Confession time. This week’s gospel reading had me pretty fired up. I apologized to our Scripture reader, Gary, numerous times because this was such a difficult passage content-wise. How is this good news?
Even my family couldn’t escape my exasperated laments about this reading – so much so that at dinner one night my daughter told me to stop being so “salty for Jesus.” And that’s when inspiration struck. Maybe sometimes it’s okay to get a bit salty about Jesus. And I’m not talking about the seasoning but the slang for being agitated and maybe even a little angry about the challenge of these words.
Because Jesus did not really mean what he said in today’s Scripture reading right?
Up until this point, the Gospel of Mark has been filled with beautiful imagery where Jesus feeds people, heals people, teaches his disciples, prays for and with others, and calms an angry sea.
So, what is the deal with this morning’s gospel reading?
Surely, Jesus did not actually mean that it would be better for us to cut off our hands and our feet than to have them cause us to stumble? Surely Jesus would not suggest that, if we put a stumbling block – or a temptation – in front of someone else, that it would be better for us to have a millstone tied around our neck and then be thrown out to sea?
It all has to be a metaphor, right?
After all, this is the same Jesus saying this that, not even ten verses earlier, welcomed a child into his midst and then gently cradled them into his arms.
The juxtaposition of these two passages – interactions that appear to have happened almost one right after another – is striking.
So, it is a metaphor, then; it has to be. The hands and the feet, the eye-gouging and the being pitched overboard – this is all a metaphor for something else, something softer and easier for us congregationally-rooted protestants who don’t like fire and brimstone preaching or theological guilt tactics to swallow.
Yes. It is a metaphor.
I was all set to go with that approach this week and then I read a commentary that caused me to pause, step back and really think, not only about what Jesus said here, but also what he meant.
It is tempting when reading this passage to default quickly to the assumption that Jesus is employing hyperbole merely to capture his audience’s attention. Various commentators reinforce this response. Which is what I was prepared to do.
But then I came across a commentary that really spoke to me. What if this is much more than just something to capture our attention? What if it gives us a chance to reflect, albeit with some discomfort, about the nature of spiritual gatekeeping. Of who decides what’s right and who’s in? One commentator writes:
“As I reflect on [this reading], I’m reminded that our penchant for spiritual gatekeeping has a long history. I’m also reminded that God has to spend a lot of time throwing open the doors we run around closing. How ironic that we feel more zealous about the borders of God’s kingdom than God does!
Why is this? Why do we human beings find such satisfaction in fancying ourselves God’s bouncers? What is it about us, that we feel accomplished, successful, and even ‘spiritual’ if we secure someone else’s failure? Why do we Christians place so many stumbling blocks in the paths of those who seek God in ways we don’t immediately recognize? Why are we so much better at noticing and judging differences than we are at seeing and celebrating
I must be honest – this gospel reading – and the words from this commentary makes me a little uncomfortable. A little salty if you will. Because I don’t like to think of myself or the church as any kind of gatekeeper – intentional or otherwise. I like the fact that people do not feel a lot of pressure to come and be part of our faith community. I like that this is an inclusive and welcoming space, that we do not put a lot of unnecessary obstacles in place for people to participate in the community and receive the gifts of grace.
But here’s the thing, the complexity of this gospel story is that “the disciples’ motivation in this story is good. They’re not hateful people; they’re well-intentioned people who want to honour and protect the sacred.
The disciples resist someone exorcising demons in Jesus’ name. Never mind that the person is out there doing good. Never mind that they’re alleviating suffering, healing brokenness, [and] restoring people to community. The problem that remains is that this person is not doing any of these things in the right way according to the disciples. They are doing it differently, out on the margins, away from where the disciples might wield appropriate influence and control. What if this person gets the whole thing wrong? What if they don’t say the right words in the right order? What if their relationship with Jesus gains a following and forces the disciples themselves to (shudder) change?”
I think one of the reasons it is hard for me to read this passage and not get a little bit defensive, is because I see myself in the one whom Jesus is admonishing. I know that there have been times in my life when I have caused myself or others to stumble, when I have resisted and even fought against change or thought that my way was the right way.
Just like the disciples, the wider church has not always gotten it right. The United Church of Canada’s involvement in Residentials Schools is not just a painful part of our history. This is why it is important that we are wearing orange shirts today and on September 30th. But it’s even more important that we educate ourselves and seek to build right relationships every day.
This week I encourage us all to read or re-read the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada: Calls to Action and find one that speaks to a passion or curiosity of yours. Find out more about Orange Shirt Day if you don’t know very much about it. Visit the Woodland Cultural Centre and commit to attending an online or in-person event this week for the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation.
Read and learn from a book related to Residential Schools – thanks to the work and suggestions of Nancy, Debbie, and others there are some wonderful resources from Friday’s What’s Up to help you do this.
And when this work makes you feel uncomfortable – allow space for that discomfort.
This gospel passage makes me uncomfortable because it calls us out. I believe in the power of grace; of redemption and of second chances. I believe in the power of apology but more so in the actions that we take in the name of justice, acknowledgement, and inclusivity. I believe that change – albeit scary and sometimes even painful – is what leads us to become the people we are intended to be.
I believe that when we are honest and vulnerable, we are reminded of the unearned grace we experience and that is one of the most powerful moments in our worship and beyond because it reminds us that, despite our imperfections and misgivings, we are loved. And I believe in staying open to change; to admitting that we as a community and as individuals don’t always get it right; and being open and inclusive to all those who come into our midst.
I know that some of the language in this week’s gospel reading seems harsh and unforgiving. It’s not easy to read Jesus’ words about millstones, missing limbs, and unquenchable fire without flinching. But I believe we do ourselves and each other a disservice if we assume that Jesus means to condemn us with this language. I don’t think this passage is about condemnation; it’s about reality. It’s about what we human beings do. Sometimes we exclude. Sometimes we judge. Sometimes we condemn. Sometimes we compare. There are times that we designate ourselves God’s gatekeepers.
“But the truth is, we are called to be God’s generous and welcoming hosts. Hosts who throw the doors wide open. Hosts who understand that there’s enough divine goodness, mercy, and justice to go around. Hosts who trust that God can handle our diversity — and delight in it as well.”
As for Jesus, he is far too focused on what really matters to waste time on gatekeeping. By this point in Mark’s gospel, Jesus is speaking openly and frequently about his impending death. And it’s not just talk —He knows he’s running out of time. He knows he has mere days left to prepare his still clueless disciples for what’s coming.
So, he ramps things up. “PAY ATTENTION TO WHAT’S IMPORTANT!” he seems to be pleading. “Faith is hard! So much is at stake! What you say and do, what you focus on, what you prioritize as my disciples — these things matter! So, look at the stumbling blocks you place in front of yourselves and each other. Pay attention when you are excluding people who live, believe, worship, serve, and practice differently than you do. Stop being stumbling blocks. Stop being gatekeepers. Stop making faith harder for yourselves and for others than it already is.”
Because the way we live our lives matters. The way we treat each other matters. The way we treat all of creation matters.
I was not happy with this gospel reading this week. But on a deeper, more honest reflection, I am awestruck by the radical nature of Jesus’ openness, inclusivity, and hospitality. Every time I think I’ve made my circle wide enough, Jesus says, “No, make it wider.” Every time I think I’ve drawn an appropriate line in the sand between “us” and “them,” inside and outside, Jesus pours the sand back over the line until it disappears. We witness the beautiful and redemptive nature of God — mercy, love, kindness, justice, liberation, peacemaking, healing, nurturing —and our work is to welcome them, host them, include them, and love them. How mind-blowing is that? It is a challenging call for people of faith who sometimes get stuck dwelling in institutional, denominational, doctrinal, and socio-cultural cliques.
So, let’s do this together. Let us draw the circle wider with intention and grace.
We need to seek reconciliation, ask for forgiveness of both ourselves and others; we need to lift up all that makes us different and unique as well as what connects us. We need to stop ourselves when we realize we are gossiping or speaking poorly of others. We need to make room for the Spirit to break into our lives, doing the basic things Jesus called his disciples to do – pray together, break bread together, feed the hungry, care for the sick and help the marginalized. We need to set priorities in our lives based on faith and then be realistic about whether or not we are living up to them.
Let us take seriously the words and the call of Jesus, knowing that the stakes are just as high today as they were when he first spoke them. Let us heed the call of the gospel. Let us, like Jesus called the disciples to have salt in ourselves and be at peace with one another. Let’s get salty for Jesus and for the world.
Thanks be to God! Amen.
Rev. Heather Power
Much of this sermon inspired by the words and thoughts of Debie Thomas: https://www.journeywithjesus.net/lectionary-essays/