Sunday, September 27, 2009

Proper 21

Mark 9
38 John said to him, ‘Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.’ 39But Jesus said, ‘Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterwards to speak evil of me. 40Whoever is not against us is for us. 41For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.
42 ‘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. 43If 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, to the unquenchable fire. 45And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell. 47And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell, 48where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched.
49 ‘For everyone will be salted with fire. 50Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.’

If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off
And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off
And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out

I don’t know about you, but Mark is sounding more like Quentin Tarantino here that the author of a Gospel. It almost seems the reading should come with some sort of warning:

Warning: These are religious professionals on a closed path. Do not attempt. Serious harm may result, including infection and loss of life.

One of my professors, Dr. Hospital (yes, that was his real name) introduced us to the idea of Jesus’ “hard sayings,” sayings that they were never meant to be taken literally. In an ancient environment where every little scratch was life-threatening and the threat of infection always loomed, people were not advised to lob off offending parts of their anatomy to safeguard their spiritual well-being.

You can trust me, I’m a doctor.

I’ve taken to saying that at home, like “here, lemme see that—I’m a doctor you know.” And Carmen, very generously, will remind me that I’m a doctor of preaching and not medicine. Even so, I can tell you that Mark’s “menu of mutilation” will not work, and will only compound your problems.

So this is a collection of “hard sayings,” never meant to be put into practice. So what was the point, then, if not to give a blueprint to the otherwise not-so-bright disciples of Jesus?

I don’t know about you, but I can remember several occasions when I have looked to the sky and said, “you can go ahead, Lord, and kill me now.” This is an odd prayer, I know, and one that I only seem to make when red with embarrassment. It’s extreme, but it seems to sum up how I feel in the moment. Here’s another example:

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.

Now you’re smiling and nodding and thinking “hard saying—not to be taken literally.” And you would be right. At no time did we practice “mill-stoning” except, of course, during he middle ages when the church came up with all sorts of ways to do away with adversaries. And while this is not the topic for today’s sermon, it points to the importance of taking the Bible seriously rather than literally.

In fact, the heart of the passage this morning may or may not be a “hard saying,” and we are left to decide. It follows the thick-headed disciples trying to prevent some non-authorized healer from casting out demons. They report this to Jesus, and he offers more correction, the third time this month. We might as well go ahead and call September “Foolish Disciple Month,” because they seemed determined to never learn.

Jesus immediately corrects them, and does it for the very practical reason that anyone who is busy casting out demons in the name of Jesus will have a hard time speaking ill of him. And so, Jesus has initiated the idea of a “fellow-traveler,” someone who aligns themselves with Jesus and his message without being part of the inner circle. And to reinforce this idea, he gives an important summary:

Whoever is not against us is for us.

Maybe you’re thinking to yourself ‘where have I heard that before—that sounds awfully familiar.’ And it does. Simply reverse it and then try:

Whoever is not for us, is against us.

That’s called the “Bush Doctrine,” the political philosophy that dominated his eight years in the White House and gave us the Iraq War and Guantanimo Bay and all the other excesses of the so-called “War on Terror.”

Whoever is not for us, is against us.

This is what I could call a harmful aphorism, one of those tiny sayings that enters the popular consciousness and fills the imagination with bad things. And, of course, George Bush didn’t think up what came to be called the “Bush Doctrine” (not clever enough) but rather someone in the very distant past who first wanted to create a very small ‘us’ and a very large ‘them.’

Jesus had another plan. He wanted to create a very large ‘us’ and a very small ‘them.’ He wanted to cast his net on both sides of the boat and catch ALL the fish, and not just a few. He said “Whoever is not against us is for us” because he imagined at the end of the day that pretty well everyone (with the odd holdout) would want to be on the side of the angels. He imagined that goodness and decency were in the heart of most, and that if we could only tap into that, we could overcome the other human tendency to label and divide.


We are surrounded by metaphor. We are continually invited to see one thing in terms of something else, which is the centre of metaphor. And the people who study this stuff tell us that there are lots of varieties: live metaphors, still teasing our imagination; dead metaphors, lost the power to delight; good metaphors, add to human potential; and bad metaphors, used in malevolent ways.

I used what some call a bad metaphor a moment ago: the metaphor “war on terror.” Now “war on terror” is real, in that there is fighting going on here and there, but the real metaphor “war on terror” comes into play when someone takes away your bottle of “Head and Shoulders” and says “sorry, it’s the war on terror.” Or the Canadian government imprisons someone for 6 years on a so-called “security certificate” but never charges them with a crime (Mahmoud Jaballah).

And “war on terror” is only one example. Remember the “war on drugs.” Ronald Reagan started a “war on drugs” that meant more punishment and less rehabilitation, and why wouldn’t it? When you can convince people that it is a “war on drugs,” you hardly have to pay for rehab: you are better to lock them away. In war, you have “enemies” and “sides” and “battles” and you hardly stop to look at the circumstances of an individual. Since we know that truth is usually the first casualty of war, the use of the war metaphor can lead in all sorts of troubling directions.

So what about a good metaphor, now that I’m feeling all tense for having mentioned Bush and Reagan. How about a metaphor that opens us to new potential, or new constructive meaning? How about the metaphor “you should cut it off?” We decided that it’s not literal, for a whole host of reasons, so therefore it must be metaphor. If we are willing to cut things off in a non-literal way, there may be some freedom to be gained.

Should we cut off our hands, if we fail to reach out?
Should we cut off our feet, if we neglect to walk the extra mile?
Should we cast out an eye, if our vision for change is blurry, or limited?

You see, as metaphor, cutting off and cutting out suddenly becomes very helpful to our spiritual well being. And Jesus is here too, saying:

“You can cut off my life,
I will gladly surrender it,
when the life I lose,
is the life you will gain.”

We have, each of us, much to give up and much to cast off, much to cut out and much to surrender. And God will help us, and God will show the way. God will tease our imagination and strengthen our resolve and clear the path of everything that may cause us to stumble, now and always, amen.


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