Proper 21B, September 27, 2015

September 29, 2015

Eliminating the Obstacles to Life
Mark 9:38-52

9:38 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.”

We called my grandfather on my father’s side, Tom. His name was actually Thompson, but Thompson really only makes sense as a last name, which is what his mother’s last name was, so they called him Tom. My father’s name was also Thompson, but he went by Buddy. I got my mother’s maiden name for my middle name, which was Williams, so I’m not Thompson Bernard Murray, III. If that had been the case they might have called me Trey or Bernie or something. But my parents decided to call me by this whole awkward mouthful of a first name – Thompson. I’m not really complaining. It’s a name that has served me pretty well. It’s not easy to say, so people aren’t that quick to call on me, and that’s ok. It’s probably good not to get selected for things from people who just met you.

Names are powerful things. It’s not easy to understand how our names affect our lives, but I’m sure we are all conscious of how our names are used. There are people and issues to which we are willing to lend our names and other things that we don’t wish to be associated with our names. Just this last week I heard from a young man I knew as a student at UALR who is in Haiti trying to get his Visa renewed. I don’t really know how these things work, but he had been living in West Virginia for the last few years working on a Ph.D, and he had to go to an American Embassy in a nearby country to get recertified to be here.

He grew up in a west African nation that is predominantly Muslim, and I’m sure he is being heavily scrutinized. I knew him to be a person who came to this country in hope of getting away from the backward religious practices of his family, and I was happy to give him a good recommendation. Marcus had converted to Christianity, but that’s not the only reason I was willing to give my name to his cause. I knew him well enough to trust his intentions, and I want to be associated with people who have good intentions regardless of their faith.

You might say I gave him my name. I wouldn’t do that for anyone, but I was happy to give it to him. I don’t have a particularly powerful name, but I gave him what I have.

We see in today’s scripture a situation where some of Jesus’ disciples were unhappy with the way somebody was using Jesus’ name. They weren’t upset about what the man was doing with the name of Jesus, but they considered him to be an unauthorized user of his name. The disciples don’t come across very well in this passage. They seem to be grasping for a technicality to disqualify a rival of some kind.

I don’t know if they were thinking this was an intellectual property violation or someone who was operating without franchise. But Jesus considered it to be a petty complaint. Jesus was more disturbed by the thinking of his disciples than by the behavior of the unknown man who was using his name to do battle with demons. Jesus knew that there are times when bold action needs to be taken to eliminate a problem, but the disciples were focused on the wrong problem.

The problem wasn’t that an unknown person was using Jesus’ name, the problem was that the disciples were wanting to be in control of who used his powerful name. This raises all sorts of issues about who is authorized to do what in the name of Jesus. The recent visit of the Pope brings a lot of attention to what you might call religious franchise issues. And we United Methodists have our own issues in regard to ordination. The issue of pastoral authority is and has always been a large issue for the church. The fact that this issue came up among the first twelve disciples was a bad omen for the Christian movement. I think the good news is that what Jesus taught is so resilient it has withstood every obstacle it has created for itself.

But Jesus warned us to be careful in regard to how we treat one another. If we aren’t careful we can use his name improperly. Jesus had no tolerance for anyone who used his name in such a way that it would cause a little one to stumble. We don’t really know if Jesus was speaking of a young person or a person who was new to the faith – it really doesn’t matter. Jesus had no tolerance for the misuse of sacred power, and he had some very clear advice for people who were inclined to use good gifts for bad purposes. I quote: It would be better for you if a great millstone were tied around your neck and you were thrown in to the sea. If your hand causes you to stumble it would be better to cut it off and to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell …

This is some curious advice. He doesn’t say it would be better for the rest of us if bad people were eliminated either altogether or in part, but it would be better for that very person. This is some powerful advice. He is telling us that there isn’t anything as threatening to us as this possibility of using our good gifts in bad ways. He says it would be better for us to be dead than to live in a way that causes others to stumble. Some might argue that Jesus engaged in some hyperbole to make a point, but I’m inclined to believe that this is what he thought. Preserving our lives was not a big issue for Jesus. Preserving our souls was.

I can’t read this passage of scripture without thinking of my grandfather, Tom. I spent a lot of time around my grandfather when I was growing up. He liked to hunt and fish and he made sure I had those kinds of opportunities. He went to Sunday School and church every Sunday, and he would leave at 12 noon if the service was over or not. Tom didn’t suffer from ambivalence. He did what he thought he needed to do, and that was it. I don’t think my mother found that to be a particularly endearing quality, but that was who he was.

Tom had a small stroke when he was in his late seventies, and it left the little finger on his right hand sort of curled up. It wasn’t a huge impairment, but it got in the way when he went to shake hands with someone. He liked to shake hands with people, and it really bothered him that his little finger would be in the way of that. So he went to the clinic one afternoon and he asked his friend, Dr. Beaton, if he would cut his little finger off just beyond that first knuckle.

Dr. Beaton wouldn’t do it that day in his clinic, but he made him an appointment at the hospital and he actually had that procedure done not long after that.

Now this isn’t exactly what Jesus was talking about. This decision to have the end of his finger cut-off wasn’t a bold act of soul-preservation. It was more along the lines of cosmetic surgery, but I do appreciate my grandfather’s sense of decisiveness. I don’t think my grandfather thought of himself as someone who always did the right thing, but he didn’t hesitate to do what he thought he needed to do to get what he wanted to get.

I think Jesus wanted us to have that kind of clarity, and the thing he wanted us to be clear about is who it is we are seeking to serve. Are we using our knowledge and our trust in the name of Jesus Christ to do battle with the demonic forces that continue to abide in our world, or are we lingering around and getting in the way of the little ones who have heard God’s call and are seeking to find their way in to the kingdom of God.

The threat of eternal damnation in hell isn’t as visceral for most of us as it may have once been. I’m inclined to think the decline in church attendance is directly related to the decline of fear of hell. I can’t site a study to that effect, and I’m not really bemoaning this development. I don’t think we were so well served by that particular version of the faith, but I do believe we need some urgency to get it right.

And when I say we need some urgency to get it right I’m saying that we need deep desire to get life right. I don’t think we should live in fear of spending eternity in hell. But we should have some fear of spending years on earth living in ways that dulls our souls and encourages others to do the same. I think I should have some fear of investing my life in a manner that uses up a lot of resources and produces no fruit.

Tom created a little fish pond when I was in elementary school. He stocked it with some catfish and bream and bass. We would go out there and fish every now and then and sometimes we would catch something he called a Ricefield Slick. It was sort of a bream-looking fish, but he didn’t like those slicks, and he would tell me to throw them on the bank. I didn’t quite understand at the time the difference between fish that grew to be good fish to eat and fish that just consumed resources and produced offspring without ever becoming edible. Throwing those fish out of the water always seemed a little harsh to me, but I would do as I was told, and I sort of get it now.

And it makes me hope God doesn’t view me as a Ricefield Slick.

These lives that we’ve been given are precious gifts. We’ve been given access to some power and some abilities that can be utilized in some beautiful ways. Jesus ended up speaking of us as salt. Few people love salt as much as I do, but we all know that a little salt can make all the difference in the way something tastes. I’m the kind of person who thinks a little salt can go on anything and a lot of salt can go on other things, so I really resonate to this challenge to become as valuable as salt.

I don’t know how salt can lose it’s saltiness, but given how inexpensive good salt is I don’t think there could anything of less value than un-salty salt.

Jesus is calling us to be good salt – to be the people who enhance the flavor of life. Jesus wants us to use his powerful name well. He wants us to use the power of his name to do the work of sharing God’s redeeming love. We need to get out of the way of the little ones who are finding their way to the path of true life and we must get in the way of those evil forces that bring misery and destroy lives.

We are called to become truly alive. May we have the wisdom to cut-off or let go of whatever it is that is keeping us in the grip of death. There are large decisions for us to make and how we use our lives makes a world of difference. We can be as valuable as salt for the banquet or as disposable as a Ricefield Slick in a catfish pond.

I don’t mean to scare anyone, but I think Jesus wanted us to have some fear of squandering the opportunity we all have to resist death and to find life. Thanks be to God for this seemingly irresistible invitation. May our love for God overpower the love we have for unessential things and enable us to live with true abundance.

Thanks be to God. Amen.


2 Responses to “Proper 21B, September 27, 2015”

  1. Earl Jones Says:

    Again, wonderful and clear sermon. Thank you

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