A Sermon for Proper 21, Esther 7:1-6, 9-10; 9:20-22, Psalm 124. James 5:13-20, Mark 9:38-50
You would think that reading the bible would be a relatively easy thing. But maybe not. The bible was written in 3 different languages: Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek The Hebrew (and Aramaic) were translated into Greek, and then into Latin, and finally into the language of the people. Tyndale started the 1st English Translation. When he asked his bishop for permission he was told he could not produce such a “heretical” text. He decided to begin the work anyway and was only partially finished in 1535, before his execution. The King James Bible, completed in 1611, is the 3rd English translation. Today the complete Bible has been translated into 636 languages, the New Testament into 1,442 languages and parts of the Bible into 3,223 languages. Chapters were added in the 13th century, and verses were added in the 16th century; I’m not sure when the titles were added. All this help us by giving us standardized references. Or, do they?
As you know last week’s Gospel reading ended with Jesus holding a little child in his arms saying, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” (Mark 9:37) Period, next verse, and the heading “Another Exorcist” begins another story, or does it?
In my text, there is a period; a new line, a title, and the next line looks like a new paragraph. It looks like a new story that begins “John said to him …” Philip Ruge-Jones suggests that John actually interrupts Jesus, bragging about stopping an exorcist, “because he is not following us.” “Not following us.” Us! What happened to following Jesus?
It sounds as if John and the rest of the disciples are pleased with themselves for preserving the purity and orthodoxy of the Jesus’ movement (Epperly, Perkins). All of which is a bit strange because the disciples don’t yet know what Jesus all is about, and all the way back at verse 28, the disciples could not cast a demon out (Zee). Could they be afraid? Do they fear of someone, beyond their circle, who can cast out demons?
Jesus tells them “Do not stop him” and list three connected reasons (Epperly)
- if someone uses my name to do a deed of power, they will not be able to speak against me
- whoever is not against us is for us, and
- whoever gives you a cup of water, because you bear the name of Christ, will not lose the reward.
Note that in two of Jesus’ reasons Jesus is central, and in the third Jesus is included in the “for us” making Jesus the center of it all, and he includes everyone, who makes Jesus central in their life, a partner in his’ work. In doing this Jesus rebukes the disciples exclusive thinking. He is not nurturing a clique. He stops or at least tries to stop, the disciples from falling into the trap of “us” vs “them” thinking. (Kesselus).
Jesus continues with a series of proverb style warnings about what happens to those who are a stumbling block to one of these little ones who believe in me (Mark 9:42). After saying it would better to drown that to be a stumbling block he gives three gruesome examples, in which Jesus says it is better to be without a hand, a foot or an eye than find yourself in hell, whether hell is a fiery pit or complete isolation from any being including God.
Part of hearing Jesus clearly is understanding who the “Little Ones” are. Possibilities include: the child who is still in his arms, (Mark 9:36-37) after John’s interruption, all children, those new in faith, those weak in faith, the helpless, the poor, Christians in general, and those otherwise marginalized, hurt or injured by another or by an institution (Zee. Ruge-Jones, Perkins). In some ways Jesus presents the little ones as a sacrament, they are an outward and visible image of an inward (invisible) presence of God’s grace.
No matter our thoughts on what it is worth to avoid hell, and whoever little one maybe, they are intended to be connected to Jesus and this connection rebukes the notion that the disciples are some sort of exclusive, orthodox, righteous group, with special privileges. John’s use of “not following us” is a sign of this kind of dangerous thinking. The sad truth is that in the centuries since, a similar frenzy that Christianity is a preserve of a privileged few has been all too common. It is also true that such thinking has been and still is pervasive today.
Now I am going to ask you to stay with me because my thoughts are not partisan, but they do apply to the current debate and vote in the US Senate to confirm a nominee for a Supreme Court Associate Justice. I invite us to take a step back from the deeply emotional trauma of the accusations of sexual assault and look only at the response of the institution of the US Senate. Not Republicans. Not Democrats. But the US Senate as an institution. What I see is an institutional emotional response to a threat. It is the same reaction of the disciples who witnessed someone “not following us” casting out a demon, they couldn’t cast out. The disciples got distracted defending their own status. So, do we. So, do institutions. So, has the US Senate.
Take another step back and look at the treatment of victims of sexual harassment and assault and notice how they are routinely denied their rights to due process by involved institutions redefining them as somehow in error or unworthy. I fear there is evidence of similar behavior within the #metoo movement where those accused are denied due process, because of the institutions involved are acting to defend themselves. The danger is that denial of due process for the accused legitimizes the denial of due process for victims of sexual assault and harassment.
One of the basic tenants of Jesus’ teaching and biblical thought is justice. A challenge to justice has always been and is the power of institutions, like religious authority, the very wealthy businesses and individuals, and governments. A way to help ensure justice, and ensure due process, is to promote social norms so that no institution oversees due process when it is involved in the dispute. So, no university, no college, no academy or school should investigate a charge of sexual assault or harassment made against a student, faculty, administration or staff member of that institution. All such investigations should be done by the appropriate law enforcement agency. No corporation should investigate a charge of sexual assault or harassment against an employee, a contractor or an affiliate. All such investigations should be done by the appropriate law enforcement agency. This goes for governments also, counties investigate cities, states investigate counties, the feds investigate state, and the FBI or appropriate the state law legal agency investigates the feds. The Senate should not have attempted to investigate the charges brought by Dr. Blasey Ford against Judge Kavanaugh. This investigation should be done by the appropriate law enforcement agency, which would be the FBI, or the Washington, or a Maryland police department.
Of course, as soon as I wrote this, literally, as soon as I wrote this, I learned of the agreement for an FBI investigation and a delay in the Senate confirmation vote. This is a good step, but it still falls short because the Senate is still adjudicating the evidence, the FBI will provide a report but as is the process it will not include interpretative statements.
The same investigative rule should be true for the Catholic church, The Episcopal Church, and all churches. All charges of sexual assault and harassment should be investigated by the appropriate law enforcement agency.
We have made some progress. As do most, if not all states, Arkansas has mandatory reporting laws for child and elder abuse. By the way, you call the child or elder abuse hotline. Were that we were all children and elders.
Since all of us are one of God’s little ones, I would support similar mandatory reporting laws for sexual abuse and/or harassment; with particular attention paid to the rights and responsibility of the victim, which can be complex. In our pursuit of Justice, we do not want to victimize a victim. I would also support every citizen being a mandatory reporter for child, elder, and sexual abuse/harassment, or any other kind of abuse.
One lesson from this gospel reading is the consequences of sin. This raises the question of how pervasive sin is? My experience is that sin is both less and more pervasive; i.e. the sin that gets our attention, mass shootings etc. are far less pervasive than presented by news sources. Institutional sin like deflecting sex abuse and harassment is far more common than reported; as we are learning. Our challenge as Christians is to hear this morning’s proverbial teaching of Jesus, which is not so much about consequences as it is awareness and prevention. Jesus closing words are: Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another. (Mark 9:50) We understand be at peace with one another, but how in the world can we have salt in ourselves? in the Old Testament description of the Jewish sacrificial system salt in part of the process. Jesus’ admonition to have salt in your selves, suggests that we be worthy sacrifices and undergirds Paul’s calling for us to present our bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is our spiritual worship (Romans 12:1) (Zee). Jesus wants his disciples, us and all God’s people to be salty, to be at peace with each other. He knows the true mark of an ethical society is not how it adjudicates problems but how it teaches its citizens, young and old the self-discipline not to be a cause of a problem. And that begins by knowing all of us are the child, the little one in God’s ever-loving arms.
Epperly, Bruce. The Adventurous Lectionary. 30 9 2018. <http://www.patheos.com/blogs/livingaholyadventure/author/bruceepperly>.
Gaventa, Beverly Roberts and David Petersen. New Interpreter’s One Volume Commentary. Nashville, n.d.
Harrelson, Walter J. The New Interpreters’ Study Bible. Abingdon Press, 2003. E-book.
Keener, Craig and John Walton. NKJV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible Notes. Nashville: Zondervan, 2017.
Kesselus, Ken. “Look for the Commonality, Pentecost 19 (B).” 30 9 2018. Sermons that Work.
Perkins, Pheme. New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary The Gospel of Mark. Ed. Leander E. Keck (NIBC) Bel and the Dragon. Vol. VII. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2015. XII vols.
Ruge-Jones, Philip. Commentary on Mark 9:38-50. 30 9 2018. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/>.
Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob. New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Nashville: Abingdon, 2009.
Zee, Leonard Vander. The Lectionary Gospel Mark 9:38-50. 30 9 2018.