encountered through my ministry.
But it hasn’t always been like that. Children haven’t always been seen as so wonderful. I’m sure many of you were told as children that “children are to be seen and not heard” when in the company of adults. I know my grandmother said that to me on several occasions. Not that she did anything wrong, but it was a reflection of how she was raised. Historically, children have worked in coal mines and factories with no safety protections, inadequate food, and very little medical protection. Families would have lots of children in order to keep family farms operating. Children were part of the labor force. They weren’t young, beautiful, brilliant children to write pop songs about. They were a way to keep the wheels rolling. And unfortunately, in some parts of the world, this is still true.
In the ancient world, children, unless born into noble or royal families, were among the lowest class. They had no rights. There was no system set up to protect them from family violence or abuse. The bearing of children was a woman’s most important task in life. And children were treated as property. Life for children was not easy; they quickly had to learn the tasks of adult life…weaving, sowing, hunting, cooking, plowing…all to keep the wheels rolling.
So when Jesus places a child among his disciples, he is doing a pretty radical thing.
Let’s look at the gospel text again. Two things are happening in Mark (9:30-37). First Jesus tells about his death, and then he teaches the disciples again what exactly it means to be a disciple. Since it appears that the disciples don’t understand Jesus’ predictions about his death, they become more interested on who is most important, most popular, Jesus’ right hand man if you will. Of course, they don’t see the irony in this argument…to be Jesus’ right hand man will without a doubt cost them their life. And so when Jesus confronts them about their argument, he says, “The first must be last and servant of all.” In case they were unsure of what that means, he gathers up a nearby child and uses the child as an illustration: “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me…”. In other words, when you welcome this lowly individual, this person without rights, this person who is abused and violated, this unprotected one…then you welcome Christ, and ultimately God. So being the most important in Jesus’ group of friends means being willing to serve others, to go last, to lose your life, and to welcome the unwanted. Being a disciple isn’t about powerful leadership, but servant leadership. It’s about modeling a different way of being…in relationship with yourself, with others and with God.
Why would Jesus use a child to illustrate his point? Because he loved that child. In that child he saw all who are unprotected and vulnerable, and loved him. And in holding that child, he is reminding all of us--the disciples 2000 years ago and us right here—that we are children in the household of God. And being part of the household of God requires that we are responsible for each other. We are responsible to take care of each other, to protect one another, to serve each other. Maybe we do this by serving at FISH…making sure that everyone has something to eat. Maybe we do this by donating clothes for the Free Clothes for Kids project…making sure that everyone has something to wear. Maybe we do this by walking in the CROP Walk…standing in solidarity with others who have to walk miles for food and water. However we embody our responsibility to each other, we are welcoming Christ in our midst.
This week and weekend I’ve spent a lot of time working on music and prayer. Some people think the two are separate…you sing and then you pray. But more and more I’m coming to the understanding that sometimes music is prayer, and that prayer can be sung. Last Sunday I taught the song “The ocean refuses no river”. It was a prayer of affirmation...God refuses no one. This weekend I read that when we pray, we become responsible. So let’s go back to “Jesus loves me”. I’m going to ask that you sing it one time through and just sing it. Maybe you know some hand motions, it’d be ok to do those. Then I’m going to ask that you sing it again, and really focus on the words. What does it mean that Jesus loves you? Do you understand yourself as a child of God? And then I’m going to ask that you sing it a third time, and let the words wash over you. Is it a prayer of thanksgiving? Do you recognize your responsibility to welcome other children of God?
Today we will be honoring the youth in their Celebration for the Journey. This initiation rite is both an invitation and a challenge. They are being called to discipleship as they grow into young adulthood, while at the same time, being challenged to leave behind their childhood selves. Essentially, they are losing their life in order to gain new life.
So what does this mean? Let’s take ice as an example. Ice is cold, frozen, and brittle. It can remain by itself, or in the company of other ice, but that is the form it will remain in. When we act like ice, we are cold, frozen and brittle as well. Our lives are not open to the creative force and power of the Spirit. Our lives do not reflect the all encompassing love of God. Our lives are not enhanced by the life giving gifts of Christ. Now let’s look at water. Water flows. In nature, it is the powerful force in rivers, streams and oceans. It provides life to the plants and animals that live in it. Water can take many shapes and can change forms. It can be boiled or frozen. It can be still and calm, or raging and fierce. Water can expand or condense. When our lives are like water, we “go with the flow”, we allow ourselves to be led in life giving and life producing ways. As the song goes, “The ocean refuses no river”…God never refuses us.
When we start off as ice, we have a choice. We can try to remain ice…preserve our life the way it’s always been, unaffected by those around us. Or we can join the water and be open to transformation…we can at once enjoy the life giving water and be a part of that life giving water to others. This is what it means to lose your life in order to save it.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian, talked about this in terms of the cost of discipleship. To be a follower of the Messiah, as Peter identified Jesus, comes with a cost. It is not an easy road, but one which requires sacrifice. Bonhoeffer explained this using the terms “cheap grace” and “costly grace”. “Cheap grace” is about going through the motions…saying your prayers out of obligation instead of from a sense of desired relationship with God, attending church because it’s what’s expected of you, forgiving someone because it’s a general truth in the conception of Christianity. It’s the easy way. It’s a way of maintaining your “ice” identity, without fully engaging discipleship. But “costly grace” is more demanding. It means allowing yourself to be transformed and changed. It means not just hearing the Gospel message to love your neighbor as yourself, but living and proclaiming the Gospel. It means welcoming the stranger, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked. Grace is costly because it compels us to act as Christ in the world. “Costly grace” is about participating in the living water; losing your life in order to save it.
If we’re honest with ourselves, we’ll admit that we have at times participated in cheap grace, trying to hold on to our identities as ice. Let’s face it, it’s easy at first. But over time, it’s lonely. Life as ice isn’t warmed by the love of Jesus. Life as ice can become meaningless and bitter. When we’re willing to let go of our small ego self, and choose to become disciples, to follow Jesus, to lose our lives, then we join the bigger life, the ever changing and transforming life of the Kingdom. It’s risky and it’s wonderful.
Before you receive communion today, ask yourself if you’re willing to gain through losing. Do you want to hold on as ice, or do you want to be part of the life giving water?
Gordon Light wrote a song that goes like this:
Draw the circle, draw the circle wide. No one stands alone, we’ll stand side by side. Draw the circle wide, draw it wider still. Let this be our song, no one stands alone. Standing side by side, draw the circle, draw the circle wide.
I just learned about this song from another clergy friend of mine who referred me to a YouTube video of various congregations singing “Draw the circle wide”. And what impressed me most about some of the groups that I saw singing this piece of music was how diverse they were. People from all age groups, ethnic backgrounds, genders and abilities. And that’s just the diversity we can see. What we can’t see of course is their sexual orientation, their theology, their economic status. Singing “Draw the circle wide” was important in these groups because the circle had been drawn wide enough for them.
We are now eleven years removed from the events of September 11, 2001. I can remember working in Student Affairs at Southwest Texas State University in San Marcos when I saw the planes crash into the buildings in New York. It was a time of fear and great anxiety. But what has stayed with me has not been the images of exploding and collapsing buildings, but the young people on the campus at SWT who gathered together that night for a vigil of peace and healing. They had contacted ministers, rabbis, imams as well as other religious leaders to lead our community in prayer and reflection. They had drawn the circle wide.
Sometimes I wonder how good a job we’ve done as Christians in keeping that circle wide. When the Muslims protested in Egypt, many Christians there kept the circle wide. Christians who support the Palestinians in their struggles are keeping the circle wide. Open and affirming congregations are keeping the circle wide for their LGBT brothers and sisters. But as the song says “draw it wider still”.
The gospel reading from Mark is about the need to draw the circle wide. The Syrophoenician woman demands healing for her daughter, yet she is a Gentile. She doesn’t belong in the circle. But there she is, serving as a prophetic voice that God’s healing power, the Kingdom of God, is meant for everyone. Not just for the few. The deaf and mute man is also a prophetic reminder that God desires intimacy with us. Here Jesus is sticking his fingers in a man’s ears and spits on his tongue, very intimate things to do. But it’s not just a human doing these actions to another human…it’s God incarnate, God among us and with us, getting up close and personal with a man who is a Gentile. Someone who doesn’t belong in the circle.
These two stories in Mark serve to remind us that the power of faith knows no religiously or socially demarcated boundaries. God’s mission to heal, love and forgive us goes beyond these boundaries. In the first century the circle didn’t include the poor, infirm, orphaned, mentally ill, alien or women. And yet in Mark, here is a woman and an infirm man joining the circle. Who is being left out of the circle today? Who has not been welcomed to experience the healing love and forgiveness of God’s grace? God is always welcoming, but it is our insecurities which have created the rules about who’s in and who’s out.
Theologian Mitzi Minor said, “…there are no external barriers between God and any human being: not race, class, ethnicity, gender, age or physical condition. Consequently, there should be no such barriers between human beings”.
This is what is being called to our attention in the reading from James as well. As the author of the letter stated, “You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture ‘you shall love your neighbor as yourself’”. To not love your neighbor, to not welcome others—regardless of race, ethnicity, sexuality, gender, age, class, physical condition, or spiritual tradition—is to create barriers, to keep the circle small and closed.
Theologian Amy Howe wrote, “Once we acknowledge that there are no walls separating us, love and mercy flow unfettered, and all people are deemed equally valuable”. When there are no walls separating us, love and mercy flow. The circle is made wider still. No one stands alone.
Sometimes, we feel like we’ve been left outside the circle. Sometimes, we’re the ones trying to keep the circle small and closed. But today my prayer is that when we open ourselves up to drawing the circle wide, standing side by side, we can all experience the creative and powerful force that is God’s love, healing and forgiving grace.
“Blessed are the flexible, for they shall not be bent out of shape.”
That little saying was given to me by Lois and is taped to my laptop. It serves to remind me to keep my inner control freak, my inner “everything has to be just right” freak, in check. And now that I’ve started a yoga practice, it makes me giggle a little.
Too bad the Pharisees didn’t have little saying like this; it may have made things a little easier for them. Perhaps they wouldn’t have gotten so bent out of shape about hand washing rituals. So what’s really going on here in this gospel lesson from Mark (7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23)?
At first glance, it seems that this gospel is about Jesus admonishing the Pharisees about their need for ritual cleanliness. And that’s true…that’s part of what’s going on here. But that’s not all. Jesus is also addressing a much bigger issue of hypocrisy. The word “hypocrisy” means “pretending”. To be a hypocrite is to negate authentic living. For religious hypocrites, it means distorting sacred teachings in order to elevate one’s self or one’s beliefs. And in doing so, these distorted teachings become a form of idolatry, oppression, and gate-keeping. So for Jesus and the Pharisees, Jesus isn’t addressing the issue of hand washing so much as he’s addressing the fact that the people have lost sight of God by holding on to human constructions and traditions. In other words, the Pharisees had gotten so wrapped up in “doing it right” that they’d lost sight of kindness, compassion, and forgiveness. Instead of understanding the importance of community and welcome into the Kingdom of God, they had become focused on ways to keep others out.
Earlier I said that to be a hypocrite is to negate authentic living. So let’s unpack that phrase “authentic living”. Authentic living is another way of describing being in right relationship with God, ourselves, and others. I would go so far as to include the earth as well. It’s about being in balance with God, the world around us, and ourselves, and acting with integrity. When we are out of balance, not in right relationship, or negating authentic living, then we are in a state of sin. I don’t often talk about sin…it’s a residual effect of having grown up in an oppressive tradition that loves to focus on people’s sinful nature…but sin is something we all struggle with.
Theologian Robert Cummings Neville says that the human condition of sin puts us at odds with our intended relationship with God, the world, ourselves and our neighbors. To be in right relationship is to avoid harming others, to be faithful, and to act with integrity.
So how do we achieve this right relationship, this balance, this authentic living? Well, first, we have to recognize that it isn’t something to be achieved, but rather something to journey towards. As imperfect beings, the reality is we’ll never get it right all the time. So that should take some of the pressure off! But in our journey, we can embrace the ideals of spiritual practices that renew our relationship with God, ourselves, and others. In the Christian tradition, these spiritual practices are: tithing, charitable giving, service to others, hospitality, public worship, private prayer, and forgiveness. In yoga practice, these spiritual practices are called the “yamas” and the “niyamas” or codes for living: nonviolence, commitment to the truth, not stealing, connecting to the Diving, absence of greed, contentment, self-discipline and introspection (ok, so now I’m just showing off what I learned while I was away at school).
My point is this…whether you take on the traditional spiritual practices of the Christian tradition, or combine them with the yamas and niyamas, it’s all about being in relationship with God, ourselves, others, and the world around us. If we get so wrapped up in “getting it right”—whether that’s who’s dressed right, who gives the most in their pledge, or who makes the best goodies for coffee hour—we lose sight of what we’re really called to do—to be children of God, brothers and sisters, who practice kindness, compassion and forgiveness.
So before we come forward for communion, to share in the abundance of God’s graciousness, I think we have to examine our conscience and our hearts…what do we need to do be in right relationship with God, the world, ourselves and others? Are we flexible enough not to be bent out of shape, or are we stuck on getting it right?
I don't know what the future of the church is, but I know that we will continue to be a place of sanctuary and hope, working towards healing in the world.