Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost by The Rev. Martin Elfert


Esther 7:1-6, 9-10; 9:20-22

Psalm 124

James 5:13-20

Mark 9:38-50


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I’d like to begin this morning with a quiz.

This is a spiritual quiz. And it was developed by my friend and teacher Albert Jennings. Some of the questions are my own but the structure is Albert’s. During the quiz, each of you will be keeping your own scores. We will, in other words, be working on the honour system. But proceed with caution: God is watching. You may keep score in your head or, if you would like to keep a written tally, you may write on your bulletins.

Are you ready? Let’s begin.

Why don’t we start with an easy one?

If you came to church this morning, give yourself a point.

If you performed an act of service for another person this week, give yourself a point.

If you are praying for someone whom you love, give yourself a point.

If you are praying for someone whom you find it hard to like or to understand, give yourself a point.

If you invited someone to come to church with you this morning, give yourself a point.

If you visited someone who is sick or lonely this week, give yourself a point.

If you visited someone in jail or in prison this week, give yourself a point.

If you support Grace Memorial’s sack lunch program or its Friday meals, either by volunteering or by making gifts, or if you are helping to feed the hungry in another way, give yourself a point.

If you forgave another person this week, give yourself a point.

If you forgave yourself this week, give yourself a point.

The maximum possible score is ten. The minimum possible score is zero – although you would have to be listening to this sermon online in order to achieve that score. Here’s what the results mean.

If you scored ten points, you are a human being of infinite worth, a person whom Jesus calls friend, and a beloved child of God.

If you scored between seven and nine points, you are a human being of infinite worth, a person whom Jesus calls friend, and a beloved child of God.

If you scored between four and six points, you are a human being of infinite worth, a person whom Jesus calls friend, and a beloved child of God.

If you scored between one and three points, you are a human being of infinite worth, a person whom Jesus calls friend, and a beloved child of God.

And for those of you listening to the recording of this sermon on Grace Memorial’s website (and thank you to our Communications Coordinator, Ellie Martin, for figuring out how to post sermons there): if you scored zero points, you are a human being of infinite worth, a person whom Jesus calls friend, and a beloved child of God.

This is the good news of the Gospel. This is the scandal of the Gospel.

We encounter today a word that doesn’t entirely translate into English. It is the Greek verb skandalizo. While skandalizo gives us the root for the English word scandalise – to horrify someone with your real or your perceived immorality, with your violation of social norms – it means more than that in the Bible. In Biblical Greek, a scandal is a trap or a trip hazard, it is something that you get ensnared in or that you fall over. And to scandalise is to impede or to reject or to fall away, it is to fracture a relationship. In the parable of the Sower and the Seed, for instance, the seeds sown on rocky ground are the people who, when hardship and persecution arise, when things get tough, immediately fall away. Immediately they will scandalise.

Nowhere does Jesus use this verb more than in the passage that we just heard from Mark. “If you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me” – if you scandalise them – “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 scandalises you, cut it off; if your foot scandalises you, cut it off; if your eye scandalises you, pluck it out and throw it from you. It is better for you to be short a member or two when you enter the Kingdom of God than to be totally intact and on your way to hell. [1]

Jesus employs this string of verbs and the startling images that go with them in response to the behaviour of the Disciples. Jesus has begun his journey towards Jerusalem, his journey towards Pilate and the crowd and the cross. And the disciples have answered by telling him to stop talking about his death (we heard that two weeks ago), by arguing over which one of them is the greatest (we heard that last week), and today by tattling to him that people are doing works of mercy in an unauthorised fashion, that they are healing in Jesus’ name but not actually following Jesus.

The Gospels rarely tell us much about Jesus’ emotions, but I can imagine that his irritation level is ramping up. Notwithstanding his best efforts, the disciples just aren’t hearing his message. He has tried yelling at them: Get behind me, Satan! He has tried bringing a child into their midst and telling them that when they welcome this child, this person without power or status or words or money, they welcome him. That tactic almost worked, the disciples were silent in response to it. But now they are back into their old habits, back into the expectation that Jesus soon will be a worldly king and they, his first followers, will soon have positions of power and privilege in his court. And by necessary extension, they are back into the expectation that those who have not followed Jesus will be shut out, that they will be left outside the walls of the King’s castle looking in with sadness and regret.

The disciples’ entreaty to Jesus today is that he will get a head start on creating that royal court, that Jesus will sit on his throne and proclaim his rejection of those folks who, having seen Jesus’ success, are now trying to be like him without following him, They want Jesus to declare that those other healers are engaging in the Ancient Near East’s answer copyright infringement: those people can’t heal in the name of Jesus, only we can do that. The disciples beg Jesus:

Lord! Tell them to stop!

But Jesus won’t. Instead he offers these startlingly generous words. Not, “If you’re not for us, you’re against us,” but the way more expansive, way more inclusive, “If you’re not against us, you’re for us.” Unless you actively reject Jesus, you are on Jesus’ side. Even the indifferent and the apathetic and the doubt-filled and sceptical and the uncertain, in other words, are on Jesus’ side.

And then Jesus goes on to talk about scandal and about the lopping off of body parts.

There are two things that I notice about this extraordinary ode to self-amputation. First, it is full of the language of sacrifice. It alludes to the ritual sacrifice that was performed at the temple, in which people would sacrifice animals and, through circumcision, would literally cut off part of a child’s body as a sacrifice to God. (The reason that we hear about salt is that salt was employed by the priests on the sacrificial fires.) And it alludes as well to the sacrifice of the disciples themselves, to the enormous amount that they have given up in leaving their homes and jobs and families and following Jesus.

Second, Jesus’ speech is thoroughly hyperbolic. I want to underline Jesus’ use of hyperbole, because it seems to me that a lot of faithful people have been thrown off balance or disturbed by this passage, by the sense that Jesus is literally exhorting us to cut off problematic parts of our bodies. But that isn’t where Jesus is going at all. To the contrary, Jesus is saying to his disciples, if you are so preoccupied with who is in and who is out, if you are so worried about who has sacrificed enough to be my friend, if you are so determined to declare that some people are in and that there are others whom we must scandalise out, are you sure that you have gone far enough? Are you sure that you have sacrificed enough?

You. Didn’t you shoplift one time as a child? You had better cut your hand off. You. Didn’t you lose your temper and kick your friend one time? You had better cut your foot off. You. Didn’t you read your daughter’s journal and look at her texts when she was out of the room? You had better pluck your eye out. You. Didn’t you think a lustful thought? You had better cut your head off.

Jesus’ suggestions are deliberately preposterous. They are a send-up of efforts to exclude people from the Kingdom of God, they are a send-up of efforts to rank people based upon the intensity of their sacrifice, they are a send-up of a scandal-oriented way of being in the world, of trying to build walls between the good Christians and everyone else.

What we hear from Jesus today is holy satire. It is humour; dark humour, yes, but humour nonetheless. Jesus is trying to shock his disciples into a new way of thinking, he is trying to get his disciples to laugh their way into a new way of thinking. And maybe Jesus’ holy satire works for a while. But ultimately the disciples go back to their old ways, they still don’t get it. You and I still don’t get it. Some part of us – a big part – still wants faith to be about following the right rules and believing the right things and, therefore, being rewarded and about those other people doing it wrong and, therefore, being scandalised out.

And so Jesus does the only thing that is left to him.

The word skandalizo appears once more in the Gospel of Mark. It appears as the crucifixion draws near, as Jesus says to Peter, “You will all become deserters.” You will all scandalise.  And Peter replies, “I will not become a deserter.” I will not scandalise. But he does. All of his disciples do. All of us do.

In 2015, “Inclusion” is a pretty a cheap and an easy word. Virtually all of us are able to agree that we are in favour of inclusion. Being in favour of inclusion is like being in favour of kittens or flowers. But for Jesus, inclusion isn’t cheap at all. For Jesus, inclusion is radical. For Jesus, inclusion in the Kingdom of Heaven extends to the least respectable, to the least worthy, to the most broken. And if that strikes you as anything less than radical, anything less that almost incredibly difficult, start plugging real people into that equation: people who have hurt you on purpose; people who have hurt your loved ones of purpose; people on the news or from history who have deliberately hurt children or engaged in staggering acts of evil. Speaking of inclusion – and meaning it – with regard such folks is the spiritual work of a lifetime.

As he hangs from the cross, Jesus answers once and for all the question of who is in and who has been scandalised out. On the cross, Jesus declares that it is he who has become the victim of scandal, it is he who is on the outside, it is he one of the pathetic, one of the defeated, one of the rejected, one of the losers. It is God who is one of the pathetic, one of the defeated, one of the rejected, one of the losers.

And that leaves us with a choice. Do we want to hold on to a faith which is based on merit, a faith in which you must score a certain amount on the test in order to qualify for the Kingdom, a faith in which we must always live with the anxiety that we haven’t sacrifice enough to win God’s love, a faith in which we run the risk of excluding God? Or are we willing to risk set aside scandal and join God on the outside? Are we willing to participate in a Kingdom in which, whether we or anyone else scores ten out or five or zero on the test, God’s scoring remains the same:

You are of infinite worth.

You are called friend by Jesus.

You are a beloved child of God.


[1] This paragraph and the one before it are drawn from Girardian Reflections on the Lectionary: http://girardianlectionary.net/year_b/proper21b.htm.

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