The Sunday Sermon: Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost – September 30, 2018
Scripture: Mark 9:42-50
Two Hands, Two Feet, and Two Eyes
Pray with me …
We’ve been reading from the Gospel of Mark most of this month, traveling with Jesus, his disciples, and the crowds that gathered around him as he has journeyed out of Nazareth and into Galilee on his way to Jerusalem. This morning’s reading from chapter nine is the last scene in Galilee according to Mark.
Galilee is a symbol in Mark’s gospel for the place from which Jesus calls persons to follow him. When Mark writes of Jesus passing through Galilee with his disciples, it speaks of us. We are “Galileans.” Ones whom Jesus call to follow him. In these chapters Jesus’ care for his own flock takes precedence over his compassion for “the crowd.” And a bit like our Sunday morning worship or Sunday school classes today, this morning’s reading is a moment of withdrawal from the chaos of the world designed to help Jesus’ followers understand the journey they were on.
So, let’s read the scripture for this morning. Listen for the Word of God. Read Mark 9:42-48 … The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
Those verses are pretty straightforward. This section of Mark contains a series of sayings against those who cause others to stray from the Way that Jesus has set for them, those who cause others to “sin” we most commonly say, to separate themselves from God and God’s Way, those who are “stumbling blocks” to others. The “little ones” who Jesus says “believe in me” points backward to verse thirty-seven and “one such child,” but it designates not only the physically young, but also – and even more so – those most recent believers in Jesus.
You see, all are to be welcomed into the fellowship of the followers of Jesus and not forbidden or hindered from working in his name, not being caused to stumble. And there are consequences, Jesus tells us, for those who don’t welcome, who do forbid or hinder, and who do cause others to stumble. “It would be better for those to have a millstone hung around their neck.” That consequence is a bit lost on us today. How much do you think a millstone weighed in the first century? Typically …
A millstone conservatively weighed one thousand six hundred pounds. So, for causing others to stumble you won’t get a rock fastened to you, or a stone slab, or even a thousand pound boulder. No, you’ll get over three quarters of a ton of stone for your deception and misleading. And then that stone will be hung around your neck. And then, with that millstone hung around your neck, you will be thrown into the sea. And here again, not a well, not a watering hole, not even a lake, but the sea, the most powerful symbol of chaos and confusion there was to the herders and farmers of Galilee.
Now, I’m pretty sure Jesus is being hyperbolic here. He’s exaggerating your punishment to make a point. So we should get it. The consequences were dire for anyone who would cause someone else to stumble. But that’s not the worst that could happen to you.
Because, then Jesus warns his disciples, and us, about the risk that we may stumble ourselves. Others may cause us to stumble … Woe to them. Millstones and the bottom of the sea. But we may stumble ourselves, cause ourselves to stumble, do things that make us stray, separate, and forget God. The consequences for us if we cause ourselves to stumble are, once again, relayed in vivid and provocative detail. It would better is we maimed, crippled, or partially blinded ourselves and then, instead of being thrown into the symbol of chaos that is the Sea, we will be thrown into the actual chaos that is Hell, or in Greek Gehenna, the destination of the wicked, much more fiery than the neutral Sheol, or Hades.
All of these sayings, all of these consequences that speak of maiming oneself rather than being one who cause others or self to stumble seem extraordinarily harsh. They are difficult for us to hear, even though we understand the metaphoric use of them. I found myself struggling to figure out how we might avoid millstones, chaotic waters, amputations, and searing flames. How might we continue to live with … two hands, two feet, and two eyes? How can we avoid our failures of love, our narrow understandings of the truth, and our quickness to pronounce judgment on others, all of which cause others to stumble even as we do so ourselves? For everyone will be salted with fire …
Verse forty-nine … Read verses 49-50 …
The images of punishment segue into an emphasis on purification and living into our identity as followers of Jesus in our final verses. In verse forty-nine, we hear Jesus references to the disciples, to us, as the salt of the earth and the light of the world in Matthew. In the ancient world salt was a precious commodity – used to flavor and preserve food, used for medicinal purposes, and also used to make payment, as with Roman soldiers who were paid in salt rations. But Jesus uses “salt” here not to reference the Roman economy or Jewish life, but to us having this resource in ourselves.
Our “saltiness” is our identification – who we are, our sanctification – what we are set aside for. Our “saltiness” symbolizes the qualities in us, personally and as a congregation, that preserve and enhance “the flavor of” our community. Our saltiness involves being humble in our relationships with each other, giving of ourselves to one another, and accepting the people around us. To have salt in ourselves means to recognize the qualities that create, sustain and enrich self and others. The last words in our reading couldn’t make that more clear: Have salt in yourselves … and be at peace with one another.
In this complicated and troubling passage, Jesus is not describing “ways to Gehenna” in order to seal any of our eternal destinies. The teaching is meant to motivate us to, yes, pay attention to the “little ones,” children and those new to or inquiring about our Way. If we don’t’ the consequences are great. But we’re being told also to pay attention to ourselves, to not deny who we are, to be all we were created to be, utilizing both hands, and both feet, and both eyes to work for, walk with and envision the Kingdom of God that Jesus worked, walked, envisioned, lived, loved, and died for. The consequences for not understanding who we are among all the world’s “other ways” is even more dire.
I want to end this sermon message with a cute little story. As profound, dramatic and disturbing as our reading from scripture may be, this story is simple, modest, and reassuring:
Once upon a time there was a baby eagle called Eddie. Eddie had entered this world by violently forcing his way out of an eggshell, to discover himself sharing a nest with his brothers and sisters at the top of a very tall tree. One day a strong wind blew up, and the nest was rocked wildly from side to side, at one point rocking so far that poor little Eddie was tipped out. Not yet old enough to fly, down he fell, down, down through the branches, and amazingly right down into a rabbit burrow at the base of the tree. When he got to his feet Eddie found himself among a group of bunnies born around the same time as he. Now rabbits may be good breeders, but they’re not exceptionally smart, so no one realized Eddie was in fact a baby eagle. They all assumed he was just an odd-looking rabbit. So Eddie was adopted into the family and grew up learning to live as a rabbit. He hopped and jumped, lived in the family burrow and survived on a diet of grass and lettuce. Of course, all his life Eddie struggled with a sense of terrible inferiority. He didn’t look like the other rabbits, he was always the last one chosen when it came to hopping games, and he was often sick from eating all that grass. Then one day his life changed. Eddie and his rabbit siblings were out in a field playing, when a dark shadow spread across the ground. The rabbits looked up and there hurtling towards them was a mighty eagle. With squeals of fear the rabbits hopped as fast as they could for the undergrowth. Eddie knew he was a goner. He couldn’t hop as fast as the others and saw them all reach safety while he was still hopping like crazy out in the open. The mighty eagle drew closer and closer, until Eddie could feel its shadow right above him. Eddie braced himself for the inevitable when he heard the eagle cry, “What are you doing hopping around on the ground like a rabbit?! You’re an eagle. Spread your wings and fly!” Startled by the shock of what had happened, confused by the eagles words, Eddie started to move those useless things at his side. He stretched them out and began flapping until he found himself lifting up from the ground, then soaring effortlessly through the heavens. That day Eddie discovered he wasn’t made to hop along the ground but to soar through the skies.
We were created with enormous dignity and honor, to be the image of God on earth. But we have grown up and live in societies that tell us that we are something other than magnificent creatures made to image the Sacred, the Holy, the Divine. And the consequences for that stumbling, for not understanding who we are among all the world’s “rabbits,” is disastrous. We hop around through life in fear, walling ourselves off from others; distinguishing ourselves from others through education, or privilege, or race; denying the Other among us. It would be better to cut off a hand or a foot or to remove an eye.
This morning’s reading from chapter nine is the last scene in Galilee according to Mark. Remember, Galilee is a symbol in Mark’s gospel for the place from which Jesus calls persons to follow him. When Mark writes of Jesus passing through Galilee with his disciples, it speaks of us. We are “Galileans.” Ones whom Jesus call to follow him. We are leaving Galilee this morning. So, as we do, I have a better idea. Why don’t we try to recognize who God, in Christ, creates us and every single human being to be and not only allow ourselves and every single human being to be all they were created to be, but to encourage and empower them to do so: rich and poor; privileged and disadvantaged; men and women; young and old. Let’s live fully with two hands, two feet, and two eyes? Don’t let the world change you. Change the world.
Have salt in yourselves and be at peace with one another.
May it be so. Amen.
Reverend Joel Weible, Pastor / Pewee Valley Presbyterian Church / September 30, 2018