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September 26, 2021
What were you hoping to hear this morning? Were you longing to hear Jesus tell you how much he loves you? To remind you to love God and to love your neighbor? To pray as he taught us?
I’m guessing you didn’t say, as you were taking a shower and getting dressed and grabbing breakfast, “I sure hope Jesus tells me to cut off my hand this morning…I really need to hear a word of encouragement to tear out my eyeball.”
It’s a good time to remind you that I don’t pick the readings that are assigned for each Sunday. They’re part of something called the Revised Common Lectionary, and we share them with our Catholic friends and with folks in several other Protestant denominations. So compare notes this week with your churchgoing friends from other places. How did we all make sense of these texts across different contexts?
This week I thought a lot about something that today’s gospel has in common with our first reading.[i] Let’s start with the gospel. At the beginning of the passage from the Gospel of Mark, one of the disciples, John, comes to Jesus to report with great concern that someone is casting out demons in Jesus’ name. I’m sure John expected Jesus to be indignant. “We tried to stop him,” John says. “He was not following us.”
Notice that Jesus doesn’t seem worried. Don’t stop him, he says. He’s doing good things in my name. He’s helping people who need help. That’s what matters.
Now let’s travel back several centuries to the situation described in the book of Numbers near the beginning of the Hebrew scriptures, what we think of as the Old Testament. Moses has led the people out of slavery in Egypt into the wilderness on their long trek toward the promised land. The people have quickly forgotten that life in Egypt as slaves was difficult and deadly. They act like they have left behind not slavery, but a Michelin star restaurant – oh, the fish! And the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the garlic! The people complain to Moses and then Moses complains to God: Where am I supposed to get meat to feed these people???
God’s answer to Moses is a little strange. God instructs Moses to gather together 70 elders who will be filled with the spirit and will prophesy, who will call the people back to a more faithful, patient way of seeing their situation. Curiously, most of those 70 elders say their piece and then quit. There’s no repeat prophesying. But two of them – Eldad and Medad – keep talking. They keep prophesying, keep imploring the people to do what’s right. Joshua, Moses’ right-hand man, comes running to Moses to report with great concern what Eldad and Medad are up to, saying, “Moses, stop them!”
But Moses doesn’t stop them. He wants to encourage them: “Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets,” Moses says. “And that the Lord would put his spirit on them.”
Two different situations, centuries apart. And in both cases, well-meaning people of God – Joshua and John – want to stop someone else from doing good work in the name of God. They try to act as gatekeepers for who’s allowed to speak and serve on behalf of the Lord. They want to hold a line between who’s in the inner circle and who is out. And in both cases they are chastised – one by Moses, the other by Jesus. Both Moses and Jesus say in their own way: Stop trying to limit the ministry of others.
It’s easy to sit here on a beautiful Sunday morning and laugh at Joshua and John. But the Christian church has a long history of drawing lines between who’s in and who’s out, who is worthy of doing the Lord’s work and who is unworthy.
As a woman who is also an ordained pastor, I encounter it more often than you would think. People take a few Bible verses out of context and tell me that it is not God’s will for me to be a pastor and that by pretending to be one, I’m a sinner. I am a sinner, but not for that reason.
I may have told you before about my friend Michael, but I want to share the story again because he was such a formative part of how I came to understand the way that God erases those lines that humans love so much.
I headed off to college many years ago with little to no understanding of what it meant for a person to be gay. That will strike the teenagers in our congregation as strange because they have the privilege of having a sophisticated understanding of what it means to be LGBTQIA+ as well as deep and beautiful relationships with people who identify as such. But remember that I grew up in the middle of South Carolina in the 1980’s, where we didn’t talk about those things at school, and we didn’t talk about them at church.
In college I had a vague sense of what it meant for someone to be gay. I also knew that some Christians thought it was bad to be gay. At that point I hadn’t done the deep study of scripture that would help me make sense of the question theologically, but I had spent enough time with the Bible to know that Jesus opened his arms to all people and was always saying to those who were judged or excluded: Come closer. I am here with you and for you. But my understanding was pretty underdeveloped at that point.
In the spring of 1993, a couple of months before graduation, my friend Michael came and asked me to come sit under one of our favorite trees on the Lawn, right in the middle of the University. We’d spent many hours together on the Lawn, but I could tell that something was different that day. Michael was usually energetic and quick with a snarky joke. On this day he was more contained, more serious…anxious even.
There, under that tree where we’d spent so much time, Michael told me that he was gay. His voice was tentative as he said the words. He could barely look at me. He seemed terrified. I honestly don’t remember exactly what I said, but I remember thinking that I loved him and I was sure God loved him, and that’s all that mattered to me. I think that I said something along those lines to Michael, telling him that God had created him to be exactly who he was, and that I loved exactly who he was.
I don’t remember my exact words, but I will never forget something Michael said to me. He said: I know how important your faith is to you, and I was afraid you would reject me once I told you. And that was my painful introduction to the fact that being Christian meant that I would sometimes be associated with judgment more than love, associated with exclusion more than exuberant welcome. In that moment I represented a church with a long history of excluding LGBTQ people from ministry and leadership, a long history of judgment.
There was a lot that I didn’t know in 1993. In the 28 years since then, I’ve learned as much as possible – about the experiences of my LGBTQ friends, students, and colleagues…about what scripture actually does say (which bears little resemblance to how it’s been misinterpreted and weaponized against LGBTQ people). I’ve learned – and continue to learn – what it means to follow a Jesus who says to us this morning: Do not put stumbling blocks in anyone’s way. Do not harm people simply because you don’t yet understand what you need to understand.
Nobody here this morning and no biblical scholar I’ve read believes that Jesus actually wants any of us to chop off a hand or a foot. But the thought of the disciples playing gatekeeper, the idea that his followers might create obstacles for those who are acting with compassion and care in the world – that kind of gatekeeping upsets Jesus. And so he exaggerates to make the point, but the point still matters: It would be better to hurt yourself than to hurt people who are being faithful and compassionate.
What were you hoping to hear this morning? The good news is that you don’t have to chop off your hand. The really good news is that Jesus isn’t interested in keeping people out or drawing lines of separation. The best news of all is that Jesus’ entire life and ministry and death and resurrection are about freeing us from judgment and exclusion. We are set free to erase those lines that have been carved between and around us.
We’re all going to have the chance to judge someone this week. For all kinds of reasons, some of which will seem entirely justified to us at the time. When we are in that moment, I hope we will pause and imagine Jesus looking at us pointedly, saying, “Are you sure about that? Be at peace with one another.” Amen.
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ
[i] As is so often the case, I am indebted to Debie Thomas for her weekly commentary, which significantly informed this sermon: https://www.journeywithjesus.net/lectionary-essays/current-essay?id=3158
“Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.” Mark 9:50
Let’s begin by putting today’s gospel in context. We pick up right where we left off last week, when we heard that the disciples were arguing about who among them was the greatest. Remember that Jesus responds by picking up a child and reminding them that what is most important is not status or power or hierarchy, but how we treat those little ones among us. Jesus challenges us to care for the most vulnerable – not just children, but all who long for safety and protection.
So as we begin today’s gospel, Jesus is still holding that child, firm in his conviction that his followers have a set of priorities that is radically different from the world around us.
But the disciples haven’t figured it out yet. They don’t seem to be listening to what Jesus is actually saying about that child in his arms. Instead they point their fingers at some guy who has been casting out demons in Jesus’ name – with success, apparently. We told him to stop, Jesus. He wasn’t doing it ourway. He wasn’t doing it the rightway.
It’s almost as if the disciples want to call attention to someone else’s mistake to distract from their own. They had gotten caught in a silly argument, but maybe if Jesus gets irritated with the amateur exorcist over here, he’ll forget about theirfoolishness.
Except Jesus surprises them. He doesn’t condemn the guy. Jesus says, basically, leave the guy alone. He’s doing good things in my name. Don’t worry about it.
Here’s where things get intense. Notice the shift that happens here. Jesus brings their attention back to the little ones – he’s still holding that kid – and begins to rattle off a list of dramatic consequences for those who do harm to the most vulnerable. If you do such harm, you would be better off being weighed down and tossed into the sea. Is it your hand that’s getting you in trouble, leading you to harm others? Cut it off. Your foot? Cut it off. Your eye? Tear it out. This is grim stuff.
I’m among the people who do not think Jesus is being literal here. Don’t go hacking off any body parts today, please.
But the point Jesus seems to be making with this vivid imagery is this: Don’t get so caught up in your judgments of others that you fail to take responsibility for your own behavior.
We don’t often talk about this kind of personal accountability because we rightly place the emphasis on what God does in our lives in spite of our sinfulness. We focus appropriately on what God has given us and continues to give us – love, grace, mercy. We receive those gifts not because we deserve them, but because God chooses to offer them freely. But God’s hope is that, having received these gifts so freely given, we would use our own freedom in ways that extend love and mercy to others, especially those who are not usually the first to receive love or mercy. Remember that Jesus is still holding that child, that little one who calls to mind all who are easily hurt by unbridled power.
Which leads us to the subject that we do not want to talk about but must – the reality of sexual violence in our world. It has been on my mind for a long time – in the horrific stories of friends who have been assaulted, in my volunteer work with a domestic violence organization in my 20’s, in the thousands of moments that I have felt vulnerable – as I crossed a dark parking lot or encountered someone aggressive on a train or refused to open my windows on a warm night because it would be too easy for someone to break in.
These last few weeks have been especially painful. We have heard more about the harm done to children in the Catholic church – abuse that was covered up and therefore allowed to continue. And while the depth and breadth of that abuse has been awful, no denomination – including our own – can claim to have protected children enough.
And this week discussions of sexual assault have been everywhere. To the extent that it’s possible, I hope that this morning we can set aside the particulars of the Supreme Court hearing. You are all smart people who can draw your own conclusions about those events. But this moment in our history calls us as people of faith to be more clear and more compassionate in how we respond to victims of sexual violence. If we don’t talk about it, we keep it shrouded in shame, which hinders the healing process for those who need it most and creates the conditions for the violence to continue.
The statistics are grim. Every 98 seconds an American is sexually assaulted. Women are more likely to be assaulted – 1 in 6 American women have been. And we often forget that men are also victims – 1 in 33 men in this country.[i] I knew these numbers, but this week I have been reminded again and again how many people I know personally who have been assaulted. The stories have poured forth – some of which I knew, and many of which I didn’t until now.
Sexuality is a gift from God. A beautiful gift, entrusted to us for the purposes of joy and intimacy in faithful relationships. But like other gifts from God, we can abuse it in ways that do great harm.
How do we respond as people of faith when sexuality has become so distorted in our culture and has gotten tangled up with power in dangerous ways?
We can begin by believing what scripture tells us – that each person is created in the image of God. Each body is holy and is to be treated as such. When we are in spaces where bodies are being objectified or sexualized with crude jokes or demeaning comments, we can speak up and make it clear that such talk is not OK.
We can do what Jesus shows us how to do so well. Remember that the longest conversation Jesus has in the Bible is with a woman who is at a well in the heat of the day because she is too ashamed to come in the early morning with the rest of the women. Jesus hears her. She goes and tells everyone she can find about that extraordinary conversation. We, too, can hear people’s stories, no matter how awful. We can listen to the stories of sexual assault survivors without downplaying the horror of their experience or making them feel responsible for what happened. If you need to talk about something that has happened to you, know that I am here to listen to you and support you.
We can pray for both victims and perpetrators of sexual violence. We pray for healing, for transformation, for a world in which this abuse of power will no longer exist. And we can work to make that world a reality.
We can teach our children and teenagers about respecting their own bodies and those of other people – about consent and the deep importance of being clear and careful in our most intimate relationships.
Jesus ends today’s dramatic message to his followers by telling them to have salt in themselves. It’s a strange thing to say, but remember that in the ancient world, salt was more than a preservative or a seasoning. It was also a purifier. People were instructed to add salt to their sacrificial offerings to God as a way to seal the promises they were making.[ii]
And so Jesus calls us now – in this time and place – to be salt. To purify what has become toxic in our culture. To create relationships in which each person is held sacred. To keep safe God’s children of every age. Amen.
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ
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