September 27, 2015 – Amputation, Salt, and Refugees – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
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Here is something that is very true about the Bible. Sometimes it isn’t very easy to understand. Sometimes it is. We read the twenty-third psalm, “the Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me to lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul.” We read that, and our soul breathes a deep sigh of content. We are comforted. That’s why we read that psalm so often at funerals; because in our time of loss we need to hear those comforting words. But sometimes when we read a passage of Scripture we are left feeling more confused and disturbed than comforted.
And I say that, because it seems to me that the passage from Mark today is particularly hard to understand. We’re talking about cups of water and casting out demons and cutting off hands and feet and fire and salt and hell. Jesus seems to be all over the place with this teaching. So before we look at one little piece of it, I want to sort of get the big picture – put these verses in their context – to help us understand them better.
This teaching comes at an important time in the training of Jesus’ 12 close followers and friends. If we look back a few verses, Mark says that at this time Jesus was traveling quietly with them, avoiding the crowds that usually thronged around them, because he was preparing them for the road ahead, a road that had nothing to do with status and popularity and political victory, and everything to do with self-denial and suffering and endurance. It was a hard teaching, maybe even harder for the disciples than it is for us to understand reading it now in the gospels, when we know about the crucifixion and the Resurrection. They didn’t yet understand that the victory of the Kingdom of Heaven was going to come through defeat. They hadn’t yet figured out that the world’s values were about to be turned upside down.
When they came to Capernaum, they went into a house – very probably it’s the home of Peter and Andrew’s family; we know they stayed there before, when Peter’s mother-in-law was sick and Jesus healed her. Jesus knows that the disciples have been arguing among themselves while they walked along, about who was better than who. Maybe he heard them, or maybe he just knows because he’s Jesus. So he sits down and he calls the 12 around him. Sitting down was the formal position for teaching, so they would have known that Jesus had something serious to say to them. And he began by taking a little child in his arms, maybe it was a little nephew or niece or cousin, and told the disciples that whenever they welcomed one such child, the least, the most lowly, they welcomed God himself.
After this teaching, Mark says that they go on to Judea and beyond the Jordan and the crowds gather around him for teaching as usual. But during that time in the house Jesus was teaching them what they needed to understand about life in the Kingdom of Heaven. First of all, disciples weren’t supposed to be arguing about who is better than who like foolish schoolboys. Disciples seek to welcome all, especially the last and the least, all those who are doing the work of God, all those who offer even the least kindness. The followers of Christ seek to embrace, not exclude. That’s what we talked about last week.
I wonder how long Jesus sat and taught them. I wonder if they sat and listened quietly or if they had lots of questions for him. I wonder if the little child sat and snuggled and maybe dozed off in Jesus’ lap while he taught the disciples, and I wonder how well they understood what he said. But now that we know a little bit more about the where and who and why of these verses, we can gather around Jesus, too; we can put ourselves in that house and listen along with the 12, because we are his disciples as well.
A few weeks ago there was an item in the news about a Hungarian journalist. She was filming a large group of Syrian refugees who were running from the police, trying to cross into Hungary, and someone caught her on film sticking out her leg to trip a man as he ran from the police, carrying his little son. The whole thing was caught on camera, the man falling headlong and the little boy crying, hurt and afraid, in the midst of so many fearful, desperate people. The journalist was fired, but the image of her callousness and cruelty shocked people all around the world.
One of the things Jesus told his disciples that day was this, “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him if a great millstone were hung around his neck and he were thrown into the sea.” The Greek word for causing someone to sin doesn’t mean tempting them to do something bad like those cartoon versions of the Devil that you sometimes see – what it means literally is to cause them to stumble, like someone sticking their leg out and cause them to fall headlong. Jesus told them that causing one of these little ones – any of the children of God, but especially those who are overlooked and despised in the world – causing them to stumble and fall, Jesus said, is such a hateful act that it would be better to have an enormous stone hung around your neck and to be cast into the sea so that you sink hopelessly to the bottom than to be the cause of their fall.
Of course, Jesus wasn’t talking about the Syrian refugee crisis, and he wasn’t talking about literally sticking out your leg and causing someone to fall to the ground. But there are a lot of ways of knocking people down. The disciples had recently been trying to knock one another down to prove who was better than who. And John was all eagerness to tell Jesus about the man who was casting out demons in Jesus’ name, but he wasn’t properly one of them. We trip each other up to give ourselves a boost. If we can knock somebody else down a peg, then we move up the ladder ourselves. If we push someone out, that means we are in. That’s the way of the world; we call it dog-eat-dog, though in this world dogs are frequently a lot kinder to one another than people are.
But the kingdom is the very opposite of the world, and the kingdom of heaven is about welcoming and loving the very lowest and the very least. Disciples of Jesus Christ do for others what he does for them – they deny themselves, lower themselves, to raise others up. Jesus uses almost a ridiculous image – of one of those huge round stones that teams of donkeys pulled around to grind grain, being put around the neck of a man who is thrown into the sea to perish. He paints such a vivid picture that those disciples would never forget it! In the eyes of the kingdom, Jesus said, causing one of God’s children to stumble and fall is so dreadful a thing to do, so shameful, that it makes instant and terrifying death look good.
No one can blame someone else for their own sinfulness, but when we take away hope from people, when we deny them dignity, when we fail to listen to them, we can cause them to lose their footing, to lose their way. We cause people to stumble when we judge them instead of accepting them as fellow sinners saved by grace. It is very easy to reject another human being if we see each other not as fellow human beings but as issues or problems – she is someone who has had an abortion or worse, he is someone who performs abortions; he is someone who is gay or she is someone who dresses in a way that offends us; they are some of those people who live on welfare.
It’s something the church has sadly done a lot of. How many people do you know who used to go to church, but they felt unwanted and unworthy because their marriage fell apart, or they were struggling with alcoholism, or people thought their children were out of control, or they lost their job and were ashamed – or so many other reasons? Of course there are people who choose to reject the church, but how many more people are there who left because they felt rejected by the church? Jesus said that is a dreadful thing, a shocking thing, a shameful thing. Jesus said that was worse than dying a terrible death.
When Jesus walked into a town, the people came in droves, all the people, prostitutes and sleazy tax collectors and all kinds of neer-do-wells came crowding around him along with the plain old people, and if you read in the gospels you’ll never see him put a stumbling block in their way. The Pharisees despised him for hanging out with all that rabble, but Jesus welcomed them, always. How would it be if those the world sees as the rabble today started flocking to churches by the thousands?
It was such a joyful thing to see something like that happening in the Pope’s visit: people came flocking by the thousands to see and hear him, not just “good Catholics”, not even just Christians, but people of all kinds and lifestyles and religions and nationalities – they come, because he doesn’t put a stumbling block in their way. He is very clear about his doctrines; he doesn’t compromise his beliefs, but first and foremost he welcomes people, he reaches out in genuine love. The church has too often barred its doors against the iniquities of the world instead of throwing its doors wide open to welcome its refugees.
I’ve heard a lot of people say they don’t feel like they are good enough to go to church. Sometimes they say it like they’re joking; sometimes they say it like they’re proud of it. But behind the joking or the pride there is often someone who caused them to stumble, maybe with the very best of intentions, but with the catastrophic result of turning them away from the very one, the only one, who could help them. Only the Spirit can change people’s hearts, but for those who are seeking or moving toward God, even to the very slightest degree, we disciples can at least make sure we are not the cause of their stumbling. We can reach out a steadying hand instead of sticking out our leg in condemnation. We can refuse to be shocked. – because who are we to be shocked by someone else’s sin anyway? We can refuse to look on people with disapproval – because who are we to disapprove, when Jesus has approved of us in all our imperfection?
When our Lord called Zaccheus down from his tree and invited himself to lunch, to that little man’s great joy and his salvation, Jesus said, “This is what I’m here for – to seek and to save the lost.” The Father sent the Son to gather the refugees of this world into his arms and bring them home. And one of our job descriptions as members of his church is this – that we not stick our foot out and trip them up as they run into his arms. It is an unspeakably horrendous act for us to block the way to the border; to try to control who’s in and who’s out. Remember, we were just refugees ourselves, really. But now, as beloved children, we can reach out in welcome to the very least and the very last, each and every one, offering the love and forgiveness of Jesus Christ, because it is his good will and pleasure to bring all his refugees safely home.
The collect for today was a perfect collect for refugees, when we prayed, “Grant us the fullness of your grace, that we, running to obtain your promises, may become partakers of your heavenly treasure.” And to all our fellow refugees, running in fear and confusion, let us offer the mercy and pity that is the chief manifestation of power in the kingdom of our Lord.