Esther 7:1-6, 9-10; 9:20-22
38John said to him, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” 39But 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. 40Whoever is not against us is for us. 41For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.
42“If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea. 43If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. 45And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell. 47And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell, 48where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched.
It is a truly joyful thing to be here with you this morning, brothers and sisters in Christ. This is my first time preaching since June when I completed my temporary call at Emsworth U.P. Church, a small congregation of saints just down the road. I am grateful to Carol for inviting me to worship with you, and grateful to you for allowing me to stretch my preaching muscles after a long hiatus. We’ll see how it goes, eh?
One of the reasons I decided to take some time off is that my family and I are getting ready to sell our house, a big old Victorian in Squirrel Hill, and move to a smaller space. In other words, we’re “downsizing,” hoping to simplify our lives and, frankly, escape from the money pit that is the very essence a large, old house.
I don’t know how many of you have ever gone through a similar experience of “downsizing,” or helping a parent clean out a house and move to a smaller space. But if you haven’t been through it, I am here to tell you that it is a dirty, heartbreaking and horrible job. The amount of junk we have managed to accumulate over the past 30 years is absolutely staggering. And I do mean junk.
All summer, I’ve been asking myself, “What were we thinking?” What were we thinking when we decided we needed five frying pans or three sets of china or all these toys? What were we thinking as stuff piled up in the garage and in the basement and up in the attic? And don’t even get me started on the hundreds of books that seem to spill out of every bookcase and creep out from under beds and climb up to rest on top of the dining room table.
It wasn’t always this way. When my husband and I were first married, our worldly possessions fit in the trunk of our ’77 Chevy Chevette.
But that was then. And this is now. Why did we hold on to so much useless stuff for so long? The house, the stuff in it – all of it feels like so much dead weight as I sort out what can be tossed, what can be sold or given away and, worst of all, what is actually essential to keep. There’s a part of me who wants to rid of enough stuff that we can fit all of our worldly possessions into the trunk of a car. And the other part of me wants to hang on to every kindergarten drawing, every dog-eared book, every baby picture and every souvenir Pirates cup.
What do we let go? What do we keep? What can we not live without? What really matters?
These questions seem to be hovering in the air in this passage from Mark this morning. The disciples are trying to figure out what is essential in following Jesus. And already we can see them getting bogged down with a heavy load of spiritual junk. And Jesus invites them and us to clean house.
This conversation we encounter in Mark this morning takes place because the disciples have run into a guy who is casting out demons. This guy isn’t part of their club, their church, or their group, so he is immediately suspect. They ask Jesus what they should do about this fake healer.
Clearly, this guy isn’t one of them, the disciples think. He doesn’t have the authority, he doesn’t have the credentials, and he certainly isn’t behaving in a decent and orderly way.
And instead of agreeing with them, Jesus says, “Big deal. No problem. If he’s not against us, he’s for us. Simple as that.”
Right before this text in chapter nine, in the reading from last week, Jesus caught the disciples in a game of “who’s the greatest?” Remember that? Jesus tells the disciples the kingdom of God isn’t about having correct credentials or awesome power, but about humility and service —
“Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all,” Jesus says.
And then Jesus points out a child, the most powerless and insignificant figure in the ancient world and Jesus says, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”
Simple as that. The world of the gospel is an upside down world. The first shall be last. The least of all shall be greatest. And welcoming an ordinary child is as close as a person will get to welcoming God.
But as is typical in the gospel of Mark, the disciples don’t quite understand what Jesus says. They just don’t get it or, at the very least, they don’t much like Jesus’ upside down kind of logic. They are stuck in the mindset that the one with authority, with credentials, with prestige is the greatest. The disciples are stuck in the idea that greatness is about being powerful and big and important…even though Jesus has told them quite the opposite. In the kingdom of God, the greatest is smallest. Which goes against everything the disciples know.
The disciples still don’t understand the kingdom of God isn’t about climbing the corporate ladder to a heavenly corner office, but about downsizing their ambition. Way down. Downsizing their ambition to the point that the simple act of offering and receiving a cup of water is a blessing powerful enough to change the world. Downsizing their ambition to the point where they have no ambition for themselves, but only to be a servant to somebody else.
Needless to say, as often as we hear this crazy Jesus logic of the Gospel, it is still tough for many of us to be convinced. After all, this isn’t how the real world works, is it? In the real world, ambition is good. Getting bigger is better. Those without the proper credentials are suspect and small people are very often stomped upon.
But the world’s way of doing business isn’t the way of Jesus in these texts as he turns his face to Jerusalem and begins walking straight toward Calvary. It is better to end up maimed and lame and blind, Jesus tells the disciples, than end up in the unquenchable fires of hell. It is better to end up maimed and lame and blind, Jesus says, because being a disciple isn’t about what you believe or own or know, but about following Jesus. If your actions or words get in the way of someone else knowing Jesus, that’s worse than doing nothing at all.
And Jesus winds up on a cross – maimed and lame — because he will continue to call out and confront the powers who not only put down stumbling blocks in the path of the most vulnerable, but also gobble them up without a second thought.
Jesus teaches his followers a different way. The disciples need to downsize their vision of greatness. They need to jettison their petty desire for power. The disciples need to enlarge their perception of Jesus’ kingdom to not only include the least, the lost, the little-ist, but to give them top billing, a place of honor at the table. Jesus tells the disciples to cut off and tear out anything and everything that might be a stumbling block that prevents the good news from reaching those who most need good news.
The church of Jesus has accumulated all sorts of spiritual junk in the past two thousand years, but every so often, a text like this one in Mark comes along to remind us that the load we carry around with us was not put there by Jesus. Jesus used this language because he knows how easy it is for human beings to become weighted down with things that not only are unimportant, but can also hurt us if we carry them for too long. Just as my house accumulated useless junk, our lives in Christ become cluttered with stumbling blocks that keep us from being the disciples Jesus has called us to be. Jesus calls us out on our religious hoarding and into a new way of seeing our call as his disciples.
In case you missed it, this guy named Pope Francis is visiting the United States this week – in fact, I think he’s still hanging around on the other end of Pennsylvania. Pope Francis has become something of a rock star, not only in the Catholic Church but to many believers and non-believers around the world. In fact, I know of more than a few good and faithful Protestant ministers who will admit to have a severe “Pope-crush.” I have to admit to a tiny bit of it myself.
People look at Pope Francis and they see something they never expected from a major church leader. From the day he was selected as Pope, Francis has resisted all earthly trappings of power.
He doesn’t drive around in an armored Mercedes, but in a small car. A small USED car that he bought from a fellow priest.
He doesn’t live in a palace, but in simply furnished room next door to the Vatican.
He wears the simple white clothing of an ordinary priest instead of rich, gold-gilded robes that are the typical garb of his predecessors.
Some Vatican personnel have reported this Pope sneaks out at night to hang out with and bless the homeless and poor.
He washes the feet of and embraces the kind of people nobody else would get within 5 feet of.
In other words, Pope Frances seeks to follow the way of Jesus, embracing and serving everyone – women, children, handicapped people, non-Christians, prisoners. People who are overlooked by the world are embraced by Francis. And that just blows people’s minds. For some people, it is unnerving to see a Pope conduct himself in a way that seems less concerned with formal church structures and traditions than he is in connecting real people.
But for the little ones of this world, including those who had given up on Christianity altogether, this Pope is a breath of fresh, Spirit-filled, Jesus-y air. And I dare say, some of what the Pope is doing is removing stumbling blocks that have kept people away from the church for years.
In a way, it says less about the Pope and more about the rest of us that we are so completely dazzled by a man who is simply following Jesus. And maybe, the appeal of Pope Francis is that he has tapped into the deep need we all feel to see that there’s a better path, a more generous and simple way of following Jesus, even in this cynical, stubborn, pain-filled world.
Pope Francis may not save the Catholic Church, but he sure is making it easier for ordinary people to see Jesus at work in the world. And thanks be to God for that.
In our Old Testament text today, we meet Esther – woman who is clearly not part of the power structure in the ancient world. She was an Israelite. She was also a woman living in a male-dominated and patriarchal society. On both accounts, as a Jew and a woman, she was on the margins of life. Nevertheless, she was able to navigate through the power structures and save her people. The book of Esther is just one of many stories in scripture in which we witness God’s seeming preference to work through people who have no authority or power.
And we are called, also, to follow Jesus. In the Presbyterian Church. In every Christian church. Even in this church, brothers and sisters, of ordinary people. We are called to remove whatever stumbling blocks are in the way of our following Jesus Christ and witnessing to his saving love and work.
Our stumbling blocks are as numerous as our sins. And giving them up is painful, dear saints.
As painful as clearing out an attic full of dusty yet cherished relics.
As painful as letting go of an old hurt that has festered in our souls.
As painful as reaching out to those with whom we deeply disagree.
As painful as getting over “the way we’ve always done it” and living in the discomfort of something new and unfamiliar.
As painful as giving up the power and privilege we think we’ve earned and letting Jesus lead us into relationships with the least privileged people in our world.
Whatever it is that is keeping us from being Christ’s hands and feet in this hurting world is the stumbling block we’ve got to kick out to the curb with the rest of the stinky garbage. To do any less, according to Jesus, it to risk damage to our very souls.
And although it is tempting, I know, to think of everything you need – more money, more members, a new pastor — I invite you to consider this question. What are your stumbling blocks? What do you need to give up? What is keeping you from doing that which is required of you – to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God? What needs to be kicked to the curb in your life together?
The saltiness of our faith is lost because so much other non-salty stuff gets mixed in over time. Our saltiness can only be restored by removing everything that isn’t salt.
So too, we can view faith, not as matter of adding more things to believe or do or become, but a stripping away of everything until all that is left is the restless heart’s true home. The 14th century mystic, Meister Eckhart once observed, “The spiritual life is not a process of addition, but subtraction.” Faith – true faith – is the awesome acknowledgement that all we need is that which we have had all along. The peace of Christ, the love of God, and the powerful friendship of the Holy Spirit.
May we have peace in ourselves and with one another, brothers and sisters. Thanks be to God. Amen.