Thursday, September 24, 2015

Too Much or Too Little


In a good week, I start this blog on Monday with some frustration--either at the lectionary or at the texts themselves. On Tuesday I ask some questions about how everything is going to fit together. Wednesday I usually write about the Daily Office or whatever feast is being observed at our midweek Eucharist. Then, at last, on Thursday I pull things together and give a glimpse of what Sunday's sermon will be like. This is not one of those weeks.

It's Thursday, and I still can't make sense of Mark 9:38-50.

In this relatively short passage, Jesus (or perhaps Mark) takes us in so many different directions:
  • "Whoever is not against us is for us." Great text for evangelism and the church's future.
  • "If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones..." Powerful warning about getting in the way of the faithful.
  • "If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off..." Terrifying words about the reality of sin.
  • "For everyone will be salted with fire." Wait, what?
  • "If salt has lost its saltness, how can you season it?" Encouraging words for living deeply in the good news.
Rather than preach on all of those (nightmarish situation for all involved), my instinct is to pick one of those and run with it. (Or perhaps I'll abandon ship and preach on the reading from Numbers and shared ministry.) But I worry that it is unfair to the congregation, which will hear Jesus say, "Cut off your hand and pluck out your eye or else you might not make it to heaven," to preach on "Do not stop him...if it he isn't against us he's for us." What do you think? Does the preacher do the congregation a disservice by pretending they aren't still thinking about chopping off their sinful parts when she or he is explaining the importance of a non-confrontational, orthpraxy-before-orthodoxy approach to building the following of Jesus?

Yesterday, Steve Pankey wrote a great piece on the significance of sin, and his post deservedly was picked up by the Christian Century. In it he addresses head on Jesus' hyperbolic but not metaphorical remedy for sin, arguing that, while Jesus doesn't actually want us to cut off a limb, he does want us to, in a very real way, cut of that which causes us to sin. It's a great focus on that part of the passage, but what about the rest? Must we essentially ignore the first half of this gospel lesson?

I think there might be a connection. When in doubt, go back to the text. Part One: Man casting out demons in Jesus' name without committing to follow him; disciples angry; Jesus hopeful. Part Two: Jesus warns disciples not to get in the way of discipleship; gives hyperbolic teaching on sin. Part Three: Jesus refocuses on the universality of judgment and exhorts all to remain true.

What is sin? Is sin that which separates us from the community (think mystical communion) of God? Might sin be that which makes it impossible for us to take our place in the kingdom?

I don't know what it's like to walk into a new group of friends with a disability--a missing hand, leg, eye, or otherwise--but I wonder whether Jesus' instruction to the disciples about cutting off that which causes them to sin is a refocusing of our theology of sin. Could Jesus be saying, "Your participation in my movement (God's kingdom) isn't dependent on whether you look normal on the outside but on whether you belong to me?" Might that be the reason he jumps from the man casting out demons without following him (seeming outsider but actually part of the movement) to cutting of the sin-causing limb?

I really don't know. Thursday isn't a good day for an exegetical stretch. Maybe I need to put down my hope for preaching too much and accept that it's better to preach too little.

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