I am so honored to bring you a message today. I am grateful to God that our two communities can be engaged in the same work in our community, sharing the message of God’s love, and the good news of abundant life in Christ. As a small congregation, it can be easy to get discouraged about how much we can really accomplish. But knowing that you are here and that we have partners and friends everywhere we look, and even places we never thought to look, is encouraging. Your congregation is an inspiration to me, faithfully meeting and praying and learning about God’s word, challenging yourselves in leadership roles, and I especially appreciate the way you hold me and our congregation in your prayers always. Because of your example, we remember you every Sunday in our prayers as well as during the week.
Sometimes, especially in a small congregation, the people of God forget how expansive God’s love is. We can get focused on our own congregation or our own trials, our own lives. We’re not so different from Jesus’ first disciples. It makes me feel better to read about their questions and mistakes, because a lot of times I don’t understand what God is trying to teach me, either. In today’s reading the disciples are concerned because an outsider was casting out demons and they tried to stop him. The funny thing is, just a little earlier in Mark’s Gospel, those same disciples were trying to cast out demons and they failed. Now they are upset because someone else is doing the good work they couldn’t do. I don’t know if the disciples were jealous, or if they thought this outsider was making them look bad. The disciples didn’t like it at all. But Jesus liked the work of these outsiders. They weren’t outsiders to Jesus.
Sometimes we Christians can get territorial. We get possessive of our people, our area, even about the message of God’s love. But Jesus says, you can’t control God’s Spirit. It is bigger than your ideas of it. God’s Spirit is plentiful and goes out where it will. You can’t contain it. Every time humankind tries to contain God’s Spirit, we get a rude awakening. When the Israelites wanted to build God a temple, God wasn’t too happy about that. God liked being in a tent, a moveable tabernacle, so God wouldn’t be seen as only being in one place. When the Israelites were in exile in Babylon, they thought God was far away, until Ezekiel had a vision of a burning chariot with eyes all over it, and realized that God was right there with them and couldn’t be contained far away from the people who were suffering. When people thought they knew God, God came as the baby Jesus, to walk among the people and experience our life. Every time we think we can contain or control God, we get surprised by the expansiveness of God’s Spirit. No one group has a monopoly on God’s power and Spirit. And that is the joy we share as two congregations doing God’s work in this place. We are part of the same body of Christ.
Jesus says, “Whoever is not against us is for us.” I love this! People usually say, “Whoever is not for us is against us.” That is human nature. We suspect each other. We don’t trust each other. We put everyone not immediately related in the category of suspicion. But Jesus says that’s not God’s view. God knows the true story and that is that we all are related. We come from the same Creator. We all feel pain, we all bleed, we all have hopes and dreams, we are of the human family. God’s view is not of exclusivity. God says that unless we have good reason to believe that someone is against us, we must include them in our circle. And that is because God gives gifts to all God’s children, all God’s creation, and God doesn’t want us putting out stumbling blocks, barriers to anyone using their gifts, because that would be trying to put up barriers to God’s life-giving work. So to you this day, Church of God of Prophecy, I say, we are with you, King of Kings Lutheran Church is with you, and we give thanks that we are all doing God’s work and listening to God’s voice for the good of this neighborhood and for the advancement of the Kingdom of God.
Now humans are so predictable. We so easily put others on the outside and question the motives of others, but we give ourselves so much credit! The first Disciples weren’t even able to cast out the demon, but they guarded their closeness with Jesus. We, too, minimize our shortcomings and make excuses for ourselves. Sometimes this reading about cutting out eyes and limbs has been used to banish people who we see as sinners from our communities, or as ammunition to use against people we disagree with. However, this reading is about self-reflection. If it was about pointing out the sins and shortcomings of others, we wouldn’t have this part about putting a stumbling block in front of other people, which we do when we judge them and push them away from us. God is watching out for the ones we often criticize, the little ones: the children, the women, the widows and orphans, the foreigner, the sick or imprisoned, or poor, or grieving. God says instead of tearing people down who are little, who are down already, take a long look at ourselves and see what might be getting in the way of our wholehearted commitment to the reign of God. Whenever we do hurt people who are already suffering, we are cutting at the body of Christ, hurting his little ones, hurting this beautiful community that God has made of the people, putting out an eye in the body of Christ, or severing a foot or hand. I’m happy to say I agree with Pastor Juan that this is not a scripture about physically injuring ourselves! But it is pointing out how we injure the body of Christ when we sin and when we put out barriers and stumbling blocks to God’s people. And when we injure the body of Christ, we are only going to cause more stumbling. If your eye causes you to stumble, he says, tear it out. But that will only cause more stumbling. And the same with a hand or foot.
When we read this Gospel we realize how serious it is when we sin, when we put up barriers to God’s work among us, when we exclude little ones, when we hurt each other. I have to admit that I struggle with the concept of hell. There are several words that get translated as “hell” in the Bible. One is the grave, which is more a place of rest. This one in the Gospel today refers to the garbage heap outside of Jerusalem that was perpetually burning. Whether hell refers to a place of eternal torture, or the garbage dump, I think the message is the same. We should take our sins seriously, because they hurt especially the little ones, the vulnerable people around us. Whatever causes us to sin, we should figure out how it happened and work to find a way so that it doesn’t happen again. We should look at our lives and find out what we do that causes us and others to stumble, and root it out. We don’t want to waste the gift God gives us, throw it away, because we’re letting something get in the way. We want to use these gifts as God intended them, to serve the vulnerable ones.
I wish it was as easy as that to root out sin, to cut it out. But how do we cut out our fears that cause us to stumble? How do we cut out our jealousy? I am reminded of the scripture from Ezekiel. God is speaking and says, “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.” Our hearts are soft toward ourselves, but to others they can be so hard. God is trying to give us a heart transplant. Maybe it is the same with our eyes and hands. If we remove our eye or foot, we will just stumble more. That is the problem when humans try to fix it ourselves. But when we let God lead and heal us, we find God is replacing our eye with God’s. So now we don’t just see the short view or how something benefits us, but we start to see with God’s eyes. Where we once saw a stranger or foreigner or a threat, now we see with the eyes of God our brother and sister, a little one we care about. Where we once reached out in greed with our own hand, now we reach out with God’s hand in generosity. Where once we walked on our feet all the places we wanted to go, now we walk with God’s feet with direction and purpose to serve the little ones. Whereas once we were tasteless, now we are salty, a little bit going a long way, seasoning and influencing those around us. Whereas before we thought we were chosen by God for privilege and importance and riches, now that Jesus is correcting us, we see that we have been chosen for service, to be a blessing to others, to usher in the Kingdom of God.
We give thanks that God is merciful, because instead of cutting out all the parts of us that are sinful, Jesus took all those wounds upon his body on the cross. And he entered hell and conquered death that we might have eternal life and not be slaves to sin eternally. Instead we are raised with him to eternal life. So we move boldly forward, in the confidence of God’s love, not fearing that we might sin or make a misstep, but knowing that we are redeemed to serve for the flourishing of life.