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A Sermon on WX 2015: How Jesus uses Stumbling Blocks and Useless Salt

Mark 9:38-50

John said to Jesus, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” 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…

“For everyone will be salted with fire. 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.” (Read the whole passage)

Sermon

It seems like the disciples may have finally pushed Jesus over the edge this week.

Peter was rebuking Jesus a couple weeks ago, which caused Jesus to answer by calling Peter Satan and telling him to start getting with the program or else. Last week, Jesus found the disciples arguing amongst themselves about who is the greatest, and Jesus’ annoyance was clear.

But this week, John, the beloved disciple, comes to Jesus with a dubious complaint. He says, “Someone was casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because we not following us.”

Wow, John… Is this grade 3 where we tattle to the teacher?

Wasn’t it just a few weeks ago that Jesus said, “if you want to become my followers, deny yourselves…”

John has clearly not been paying attention.

And we know that Jesus in Mark’s gospel can be harsh. He called the Syrophoenician woman a dog a few weeks back.

But Jesus’ response to John is more than harsh. Jesus really rips into John and other disciples for failing to get it.

“If would be better to be tossed into the ocean with a millstone around your neck, than to be a stumbling block to one of these littles ones.” Jesus begins.

“Cut off your hand if it is the problem. Cut off your foot if it is getting in your way. Tear out your eye if necessary.”

If throwing people into the ocean to die, or cutting off body parts sounds extreme it’s because it is extreme. But this is not an instructional manual on how to deal with sin.

Jesus is trying once again to make the disciples get it. To make the disciples understand just how much they are getting in their own way. He is trying to express just how frustrating it is to have a bunch of followers who are so focused on themselves and how he doesn’t have time for John’s self-centred non-sense.

It goes without saying that we might be uncomfortable with this frustrated Jesus. And not just because Jesus is supposed to be gentle and nice, but because John’s actions are familiar to us. We too struggle with wanting to be clear with who is in and who is out when it comes to our families, friends, neighbours and churches. We don’t have to look much farther than the niqab and citizenship ceremony debate to be reminded.

Last weekend, I attended the Why Christian? Conference in Minneapolis. There, I was reminded of just how much like John we can be.

The conference was organized as a response to the vast majority of other conferences for Christians that exist. Most conferences feature white, male, middle aged and older speakers who are brought in as experts to lecture attendees. If women or people of colour are asked to speak, it is usually tokenism. One women out of 20 men. One person of colour out of 20 white speakers. And women speak to women’s issues. People of colour speak to issues facing ethnic minorities. They are never asked to experts on the real stuff.

Why Christian? was not a women’s conference. But the two organizers were women. A Lutheran Pastor from Denver and a Christian Author and Blogger from Tennessee. And all 11 of the keynote speakers were women. Straight women, gay women, women of colour, young women, transgender women. And all of them pastors, authors, writers, professors and leaders in Churches throughout the United States. All of them have been and still are being told that they shouldn’t be allowed to do their work, to lead people of faith because of their gender, the colour of their skin, because of who they love, because of their age, because of their tattoos or their voices or the clothes they wear or any number of arbitrary reasons.

It makes us wonder… what would have John the disciple said to Jesus about them?

John would have objected and tattled on them too.

But here is the thing about John.

Jesus called John out of a fishing boat and John has forgotten that. Jesus called him even though the people in power, proper upstanding appropriate people would have objected to Jesus calling a lowly fisherman to be the disciple of an important rabbi, to a position of status and privilege.

Or maybe John hasn’t forgotten… and maybe that is why he is tattling on this person who is out doing Jesus’ work in the world despite not being part of the club. John is worried that Jesus might replace him. John and the other disciples had just failed at casting out demons… Jesus might be on the lookout for new and improved disciples who can get the job done.

John should know better than to tattle on the outsider, because he has been one too. John as been both an outsider and an insider. Both one who has been deemed unworthy and now one worthy of privilege.

And whatever the reason John is tattling to Jesus, whether he has forgotten where he comes from or whether he is afraid… maybe Jesus’s extreme frustration with John has less to do with the fact of John being a stumbling block and more to do with that thing inside of John, the source of that forgetfulness and fear that is keeping John from realizing just who gets to gate-keep the Kingdom of God.

Jesus is frustrated because John’s sinful self is making him forget that Jesus decides who is in and who is out. Not John, not us.

As I listened last weekend to speakers who almost certainly wouldn’t have been given the chance to speak at any other Christian Conference, it was incredible to hear these women tell their stories, and as the name of the conference, Why Christian? suggests, answer the question of Why Christian? Why continue in a religion, tradition and institution that so often seeks to silence their voices in the very name of these women follow.

It was incredible to hear these women speak because even as they all had stories where some well intentioned but misguided disciples like John had told them that they weren’t worthy of doing God’s work because of their gender, their skin colour, their sexual orientation, their impropriety… even as they all their stories of being shut down and pushed to outside by John…

They also had stories of being welcomed and brought back in by Jesus.

They told the 1000 of us who gathered in beautiful and appropriately named St. Mark’s cathedral about the ways in which Jesus continually draws them back to Christianity. How Jesus draws them in by being outraged along with them at the injustice they experience. How Jesus draws them in by declaring that they are beloved and that they belong. How Jesus draws them in through the grace and mercy filled word of God, draws them in through the cleansing water of baptism, draws them in through bread that gets faith under our fingernails in the Lord’s Supper, draws them in through the community that swirls around in the cup of wine.

They told us how Jesus continually draws them back and offers them a place in the Kingdom.

And the stories those women told about Why Christian? tell us something about us.

We are all like John.

We have all been both the ones on the inside and on the outside. We have been told we aren’t good enough to do God’s work and we have told others the same. And we have done so because of our forgetfulness and our fear.

We have done so because of our sin.

And just when Jesus is enraged by the fact that we don’t get it. Just when he seems to be annoyed to the extreme with John and us.

Jesus pulls it back together and Jesus talks about salt.

Salt that acted as currency, food preservative, and fertilizer. Ancient impure salt that had the habit of going bad and becoming useless. Salt that once it became flavourless white powder had no purpose.

No purpose but one.

To be thrown on the roads where it helped keep the roads flat and walkable.

Kind of opposite to stumbling blocks.

Even though like John, we get in the way of our brothers and sisters, even though we have a habit of making things messy and complicated. Even though our sinful selves prevent us from seeing what Jesus is up to… Jesus has a use for flavourless salt.

Jesus has a use for people on the inside who are afraid of losing their place. And Jesus has a use for people on the outside who are excluded because of their gender, their skin colour, their sexual orientation, their voices and tattoos, their lowly jobs and lack of social standing.

Jesus has a use for us.

Because we are both. We are insiders and outsiders. We are tattling on each other and the ones being tattled on. We have been the ones trying to be gate-keepers, and we have all been told we aren’t good enough.

And for Jesus… none of that matters.

Because Jesus decides who gets to be part of the club, who gets to be disciples, who gets to speak, and teach, and serve on his behalf.

And Jesus decides that his kingdom will be full of stumbling blocks AND useless salt. Jesus decides that is Kingdom will be full of people just like you and just like me.

Insiders and outsiders

All beloved by God.

Amen. 

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Noah, the Silence of God, and Holy Week

We are in the last few days of Lent before Holy Week begins. As one who bears the responsibility for planning, preparing, presiding and preaching for Holy Week, the coming days will be busy, full and emotionally draining. As a pastor you carry, whether you like it or not, the emotions of your people. The anticipatory expectation of a saviour on Palm Sunday. The dread of Maundy Thursday. The deep guilt and grief of Good Friday. Finally the joy of Easter Sunday. It can be a roller coaster of emotions through the week.

imagesOn the brink of Palm Sunday, with palm branches ready and Hosannas waiting to be sung, I have been constantly coming back to the movie Noah. Last week I wrote a review of the Movie on some of the Biblical themes, and in particular the Christological symbols. Like I said in the review, I thoroughly enjoyed Noah and found it to be rich and deep movie. However, one symbol I didn’t say too much about was the silence of God.

*SPOILER ALERT*

While God never actually speaks in the movie, God is a noticeable presence. The characters in the film regularly reference the fact that God has not spoken to human beings in a long time. The filmmakers have said that they didn’t want to put words in God’s mouth, and others have noted that none of us hears God’s voice in that way. God’s silence is something we can resonate with. Any person of faith has struggled with feeling God’s absence and experienced God’s silence.

However, the reason I keep coming back to the silence of God in Noah has more to do with the ‘why?’ of the matter. Why has God chosen to be silent with creation and especially silent with human beings? What has driven God to refrain from speaking with these little creatures that God cares so much about?

The opening scene of the movie is Cain’s murder of Abel. This theme of murder in human relationships, with each other, and with creation permeates the movie. Humanity’s ability and capacity to kill becomes the relevant question at the climax of the movie.

I have a theory as to why God remains silent. I think the murder is so offensive to God that God can’t bear to speak to humanity again. God has created this beautiful, fragile, precious thing called ‘life’ and humanity cannot stop destroying it. I think that by the time things devolve into the antediluvian world – where humanity is murdering creation and each other – God is wondering whether creation should continue at all. Or whether human beings should continue being a part of creation. And so God decides to ask the last ‘righteous man’, Noah, to make the decision.

In the end, the film doesn’t really resolve God’s dilemma. Noah chooses to allow humanity to continue, yet does so knowing that humanity still carries the capacity for evil, for murder and death. Noah believes he has failed. Yet, because of Noah’s decision, God undeniably and visibly becomes not silent at the conclusion of the movie – the rainbow becomes the sign of God new word, or new covenant with creation. God has ended the silence with humanity, despite humanity’s flaws.

Which brings us back to Holy Week.

Palm-SundayThere is a certain silence to Holy Week. Through most of Lent, Jesus speaks at length in the gospel readings. He speaks with Satan, with Nicodemus, with the woman at the well, and with the blind man. But in Holy Week, Jesus seems to clam up a bit. And we all get the sense that this unresolved dilemma is facing God again. What is God going to do? What is humanity going to do? Jesus and the authorities are on a collision course towards death. Humanity can’t stop our killing, but this time God isn’t leaving the choice up to us. This time this beautiful, fragile, precious thing of life, this time God will not give us power over it.

This time life will overcome death. 

Palm Sunday IconBut it is going to take some silence on God’s part along the way. God makes room for our voices during Holy Week. Voices like “I do not know him” or “Surely not I, Lord” or “Crucify him!”

But they all begin tomorrow with that first word spoken by the crowds as Jesus enter Jerusalem.

Hosanna.

Hosanna, which we confuse with Hallelujah.

Hosanna, which does not mean praise the lord

But really means ‘Save now’.

In the midst of the silence this coming week, as we re-tell the story of passion. I am going to be thinking about that word – Hosanna.

It is the first word of Holy Week, but it is also a word for every Sunday. A word that we, at least as liturgical Lutherans, sing every time we gather for the Lord’s supper:

Hosanna in the highest. 

Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord
Hosanna in the highest

Save now in the highest.

Save us from our sin.

Save us from death.

Save us from ourselves.

And unlike the Noah movie, where the question facing God of what to do with humanity goes unanswered, God will answer.

God will answer our Hosanna.

God will save us now,

With life.


 

What are your plans for Holy Week? Have more thoughts about Noah? Ever experienced the silence of God? Share in the comments or on Facebook: The Millennial Pastor or on Twitter: @ParkerErik