Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O LORD, my rock and my redeemer.
I had the great fortune last night to preside over the marriage of two of my friends. We celebrated it at the Garfield Park Conservatory. It is a lovely place. If you have not taken the opportunity to go there and enjoy the greenhouses yet, I hope that you will some day.
The service went well. Almost the entire wedding party is involved in theater somehow. So they all take direction very well. I am told that my sermon went well...and I can tell you that the paperwork is in the mail. Simon and Allison are actually married. So, all in all, the service was a success.
I am sleep deprived, but the service was lovely.
One thing, however, that happens to me whenever I get together with my friends and their relatives for such an occasion is that I spend most of the evening talking about the church...being Christian and who is saved and who is not. I know you may be thinking that this is impossible, but when you stand around at a wedding reception having just outted yourself as a professional Jesus freak, you may find yourself talking about these things too...and particularly with people who claim no religious affiliation or are dissatisfied with their own somehow. It's not particularly relaxing. But it is interesting.
Mostly, however, it is entertaining. People make jokes about a Baptist minister who dances...and not particularly well. A gentleman with one or two too many cocktails usually poses a difficult theological question about, well, last night it was about predestination and the theology of John Calvin. So, I lucked out. He asked the one question I actually have an answer for. Of course, I don't know if he'll remember the answer...and I am not sure that I want him to. It was late and I was not making much sense.
But almost all the questions I am asked center around the issue of salvation and purity. People want to know who is in and who is out and most importantly, they want to know why. What reasons do any of us, especially us Christians, give for suggesting that someone is out?
It is like they see the church as the last few moments of the TV show, Project Runway, where the hostess, Heidi Klum, tells the contestant literally "you are out."
Inquiring minds want to know. Bright, creative, soulful people want to know...what does it mean to be saved?
Today's Gospel is about salvation.
With so many references to life or eternal flame, how can it be about anything else?
It is about how one understands the ins and outs of salvation...about who is saved and how they are saved.
And from what I know about the some of us in the American church in the Twenty-first century, even the mere mentioning of the word ?salvation? can send us into a philosophical tailspin. We want to know the context, the purpose and the end goal intended by the use of such a word. And for each person who works this through in their mind, a new and nuanced definition will come to the fore.
And what often happens in mainline protestant congregations is that we either turn our collective backs on the term as too laden with confusion and the possibility of doing harm to be useful. Or we nuance it into harmlessness and in turn uselessness.
I understand this urge. I do. I often respond to it. Heck, even in composing this sermon, I found myself wanting to avoid it entirely. ?Please, O please, God, don't let this sermon be about salvation.? I drafted a couple of sermons trying to avoid it...but to no avail.
I know from my own faith journey that salvation is a troublesome term.
Do I feel saved?
Do I know somehow that I am saved?
Have I divined it somehow?
Does someone else have to put a stamp of approval upon my forehead
like a celestial Food and Drug Administration?
I personally wondered if there were a series of hoops I was supposed to jump through in order to be saved. I tried quite a few of them. I refused some offers of salvation. Honestly. I also prayed the prayer and looked up the verse. I gave up this and took up that. I did. But I think that in all that fuss and bother I never really encountered salvation. Not really.
But there is hope. Yes, brothers and sisters, there is hope even for people like me that salvation might be found. Because here in Mark's Gospel today we find that the disciples themselves struggle with the notion of who is saved and who is not; who is in and who is out.
So, Jesus is hanging out with the guys...proclaiming the Word of God when John runs up and says ?Jesus, you will never guess what is going on! Someone we don't know is casting out demons in your name! What cheek! What gall! So we tried to stop him.?
And here comes the unexpected.
?You did what? You tried to stop them?!?
And the hyperbole rolls down like thunder. Not only should the disciples not stop these people but it would be better if they were to tie a millstone around their necks and throw themselves into the sea.
Have any of you seen a millstone? I'm not exactly sure what a first century millstone looked like, but I know what the 17th century millstone looked like and it was big. Heavy does not begin to describe it. When I read this passage I always imagine that it would take several people to help me do this thing...maybe a horse would have to help. And I always find it funny to imagine somehow...in some cartoon-ish way.
Jesus says that these people, these unknown faithful, the ones outside the clique, are promised grace. In fact, suggests Jesus, even people who give them water are worthy of the same reward as the disciples are.
But I get the point. Don't knock others who claim Jesus. Go to the bottom of the nearest body of water and stay there. Right.
But as if this were not enough...Jesus continues.
Now, put on your hyperbole caps. This is exaggeration. Exaggeration or hyperbole was often employed as a rhetorical tool by preachers and teachers in the time of Christ. So try not to fall into the trap of literalism. But don't dismiss the exaggeration either. This is a pointed exaggeration. According to Mark, Jesus wants us to pay special attention here.
?Sit up and listen,? says Mark. ?Are you ready??
Whoever is not against us is for us.
I don't know about you all, but I read that and it sort of falls flat. Okay, Mark. Thanks for that. I appreciate it, but later on here you mention that I need to chop off my foot. I find this idea somewhat off-putting. Can we talk about it in stead?
Whoever is not against us is for us.
Maybe it is just me. Maybe I am the one who does not quite understand hyperbole. This is entirely possible. But in today's passage, I am convinced that hyperbole is the name of the game. There is something hidden in the use of it and it is intended to take us directly back to this statement of Christ's...
Whoever is not against us is for us.
It is so important for us to be wise when we read scripture...to come to it as children...with an open imagination and a willingness to be changed and enter into the tale being spun before us. It is this kind of wisdom the reading of scripture demands.
I forget this from time to time. I forget that faith and scripture are demanding in this particular way. I keep looking for some Extreme Sports/X-Games kind of difficulty. I want rigor! Give me something fit for Superman. I can do it! Triple Lutz? No problem. I am ready.
Well, I want rigor until I encounter the truly rigorous. Then I am trying to find a way to nuance it all. But Mark won't let that happen. Even in the nuances he gives us a difficult task...a challenging marker of faith and action.
What is so difficult and misleading about this passage is that it appears to be about the things we must do in order to be saved. All this talk about cutting and such is distracting. And that is certainly the world view of many who would have herd this word from Christ. But this is why Jesus speaks of the body and maiming it or blinding ourselves. Much of first century Judaism was centered around and within notions of bodily purity.
People were...and likely still are...concerned with physical purity.
People with physical deformities were not always welcomed to the Temple or into society at all. Lepers were shunned because of the contagious nature of their disease and the physical deformity it brought along with it. Being physically whole was the same as being spiritually whole. In fact, it was commonly held that if you were not physically whole, you may not ever be spiritually whole.
You all know how it is. We still do this. Now it is not the religious leadership that speaks of physical purity so loudly. It is a marketing agency somewhere. Physical purity is often the name of the game. Comeliness. Fitness. Beauty.
If we are honest, we have to admit that in many ways our culture is still a culture based on notions of purity...and its "saving nature." We still think in terms of who is in and who is out...what is cool and what is not, what is profitable and what is not, what is worthy of our attention and time and what is not...what is good...and what is not...
There is such a thing as physical purity.
And it is not all bad.
It is in fact part of our coming closer to God.
There is such a thing as health.
We are often told that the body is a temple. Absolutely.
We cannot divorce the Spirit from the Body.
Actions like prayer and worship are physical actions that have a saving nature to them. They are embodied. Actions like giving and working with or for the poor are physical and have a saving nature to them. But there has to be a limit to how we understand these actions...the embodied faith. Otherwise we find ourselves in the same trouble that the disciples found themselves to be in. There has to be some overarching guideline...a purpose or telos...an end goal or a desired distinction.
Jorge Sanchez, a poet and teacher says this, ?What good is purity if, in the end, you are no closer to God? What good is purity if, though you be saved, others are damned??
If it shuts people out...turn back and let people in.
If it shuts people down...turn back and lift people up.
If it places at risk the well-being of another person...stand in their stead and put yourself on the line..
If it does not communicate...name it, claim it and give it voice.
If being who we are does not bring us into communion with others, then we are missing the mark.
We may even have stumbled upon something that is salvific.
But once it becomes its own end, then it becomes scandalous to God and all of us are somehow at risk.
Jesus' point may be that we want to stay pure...clean...sighted and mobile. We want to control who is in and who is out, who is welcomed and who is not...whom we identify ourselves with and whom we would rather not. But Jesus suggests that grace, identification and salvation are simply more complicated than that.
Salvation is brought by grace through faith, suggests Paul. That grace, suggests our passage from Mark, is found in our relationship with God in Christ.
I fear that this statement may have some of you fearful that the search committee messed up and called a fundamentalist Christian by mistake.
But grace, and this is the cornerstone of our salvation, as found in Christ is a wide open invitation, opportunity and participation in salvation. Salvation is not predicated, as the disciples discovered, upon membership in the inner circle. It is not predicated on physical purity. These things are means of salvation, perhaps, but in the end they are not what saves us. Grace saves us. God's grace and love save us.
It is the grace of God that saves us.
This passage is actually about God's grace.
It is wide and bold and encompasses the world. And it is, according to how I understand my friends at the wedding, an integral part of being human. Salvation is something that people actually think about and struggle with.
And whoever is not against us, brothers and sisters, is for us.
Grace is not something that can be hoarded by any one community. It cannot be contained in any one ritual. True ritual and true communities serve as conduits for grace, and reveal it to the world. True community and true ritual purify and sanctify the whole world and not just a chosen few...(This was the crux of my answer to the gentleman who wanted to know about John Calvin and predestination.).
We, brothers and sisters, perhaps we are thinking that we have somehow avoided a trap by not talking about salvation...by not using the word...by not actively naming what we are working out. But I wonder now if we have avoided one trap only to fall into another.
The mistake we are perhaps making is that of omission. We don't talk about salvation and we pray that is a better approach than claiming we have cornered the market on it. But it is just not so. I more and more believe that people are talking about it and we are missing an opportunity...not simply an opportunity to increase the rolls of a congregation, but an opportunity to proclaim God's grace...to let them in on the salvation we have found in God.
Whoever is not against us is for us.
A better translation of the phrase ?causes you to stumble? may be ?scandalizes.? The Greek word is skandalon (skandalon) which should sound familiar enough to us*. Scandalous. And what is more scandalous than the person who is on the outside somehow finding their way to the inside? The high school outcast sitting at table with the cool kids...Perhaps it is finding out that there is no outside in the first place...except the one we create for ourselves. And by not communicating what we think of salvation...and I know we think about it, I have to ask if we are actually keeping people on the outside.
Please forgive me if I am overstepping my roll here. But this is more and more a real concern for me...not just here, but in all our churches.
My fear is that by not communicating clearly, we are creating a scandal. And I know that this is the exact opposite of our intention. We are trying to be generous. But to be generous we have to give something...we have to hand over something...being generous is not simply avoiding being stingy.
God's grace is generous. It is tremendously generous. All one need do is give a glass of water to someone following Christ. That's all! Are we prepared to be vehicles of such salvation? Are we prepared to purify ourselves in this way? Can we give ourselves away so freely? Are we prepared to give ourselves away through conversation and debate? Are we prepared to give ourselves away by speaking of salvation to the world and, like Christ, suggest that there is a wideness in God's mercy? Are we prepared to give ourselves away by claiming our own language?
We are not in this work alone...Whoever is not against us is for us...We too receive God's grace.
When we speak of ecumenism, we are speaking about salvation.
When we speak about Reconciliation, we are speaking about salvation.
As we celebrate World Communion Sunday today, we are talking about salvation...how it is given to all...
But now I wonder...
...does anyone know?
*In their interpretation of Mark, John Donahue and Daniel Harrington both suggest this alternative translation.