Sunday, September 26, 2021
Lectionary 26, Year B
Prayer of the Day
Generous God, your Son gave his life that we might come to peace with you. Give us a share of your Spirit, and in all we do empower us to bear the name of Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen.
Readings and Psalm
Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29 The Lord’s spirit comes upon seventy elders
James 5:13-20 Prayer and anointing in the community
Mark 9:38-50 Warnings to those who obstruct faith
Title: Disciples’ Light
In his book THE COST OF DISCIPLESHIP, Dietrich Bonhoeffer begins the chapter that is ironically titled: The Simplicity of the Carefree Life, with the following passage.
“The life of discipleship can only be maintained so long as nothing is allowed to come between Christ and ourselves – neither the law, nor personal piety, nor eve the world. The disciple always looks only to the Master, never to Christ AND the Law, Christ AND religion, Christ AND the world. They avoid all such notions like the plague. Only by following Christ alone can they preserve a single eye. Their eye rests wholly on the light that comes from Christ, and has no darkness or ambiguity in it. (pg. 192)
Perhaps someone should have read this to those first disciples as Jesus was beginning to conclude his iterant ministry through Galilee and neighboring provinces and preparing to travel to Jerusalem to surrender himself to walking the way of the cross, his passion and death.
Today we have heard the final verses of chapter nine of Mark’s gospel – a chapter that began with one of Jesus’ most glorious moments – the mountain top miracle that we call the Transfiguration, and the rest of the chapter has been all downhill for the disciples. Peter’s little phoepa about building a retreat center on the mountaintop so they can all just stay up there is nothing compared to what the disciples will display in the following passages. In the midst of the disciples follies, Jesus even asks them (rhetorically I’m sure) “How much longer must I put up with you?”
Now as mentioned before, Mark loves to build sandwiches to add meaning and impact to Jesus’ teachings, so here is one sandwich that this chapter nine offers.
First, as Jesus comes down from the mountains, he finds the other disciples in an argument with the scribes and a poor man who just wants to get his son healed of a possessing spirit. The disciples failed at it, which might have been why they were arguing, and the man has one of them most beautiful conversations with Jesus recorded in the shorthand of Mark. Jesus challenges the father to believe, and the man replies with the often quoted “I believe; help my unbelief.” A display of humility and honesty that is both moving and inspiring.
Following this we get the episode that we heard last week where Jesus is talking about his passion while the disciples are arguing over who is the greatest, and Jesus, pressing his point that he is about to display on the cross, being first means putting yourself last. Just like he did for the sake of the world. That’s the meat of the sandwich.
The other slice of bread that connects with first story, has the disciples concerned about someone who is casting out demons in Jesus’ name. Were they jealous because of their failure to do the same at the bottom of the transfiguration mountain? Jesus tells them not to be concerned, they are all working on the same side, and even sets the bar way low regarding acting in his name with the teaching that a cup of water given is the work of a disciple as well.
With the sandwich complete – (1) Jesus’ disciples are to act in faith, (2) disciples are to put themselves last, (3) disciples (even those you don’t know) act in faith, Jesus finishes the sandwich with, what? A garnish, or a side dish. Whatever you call it, it is some of the most troubling teachings he offers – if taken out of context and taken literally. We will do neither.
“If any of you (he’s talking to the disciples here) If any of YOU put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better if a huge rock was tied around your neck and you were thrown into the sea.” The little ones who believe, like that man who said “I believe, but not perfectly, I’m faltering here, help my unbelief.” The little ones, like the child he put on his lap when we was calling them to put their egos in check and lift up the small, the seemingly insignificant. The ones who belong to a different domination but are still doing the work Jesus has called us to do. “Hey disciples, in first century Palestine, in 21st century New York, don’t put anything in their way that might make them stumble.” What might that be? Think on it. Perhaps tell them that they have to be more like us to fit in to this diverse community of faith. Perhaps turn away from the struggles and pains that are challenging their peace and joy. Perhaps
Jesus continues keeping the focus on his disciples, past, present, and future as he admonishes them and us to not let anything stand in our way of doing the work he has called us to do. He does not say cut off one’s hand, no, it is cut off YOUR hand. Judge yourself. Examine your shortcomings. Expel from YOU that which is an obstacle. Recalling that we have just seen and heard that disciples act in faith and disciples humble themselves making themselves servants of all. For we are salt, that which preserves and keeps from spoiling that on which people are fed.
Bonhoeffer continues: As the eye must be single, clear and pure in order to keep light in the body, as hand and foot can receive light from no other source save the eye, as the foot stumbles and the hand misses its mark when the eye is dim, as the whole body is in darkness when the eye is blind; so the follower of Christ is in the light only so long as they look simply to Christ and at nothing else in the world. Thus the heart of the disciple must be set upon Christ alone. If the eye sees an object which is not there, the whole body is deceived. If the heart is devoted to the mirage of the world, to the creature instead of the Creator, the disciple is lost.”
However, Christ is our light. Nothing, not even death, will extinguish him or create an obstacle between him and his disciples. His light is there for us to see, to focus on, to be led by, to be comforted, to be warmed.
With some hesitation I set before you the hymn of the day. Sung with one mindset, it can seem rather judgmental of those WE think, like the disciples are acting outside of the inner circle. As you sing it or meditate on the words, don’t think of others, rather think on those parts of ourselves that continue to be obstacles – maybe not hand or foot or eye that needs to be removed, but in what way do we continue to be estranged, to have reluctant ears, to wander astray, or have conscience wounded. Let our prayer be that through the work of the Holy Spirit, our voices might be joined with Christ’s in speaking words of peace to this troubled world.
And thus our saltiness will not burn the wounds of others, but instead feed the peace that we are called to build and called to share.
The Rev. Mark Erson, Pastor