18 Pentecost, Proper 21 – September 26, 2021

Mark 9:38-50

So, this week let’s look at the similarity in our first reading from Numbers and the gospel that we just heard.  In our first reading the Lord “took some of the spirit that was on [Moses] and put it on the seventy elders; and when the spirit rested upon them, the prophesied. But notice that Eldad and Medad stayed in the camp. But the Lord caused the spirit to rest on them too and they prophesied in the camp, instead of the tent.  And so here comes Joshua, running to Moses, almost like a child tattling….thinking they should be stopped. Eldad and Medad were seemingly out of control, at least the control that Joshua felt should be in place. But Moses puts aside the jealously….saying well, actually, it would be wonderful if all people would be prophets of the Lord.

And then we have our gospel reading where, once again, someone is tattling…John is upset that someone who was not part of their group was casting out demons in Jesus’ name. And Jesus says, ‘whoever is not against us, is for us”.  And then it gets uncomfortable…Jesus talks about millstones around necks, hands and feet being cut off, eyes torn out, fire and then salt.  He is clearly using hyperbole, which are exaggerated statements, not to be taken literally. Otherwise, we’d all be walking around with hands and feet cut off, right?  He was using these examples for shock value. I think his patience was wearing thin. Please get this, please understand what I’m saying, please pay attention to what’s really important.  What you say and do matters. It effects other people. Would you just look at the stumbling blocks you’ve placed in your own path and in the path of others.  In the words of Debi Thomas – “Look at the perverse pleasure you take in excluding people who live, believe, worship, serve, and practice differently than you do.  Look at how smug and superior you feel when your brothers and sisters fail.  Look at how insecure and tenuous your own [life] must be, if its survival depends on your dismantling someone else’s.  Stop being stumbling blocks. Stop making faith harder for yourselves and for others than it already is.”

She continues…. “The longer I’m a Christian, the more overwhelmed I am by the radical nature of Jesus’s openness, inclusivity, and hospitality. Every time I think I’ve made my circle wide enough, Jesus says, “No, make it wider.”  Every time I think I’ve drawn an appropriate line in the sand between “us” and “them,” saint and sinner, inside and outside, Jesus pours the sand back over the line until it disappears.

“Whoever is not against us is for us.”  What an amazing declaration.  Whoever doesn’t oppose the beautiful and salvific works of God — mercy, love, kindness, justice, liberation, peacemaking, healing, nurturing — is on Jesus’s side, and our work is to welcome them, host them, include them, and love them.  How mind-blowing is that?” And how challenging?

A marriage therapist offers interesting advice about relationships.  “What would it look like for each of you to help the other person succeed? Instead of calling out each other’s faults; instead of focusing only on your own comfort and rightness; instead of making an already hard road even harder for your partner to travel; what if you each committed to helping the other succeed? What if you cleared paths for each other? Removed obstacles for each other? Helped each other towards success?”

This may just get to the heart of what Jesus is saying.  Life is not a competition, we’re in this together, this thing called life. We’re on the path together. How much better off would we be if we could be path clearers, stumbling block removers?

But then, Jesus is clear that this is not easy work.  Pastor Debi Thomas’ take on that is: “…let’s be honest: sometimes, the process of removing a stumbling block from the path of faith can feel like surgery without anesthesia. Saying goodbye to a harmful relationship, surrendering a cherished point of view, breaking an addiction, forgiving a family member, making a significant lifestyle change, welcoming the oddball Other — all of these things can feel like deaths. Like drownings. Like losing our arms and legs. Jesus knows what he’s talking about; it hurts to change.   It hurts to cut off the precious, familiar things we cling to for dear life — even as those things slowly kill us. The bottle. The affair.  The obsession with money. The decades-old shame. The resentment, the victimhood, the self-hatred, the rigidity.

Jesus isn’t condemning us; he’s reminding us of truths we intuitively know. The way of the cross is hard. It can hurt. There is a place called hell that we create for ourselves and for others when we cling to our sins and stumbling blocks, instead of allowing Jesus, in his mercy, to remove them.

The will of God is not that we make the path of faith even rockier than it has to be.  God is not invested in our self-loathing.  As Richard Rohr puts it: “It is quite helpful to see sin, like addiction, as a destructive disease instead of something for which we’re culpable or punishable and that ‘makes God unhappy.’ If sin indeed makes God ‘unhappy,’ it is because God loves us, desires nothing more than our happiness, and wills the healing of the disease.”

What would it be like to cut away the disease, for our own sakes, and for the sakes of our fellow travelers?  What would it be like if the children of God helped each other to succeed?  Imagine the charismatic Christian removing stumbling blocks for the liturgical one.  The liberal clearing paths for the conservative.  The insider befriending the outsider.  What would happen if we expanded the circle, lengthened the table, and decided to feast together?  We’d become The Company of the Blessedly Wounded, yes, with our missing limbs and our patched-over eyes.  We wouldn’t look as shiny and unassailable as we did before.  But we would be path clearers. We’d be stumbling block removers.  We’d be healers and exorcists.  Best of all, no little one would ever lose her way again because of us.”  (Debi Thomas)

And we end with a blessing…  “may we be ‘salted with fire’”.  A strange term, that no one is quite sure about it’s meaning.  In pottery making, potters know what happens when salt is added to the fire.  When salt is thrown into the kiln, this elemental essence alters the surface of the pot in a way that cannot be entirely predicted or controlled.  The potter has to trust that when the salt is given to the fire, it will do its work.  That, blessed by the intention and focus the potter brings, the salt will make a way for the wild beauty that will come.

I leave you with Jan Richardson’s  “Blessing of Salt and Fire”

And so, in this season,
may we give ourselves
to the fire
that shows us
what is elemental
and sacramental,
that reveals what remains
after all that does not have
substance or savor
falls away.

May we turn
our eyes
our ears
our hands
to the beauty
for which we were formed
and bear with grace
the patterns
that blossom upon us
who live salted
and singed.