For September 30, 2018 (Proper 21, Year B)

Mark 9:38-50 (see below): Jesus is talking to his inner circle and continuing to challenge their assumptions about leadership and its privileges. We heard some of that last week. This week he says some pretty harsh sounding, frightening things, but we need to remember that all of these are addressed to his future Apostles, to people who might easily abuse their status as leaders.

First, he tells them that they can’t prevent “outsiders” from acting out God’s beloved community (aka, the reign or “kingdom” of God) on their own terms. God is not working exclusively through just one faith community.

Then he warns them of dire consequences if they use their authority to abuse the “little ones” in their own community. Think of all the stories of clergy abuse coming to light almost every day. How angry do you feel about ministers who abuse children? Or what about ministers who take emotional advantage of adults who turn to them fore care and guidance? Why shouldn’t we be outraged at these abuses? Surely we can appreciate Jesus’ outrage here.

Yes, he uses exaggerated language in his warnings: better to cut off limbs, to tear out eyes, so as not to  stumble. If he had meant that literally, all the disciples would have needed wheelchairs and seeing-eye dogs within the week. The college-level term here is “hyperbole” (not to be confused with a geometric curve; that’s a hyperbola—the different spelling matters). It’s like the Zen saying, “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.” (If you’ve never heard that one, here’s more about it.) But hyperbole aside, Jesus IS saying that, if you find yourself tempted to abuse power entrusted to you, do whatever it takes to put a stop to it. Be unsparing. It’s that serious.

And he’s implying that the rest of us have every right to put a stop to abuse too. Whatever it takes. You should know that nowadays our sponsoring Episcopal and Lutheran Churches have established channels for safely reporting clergy misconduct. So if you see it happening to you or to somebody else, you can contact the offices of either Bishop (in my Diocese contact the Title IV Intake Officer). Yes, they will investigate quietly at first, but they are required by canon law to ensure that justice is done. (We also have canons for removing abusive Bishops—nobody is exempt from accountability. It’s all here in dense legalese.)

One more issue this passage raises is the popular perception that Jesus is threatening people with hell. In fact, that’s how most English translations read here.

But actually, there’s no word in the Bible that means “hell” as most of us understand it today. There’s Sheol (Hebrew) and Hades (Greek), the shadowy realm of the dead. There’s Tartarus (mentioned only once in 2 Peter 2:4), where the Greek gods imprisoned the Titans. And then there’s the word Jesus uses here: Gehenna. This literally refers to a fiery garbage dump outside the walls of Jerusalem. (I’ve substituted that phrase where the usual translation says “hell.”)

Here’s what evangelical New Testament scholar N. T. Wright says about Gehenna:

“The most common New Testament word sometimes translated as ‘hell’ is Gehenna. Gehenna was a place, not just an idea: it was the rubbish heap outside the south-west corner of the old city of Jerusalem ... The point is that when Jesus was warning his hearers about Gehenna he was not, as a general rule, telling them that unless they repented in this life they would burn in the next one. As with God’s kingdom, so with its opposite: it is on earth that things matter, not somewhere else.” (Found here)

So in other words, Jesus is warning of dire consequences for those who abuse power and harm the most vulnerable. But the consequences are this-worldly, not other-worldly. And in a way, they’re self-fulfilling. If you would-be leaders care for and empower the most vulnerable among you, you have already entered into life, into God’s beloved community. If you use your power to abuse them, you are already in Jerusalem’s city dump, “where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched.” You are blocking the love of God, hindering the new life this love brings.

Leaders are accountable to the most vulnerable. Myself included. Let’s hold them, and us, to no less than that standard.

Fr. Charles

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Mark 9:38-50 (unofficial translation): John said to Jesus, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” But Jesus said, “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. Whoever is not against us is for us. For 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. If any of you who wish to lead 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. 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 the unquenchable fire in Jerusalem’s city dump. And 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 Jerusalem’s city dump. And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter God’s beloved community with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into Jerusalem’s city dump, where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched. For everyone will be salted with fire. Salt 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.”

For September 23, 2018 (Proper 20, Year B)

Mark 9:30-37 (see below): Jesus sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, "Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all."

Do we really believe this? I'm not sure I know how.

Politicians, no matter the party, love to say that all they care about is serving the people, but we know that this is NOT all they care about.

There's nothing more ludicrous than people who try to impress us with their selflessness.

For them acting selfless is a strategy for winning a race: act like you don't want to be first, so you can wind up first after all.

But that's not what Jesus meant.

He meant STOP WANTING TO BE FIRST!

And that's the part I don't know how to do.

When I manage to be self-effacing, there’s always a deeper wish, often unacknowledged, that people (or at least God) will commend me for how selfless I am. That’s still wanting to be first.

Or I think about one of my favorite childhood stories, the Ugly Duckling. The “duckling” turns out to be a swan, who can then look down on its nest mates as inferiors. That’s turning the tables, but it’s still wanting to be first.

So I don’t know how to stop that. 

What I do know is that, even when I’m fooling myself about what I really want, sometimes I do forget about myself, and about my status, and that those are the best moments I've ever known.

The word for that is grace.

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Mark 9:30-37: Jesus and his disciples passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it; for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.” But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him. Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest. He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

For September 16, 2018 (Proper 19, Year B)

Mark 8:27-38 (see below): Jesus gives his disciples a pop-quiz. “You’ve heard what people think of me. Now … what do you think of me?” And Peter answers, “You’re God’s Anointed, the Messiah, the Christ.” Officially speaking, Peter’s right, and we already know that. Mark’s already told us who Jesus is (1:1). And here’s Peter telling Jesus the same thing. It’s the officially right answer. So we expect Peter to get an A+.

That’s not what happens—no A+, no “Congratulations,” no pat on the head for Peter. Instead Jesus cuts him off with a warning: “Don’t you dare tell anybody.” Peter gives the right answer, and Jesus shuts him up. And we’re left wondering what’s going on here. In Mark's Gospel it seems every time somebody says who Jesus officially is he tells them to keep quiet. It’s like he’s one of those people who just can’t take a compliment. What’s his problem? What’s wrong with the right answer?

Well, maybe, just maybe, Jesus is worried about all the mischief God’s people can commit once they’re sure they’ve finally got the right answers. Maybe having the officially right answers isn't the point.

Also, Jesus is especially worried about what people might do in his name if they keep calling him Messiah. It’s not that the label is wrong, but it has taken on a lot of baggage that has nothing to do with the kind of difference Jesus wants to make in the world. Instead of destroying God’s opposition he’s going to let them destroy him! It’s not anybody’s version of a success story.

So Jesus rebukes Peter for not getting that, and then turns to everybody else and says, “If you’re going to follow me, if you’re going to get behind me, you’ll have to learn what it’s like to wind up on a cross. You’ll have to fall in love with a world that all too often won’t love back. You’ll have to give up dreams of winning, of putting down your opponents, and start longing for reconciliation. There’s only one way to find your life, and that’s by letting it go into the common life God is bringing to us already. All of us, not just the winners. Let go. Stop trying to win. It may look like dying, and you’re guaranteed to know intense pain and loss, but that’s actually when you’ll finally start living for real.”

Are you ready for that? I’m not. But this is the common life God is sharing with us already, patiently but stubbornly drawing us into a life of self-giving love, however long that may take. That’s Jesus’ unsettling good news.

Fr. Charles

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Mark 8:27-38: Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.” And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him. Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”

For September 9, 2018 (Proper 18, Year B)

Mark 7:24-30 (see below): This week’s Gospel lesson includes a story about a non-Jewish woman who seems to outwit Jesus and convince him that he can't limit his ministry to fellow Jews. It presents a rather unflattering snapshot of Jesus.

If you're wondering about that, here are two other stories to consider (they’re included below too):

Genesis 32:22-30: Jacob out-wrestles God and forces God to bless him. God names him "God-Wrestler" (that’s what “Israel” means) and concedes that Jacob won the wrestling match: “you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.”

Exodus 32:10-14: Moses chides an angry God into cooling off. God actually repents!

All of these stories challenge popular assumptions about Jesus and God—and about the kinds of stories you find in the Bible. People assume that Jesus never needed to be corrected, except it looks like he was this time. People assume the same about God.

Why doesn’t Jesus already know better?

How could God lose a wrestling match?

Why would God need to repent?

Why are there stories like this in the Bible?

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Mark 7:24-30: Jesus set out and went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice, but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. He said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.” So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.

Genesis 32:22-30: The same night Jacob got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had. Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel [Hebrew: God-wrestler], for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him. So Jacob called the place Peniel [Hebrew: God’s face], saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.”

Exodus 32:9-14: The Lord said to Moses, “I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are. Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them; and of you I will make a great nation.” But Moses implored the Lord his God, and said, “O Lord, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? Why should the Egyptians say, ‘It was with evil intent that he brought them out to kill them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth’? Turn from your fierce wrath; change your mind and do not bring disaster on your people. Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, how you swore to them by your own self, saying to them, ‘I will multiply your descendants like the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it forever.’ ” And the Lord changed his mind [other translations say “repented”] about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.