Scripture - Mark 9:38-50
Mark 9:38-50 (NRSV)
38John said to him, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.”39But 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. 40Whoever is not against us is for us. 41For 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.
42“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. 43If 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. 45And 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. 47And 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, 48where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched.
49“For everyone will be salted with fire. 50Salt 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.”
*Hymn - There’s A Spirit in the Air (UMH 192)
“There's a Spirit in the air,
calling people everywhere:
praise the love that Christ revealed,
living, working in our world.”
This is an image that gives me hope, after living through this apocalyptic week - not apocalyptic in the end of the world sense (though I know that some are feeling that way) - but apocalyptic in the original sense of word and in the way original hearers of scriptural texts would have understood it, which is what happens when the layers of our society are peeled back to show the truth, often the very uncomfortable truth, about what’s been going on. We’re in the midst of this kind of uncovering in our country and regardless of where you stand politically, it’s nearly impossible to ignore the hurt and pain we’re inflicting upon one another as a result of this great divide. The fear and anxiety for the future that many live with on a daily basis seems to permeate the very air that we breathe.
I find strength in remembering that God’s Holy Spirit is in the air as well -- moving everywhere, calling and drawing people in all kinds of ways and in all kinds of places, also at work revealing truth - that love is also at work, living and breathing in our world, in the church, outside the church, with the church - and without the church. It’s a Spirit that cannot be bound or owned by a group of people, and cannot be controlled or ordered about.
Jesus points to this - and so much more - in our Scripture reading this morning. Immediately before this morning’s text, the disciples had had an argument about who among them was the greatest - and in response, Jesus had given them a pointed lesson on being the servant of all and getting to the back of the line to be great in God’s kingdom. Jesus had taken a child in his arms - a symbol for all those people society considered to be less-than - and told them that welcoming him - and welcoming God - was to be found in embracing the most vulnerable.
And so here we have John, one of the disciples, who speaks up and says, “But teacher, we saw this person casting out demons in your name and he wasn’t following us. He was working this miracle and we weren’t a part of it. He was trying to claim something that he isn’t a part of. He’s not one of us. He wasn’t doing it the way we do it. Make him stop before he ruins everything.”
Jesus essentially tells them to worry about themselves, not what others are doing—especially when this work also builds up the kingdom of God. The Spirit works in many ways - not just through them, Jesus tells them. Policing your own behavior, your own actions, is probably as much as you can handle anyway. Jesus reminds them of the stakes of being a stumbling block to the poor and vulnerable people in the world. It would be far better, Jesus says, for you to lose an eye or foot or hand if it’s causing you to stumble, to have a millstone hung around your neck and be cast into the sea, in the event you prevent those who are the last and least from my love.
Jesus goes on to describe in gruesome detail what to do if a hand or foot or eye causes the disciples to stumble, with images of the unquenchable fires of hell paired with the image of being salted with sanctifying fire.
I imagine that the disciples were probably a bit shocked that Jesus didn’t take their side in this...but perhaps their concern around this unaffiliated exorcist had less to do with what he was or wasn’t doing, and more to do with their need to ensure that they were the only ones who were truly “in” on Jesus’s work. It was more about their egos than anything else….after all, the complaint against this man was that he wasn’t following them….not that he wasn’t following Jesus. Again - it’s like they weren’t really paying attention to what Jesus was telling them two minutes earlier about service and humility. It’s like they wanted to be the only ones who could do it - who could cast out demons and perform miracles in Jesus name, they wanted to be the gatekeepers for God’s work in the world.
Except that’s not how God works.
This passage is Jesus’s attempt to tell the disciples - pay attention to what is important! Don’t be distracted by what others are doing or not doing, focus on what you are doing, how you are living, how you are being my disciples - because the stakes are high. What you do and how you act affects the ability of others to be in relationship with me. Faith is hard. Don’t be a stumbling block, don’t make faith harder than it already is, and don’t, by your words or actions, by your focus on the little things, by your insistence on doing it your way, prevent those who are suffering and vulnerable from experiencing my love and presence.
Attend to your own behavior and conduct. Be faithful in what you have been entrusted with to build up the kingdom - and don’t worry about what others are doing...because ultimately this is God’s work, and not yours.
Or, in the words of Patriots Coach Bill Belichick, Do Your Job.
That goes for us as individuals….it also goes for our witness as a community of faith. Do your job, trust God with the rest. Be faithful in your work because your witness matters.
I want to share with you something I read from Debi Thomas at Journey with Jesus this week. She writes,
“What we do really matters. If Jesus is telling us the truth in this passage, then it is entirely possible for Jesus’s beloved “little ones” to stumble because of our carelessness, our apathy, our unkindness, our dogmatism, our prejudices, our unforgiveness, our laziness, and our fear. It is even possible for them to stumble as a result of our well-intentioned efforts to protect God, protect the Church, and protect the “purity” of our religion.”...She continues by saying,
“Jesus, does, however, want us to think carefully about what it costs to become path clearers. Stumbling block removers. People of God who actually help each other succeed. Because let’s be honest: sometimes, the process of removing a stumbling block from the path of faith can feel like surgery without anesthesia. Saying goodbye to a harmful relationship, surrendering a cherished point of view, breaking an addiction, forgiving a family member, making a significant lifestyle change, welcoming the oddball Other — all of these things can feel like deaths. Like drownings. Like losing our arms and legs. Jesus knows what he’s talking about; it hurts to change. It hurts to cut off the precious, familiar things we cling to for dear life — even as those things slowly kill us. The bottle. The affair. The obsession with money. The decades-old shame. The resentment, the victimhood, the self-hatred, the rigidity.”
The consequences of not doing this, as Jesus points out, is not being able to stand the sanctifying fire - I imagine that would feel pretty hellish...and when enough of us fail to do our jobs - if we’re so worried about who is doing or not doing what and not attending to our own inner life with Jesus - the body of Christ is in danger of becoming, in the words of Jesus, salt that has lost its flavor. A light hidden so it can’t shine. A house built on sand. In short, becoming nice people who occasionally do nice things for others in ways that can be safely expected, never to move the needle very much, either for them or for the world.
In other words, Jesus says - who you are, how you conduct yourself, what you do -- really, really matters, both as individuals and as a people who call themselves the church. And when we get caught up in trivialities, when we get distracted by the minutiae, when we stake our lives on molehills rather than on mountains, when we worry more about who will get the credit or policing the behavior of others, when we try to slide gently through the world without creating ripples -- when we lose our focus on being disciples of Jesus, hungry people go unfed. Hurt people find no one to bind up their wounds. Lonely people are left at the door. Homeless people find no shelter. And we find the world no different than we left it...and when that happens, as Jesus says, it would be better for us to have a millstone hung around our necks and be cast into the sea.
Yet paired with that challenge is a promise - that if we do our job, do that one thing that God calls us to do; God will take care of the rest.
Jesus points out: The world does not need more nice people. The world needs people who season the world to show where God is present and at work...people who witness to a healing community of hope where we are bound together by God’s love...people who embody Jesus’s love for the hurting and suffering and those no one else cared for, and those living in fear...people committed to serve in the way Jesus served...people who follow that Spirit in the air that shows Christ living and working in the world right now, whose whole lives are grounded in the deeper reality of God’s kingdom that transcends empires and the powers and principalities of this world.
That is the job. Kingdom work and aligning ourselves with that greater purpose rather than be distracted by other things.
And so God challenges us this week to do your part, to attend to your own witness, and to let God be God. To be faithful with your calling and let the God of the universe who loved you even before there was time take care of the rest. To be salt for this community - Chebeague Island - to be about the important things in our lives and in our work together as a church. To trust that God’s at work among us and out in the world in ways that we can’t see or understand.Let us do our part and let God take care of the rest. Amen.
Pastor Melissa Yosua-Davis has been serving the community of Chebeague and its church since July 2015. She currently lives on the island with her husband and two year old son, along with their yellow lab. Read here recent sermon excerpts, thoughts on life and faith, and current announcements for the church community. She also blogs at Going on to Perfection.