A sermon preached on September 27, 2009 based on Mark 9:38 – 50.
If you read the Gospel of Mark, you know the disciples don’t come off too well. We’ve seen this in the last two Sunday readings:
*Two weeks ago we heard how Peter tried to “correct” Jesus’ understanding of his mission – the fact that he must suffer and die – and how in Jesus rebuked him, calling him “Satan.”
*Last week we heard that when Jesus continued to speak of his impending suffering and death, in their discomfort the disciples avoided the whole subject. In contrast to the extreme humility and his intention to offer his life up as a servant, the disciples get caught up in an argument among themselves regarding who is the greatest.
Elsewhere in the Gospel of Mark we hear about …
*the disciples trying to persuade Jesus to send the hungry crowds away, in response to which Jesus asks them to give up the food they have brought, thereby bringing about a miracle that feeds the five thousand people.
*They try to keep the children away from Jesus, assuming the children are not worthy of Jesus’ attention, evoking Jesus words, “Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them; for to such belongs the kingdom of God.”
*They get anxious in the boat when a storm blows up, and then angry, waking Jesus from his sleep, saying, “Don’t you care?!”, evoking a rebuke by Jesus; “O men of little faith, why did you doubt?”
*And of course there is the whole debacle of the night Jesus was arrested – how the disciples said they would be there for Jesus, and then run for cover, with Peter three times denying he ever knew Jesus.
Now the point that Mark is making isn’t what dummies the disciples were in contrast to ourselves; rather, how very human they were, and how hard it is for us human beings to shed the world’s way of thinking as we attempt to get a hold of Jesus’ way of thinking.
This week’s Gospel lesson provides yet another instance of this theme: The disciples come upon a free lance Christian who, in the name of Jesus is casting out demons from possessed persons, and they command him to stop it, because he isn’t one of them. When they tell Jesus about this encounter, they assume that Jesus will pat them on the head for maintaining order, but instead Jesus rebukes them, saying.“whoever is not against us is for us” a story that anticipates a long history of dissension in the Church.
We are accustomed to hearing the Pharisees come off as the “bad guys” in the Gospels. Time and again they criticize Jesus for performing miracles of healing on the Sabbath day, because for them the most important thing is keeping the law, and the law states that people shouldn’t work on the Sabbath. Their obsession with the rules keeps them from acknowledging the good that is there in plain view — this act of compassion and healing relieving the pain of people with various afflictions.
In this morning’s story the disciples are acting rather like the Pharisees. They are so pre-occupied with the fact that this free lance Christian isn’t a part of their group following their protocol than they fail to recognize the simple goodness of what he is accomplishing — bringing serenity and focus to people oppressed by psychic forces that cause them inner-violence and misery.
It is tough, sometimes, to make sense of scripture. There are a number of reasons for this. We don’t understand the cultural context in which the words were originally spoken. There’s the issue of the early scribes who made copies of the earliest manuscripts, and some times took liberties: for instance, in this morning’s reading we heard three separate times a riff about the fires of hell never going out. In the earliest manuscripts, there is only one such riff; an early editor apparently liked the sound of that phrase, adding it two more times, thereby giving it an emphasis that wasn’t originally there. There is the issue of each of the writers having their own axes to grind, and sometimes they weren’t God’s ax, and how, for God’s sake, do you tell which is which?
And then there is the use of hyperbole – a figure of speech used to make a point by exaggerating a point. It is safe to assume that Jesus didn’t literally want people going around plucking out eyes, and cutting off hands and feet in order to avoid sin, although there was an early church father who apparently was distracted in his prayer life by fantasies of dancing, nude women, and took it upon himself to cut off a certain part of his anatomy in order to lessen the distraction.
When we read scripture, we do well to listen with our hearts as well as our heads. In Mark’s Gospel, a primary image for what sin is all about is the “hard hearts” – an expression used in the Old Testament for Pharaoh and others. The image implies that our hearts develop hard walls around them, so that access to our hearts is cut off. You may remember that when John Wesley experienced the grace of God in Jesus at Aldersgate street, he described the experience as one of having his “heart strangely warmed.”
This image also helps us understand the appeal of children for Jesus. Children aren’t perfect, but generally speaking, children don’t have hard hearts. They have access to what they are feeling – the truth that is within them. Overtime something happens to all of us as we grow up that we develop this hardness of heart. Oftentimes it feels like a necessity: How will we survive in this world with soft hearts? But something essential – something that keeps us in touch with truth with a capital T – gets lost in this process.
Our bodies are hardwired by our Creator for truth. Why do lie detector tests work so well? Because inside the vast majority of us, there is something in our “hearts” that isn’t comfortable with a lie. A lie registers in the physiology of our bodies. Scientists have also been telling us things like there are enzymes in our mouth that are released that fight off the flu when we are motivated by compassion. They tell us that people live longer and happier when they are forgiving and connected to others in love. The truth with a capital T is inside us. In our hearts, we know what is true. But over time, the world we live in leads us away from this Truth. We become indoctrinated in a world view that blocks access to our heart.
Most of us read Mark Twain’s “Huckleberry Finn” when we were in school. There is that classic scene where the thirteen-year-old Huck is making his way down the river with Jim, the escaped slave. The world he has grown up in has taught him that what he is doing – aiding and abetting and escaped slave – will destine him to burn in hell. But Jim has become his friend – in his heart he knows that Jim deserves freedom. And so he goes with his heart – assuming that in doing so he is consigning himself to hell.
So in our heart of hearts, we know what is good and true. The passage gives us some clues in this regard: It is good when a person who has been plagued by inner psychic forces that block the life-force and their capacity to love is somehow brought to a peace and clarity whereby they are free to live and love. This is good, pure and simple.
It is good, Jesus indicates, when you give a drink of water to someone who is thirsting. This is good, pure and simple.
It is good to care for children, and conversely, it is bad to abuse them.
The us vs. them mentality that separates the human race isn’t good. Attempts to overcome this barriers are good.
Many of you will remember Myra Heitschel, a long term member of our church who died a few years back. Myra suffered from severe diabetes that in the last years of her life led to first her toes, then her feet, then her legs being amputated. It was very hard for Myra and her husband Hank who loved her so, but throughout it all, Myra’s heart stayed warm. Her capacity for love was not blocked. Beneath her deteriorating body, her soul was whole.
This is serious business, Jesus is saying. Your soul is at stake here. Our culture is pretty enamored by physical beauty, and repelled by people with physical disabilities. We admire the beautiful clothes of beautiful, rich people, and we turn away from the stench of the poor. But Jesus would have us remember that you can have body beautiful and expensive clothes and still have a hard heart that is endangering your soul. If we lose access to our heart, which, in the end, knows what is true and good, there is a very real sense in which we are damned.