So I’ve got your attention by the subject of this sermon. But before we get to the millstones and lobbed-off limbs, we have to remember where we are in Mark if we’re going to grasp greater meaning in this story and address this deadly issue from within its Biblical context.
Tonight’s gospel reading is part of what scholars call a Markan sandwich; some of you have heard me mention before that in Mark’s gospel, stories are frequently inserted within other stories. We all know that this frequently happens in real life to us, we’re in the middle of doing something or talking about something when we get interrupted. And, indeed, this would undoubtedly have happened to Jesus a lot. But scholars have long noted that the parts of a Markan sandwich are not just related temporally as part of the narrative, but theologically, thematically, in some way, mutually interpreting each other –which often happens to me in real life, too: the interruption colors whatever I was already engaged in and vice-versa. For example, if Ito from Tarmilat comes to visit me while I am working on my sermon, my having been thinking about the sermon shapes my conversation with her, and my encounter with her then shapes my sermon). I say all this simply to note that these so-called literary devices are not just artificially imposed, but relate to our lives.
So, in any case, what we have here is the middle of the sandwich and the bottom slice of bread. The top of the sandwich is the text we read last week, where the disciples were discussing greatness and Jesus draws a small child into their midst and invites them to abandon dreams of greatness and welcome small children. If you skip verses 38-41, the narrative reads much more smoothly, with Jesus continuing to talk about “these little ones”. And because I am so struck with verses 42-48, I am tempted to do just that. But I’m going to resist that temptation in order to honor the whole of Mark’s sandwich; am I making you hungry, especially since we also just read the text about the Israelites longing for meat?
So then, setting aside food metaphors, we begin with the story about John’s concern over the outsider exorcist. It’s interesting that Mark identifies John as the one who asked the question, John the son of Zebedee who will later be caught arguing along with his brother James about who should get to sit in the highest places of honor when Jesus is glorified. (Makes you wonder if they were not at the heart of the discussion of greatness earlier, though they aren’t named there.) It seems, you see, that John enjoyed being one of Jesus’ closest disciple friends (part of the inner circle within the 12 that included Peter and James). John seems very aware of his privilege and position close to Jesus and the authority that brings. And it seems that John is rather possessive about this authority. It is telling, is it not, that John’s concern about the man casting out demons in Jesus’ name is that “he was not following US”? WE are the insiders, and this guy is an outsider. And John wants Jesus to support that clear distinction.
But as is so often the case, Jesus refuses to accept this distinction, this dividing line. “Do not forbid him”, Jesus responds, using the language of the conversation between Moses and Joshua son of Nun so many centuries before. The question Moses asked is also, therefore, evoked if not spoken aloud: Are you jealous, John? I imagine John’s cheeks coloring. This is all the more embarrassing given the fact that Jesus’ own disciples, Mark says, have recently proven themselves incapable of casting out a demon.
John discovers, as William Loeder notes, that “Jesus is not an egotist obsessed with protecting his reputation, but someone who cares about people.” It does not matter if healing and love come from his hand or the hand of another. What matters is that healing and love come. The insider/outsider boundary simply does not apply. Love observes no such boundaries. And to try to impose them is a mistake. Richard Jensen remarks, “Whenever you want to draw lines in order to mark who is outside the kingdom and who is inside, always remember: Jesus is on the other side of the line. Jesus is always with the outsiders.”
So Jesus words in verse 41 are a reminder to his disciples who might want insider privilege that the time will come when they will be grateful for the mercy and generosity of so-called outsiders. When “outsiders” care for them in even the smallest ways, through a cup of cold water, for example, God sees that and honors it. Would we want God to do anything less? Should we not also likewise honor such mercy and generosity which reflects the spirit of God in Christ no matter where it comes from?
Now we might be tempted to just stop here with the middle part of Mark’s sandwich and apply it to our situation here, the necessity of our being open to the spirit moving wherever it will, for example. But I really want to go on and do this in relation to the rest of the text. You note that the strength of Jesus’ exhortatory language is increasing here in verse 41: That “Amen” (Truly I tell you) adds emphasis. And the language only gets stronger in the verses that follow.
If the first part of this reading is about not obsessing over outside dangers to the community’s authority, integrity, and identity , the second part of the reading is a dire warning to look out for dangers to the community’s integrity and identity within. I think this is such an important warning to hear at so many levels. As individuals, communities, and even nations, we focus on threats coming to us from without and spend unceasing energy and resources to counter those, when what is much more likely to undo us is within – our own destructive patterns of being and doing that suck the life out of us and others.
There are so many destructive patterns of being and doing we might note: addictions of all kinds which break our bodies and destroy our relationships, our societal materialist obsession which leads us to exploit the earth and its peoples for cheap luxury, our immense personal and social capacities to ignore destructive realities until we arrive at ruin. But what Jesus speaks to here, in the strongest possible language, is what we do to children.
Yes, we are back to that little child in the middle of the circle, the child Jesus holds, the one he says we should welcome if we want to welcome him, to welcome God. All of a sudden, Jesus’s voice is trembling with emotion, with anger. It’s hard to catch the force of it in English, related to this powerful verb scandalizo, Whoever scandalizé one of these little ones – it means whoever ensares, traps, seduces one of these little ones “who trusts in me”. Can you see him now, with the children in his lap, trusting him? Whoever ensnares, entraps, seduces, one of these trusting little ones, it would be better for him if a millstone were tied around his neck and he were drowned in the sea. God takes seriously what we do to trusting children.
And then you can see him looking around at these men who considered themselves spiritual insiders and warns them about their own eye, hand, foot – and you remember what foot is a euphemism for in the Biblical text right, you say foot when you mean the male sexual organ! Do you feel the progressive sexual engagement there: seeing, touching, violating. If your body parts are leading you to this, by God, cut them off. That’s what Jesus says.
You’ve got to wonder what had been going on. Had there been a situation of child sexual abuse or molestation brought to Jesus? What did he know about that was going on in Capernaum, maybe had been going on for years, maybe in the synagogue itself? And though he was undoubtedly fiercely protected by his mother and step-father as a child, what had he seen and experienced as a child himself, what had happened to his playmates and childhood friends? Who among us does not have someone we love who is deeply wounded from childhood sexual abuse? And the vast majority of the time, the abuser is an insider, family or friend, and the place of abuse is inside the home, inside the church, inside the school, all places that should be safe, but so often aren’t.
Jesus could not be more seriously about the hellish deadliness of this sin. And that’s encouraging to me. I wish all Christian institutitions would be as uncompromising as Jesus himself when dealing with child abuse and molestation. So often, the institution puts a priority on forgiving the perpetrator and addressing his needs, hushing up the offense to protect the reputation of the perpetrator and the institution. The wounded child is encouraged to forgive and forget, to not dwell on it, to get over it (at best, with counseling). And while I am all for redemption for all transgressors, all sinners, from what I can tell, the family or institutional covering up results in little redemption for anyone – the offender or the victim. That is NOT what the Bible means by love covering a multitude of sins. The most gracious, loving, redeeming thing that one can do for all parties involved is to get the offender away from children definitively. For his sake, and most importantly, for the sake of the children.
The final words of this section, while rather strange and puzzling, are very important in moving toward hopefulness and healing. All the talk of the fires of hell, lead Jesus to reflect on fire and salt. It’s clearly an allusion to the Biblical custom of offering salt with every sacrifice (which was burned you know). Salt was essential for the purification of the sacrifice. And so Jesus is holding out hope for purification. And it’s related to the community. Don’t lose your saltiness (which happens when salt is corrupted with impure additions), but have salt in yourselves, Jesus says. These are all plural yous. He doesn’t mean just take responsibility for yourself alone and get as pure as you can (that’s much more the pharisaic approach). Jesus call for his community to be salt for one another as well as the world toward the goal of real peace (shalom) with all its implications – right relationship with each other, with the world, with God.
Jesus puts responsibility for being salt not on a few chosen insider leaders, but on everybody. In this spirit, James will say pray for one another, confess your sins to one another, bring one another back from the brink of destruction, don’t just let your brother, your sister get trapped, get stuck. Keep your eyes and your hearts open and work for changes that help keep people out of traps – changes in our institutions, changes in our society, changes in our world.
This weekend, some churches around the world are responding to the gospel text by drawing attention to child trafficking and asking Christian communities to speak out against it. Here in Morocco, the most commonly accepted version of child trafficking, which often leads to molestation and sexual abuse is the practice of having child maids. Nouzha Skalli, the Moroccan minister of development, leads the official campaign against child maids (illegal, by the way, in Morocco – no child under 15 can work), a campaign called Inqad, which means rescue. Apart from simply raising awareness of the issue, she emphasizes that the campaign is pushing for greater emphasis on girls’ schooling and formation, keeping them out of the maid market.
I can’t help but think of a girl at Tarmilat I know who was sent away at the age of nine to be a child maid. She came back a couple of years ago at the age of13, which is when I met her, and had herpes. She has some serious psychological issues now. And it breaks my heart. But I’d like to think this will not happen to others now. And although we are the “outsiders” here in many ways, I’d like to think we’ve been a part of helping stop this destructive pattern in one community through our support of girls’ education in Tarmilat and continuing education programs for the older teenage girls who never had the change to go to school. I found out this week that we now have the first child from Tarmilat to ever attend university – Samira, the daughter of Aicha Rehiwi. The offering we take tonight will go toward the Tarmilat education program, paying for books for four girls in middle school and high school and for Samira’s university books. It’s a small thing, but it’s something that we can do as Christ’s community to be salt for one another and for the earth where, ultimately, we are none of us outsiders, but all in this together.
So brothers and sisters, let us open our hearts to welcome and be welcomed, to exhort and to protect, so that we might create a community of peace where we don’t have to lose our limbs or our integrity, but may find wholeness and hope. Alleluia. Alhumdullillah. Amen.
Tomorrow is Labor Day here in the U.S. (that’s Labour Day to UK and Commonwealth readers). This responsive prayer is written by my friend, Rev. Ken Sehested, one of the pastors of Circle of Mercy congregation in Asheville, NC. Ken, who for nearly 2 decades was Executive Director of the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America, wrote this prayer as part of his new book, In the Land of the Living: Prayers Personal and Public. We prayed it responsively in church today.
Creator God, we give thanks this day for work:
for work that sustains; for work that fulfills;
for work which, however tiring, also satisfies
and resonates with Your labor in creation.
As part of our thanks we intercede
for those who have no work,
who have too much or too little work,
who work at jobs that demean or destroy,
work that profits the few
at the expense of the many.
Blessed One, extend your redemptive purpose
in the many and varied places of our work.
In factory or field, in shelterd office
or under open sky, using technical knowledge
or physical strength, working with machines
or with people or with the earth itself.
Together we promise:
To bring the full weight of our intelligence
and strength to our work.
Together we promise:
To make our place of work a place of safety
and respect for all with whom we labor.
Together we refuse:
To engage in work that harms another,
that promotes injustice or violence,
that damages the earth or otherwise
betrays the common good;
or to resign ourselves to economic
arrangements that widen the gap
between rich and poor.
Together we affirm:
The rights of all to work that both
fulfills and sustains; to just wages
and to contentment.
Together we affirm:
That the redeeming and transforming
power of the Gospel, will all its
demands for justice and its promises
of mercy, is as relevant to the workplace
as to the sanctuaries of faith and family.
We make these promises,
we speak these refusals
and we offer these affirmations
as offering to You, O God–
who labors with purpose and
lingers in laughter–in response
to your ever-present grace, as
symbols of our ongoing repentance
and transformation, and in hope
that one day all the world
shall eat and be satisfied.
Sometimes it is very difficult to trust in God’s providential care and in a hopeful future. Today was one of those days for me. It started out hopeful enough. Early this morning, I learned that the Markey-Waxman bill that fights global warming by a cap-and-trade system on carbon emissions (which may help both the federal deficit and the economy as a fringe benefit) made it out of committee to the full House of Representatives. Wow, I thought. If the Senate doesn’t block or water this down, we may get the first real action on climate change in this nation–after decades of doing nothing. (I don’t know whether to be angrier at the Bush administration, which claimed for 6 of its 8 years that global warming was a hoax–relenting only after the PENTAGON classified it as a bigger national security threat than terrorism–or the Clinton administration which KNEW the danger and betrayed its campaign promises by doing nothing because they were afraid of losing support from the business community.)
But then I realized that, EVEN AT IT’s BEST, the Waxman-Markey bill would only lower carbon emissions 7-10%, lower than what the EU, Japan, New Zealand, Canada, and even latecomer Australia are doing. And, because global warming is happening faster than originally predicted, it is FAR less than what climatologists think we need to stop global climate catastrophes: About 50% carbon emission reductions by 2030! Yet, trying to increase the bill to that amount is simply not politically possible–the entire bill would be defeated and we’d be back to doing nothing, again.
So by the time we headed for church, I was pretty pessimistic about the future. One of my daughters tried to cheer me up–reminding me of the huge strides we are making in some areas of justice–such as gay rights. I wasn’t very receptive. Let’s see, I thought, “we now have civil marriage equality in 6 states. Only 42 more to go in this nation. At that rate, gays and lesbians will be able to marry just in time for massive global-warming related famines in Africa, losing several island nations to the ocean, hurricanes that make Katrina seem like a gentle breeze, worldwide refugees in the millions, increased “resource wars,” massive global species extinctions, and killer storms across the MidWest.
Fortunately, everything at church today seemed to speak to my condition, to paraphrase Quaker founder George Fox. We sang, “Do not fear to hope.” The sermon reminded me that God chooses unlikely vessels for change and amazing outcomes. I needed reminding.
The facts have not changed. (Please no comments trying to convince me that global warming is a hoax. I’ve read the many detailed reports of the climatologists. I’m in no mood for attempts to cheer me up by denial and might just delete any such comments. I am certainly in no mood to DEBATE the science behind the climatologists’ warnings.) We are still preparing an INADEQUATE response–one that would have been more suitable for the late ’80s or early ’90s when there was more time. (The longer we put off responding, the more extreme our actions will have to take by the time all the skeptics are convinced–and it will be too late.) It still looks like too little, too late.
But God is still GOD and I cannot believe that God has abandoned this planet–no matter how we humans have messed up our stewardship. I have no idea how God is working to save this creation, but I know God is working. Maybe, just maybe, Waxman-Markey, while inadequate in itself, will be the crack that opens the dam of creative political will to do what is necessary to save our world. Maybe we can add carbon taxes to speed up the work of a cap-and-trade system. Maybe the Waxman-Markey bill will finally show the world that the U.S. is serious about fighting climate change and helps bring in China and India to a new post-Kyoto treaty at Copenhagen. I don’t know.
Sometimes faith and hope are hard. Despair is easier. But as the hymn says, “Do not fear to hope, though the wicked rage and rise. Our God sees not as we see, success is not the prize. Do not fear to hope, for though the night seems long, the race shall not be to the swift, the fight not to the strong.” Amen. Lord, I believe–Help, Thou, my unbelief.
This falls in the “What Liberal Media” genre, showing the rightwing bias (AGAIN) of mainstream U.S. media.
Is Focus on the Family president James Dobson’s opinion worth more than the beliefs of the entire American population?
The cable news networks seem to think so.
Early this week, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life released a groundbreaking survey1 of 35,000 Americans documenting the diversity and tolerance of people of faith and the growing consensus around issues like poverty and the environment.
But what religion story dominated the cable networks yesterday? James Dobson attacking Sen. Barack Obama for a speech he gave two years ago on his faith.
In fact, on Tuesday, June 24, Dr. Dobson was mentioned a total of 189 times on CNN, MSNBC and Fox News. The landmark Pew survey? Just 8.
Let the cables know there’s a lot more to faith than James Dobson. To sign the petition and spread the word, go to Faithful America.
Last night (03 June 2007), CNN’s Soledad O’Brien interviewed three (3) Democratic Presidential candidates on the role of faith. The three were Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL), Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY), and former Sen. John Edwards(D-NC). The live interviews had been sponsored by Sojourners’ Pentecost 2007: Taking the Vision to the Streets event. For reasons unknown, these were the only candidates invited. Rep. Dennis Kunich (D-OH) protested this successfully with CNN’s President. So, at 8 p.m. Paula Zahn interviewed Kucinich, Gov. Bill Richardson (D-NM), Sen. Chris Dodd (D-CT), and Sen. Joe Biden(D-DE). Why did Jim Wallis of Sojourners only arrange for the first 3 candidates to be interviewed as part of his event? Was it a “top tier” vs. “rest of the pack” division? Or, worse yet, did he arrange to interview the Protestants (Edwards and Clinton are United Methodists and Obama is United Church of Christ) and leave out the Catholics (Dodd, Richardson, Biden, and Kucinich are all Roman Catholic)? And why didn’t Sojourners, which is supposed to be non-partisan in its work for peace and justice, invite any Republican candidates? (Or were they invited and all turned Wallis down? Perhaps preferring a different kind of event for wearing their faith on their sleaves?)
UPDATE: See comments section. Pat McCullough gives partial explanations from Sojourners. They clear up some of these questions, but the choice of “front runners” this early remains troubling.
Former Sen. Mike Gravel (D-AK) is also a longshot presidential candidate. A Unitarian who hasn’t been in the Senate since 1981(!), Gravel is the only person who refused to be part of any focus on faith, believing this to be a private matter–and, from a Constitutional perspective, he is right.
As for the Democratic debates in NH this past weekend, I am waiting for the GOP debates tonight before giving any in-depth analysis of either, except to say that it is clear that WE THE PEOPLE are keeping Iraq on the front burner–as it should have been in ’04. Iraq is such a mess that I am sure that all the candidates from both parties would love to talk about ANYTHING else–but with all polls showing a majority of the public wants a complete withdrawal by the end of ’07 (and some much faster), they cannot run from the issue–and that’s a good thing.
In 1949, CBS and Edward R. Murrow started a series of conversations with famous and ordinary U.S. citizens over core convictions and values called “This I Believe.” Early this year, National Public Radio revived this series and the national conversation. I participated and so can you. Go to the website This I Believe and enter a 300-to 500 word essay on an essential belief. The best are read on the radio. Many have been collected in a book. Mine and several others from Louisville, KY have been reprinted in LEO: Louisville Eccentric Observer, our weekly alternative newspaper.
Obviously, in 300-500 words, one is not describing EVERYTHING one believes, not even everything important. Pick a particular conviction and write on it from a particular angle. I wrote on rejecting war and embracing nonviolence, briefly connecting it to my Christian faith, and contemporary global events. I noted that whereas the events of the last 6 years since 9/11 may have weakened this conviction in others, it has reinforced my belief that the way of violence has no future.
This is not, strictly speaking, a theology blog like some of those on my links, Faith & Theology, Chrisendom, Euangelion, etc. This blog is intended more as religiously inspired social commentary. It could be considered an exercise in liberation-style political theology, I suppose.
At any rate, conceiving of the blog as having a particular focus, I have tried to avoid topics other than those I consider part of the blog’s purpose–although, I have tried to break monotony with humor, family photos, news about my church, bio sketches of mentors and heroes, and book reviews, especially of books I think important to the Radical Reformation heritage of (Ana)baptists. My feeling has been that if people want to discuss other things, there are plenty of blogs available.
Despite that, however, I find myself needing to prove my bona fides. An annoying twerp I have banned from this site has been telling many, many people that I am not “born again,” and that I try to have Christian discipleship without regeneration and other lies–thus prejudicing potential evangelical readers against me. I resent heavily needing to set the record straight, but ignoring this whisper campaign has not worked.
So, here goes: I was raised in a United Methodist home of a type that would once have been called “evangelical liberal,” but those two words are almost never placed together anymore. The majority of my family is still UMC, but my brother’s family is Pentecostal (Assemblies of God), and there are also Presbyterians, Church of Christ, and Roman Catholics in my extended family. As a teen I went through a period of adolescent rebellion that included skepticism and considering myself an agnostic: Ironically, I ceased to go to church just as my father, following a second-career call to ministry, was ordained a United Methodist deacon and was continuing education toward ordination as an elder. (I know my father was embarrassed, but he wisely gave me space and both he and my mother prayed for me–talking to God about me when it was impossible to talk to me about God as my mother later put it.)
At 18, helped by Black Baptist, Methodist, & Pentacostal friends, I was “born again.” (My debts to African-American Christianity and the Black Church remain HUGE.) I do not like the way this term is used by many in American evangelicalism to refer either to a subjective experience or to some kind of contract with God that makes discipleship optional. That is not the way the phrase functions in the Gospel of John where it is better translated, “born from above.” Nevertheless, though I am tempted when asked about when I was “saved,” to reply in Barthian style, “on Golgotha,” there is a subjective experience that accompanies the objective work of God-in-Christ. And, in my case, that conversion experience was extremely powerful.
However, I had already enlisted in the U.S. army when I experienced saving grace and therefore had no chance to be formed in a Christian community that would mold me in Christian character before I departed for basic training. Fortunately, a high school friend who was opposed to my joining the army challenged me to memorize the Sermon on the Mount during basic training. So, I spent my days learning to be a soldier and my “spare time” memorizing the largest block of Jesus’ teachings in the Gospels, including the beatitude on peacemakers and the commands to love enemies, etc. It caused much cognitive dissonance.
About a year after enlisting I found myself stationed in Heidelberg, Germany–or West Germany as it was then. Since I was trying (with very mixed results ) to learn German, I stopped going to the chapel on post and started attending the small Baptist church in Heidelberg which, at the time, had both a German service and an English service with the same sermon. I attended both trying to get better at my German. This was at the beginning of the huge European peace movement of the ’80s and the pastor preached often on Christian peacemaking. I remember him quoting Martin Luther King, Jr. often. (Strange that I had to go to Germany to learn to take seriously the words of my own countryman.) I became convinced that Christians must be peacemakers, not warriors. I was baptized and applied for conscientious objector status and a discharge–which, after much grief, was granted. I became a Baptist and a C.O. at the same time–and this was like a second conversion for me.
Enough testimony. Salvation is a large biblical concept that is too often reduced in American evangelical circles to either a one-time event or to “fire insurance.” But there is a past, present, and future to salvation: I have been saved; I am being saved; I shall be saved.
Moreover, in both Old and New Testaments, God’s redeeming work in the world is mainly concerned with creating a people and calling them out to mission: WE are being saved together. It is in THIS sense (and this sense only) that the ancient word is right: extra ecclesiam nulla salus—outside the church is no salvation. By grace, God enables us to participate in God’s redeeming work in the world. Discipleship, following after Jesus, is the very shape of the Christian life–not an option that born again individuals can choose or reject.
The church is both the foretaste and the primary agent of the Kingdom or Rule of God which has broken into history and is coming in fullness at the Eschaton. That Rule of God come into history, not some disembodied existence in “heaven,” is the goal of Christian faith, as Byron has been arguing over at Nothing New Under the Son.
I have touched on far more than can be explained in one post. This entry opens up a huge range of topics–one reason why I have avoided it previously. Yet, that avoidance gave the false impression that I am ashamed of the gospel or of God’s converting work in my life. I hope this sets the record straight.