St. John's Episcopal Church

Sermon for September 30, 2018

The Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost

The Rev. Carol Hancock


St. John's, Centreville
September 30, 2018
Proper 21
Mark 9:38-50
     God of new beginnings, meet us where we are on our journey, imperfect as we are, and use us in ways we cannot imagine to make a difference in the world for you, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
     Our gospel lesson this morning is NOT one of those that makes us feel warm and fuzzy all over after we hear it. It is not a picture of "gentle Jesus, meek and mild." This lesson is full of violent images - tying a millstone around your neck, cutting off a hand or a foot or tearing out an eye. This doesn't sound like something we would expect Jesus to say. So what is going on? Why is Jesus using such violent language? To get the attention of his disciples and to get our attention.
     What Jesus is talking about is serious business and he wants to be sure that the disciples realize this. Jesus is heading toward Jerusalem where he will be arrested and crucified. He knows that he does not have much time with his disciples and he needs them to understand how important their work is, their work of spreading the gospel.
     John tells Jesus that he saw someone casting out demons in Jesus' name, but he wasn't "one of us" do John tries to stop him. Jesus tells John that it's okay, there is no need to stop him. It doesn't matter if this person is one of Jesus' followers or not. As long as he is doing good work and helping others, then it is okay. If he is doing good work, he would not be able to speak evil of Jesus. Whoever is not against us is for us. In other words, we have enough enemies, enough people who are out to destroy us. Let us not worry about those who are doing good things, whether they are followers or not. They might become followers at some point.
     This gets back to the problem of trying to identify who is "in" and who is "out". Jesus doesn't seem to care about those kinds of definitions, those kinds of boundaries. Unless someone is actively doing evil works and threatening to undermine the community of faith, there is no need to stop them.
     We find the same issue in our Old Testament lesson this morning. Eldad and Medad were prophesying but they had not come to the tent meeting and been commissioned to do that, as the other 70 were. Moses' reply to the one who is complaining is to wish the Lord's spirit would be on all people and all would prophesy.
     Jesus goes on to describe what should happen to someone who tries to make another person stumble, make another person sin, or tries to stop them from having a relationship with God. "It would be better if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea." That's pretty graphic. Jesus does not want us to underestimate the consequences we would face if we caused anyone to falter or turn away from God.
     How might we cause others to stumble? By talking one way and acting another. Talking about how we are all God's beloved children and then bullying someone or treating others like outcasts. Talking about God's good gifts and then hoarding them all for ourselves. Talking about God's amazing grace and then holding grudges against those who have hurt us in the past.
     Jesus then goes on to underscore the importance of not letting anything get in our way of following Christ. If our hand causes us to stumble, cut it off. If an eye causes us to stumble, tear it out. Now these verses are NOT to be taken literally! Jesus is not talking about self-mutilation. But he wants to get our attention and tell us about the seriousness of our actions.
     In the time of Jesus, people thought of hell as a fiery furnace, a place of torture and eternal suffering. Even today, drawings or cartoons give us the same image of flames rising high and people screaming in anguish. But then we have to ask why God who loves us and calls us each by name would send us to such a place for all eternity.
      My vision of hell is a place away from God. We all have a choice whether to follow Christ and his teachings or not. God will not force us to be a follower. If we choose not to, God will not force us to live our eternal life with God in heaven. I see hell as an afterlife that does not include God, but does include all the other people who have turned their backs on God, those who put themselves first in every situation and have no empathy or compassion for others, those who have not lifted a finger to help others in this life. To me that would be hell - a life without God and God's love and mercy, a life without being surrounded by a community of faith.
     Jesus uses shocking language to get our attention and to emphasize the importance of being and acting like Christians. What we say matters because others are listening to us. What we do matters because others are watching us. Christians don't get a day off from being Christians. We don't want to make another person stumble or draw away from Christ because of what we say or do, or how we treat each other. Our job as Christians is to draw others toward the love of God. That is our mission. That is our ministry.
     Because we are Christians, because we are followers of Jesus Christ, we cannot take part in anything that diminishes the soul of another person, that diminishes who they are as a child of God. Just as we would not stand by while someone is being physically attacked, we cannot stand by while someone's soul is being attacked. Anything that wounds the soul of another and makes them less than who they were created to be cannot be tolerated.
     Causing someone else to stumble in their quest to find God is a serious offence. We represent Christ in the world and to the world. We need to ask ourselves if our words and actions draw people to Christ or push them away. The world is looking for answers. They are searching for meaning in their lives, for inner peace, quietness and confidence. Followers of Jesus Christ know that the answers are found in God.
     Jesus is calling us to wake up and take our faith seriously, to speak and act in ways that draw others to Christ. Like the disciples, we, too, have the power, the ability to bring others to Christ by boldly living out our faith in this world - not to be served, but to serve, not to be first but last, to show others God's limitless love by our words and our actions. Jesus calls us to a richer, fuller life as his followers and calls us to lead others to God. That is our ministry, a ministry that cannot fail. Amen.
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