Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost by The Rev. Martin Elfert

September 23, 2018

Lessons:

Jeremiah 11:18-20
Psalm 54
James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a
Mark 9:30-37

 

A professor emeritus from the University of British Columbia by the name of Dennis Danielson has taken on an unusual retirement project. Danielson decided to examine curricula and student handbooks from educational institutions across Canada.

Danielson reviewed these documents looking for a particular word. Late in his career, he had started noticing that this word was appearing over and over. And he had a hunch that he would find it similarly repeated across the nation. The word that he did indeed find in one context after another was the word inappropriate.

Certain conduct when writing an essay is inappropriate, certain conduct when interacting with your fellow students is inappropriate, certain conduct when interacting with your professors is inappropriate.

Prior to his retirement, Danielson was a professor of literature. He was and is, like me and like many people in this room, someone who loves words. And he was and is, also like me and like many people in this room, someone who knows that words play a huge role in creating our understanding of reality. How we tell a story plays a huge in creating reality.

When we use the word waterboarding – waterboarding sounds like some kind of sport, like it might be fun – to describe simulated drownings that sometimes turn into actual drownings, that shapes how we think about the actions of our country. When we use the term collateral damage to talk about accidentally killing civilians in a bombing raid, that shapes how we think about war. When we talk about an allegation of sexual violence and our words focus primarily the harm that might be done to the alleged perpetrator’s future or how the incident in question happened decades in the alleged perpetrator’s past rather than on the trauma of his victim, those words shape how we think about justice.[1]

Danielson’s thesis is that the educational documents he reviewed are doing something similar, that their heavy use of inappropriate in lieu of words that would have been common a generation or two ago – words like wrong or immoral or in a church context, sin – is shaping how we think about right behaviour, about just behaviour, about loving behaviour.

Inappropriate is a word that has a bland, conditional, equivocal, punch-pulling flavour to it. “Plagiarising your essay is inappropriate” is a seriously different and seriously weaker statement than “plagiarising your essay is wrong.” “Engaging in vicious gossip is inappropriate” is a seriously different and seriously weaker statement than “Engaging in vicious gossip is immoral.”

Now, I understand how we got to where we are. (I think I can safely use the word “we” here – while Danielson’s study focuses on Canadian educational contexts, but my guess is that it is not a stretch to say that American syllabi and employee manuals newspaper articles use inappropriate as early and as often as Canadian contexts.) Words like wrong and immoral and sin have a pretty long history of being used in a poisonous way, especially here within the church.

I have an acquaintance who says that it is almost impossible for her to hear the word should (as in, “you should clean up your room”) without all of the guilt of her conservative church upbringing crashing over her like a wave. That’s not an accident. These words are used by people in positions of power – people like pastors – to induce shame and the off balance state and the compliance that comes with shame.

These words are used as well to shut down debate. “Homosexuality is wrong” is a statement that doesn’t invite a whole lot of conversation. Or let’s track back a generation or five: “Women having the vote is wrong” or “Ending slavery is wrong.” How do we respond to statements like that?

I guess what I’m saying is that I get the instinct to excise these words from our vocabulary. Reaching for inappropriate early and often, by and large, is a choice that comes from a place of good intention.

However, it is also a mistake.

One of the most important things that the GLBTQ community and that other marginalised communities have taught to me is that we are not required to cede the meaning of words to anyone, including to people with power or privilege. The GLBTQ community has said, for instance, that we refuse to allow words referring to gay men to be insults or to be diagnoses. That is not and must not be cannot be what those words mean.

Inspired by my GLBTQ friends, I’ve wanted to ask the question: Do we want to cede control of church words and/or moral words to people who use them in a screwed up way? Does evangelism need to mean aggressively pushing your faith on people who just wish you would get off of their porch? What if that word meant loving Jesus so much and finding so much freedom and joy and meaning in following Jesus that you want everyone to have what you have found?

And could words like should, like wrong, like immoral (or for that matter right or moral or grace) function not as triggers for shame, not as devices for shutting down debate, not as perpetuators of patriarchy but, rather, as catalysts for moral clarity?

The problem with inappropriate and its wishy-washiness is that all but invites one of the great rejoinders of our time:

That’s just your opinion.

Whatever the moral question is that may be before us, your response to it is just your opinion, it is one opinion amongst many, all of which are equally valid. And sometimes that’s okay, I guess. But sometimes it really isn’t.

I remember vividly my professor when I was in first-year university doing a thought experiment with our class. Imagine, he said, that there are a row of babies sitting on the floor, babies of every gender, every colour, every everything. And now imagine that I walked down the row of babies, kicking each one in the head.

Would any of you think that was okay?

No! Kicking babies is wrong. It is evil. That is not just my opinion. Such an action would be categorically, unequivocally evil.

Taking children away from their parents at the border is wrong. Selling guns that meet three-quarters of the test for being assault rifles to the general public is wrong. Snipers gunning down unarmed protesters as they near the Gaza Strip border is wrong. The way that human beings treat God’s creation is wrong. Allowing people to sleep on the streets of Portland because the rest of us more or less like things how they are is wrong. Marching through the streets of America with a Nazi flag and a Tiki torch is wrong.

In his marvellous sermon last week, Corbet talked about Jesus as teacher and, in particular, about Jesus as asker of questions – sometimes a great teacher will ask a question that just opens everything up, that changes everything. This week we see Jesus using another tactic of the great teacher, and that is he employs the strong moral language that we have been talking about, accompanied by a strong moral image.

Sometimes Jesus says to us, to his students, You brood of vipers not You people who are behaving inappropriately.

So, the disciples are walking along. Jesus has just told them that following him means taking up their crosses, but they have no idea what this means. We know that they have no idea because the text says so – they did not understand what he was saying. We also know that they have no idea because, talk of the cross notwithstanding, they start arguing about which one of them is the greatest. James says to Peter: I am way more holy than you. And Peter says: Are not. To which James replies: Am so.

Are not. Am so. Are not. Am so.

And Jesus interrupts them and he says:

What are you guys talking about?

And they immediately clam up. They are like, O crap. He heard us.

Jesus, of course, knows exactly what they were talking about. And so he says:

Sit down.

They sit down and Jesus sits in the middle of them. And he says: Whoever wants to be first must be last. Not “it would be appropriate for the first to be last,” not “This is just my opinion, but maybe the first could be last.” But the first must, must be last.

And then a child runs into his arms. And the two of them sit there for a moment, in the middle of the disciples, Jesus holding the little girl or boy.

Whoever welcomes this child welcomes me.

So, whoever welcomes the one without power or status or money or fancy words, welcomes me. And this teaching is underscored by where Jesus and the child sit, here in the middle of the circle of disciples. Is this the place where the teacher sits? Maybe it is. But remember that Jesus has just been talking about the cross, so maybe the circle represents something else. Because the middle of the circle is where the one who gets stoned by the mob stands, it is where the first martyr, Stephen, will die in a few years’ time. The symbol backs up the words: I am with those on the margins, I am with those who suffer violence. If you are my disciples, you must be here too, you should be here too.

The institutional church has worked pretty hard to make words like wrong and immoral and sin refer overwhelmingly to sexuality and then to make that into a source of shame. But the example of Jesus is that sin refers to something way more important than that. Maybe we could venture that sin is another way of saying selfishness. Sin is refusing to be last, refusing to serve. Sin is when we abandon Jesus and the child in the middle of the circle. It is when we say that I am safe where I am and I’m going to stay here.

We need words that talk about our calling, about our mortal duty as disciples. These words have been used in defence of a bent theology. But we don’t need to let that bent theology own them.

It is wrong, it is immoral, it is a sin to hang back on the edge of the circle. It is right to stand with Jesus, that is something that we should do. It is right to stand with the child, to be Jesus’ arms and hands holding that child within this hurting world. And here is the good news: when we say yes to that calling, when we risk stepping into the middle of the circle with Jesus, when we risk becoming last, we will find God’s freedom not only for that child but God’s freedom for ourselves.

[1] This argument is profoundly indebted to George Orwell’s Politics and the English Language.

Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost by Matthew David Morris

Blessing of the animals 2

Lessons:

Isaiah 5:1-7
Psalm 80:7-14
Philippians 3:4b-14
Matthew 21:33-46


There is a temptation to linger in the details of a saint’s life in search of a clue for how we might become more holy. If we crack the code of any given saint, perhaps we might know — at last — how to become the better people we’d like to be; the “better Christians”…whatever we think that means.

In the late 1990’s, there was a song in the Christian Contemporary Music genre (not my favorite genre, to be completely honest) that jumped out at me from the radio, and I still think of it on days like today, when we remember and lift up the name of a saint. The payoff line in the chorus went something like, “The saints are just the sinners who fall down and get up… who fall down and get up.” I always loved that line, because it dispelled some of the celebrity that we attach to the Christians who’ve lived and died before us. The song draws attention to the ordinary humanity that can be obscured by the extraordinary mythologies of sainthood.

Do a little digging into the life of Saint Francis of Assisi, and you will find a rich collection of stories to enjoy. They range from the mundane to the miraculous. You’ll hear of his early life as a wool-merchant’s son, his relative privilege, his high-minded military aspirations, and his near-supernatural conversion. There are stories of his gentility, which are reinforced by the iconography we see of Francis in the form of a mostly-bald headed hermit, surrounded by animals. That is maybe the most beloved, most comforting image of Francis. The Francis of the animals and of nature is a person who is so aware of God’s presence as Creator of all things that he is capable, in every moment of his life, of rejoicing in the full knowledge and love of God. This image of Francis is a lovely one to hold onto in our minds and hearts, and it has served as an inspiration for generations.

There is something so attractive — alluring, almost — about the peace and serenity we see in the statues of Saint Francis, popular among neighborhood gardeners. When he is cast in marble or concrete, Francis seems unbothered. The news of the world does not change his expression. The horrors that we have come to accept as a normal part of American life never move him. His face remains peaceful; his gaze resting softly on the stone bird perched on his stone finger. His heart, too, must be made of stone, this saint in stasis.

But the actual Francis — the Francis who fell down and got back up — had a heart that broke over the injustices of the world. The Francis that preceded the statuary was a small man in possession of what we might consider to be a completely irrational belief in God. His faith was not well measured, or safe, or polite. It did not obey the rules of etiquette. He was not a Christian who used the good china on Christmas, nor was he a Christian who wore his best clothes on Sunday. He was not a Christian who sought to impress other Christians with his piety, or his intellect, or his righteousness.

He was a Christian who recognized that the path of Jesus is a path of downward mobility. To follow Jesus — to become like Jesus — is to become perfectly dependent on God alone. It is to shun the idolatry of the world, with its preference for worldly comfort, in favor of radical fidelity to God.

It’s crazy. I mean, it looks crazy, and it sounds crazy to the modern ear:

Radical dependence on, and complete fidelity to, God….. and God alone.

Do we know what it feels like to have that kind of faith? Often, our faith is a contingent faith. A faith with strings attached. Our faith asks for assurances from God, because our faith has trust issues.

Sometimes our faith is like a dog with separation anxiety. It’s nervous that God is gone, and not coming back, and this metal cage that we’re stuck in is all that we’ll ever experience, and we’re afraid, and we’re lonely, and this is it. This is it. This must just be it. And in those moments of existential panic, we shore up our defenses with books, or ideas, or theories, or logic, or statues in the garden.

We rationalize our emotions, or we build up new theologies about God, or we take old ones apart. Our faith turns into a constellation of well articulated positions, well reasoned principles. Not too religious. Not too sentimental. We use our minds to hush our hearts, and to keep our fears at bay.

Other times, our faith is a performative faith. It is a faith built out of prayer book liturgies. A rehearsed faith. A well worn faith. It is a faith that has been bound up in the pages of a book that we read once a week. A regular Sunday faith, or a once-in-a-while Sunday faith, but in either case a faith that lives in a book, in a pew, in a building.

But this contingent faith, this fear-driven faith, or this performative faith…isn’t this kind of faith a heavy burden to carry? Is there not something more joyous… more liberative… more meaningful about our Christian faith than this? I certainly hope so.

I fall down regularly in my spiritual life. I am a person who puts his foot in his mouth, who fears the judgement of others, and who can slip somewhat easily into self-righteousness. If I’m not careful, I can make bold and uncritical proclamations about the nature of God, or about the role that Jesus plays in the fate of humanity, and I can do it all with an air of certainty that gives others the impression that I really know what I’m talking about. Some people might feel emboldened to possess this skill, but I take pause. The moment that my faith becomes an expression of certainty, I could just as soon be one of those guys preaching through a bullhorn; the pulpit, a downtown street corner. There is power in certainty, but it isn’t necessarily the power of the Holy Spirit. It’s more kind of human-generated power that puffs up the chest of an insecure person.

The faith with Jesus is not constructed from this kind of power. The downward mobility of Jesus, after which Francis patterned his life, is humbling. It makes men like me reconsider how we use our bravado.

It makes the bold and the boisterous take a second look at silence or quietness. It takes a self-assured person, who finds safety in securing a solid reputation, or who feels confidence with their ability to procure status or good standing in the community, and it challenges them — it challenges US — to see the glory of God in the face of the outcast. It asks us to become the outcast for loving the untouchables in a way that society says is foolish or unsafe. This kind of faith — this Jesus centered faith — makes a mess of everything we try to keep neat and tidy.

Now, there is nothing that anyone can say to force you into adopting this kind of faith. I’m not sure that even God, himself, could force it upon you. This is the kind of faith that dawns on a person in a dream; or the kind of faith that calls out to them like a voice emerging from the San Damiano crucifix, which said to Francis — “Rebuild my church.”

What would we do if we heard God speaking to us so plainly? Saying, Rebuild my church. Love me with a new heart.

It stirs the imagination to even consider such a question.

Francis was not made of stone, and neither are we. Our hearts are soft, and fragile, and resilient. We are affected by the news. We are afflicted by the injustices of this world. And we may even find ourselves on the precipice of asking, “What would it mean to have a faith like that of Francis? What would it mean to rebuild God’s Church in the places where it has fallen to ruin” — both in our own lives and in the world?

I cannot answer this question for you, but I believe strongly that it is a
question worth asking.

Jesus says that God’s truth is sooner revealed to infants than to the wise and intelligent. So let us become youthful fools like Francis. Let us remember that we are not statues, frozen to the world, but flesh and blood children of God. Let us set aside the burdens of any faith that we have built out of fear, or self-preservation, or hubris, and let us follow Jesus on his downward path of the cross. For his yoke is easy, and his burden is light. Amen.

Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost + Grace Art Camp Sunday + Welcome Back Sunday by The Rev. Martin Elfert

Lessons:

Amos 8:4-7
Psalm 113
1 Timothy 2:1-7
Luke 16:1-13

 

The story goes like this.

There is a man who so much money and so much stuff that he finds it necessary to hire an employee to take care of everything that he owns. This employee – the text doesn’t give him a name, he is simply the manager – is in charge of the rich man’s houses and cars and airplanes and exotic cats and mutual funds. Like a lot of rich people across history, the rich man comes to trust his manager, to depend upon him: he relaxes, he stops monitoring the manager’s work closely. And like a lot of rich people across history, he ends up disappointed: the rich man doesn’t realise how far things have gone off the rails until a friend calls him up and says:

“You know your manager? You might want to check on his work.”

And so the manager ends up in the rich man’s office. There to face the charge that he is squandering the rich man’s property. Whether “squandering” means something as serious as embezzlement or whether it simply means that the manager has made several big mistakes, Luke doesn’t say. Either way, the rich man doesn’t like the number at the bottom of the ledger sheet. He says:

“You cannot be my manager any longer.”

Now, this is the point in the story when the rich man probably should stop and seek the advice of a Human Resources professional. Because what he says to his manager next is:

“You’re fired.

“Partway through next week.”

The manager leaves his boss’ office. If you have ever been fired or laid off, if you have ever gotten an “F” on a test, if you have ever gotten the letter that says, “Thank you for your application, but…,” if you looked into the eyes of someone whom you loved and saw that she or he didn’t love you in return, you will know what is going on in the manager’s mind and heart and gut right now. He is fighting off tears, the room feels like it is rolling under his feet, he is wondering if he is going to throw up.

“What am I going to do?” he says.

“What am I going to do? I am not strong enough to dig. And I am ashamed to beg.”

And so the manager comes up with a plan. On the way out the door, he’s going to cook the books. And in particular, he is going to cook the books in the way that makes him as many friends as possible, in a way that generates a stack of favours that he can call in over the coming years. He knows everyone who owes the rich man money or goods. He goes to see them all. And he proceeds to give them twenty and even fifty percent discounts on their bills.

Up until now, the story is straightforward enough, unremarkable enough. It’s the sort of thing that you might encounter on the radio or on TV or on your phone on any slow news day. Kickbacks are commonplace, in the Ancient Near East and today. This story is, in other words, a minor cautionary tale. It might be another sad example of humanity’s dishonesty, but it’s nothing special, right? Except that Jesus, who loves reversal, who loves making things topsy-turvy, who loves taking the common and making it strange and wonderful and holy, grabs the steering wheel and turns hard.

The story spins around so fast that it’s amazing that it doesn’t flip over.

Jesus tells us that:

The rich man commends his manager because the manager has acted shrewdly.

The end!

That really is where the story finishes. Jesus does share some moral instruction with us (“if you’re dishonest in a little, you’ll be dishonest in a lot” – which may or may not shed light onto the tale that he has just told), but the story itself is over with the rich man’s commendation to his manager. This tale, in other words, is cut from the same storytelling tradition as the final episode of The Sopranos, in which we are hanging out in a diner with Tony Soprano and his family and listening to Don’t Stop Believing when suddenly

the screen goes blank.

What just happened?

Today at Grace is a Sunday of transition, it is a doorway between two times in our life together. It is a time of beginning, when we say “welcome” or “welcome back,” when we say “let’s get started.” The choir has been back for a couple of Sundays, Youth Group resumed meeting on Friday, the quilters and the Benedictine group and the team that puts together the Friday meal and the auction are all ramping back up to full speed. And it is a time when we name and celebrate what was, when we say thanks, in particular, for Art Camp.

When I arrived at Grace in late August of 2015, Art Camp had just wrapped up for the year. It was like the day after the carnival: the tents were still up in the courtyard, but the children and the counselors and the musicians and the artist-instructors were all gone. And so Summer 2016 was my first Art Camp. It was a joy to witness the music, the holy rambunctiousness, the curiosity. Two things in particular caught my attention.

First, at Art Camp, everyone – everyone – is invited participate in the joyous work of creativity, to be part of responding to beauty and of calling new beauty into existence. Art Camp, therefore, is an antidote to our wider culture, a culture that increasingly reserves creating art to the professionals: don’t you dare sing unless you can command a million views on YouTube, don’t you dare paint unless your work is hanging in the Louvre, don’t you dare dance unless you are onstage with Beyoncé. But Art Camp will have none of that. Art Camp says: Go! Go craft something out of glass or clay or paper, no matter how halting or goofy you may feel, go make beauty. Are you an artist? Well, if you are creating art, Art Camp says the answer is Yes.

Second, Art Camp is about turning outward, it is about empathy. When a group of people from this parish got together some twenty years ago to plant the seed that would become Art Camp, part of the genius of the model they crafted was that each summer would focus on a given country or culture. Art Camp has visited Peru, Greece, India, and this year, Alaska. And importantly, Art Camp has visited these places not as a tourist or as a voyeur or as someone hoping to appropriate or reform the culture that he finds there – this is not Rudyard Kipling’s White Man’s Burden – but Art Camp has visited with a curiosity and reverence for the culture that it meets. One of the highlights of Art Camp 2016 was the weekly visit by a pair of Native Elders who shared some of their people’s wisdom, who told some of their people’s stories. It was a gift to hear those Elders. It was a gift to see the rapt wonder with which the children listened to them.

In a real sense, what we see in Art Camp is a foretaste of the Kingdom of God. Art Camp isn’t just a fun thing that happens to meet at Grace and that could meet equally well at Lloyd Center. No. Art Camp is one of our core ministries, it is one of the reasons that Grace Memorial exists. Grace’s longtime rector Stephen Schneider says that the purpose of Grace Institute, the parent organisation of Art Camp, is to carry out this parish’s mission, but in secular language, in the language of the neighbourhood. And there is no question that Art Camp meets that goal. Even though the language and the symbols that it employs are often different that the ones that we use here on Sunday mornings, Art Camp is proclaiming the Gospel. It is inviting everyone to join with the creator in the work of divine artistry. It is inviting everyone to join with the creator in turning outward in empathy.

So.

Let’s track back to the beginning of the Gospel reading. And let’s notice who the audience is for Jesus’ strange and wonderful story about the manager who cooks the books. Over the past few weeks, we have heard Jesus talk to wealthy Pharisees, we have heard him talk to tax collectors and sinners, we have heard him talk to the crowd. But today he talks to the disciples, a group of people who predominantly or perhaps even entirely come out of generational poverty. These folks work in fishing and in carpentry, they have subsistence-level jobs, they own nothing but their clothes and a few tools. And if they know anything about debt, about one person having to pay something back to another, it is because they themselves are in debt, not because anyone owes something to them.

I want to suggest that the disciples’ economic status profoundly shapes how they hear this story. They do not identify with the rich man. Nor do they identify with the manager and his upper middle class job and upper middle class assumptions (“I am too weak to dig” are words these folks have never spoken – manual labour isn’t something that they can choose to opt out of). The people with whom they identify in this story are the ones who owe stuff to the rich man – the debtors are their people. Hearing this story through the disciples’ lens of poverty is a huge clue to where Jesus is going with it. Because when you strip the story down to its core, when you ask the question: in one sentence, what happens in Jesus’ story? The answer is this: the manager forgives debts. Or maybe even simpler than that: the manager forgives.

This choice to forgive is why the rich man (whom we may guess that Jesus intends as a stand-in for God) is so pleased with the manager, it’s why he commends him. Amazingly – and this just might be really good news for me and for you – God doesn’t care that the manager’s motivations were thoroughly selfish. God just cares that he has forgiven. It’s okay if you forgive because it makes you feel good, it’s okay if you forgive because you think you will get kickbacks for doing so, it’s okay if you forgive for no reason at all. Just forgive.

What God knows, and what you and I know, is that forgiveness changes something, it shifts something big. It changes not just the ones who are forgiven, but also the one who forgives. As immoral as the manager’s reasons for forgiving may be, he is made larger and more loving and more whole and more alive by his actions. It doesn’t matter that he did the right thing for the wrong reasons. It just matters that he did the right thing.

If you want to be an artist, then start making art. If you want to be the sort of person who forgives, them start forgiving.

And so this story, of all stories, is an Art Camp story. It is a story about participating in the holy work of creativity, of building beauty, of nurturing forgiveness. It is a story about empathy – even accidental or reluctant empathy, God can and will work with that – about turning outwards in reverent curiosity. It is a story about a manager who, like the artist-teachers and students and counselors at Art Camp, is surprised to find that, even though he’s not a lamp, every he goes, he is aglow with joy, with wonder, with the Kingdom of God.

Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost by The Rev. Martin Elfert

Lessons: 

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

Psalm 124

James 5:13-20

Mark 9:38-50

 

Listen to Sermon

 

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.