Pentecost 19B – September 30, 2018

Have salt in yourselves…. Mark 9:49
It’s been a tough week and then instead of the Gospel providing comfort for our anxious souls, it ups the ante with the threat of drowning, dismemberment and blindness. At the end of it when I announced, “The Gospel of the Lord,” did you hesitate for just a moment before proclaiming, “Praise to you, O Christ?” And if you are here for the first time, did you perhaps look around for the exits to escape before the bloodbath? Just when we want a reassuring word from Jesus, one that will be a balm for our sin-sick souls, we get challenge and confrontation. Know that I considered the other readings, thought maybe we could join the “Back to Egypt Committee” that challenged Moses’ leadership in Numbers, spend some time visiting the congregation James was writing to or explore the psalm, but then came Thursday, and deep down I knew that to go anywhere else would be a failure of nerve that could easily wind up abdicating the Gospel. Because frankly, that’s what’s at stake today, maybe it always is, especially when we get anxious, as were the disciples.
At first, following Jesus was amazing – witnessing incredible healings, listening to his teachings, pondering the stories, experiencing miracles of feeding thousands with just a few loaves and fishes, but then Jesus started talking about undergoing great suffering and being killed and about his followers denying themselves even losing their lives. We can imagine their anxiety meter moving up, perhaps to 25%. Could that be why Peter offers to build some cabins in order to safely remain on the Mountain of Transfiguration? Instead God’s command to “Listen to his beloved Son,” led them back down into the valley where the other nine disciples were failing miserably. Then to make matters worse, Jesus tells them a second time about being killed. As the anxiety meter moves up to 50%, they argue among themselves about who is the greatest and Jesus responds by taking a little child in his arms and telling them that who ever welcomes a child, welcomes him and whoever welcomes him welcomes God. Jesus tries to move them beyond fear and anxiety into vulnerability and trust, for at heart each one of them is that little child, a child welcomed, a child beloved by God.
And perhaps it would have worked, but then someone has the audacity to set up a demon-casting out franchise right in their neighborhood. The guy was even using their trademark – the name of Jesus. And not only that, he was successful, something they had not been for quite a long time. As their anxiety meter hits 75%, they try to shut down the interloper, but Jesus intervenes once again. This time he broadens the playing field saying, “Whoever is not against us is for us” and that includes everyone who gives them, gives us a cup of water to drink. They were not in this alone, others, indeed, more than they knew were with them too.
I saw this broaden playing field in a Muslim neighborhood of Arusha, Tanzania, eight years ago. There were 11 of us from St John’s and Phoenixville traveling with hospice nurses from Arusha Lutheran Hospital who were visiting patients in their homes, most of whom were H.I.V. positive. Before entering the neighborhood, Dr. Mark Jacobson stopped to meet with the local Iman to ask permission to be there and to find out who might need care. We were warmly welcomed and received cups of water filled with grace, shared beyond religion and ideology. |
I think too of the broaden mission field in our town where the Catholics started St. Mary’s Franciscan Shelter for families and Ann’s Heart with it’s Code Blue Shelter, the Presbyterians began The House for single homeless women, the Episcopalians, St. Peter’s Place, the Episcopal House and the Daily Lunch, the Baptist Pastor at Grace Crossing is also Phoenixville’s Police Chaplain and the Lutherans got the Phantom Food Pack Program going, all of which are supported by everyone. Far more cups of mercy given than any congregation could do on its own. Maybe with the broaden playing field, the disciples’ anxiety percentage might go down or perhaps they’d just get more competitive and it would increase.
So, then Jesus ups the ante, engaging in hyperbole, making seemingly absurd statements beyond any reasonableness. On the surface it looks like Jesus is saying to us – here is the cost of discipleship. If you really love me you will be willing to hack off your own limbs to avoid making any mistakes. Really, really? How about if you really loved us? Could it be that what is going on is not proving our love for God, but God proving God’s love for us – maybe the cutting away Jesus everything that blocks out the light of Christ in our lives.
When John and I were on vacation, I saw a woman reading Richard Rohr’s book, Breathing Under Water: Spirituality and the Twelve Steps. I asked her what she thought and she shared it was good so I got a copy. In it, Rohr shares that while some are addicted to alcohol and others to drugs, we are all addicted to something – power, self-centeredness, food, money, pleasure, security, perhaps even exercise. He writes: “How helpful it is to see sin, like addiction, as a disease, a very destructive disease instead of merely something that’s culpable, punishable, or makes God unhappy.” So sin as addiction, as disease might be the unhealthy relationship that you are so sure you’ll never survive without – or the fear that is ever present that you are not enough and never will be – or the illusion that there is only one way to understand the world and that anyone who thinks differently is going to hell — or the eyes that only see what’s wrong, but fails to recognize the good – or feet that run through life like an endless marathon and never stop to smell the roses – or the hands that are perpetually busy, too busy to pray, to care, to be. Could this be, could sin be, what God wants to hack off? Wants to free us from?
Pastor Nadia Boltz Weber hears this teaching of Jesus like this: “If your hand or anything else you think you are so attached to causes you to be in bondage, if your old way of seeing yourself and the world is causing you hell, God may just cut it off. It’s better for God to take away that which is killing you than for you to keep it and remain unchanged.
When God takes away that which is killing us, something deep inside changes. The anxiety dissipates – I’m not sure it ever really disappears – but by God’s amazing grace, it’s no longer in charge. Perhaps this is what Jesus means when he says that everyone will be salted with fire – that there will always be times when we struggle, when life is tough, when we face trials and tribulations. But he will be with us through them – sometimes comforting, sometimes challenging – and because of Christ alone, we can have salt in ourselves and peace with one another. Amen.

St John’s Lutheran Church Phoenixville