like a ripe peach -- soft on the outside, hard on the in
A sermon on Mark 9: 38-50 and Numbers 11:16,24-29 by Jill Friebel 1 October 2006
Jesus warns us to be generous and inclusive to the compassionate outside and but severe and ruthless with the uncompassionate inside.
We have been following Mark for the past few weeks; Jesus has been taking his disciples aside and teaching them things in private, but there is a resistance or block to hearing what he says. They would deny that of course, but they can't see it because their own hopes and expectations sift it out and it doesn't make any connections for them. We all have those experiences when someone says something important to us but we don't hear it or comprehend it. We are not ready. It is not until much later down the track and it suddenly comes together and all the pieces fall into place and we have that aha experience. But something big has to happen to "break us down" so to speak, before we can see it. That's a bit like what is going on here. Mark writes in such a way as to contrast the blindness and vision deafness of the disciples to what Jesus is doing and saying. He portrays it with almost cartoon like exaggeration. Jesus'way is non-violent and subversive and calls for self-denial, cross carrying and servant hood discipleship. The disciples want a Messiah and salvation but no cross, greatness without serving, victory without death. The contrast is like night and day.
In tonight's reading Mark injects another burst of sarcasm and John comes off rather badly this time. By the way lest we get too confident, we need to come humbly to these accounts because they are not written for the disciples but for the first hearers and for ours. By the time this was recorded the disciples had well and truly been broken. It had ended for them, they finished up betraying Jesus and were scattered like frightened sheep. In the darkest night the pieces came together and they learnt the way of true greatness and non-violence.
It is into our blindness and vision deafness these accounts now speak. Self-denying, cross bearing, serving, non- violent living is still misunderstood and rejected by us -- and because "carrying your cross and denying yourself" has become such a clichéd expression it muddies the waters even more. What I love most about all of you and our community here is that there is a genuine desire to seek God -- we are drawn by the inclusive invitation of a merciful and gracious God who promises us life in its fullness. But the temptation is longing for this and getting stuck along the way and then mistaking the longing for the deepening experience of it. There is also an attraction to want God on our own terms and to just want Him/Her enough to feel better and be able to experience what Jesus offers individually and privately and then keep a really low profile. Can't we experience this without the self-denying, cross bearing, serving, non-violent, community bit. Jesus' teaching emphatically says "No. It doesn't work like that." It is about you but it's much bigger than you, you are not about life, life is about you. ."
This passage follows straight on from last week about greatness and receiving little ones. Mark continues the use of contrasts in the passage we just heard and alludes to the same story of Moses we also listened to tonight.
John the disciple comes complaining to Jesus about a maverick exorcist casting out demons in Jesus name because he doesn't belong to their group. This is particularly galling for the disciples, as they had just attempted an exorcism themselves which ended up an embarrassing failure. At this point Mark uses a particular form to play on the words used in the story of Moses and Joshua and the prophesying elders. He is deliberating connecting these similar events and drawing comparisons. In both situations God is working outside the safe prescribed acceptable boundaries. (Firstly - The elders prophesying inside the camp among the people and away from the sacred Meeting Place and then the exorcist.) The boundaries in themselves were good to begin with. They protected everyone at the start. But serious dangers lurk when the boundaries remain fast and unmoveable. The appointed leaders -- the ones set aside inevitably become powerful and invest personal ownership and control.
God's Spirit knows no boundaries and not even the best Church set-up or well thought out worship can contain Her. Just at the right time God will do something drastic to break up the law and order. When the elders start prophesying in the camp Joshua panics and says to Moses "Lord Moses, forbid them. This is not right." Jesus says to John about the exorcist "Do not forbid him. Anyone who is not against us is for us" . Mark's episode continues to be illuminated when Moses responds to Joshua "Are you jealous? I only wish that the LORD would give the same spirit to all the people so that the whole lot of them would become prophets!" Moses wanted to share the Sprit and let Her loose among the wingeing, grumpy self possessed Israelites. He was relieved to have this heavy responsibility lifted off his shoulders and spread around. He was delighted not threatened that God was using others and they were using their voices and finding transcendence. He wasn't anxious to hold on tightly and trusted God to do what was best for the whole community. He felt secure in his role and in his relationship with God.
I only wish that the LORD would give the same spirit to all the people here, so that the whole lot of us at SYCBaps would become prophets! I wish that the spirit of love and compassion would transform our fears and self-consciousness, our guilt and pain. I wish we could break through the boundaries and let our true selves free. Jesus says "Don't forbid it."
Jesus completely challenges the disciples' and our notions of who is in and who is out, who holds the power and who doesn't. God's compassionate acts cannot be contained by any "in group." Not even Christians have a monopoly on compassion and acts of mercy. It is not claiming "the right name" that one is recognized in the Kingdom but "it is by right practice'.
Now get ready for the next bit, because it is really in your face. Jesus turns on the disciples and uses colourful violent language. "On the other hand, if someone — however insignificant they might seem — is believing in me and you put up a road block and turn them back, you'll be made to pay for it. You'd have been better off being dumped in the middle of the bay wearing concrete boots." Jesus has swung from leniency for the outsider and the Spirits' freedom to intolerance of anything that isn't for the insider. Any attitude or action from a believer that causes "a little one" to lose their way will not go unnoticed. So you had better examine yourselves and get to know yourself. Name your dark side and own it and see if for what it is. Deal drastically with yourself lest you trample on a "little one" and treat them in such a way that they fall away.
At the time Jesus could have been referring to the immediate future when this threatened small community would be scattered and would end up betraying one another. They were heading into war and the accepted punishment of the day for betrayal or desertion was death. The sayings about cutting off a foot or a hand or an eye could be saying to cut off the offending member for the sake of the community or deal ruthlessly with yourselves to save yourself and the community. In a strange sort of way using the local law of the time was a way of showing mercy. It was better to cut off the offending member or part of you rather than die and be lost forever. Salvation was possible but not until after the strident public naming and calling account.
What does it mean for us now? I take great comfort in Jesus attitude and intolerance of the bad behaviour from his own followers who harm or hurt little ones. He does not ignore it or turn his back. This is both sobering and comforting. The cry of Jesus heart of sadness and anger in these words is the only place to find any sort of refuge. Somewhere somehow there will be justice; I can only leave it in God's hands. I hear story after story of brokenness and grief from little ones who have are struggling to come to God because of the humiliations and disgrace they have received at the hands of another "a believer" . It is sobering too because I have been guilty of judging, guilty of piously putting boundaries that have kept people out.
"Have salt" is the same as "be at peace." Work hard at all this, take conflict resolution seriously, affirm the good outside the boundaries and cut out the bad that is inside. If we are to survive and flourish as a community of faith we must listen to one-another and receive each other with love. We are on the brink of letting God's spirit set us free to be Christ's broken people given for the life of the world.