Monday, September 24, 2018

Jesus' Off-Script Remarks

On Sunday, Jesus will get on a bit of a roll in Mark 9:38-50, and at times it feels like he may have wandered a little bit off of the script. (Of course, that says more about my inability to hear coherently than either Jesus' message or Mark's recollection of it.) Jesus starts with an encouraging reply to John's question about a non-disciple performing exorcisms in Jesus' name: "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." But, just a few lines later, he's moved on to, "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." In the words of Ron Burgundy, "Boy, that escalated quickly!"

The reason it feels a little like Jesus wandered off of his script is that I can see the progression from his generous words of welcome to his foreboding warning, but it takes a winding path to get there.

Jesus starts with an incredible statement that by itself may be the focus of my sermon this Sunday: "Whoever is not against us is for us." In these words, Jesus acknowledges that the work of God's reign encompasses everyone and everything that isn't actively working against it. The starting point for Jesus' followers, therefore, is to accept the work of others as contributing to God's work rather than hindering it. And it is the instinct to stop them, to hinder them, that is the reason Jesus' remarks tumble from rewarding those who offer a cup of water to the thirsty to salting the unworthy with the unquenchable fires of hell.

Jesus says to his disciples, "Whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward." That is the measure of faithfulness--the simple, supportive gesture of a cup of water, the most basic of provisions to one in need. You don't need to be a Christian in order to give a thirsty person a drink of water. The mistake, therefore, is to impede that expression of faithfulness.

Continuing, Jesus declares, "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." The path that leads to Jesus is easy going. If all it takes is a cup of water to be rewarded, what a shame it would be for anyone to invent obstacles to that reward. Yet that is our instinct. 

It can't be that easy, we tell ourselves. Jesus has just mentioned losing one's life, that the greatest must become servant of all. Cup of water? That's only the beginning. It needs to be ice water. And the ice needs to be the purest glacial ice. And the glass needs to be crystal. And it needs to be served with a linen napkin. When someone else presumes to saunter up and jump in line behind Jesus, claiming that all it takes is a simple humanist gesture, we'll be sure to put them through their paces and show them what following Jesus is really about.

But that's stumbling. That's the hand, the foot, the eye that causes us to stumble. And Jesus tells us to cut them off and pluck them out. It turns out that it's easier to follow the path with a disability than to navigate the path on our own presumed ability. Those who have found the path have a tendency to make it more difficult for others, and Jesus invites us to consider again how it is that we found ourselves on that path. Even if it takes cutting off a foot to recall that the invitation to follow Jesus was a gentle one, it would be better to follow him lame than not at all.

If someone is not against us, that person must be for us. Start there. Start with the gentlest possible invitation and the easiest possible requirements. Build a church on that principle. Leave the stumbling blocks to life itself. And if you forget that you, too, were invited down the path not because of something you'd done but because of who Jesus is, think about cutting off your foot. Don't do it, but think about it. And remember that even the lame have an easy time walking the path behind Jesus. Why would you make it harder for anyone else? That just makes it harder for yourself.

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