Sermon for 30th September 2018,
Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost Year B
Today’s first reading again focuses on a woman. From good wife to national hero. The book of Esther is a curios inclusion into the collection of sacred texts. It has no direct reference to God, it is ethnocentric focusing on the survival of Jews in exile. Most scholars today suggest that this story is not a work of history, but of fiction. Its importance in Judaism is that it underpins the festival of Purim where Esther’s virtues of loyalty to her Jewish heritage, her courage in the face of imminent ethnic cleansing, is honoured by this survivalist race.
Psalm 124, our psalm response to the first reading, celebrates God’s help in time of distress.
Prayer lies at the heart of today’s portion of the letter of James. While being urged to pray with certainty, we must be wary not see James urging prayer as a formula to dictate or manipulate God to simply give us what we want. This passage needs some serious unpacking and dialogue.
The gospel passage looks like a loosely put together response to problems Mark sees within the church community. He draws this together with the perceptive metaphor of salt and saltiness.
Today’s gospel reading begins with a scenario which sets another platform for more direct teaching and instruction by Jesus to the disciples. We have read in the past few weeks, of where the disciples are baffled time and time again about what sort of Messiah Jesus is. They are unable to grasp his direction and teaching. So again today we hear Jesus commending those on the outside who not only hear and understand, but embrace him and his teaching whole heartedly. He is saying ‘wake up you guys and learn from those on the outside who have caught on to me.’
Preceding today’s gospel episode, the disciples had tried their hand in casting out demons without success. Today’s gospel reading begins with John protesting that someone outside their close fellowship had been “casting out demons in your name, Jesus, but don’t worry, we told him to stop because he wasn’t one of us.”
The first issue this raises is to do authority and ministry in the name of Jesus. The disciples seem to be getting a little precious about their status as disciples of Jesus, and protective of their turf. This outsider “was not one of us, so we told him to stop”. The disciples are wrestling out their status and their place in the scheme of things. This has echoes of the “who is the greatest” argument. Jesus’s response is the opposite to the disciples who still seem to be thinking as humans think, rather than as God in Jesus thinks. Jesus is focused on inclusiveness rather than the exclusiveness of the disciples. This inclusiveness of Jesus has been evident in our readings of the last couple of Sundays. Jesus, in a rather mild rebuke this time, instructs them “DO NOT STOP HIM, for no one who does a deed in my name will be able to soon afterwards speak evil of me. WHOEVER IS NOT AGAINST US IS FOR US.” Jesus is painting broad, but clear brush strokes. This is thought provoking for us today. I know many people, and I suspect you do too, who will not have a bar of the church, but whose lives of love, care, social justice and even self-sacrifice, outshine my miserable deeds done in the name of Jesus. We live in interesting times and we need to embrace this teaching of Jesus, and welcome those who are not one of us, but who do the deed of Jesus, wittingly or unwittingly.
Jesus continued, “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 their reward.” Others than the disciples who have left everything to follow Jesus. Fellow travellers will be to be included rather than kept out of the new era of the reign of God. BECAUSE “if any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones, ie the outsider, the marginalised and rejected, these little ones who believe in me, ie take my teaching to heart and actually living it, it would be better for you if a great millstone be hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea.” Wow. Not only are we to not be an exclusive community, we are to be an inclusive, encompassing people, opening the way for the metaphoric ” children” of Jesus’s gospel story.
The second half of the reading is a collection of miscellaneous sayings to refocus the disciples away from what others are doing and examining their own lives. Not only are they to not put stumbling blocks in people’s way, they are to look closely at their own lives and the stumbling blocks that inhibit their own willingness and ability to avoid being drowned in the sea with a great millstone around their necks. The gruesome directives of self-mutilation are strong spiritual metaphors. Not only are the intimate followers to not put stumbling blocks in front of others, they are to drastically and permanently remove the stumbling blocks of hands, feet and eyes. Mark places out of the mouth of Jesus, a gruesome and fiery end to those, not just the disciples, who do not attend to their own journey with Christ; those who ignore the decree clear our their own inner lives and to take up their cross and follow Jesus to their own Calvary experience.
And then we come to the sting in the tail, a sort of conclusion to this teaching. Those who do not attend to their inner being, and their true calling to discipleship, “will be thrown into hell, where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched”. This sounds a bit like St Mark putting the fear of God into his hearers, than echoes of my self-offering servant King. But in biblical imagery fire is primarily a purifying and refining process. Painful, but life giving. “For everyone will be salted with fire” or more probably everyone MUST be salted with fire. Again salt is another biblical metaphor for essence. Salt was, and is, important to preserving and maintaining life. Salt gives flavour. Salt is an agent of change within food, making the unpalatable palatable. Metaphorically the salt is what effects change for good. “Salt is good, but if salt has lost its saltiness how can you season it.” Salt is another metaphor for allowing salty teaching; the rejection, death and resurrection of Jesus, to change lives. Have salt, my salt in yourselves, Jesus directs. Let me flavour you.
And then, lastly, have me, salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another. Stop thinking as humans think, squabbling about who is greatest, worrying about what others are doing. Be careful not to put stumbling blocks in front of others, clean up your own spiritual house, have salt in your selves and be at peace with one another. For my friends we meet in his name and share his peace.
Fr Terry Booth