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September 27, 2015 - Mark 9.38-50

“Life or Consequences”

Mark 9.38-50

September 27, 2015

 

38 John said to him, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” 39 But Jesus said, “Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. 40 Whoever is not against us is for us. 41 For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.

42 “If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea. 43 If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. 45 And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell. 47 And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell, 48 where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched.

49 “For everyone will be salted with fire. 50 Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.”[1]

 

My sons once had a computer game called SimCity 3000.  In it, he gets to manage a city, building its infrastructure like water, utilities, running the police and fire departments, and zoning property, for residential, commercial and industrial use.  I have found this to be very instructional for even myself on the rigors of managing a city’s affairs.  (OK…I played the game)  One of the most challenging things in the game is waste disposal.  It is truth of any culture or civilization that it has to have a place to dispose of its waste.  That is reflected in the game.  In fact, property values are one way you “score” points in the game.  If you are smart, you never put the waste disposal property anywhere near where you might one day put your residential property, because no one wants to live near a garbage dump.  Property values drop when you smell the landfill on your back porch.  As a society, we like to pretend that when we throw something away, it actually goes away, that it doesn’t actually end up somewhere, on a pile, with other discarded parts of our lives.

 

In the text today, Jesus makes reference to a garbage heap – gehenna.  It’s one of the words the Bible uses that we translate “Hell.”  Yep.  Hell is a garbage heap.  Gehenna was this valley just outside of Jerusalem, that Josiah condemned in 2 Kings 23 because of the pagan human sacrifices that went on there, forever condemning it as an unholy place.  So, Jerusalem used it as a garbage heap.  What do you do with garbage?  You burn it.  This was a huge garbage heap and the fires never went out.  It was a vivid picture, one designed to overstate his point – a hyperbole – in order that his point might settle in. 

 

Jesus says that it is much better for us to lose an eye, hand, arm, or leg for the kingdom of God that to be thrown into Gehenna whole.  “Don’t Find Yourself in Hell!” Jesus is saying.  At all costs, we are to shun Hell.  In verse 9:42 Jesus tells them that whoever causes one of the mikroi "little ones" in the church to stumble would be better off to be thrown into the sea! Then, there follows a list Jesus gives us of horrible consequences that result from bad behavior.

 

Jesus is warning us – his disciples – about the perils of treating that which God loves like trash, like garbage, like refuse to be thrown away and forgotten about.  Hell is by definition, a place of separation from God, and it is to be avoided at all costs.  Jesus is talking here about people which he is about to die for, so we need to pay attention, and the people he is warning to stay away from Gehenna are his disciples.  What impresses me, in my encounter with this text, is Jesus' exaggerated assault on our senses as he discusses the consequences of anyone who would lead these little ones astray.

 

God has created us as responsible beings. Our actions have consequences. Although the grace of God in Christ accepts us as we are, in our baptism, we lay claim to a call: a call to follow Christ, to walk in his way, and to glorify him in all that we do. If we fail to live as we ought, then there are consequences. We must not separate the love of God from the judgments of God.

 

Context:  John comes to Jesus hoping to be praised for attempting to stop an unnamed, unauthorized “outsider” from using Jesus’ name to exorcize demons.  Jesus takes the view that anyone who is able to exorcise in his name should be free to do so.  The issue is not if the man is acting in the name and power of Jesus, it is that his name is not on the official list of spiritual care providers.  He is not part of the chosen establishment.  He is an outsider; not one of us.

 

I have these matters on my mind just now because today's Gospel, as I hear it, affirms two essentially, peculiarly Christian ethical insights: 1) Though Jesus forgives us and loves us, he has high expectations for those of us who attempt to follow him as his disciples. We are expected to live, not only for our own good, but also for the good of others. 2) We shall be held accountable; we shall be judged; there are consequences for our behavior.

 

When we talk of hell, we often focus on words of damnation, of judgment as punishment.  Yet we should be able to recognize in Jesus’ words here their true direction, which to guide us to grace. 

 

We must be honest.  We are all sinners.  Hell is what we all deserve, if we are honest.  But we have an option.  We can follow Christ.  That doesn’t mean that we are to agree with the idea that Jesus was probably a nice guy.  It means that we are to be completely committed to Christ, beyond our own ideas, agendas or plans.  We are to follow Christ, even though it might cost us a limb, or at least, a huge portion of our ego.  At my best, I stand before you a one armed, one-eyed pastor.  Because that would mean that I do value my commitment to God more than my supposed integrity or pretense of righteousness.

But our PRIDE gets in the way. We don’t want to be guilty of anything.  Having grown used to the polite verbiage of modern-day counseling we speak of "having guilt feelings" rather than actually acknowledging our guilt I found myself delighted by the pithy language and imagery of the early monks. Here, for example, is the seventh-century monk of Sinai, John Climacus, on the subject of pride, from a book that is still read in Orthodox monasteries during Lent:

Pride is a denial of God, an invention of the devil, and contempt for men. It is the mother of condemnation, the offspring of praise, a sign of barrenness. It is a flight from God's help, the harbinger of madness, the author of downfall. It is the cause of diabolical possession, the source of anger, the gateway of hypocrisy. It is the fortress of demons, the custodian of sins, the source of hard-heartedness. It is the denial of compassion, a bitter Pharisee, a cruel judge. It is the foe of God. It is the root of blasphemy.

Welcome to the truth: that's the feeling I have when I read such a text.[2]

 

Is following Christ at the core of our being?  Is it something too precious to be surrendered lightly?  Or is our Christianity merely a matter of convenience, of taste, of social acceptability, something so lukewarm that it turns God’s stomach like the smell of a garbage dump, something that we shelve at the slightest discomfort or inconvenience?  Belief that is easily set aside cannot be the faith that Jesus calls for among his disciples.

 

The disciples are urged not to lose their distinctiveness, not to succumb to the pressures to adopt the standards and ethos of the dominant social culture.[3]

 

In C.S. Lewis’ novella The Great Divorce, Lewis gives us a reimagining of Hell, as to what it would look like.  It looks like the biggest, most vast city imaginable, reaching to infinity.  People there are able to have what they want simply by imagining it.  Want a house - poof – there’s your house.  Only problem is, the city is in complete shambles, disrepair, a ghost town, even though its population is in the billions.  People build their house, and then move because they can’t stand their neighbors, so they move.  Then they can’t stand those neighbors, so they move.  This happens until people live incredible distances apart.  Those who are exceptionally evil, such as Caesar, Napoleon, Genghis Khan, live light years away from everyone else. In Lewis’ imagination, Hell is Gehenna incarnate – a place where no one can stand anyone not like their ownself.  They throw themselves away.

 

We risk nothing to maintain our own comfort, and in doing that, we chart our own course for hell.  Not only are we unwilling to give up an eye, hand or foot, we are often guilty of cherishing our own time, money or social separation more than we cherish our task to be Jesus to people around us. We say things like: “Well, those black folks have their own churches they can go to…he’s one of them Sprayberry clan folk, we know what their like, what’s the use…he’s been a drunk for years, what could I possibly do that might change that?”  Those things are excuses, and they stink like garbage in the nostrils of God because those are the kind of things “good” people say that keep “other” people on track for hell.

 

Hell is a place where garbage is thrown.  Where is that place?  Where is Jesus talking about in today’s culture? 

When I worked at a hospital as a chaplain, I was once called to that wing of the 5th floor that we never liked to go – the psychiatric ward.  I was called because a patient wanted to talk to a chaplain.  She was there, in her room, alone - a bed, a chair and nothing else.  She said, “they are sending me away to some place.  They are throwing me away for good.”  She felt like trash – and who is to say she wasn’t being treated like it?

We have people this day living in mental hospitals, and though that might be in Jamestown, the address of their home is actually gehenna, because so many have thrown them away in their minds.  Some people are taken care of very well in nursing homes, and they can be great places when you need them, but too many residents of them actually live in the Gehenna care center, because they have been thrown away.  Some people live on such and such a street in the projects or slums of this world, but their address might as well be Gehenna.  Gehenna Penitentiary is filled to capacity.  Any place that we put people and forget about them is Gehenna, and Jesus says that these people are people he loves and did die for.

 

A professor of preaching, William Muehl, once preached a sermon in which he lamented the moral laxity of contemporary America. In the sermon, he told the story of seeing a crowd of children emerge from kindergarten on the day before the Christmas holidays. Each child bore in the hands a gift that had been made out of clay for parents.

On the way out to the parking lot, one little boy tripped and lost his grip on his gift. The little clay dish broken into a dozen pieces. He let out an anguished wail. His mother rushed toward him, and in an attempt to comfort him said, "That's all right honey. It doesn't really matter. It's the thought that counts anyway."

Through his tears the little boy cried, "But it does matter, it really does matter a lot." Meuhl went on to say that some contemporary clergy have vainly attempted to respond to the moral decay in America by telling people that, when all is said and done, their moral failures are really not so important. When faced with separating marriages, drug and alcohol addiction, abused and neglected children, and pornography, we have been too willing to say, "Don't cry. It doesn't really matter."

But to do so is to rob people of their human dignity. It does matter or else our actions do not matter, our lives do not matter. To refuse to hold people accountable for the way that they live their lives is to treat them as less than responsible human beings.

 

Now, let's each take a moment and apply this word to ourselves and our lives. How am I meeting the expectations of Jesus for my life in the way I live with others inside and outside of the church? What do I need to change about the way I live my life that will enable me to respond to Jesus' call to be salt and light to all that I meet?

 

 

[1]The New Revised Standard Version, (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers) 1989.

[2] (Kathleen Norris, The Cloister Walk, Riverhead Books, 1996, p. 126.)

[3] Bruggemann, Walter; Texts for Preaching, Year B, p. 530.