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.” But Jesus said, “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. For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.
“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.
“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.”
My sermon from the 19th Sunday after Pentecost (September 30, 2018) on Mark 9:38-50. Listen to the recording at the bottom of the page or read my manuscript below.
Scripture never tells us if Jesus puts the little one down.
Today’s reading from the gospel according to Mark continues the conversation that started last week. Jesus and his disciples have returned to Galilee and are staying in the city of Capernaum. Their journey to Galilee was uneventful but the disciples had a bit of an argument amongst themselves: they argued about which one of them was the greatest. Now, arguing about who’s the greatest is …silly especially when God is literally in the room. But we can excuse the disciples’ behavior because they had experienced a taste of Jesus’ power. Jesus, in chapter 6, sent his disciples to preach, heal, and cast out demons all over Galilee. The disciples did what Jesus asked and they were amazed because people listened. People were healed. And even demons, the evil forces that separate us from God and from one another, – even they were overcome by the power of Jesus’ name. The disciples thought that this was what Jesus was all about. So they argued about which one of them expressed Jesus’ power the most. Jesus, in response, asked a little child to join them. Jesus picked this kid, this little one, up and he welcomed them as a full member of their community. This invitation caught the disciples off guard because children, in Jesus’ day, weren’t valued very much. Parents loved their children but the wider society sort of didn’t because children were vulnerable, weak, and needed to be taken care of. Children had the potential to become contributing members of their society but until that happened, until they grew up, children were at the bottom of their world’s social ladder. Children weren’t full members of…anything. Yet Jesus took this child, put this little one in the middle of their community, and said: “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” The power the disciples experienced wasn’t what Jesus was all about. Jesus’ true power was showing all people, especially those we ignore or push to side, that God sees them, that God loves them, and that God will never let them go.
Now, it’s immediately after this when John first speaks. And it’s like he didn’t hear anything at all. One thing I find helpful and that I encourage you to do as well is: visualize these scenes with Jesus. Imagine the room they’re in. See the disciples sitting or standing. Notice the little one with Jesus, and make that child real. Imagine this whole scene. And then listen as John speaks, admitting they tried to stop someone because they didn’t believe that person was part of their community. I imagine Jesus took a long pause before he responded. I can see Jesus re-enacting almost every animated gif, every animated image, where someone is rolling their eyes or sighing or frustrated or moving their mouth but confused about what they should say next. Because Jesus had just placed a little child in the middle of their community, showing the disciples who was included in God’s family. But John still claimed that there were some who didn’t belong.
That’s why, I think, Jesus’ words sort of snowball in the rest of today’s text. At first, Jesus was kind, giving the disciples another vision of what Jesus’ community looked like. Jesus is putting together a body made up of people that is bigger than the 12 apostles in that city by the Sea of Galilee and bigger than all of us inside this church today. God is calling all kinds of people, the faithful, the sort-of faithful, and even those with no initial faith at all, to be part of what God is doing in the world. Our faith and our experiences – our relationship with Jesus – is not the only kind of relationship someone might have with him. Jesus nurtures, in different ways, the faith the Spirit gives us. We can never be quite sure exactly what the Holy Spirit is doing in those around us – but we can trust that the God who is with us is with them too. And if we can’t see God moving in the people around us, then we are putting barriers around what we think is possible with God. Those barriers are ones we create by saying that Jesus only works in one way and in one place and through one kind of experience. We choose, in those moments, to act as if we ourselves are God, because we get to decide where the building blocks of faith are placed in people’s lives. We encourage those around us to stumble, telling them to look for God in the parts of their lives where their faith will not grow. Because we choose to believe the faith life of others when their life of faith matches our own. But the community Jesus is putting together needs everyone, including those who we think are not as committed or as faithful or who express their life with Jesus in ways that will change what this community of faith does. The little one standing with Jesus and that unknown person casting out demons were not a problem that needed to be overcome. Rather, the disciples were the problem because they couldn’t see the ways they were preventing others from living their faith out loud.
As we visualize the rest of this text, the image of Jesus holding a young child while talking about maiming and hell and unquenchable fire – that’s a pretty harsh vision. These exaggerations make it easy to runaway from this part of the text. We can claim that Jesus is embracing hyperbole and that he doesn’t really mean everything that he says. We do listen to his words, about the ways we put stumbling blocks before others, but we downplay how serious those stumbling blocks are. We assume that any stumbling we cause in others are minor hiccups in someone else’s life. They can, and should, move past them and if they can’t, that’s their problem, not ours. Yet hyperbole [always] points to [a] truth.. [that] must be taken seriously. And in the words of Rev. Karoline Lewis, “the hyperbole points to what is at stake in being the cause of a stumble in faith. It’s not just about standing in another’s way of faith but denying their individual expression of faith. It’s not just that we have somehow prevented someone from having faith, but [we] have prevented a life of faith that they, and only they, can embody.” Too often “hyperbole becomes [a] convenient excuse to stop listening, to stop believing, [letting us] question the veracity of [any] claims,” made on us. But “when we place stumbling blocks in the paths of those trying to answer God’s call — as they and only they can hear it and live it — we are effectively silencing them.” We end up preventing others from being who Jesus is calling them to be. And in the face of that reality, a reality we too often create for others and a reality that we too often find ourselves in, Jesus – with that little one still in his arms – looks at the ways we try to silent the life of others – and Jesus says: “No.”