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The Reverend Kathleen Killian

Proper 21B/21 

Mark 9: 38-50

Extra! Extra! Read all about it! 

Demons and hell, the unquenchable fire where worms never die, and cut-off torn-out body parts . . . I think it’s fair to say that our gospel this morning isn’t exactly “feel good” good news. Nonetheless it still is news that is good or of God, and worthy of our reading; for in this issue of the Good News, the lead story is about following Jesus to the Cross as the headlines might read: Hands, feet, and eyes found on the way to the Cross, along with life-sustaining provisions of water and salt. 

What is under discussion and in dispute is what helps or hinders us, and others, along the way. Just prior to our passage, Jesus’ disciples were unable to heal a demoniac boy, only to to then witness a complete stranger cast out evil spirits in Jesus’ name begins our text. The disciples were jealous, offended, and my guess a bit threatened: how dare he do good—and in Jesus’ name—without following him and belonging to the group? Unwittingly, the privileged chosen have become entitled elitists. 

Who is in and who is out, who is fit or not fit to join this group or that organization, this country or that neighborhood, this church or that faith seems to be a perennial question, and indeed stumbling block, to the unity and wholeness that God so desires for humanity. John Climacus, a Christian monk of the 7th century, wrote:To judge others is a shameless abrogation of the Divine prerogative; to condemn is the ruin of one's soul. 

Yet most religions, including Christianity and the Church itself, are divided into sects, groups, and denominations that feel they have a leg up on the right teaching and a better path to God and salvation, which of course no-one has a lock on. Anymore than the disciples could two thousand years ago, can we claim that God is only to be found where we are, where ever that may be. Jesus works in all kinds of situations through all kinds of people who are doing God’s good work, even though they might not call it the Good News. We need not defend against, compete with, or prevent others from making their way to the Holy. If we are exclusionary, and an impediment to others in their faith journey, we are in essence condemning ourselves to the unquenchable fire of hell, as Jesus stridently warns.

Jesus regards such interference as a serious form of sinfulness. In the Greek, the word for stumbling block is skandalon, meaning scandal or snare. Jesus says, and I paraphrase some: if any of you set a snare before a little one that causes them to fall, it would be better if you were cast into the sea; if your hand or foot or eye is a scandal and causes gossip, calumny, and transgression, it would be better for you to throw out the offending part than to be thrown into hell. 

These rather extreme pronouncements do not mean that Jesus is calling us to extreme self-denial in the form of self-mutilation nor does he give testimony to hell as if to seal our destiny. In our gospel the word for hell is Gehenna, which was a ravine south of Jerusalem where humans had once been sacrificed, and which in the time of Jesus and our evangelist was a perpetually burning garbage dump.Those who heard Mark firsthand would have known of Gehenna, which was an actual place of burning and death. 

Though Gehenna is not a place we know, I would imagine that most of us have known a kind of personal hell right here on this earth, not to mention the evil of collective trauma and atrocities. Psychological demons inhabit many of us too, ones that tempt and haunt us and cause us to scandal and stumble. And so Jesus calls us to seriously consider our where we stand on the path, and where our feet actually take us—to the Cross or Gehenna? Do we give others a helping welcoming hand or hurry by in indifference even if they have tripped or fallen? Are our eyes open to change with clear hopeful vision or do we only look back to the way things were, blind to new life? Have we ourselves become stumbling blocks of jealousy and pride or are we guiding others with walking poles of humility and peace?

Jesus exhorts and motivates his disciples with such introspective action so that we continue to grow in him—but from prideful heights to humble ground and humility—though which Jesus draws our attention to “the other”; to those who do not belong, such as the stranger who healed the demoniac. “Others” also include those known within the community, but who are the least and the last, such as the little ones, such as the poor and the homeless. 

Over these last weeks, our gospel stories have focused on the need for humility and vulnerability in discipleship and relationship. From the hemorrhaging woman who touched but the hem of Jesus’ robe to the reviled Syrophoenician woman who was satisfied with crumbs from the table; from the blind, lame, and deaf and less than whole who yet believed and were healed, to the simple trust and defenselessness of little children; from the willing sacrifice of carrying the cross to the few meager loaves of bread that fed thousands, our hearts are drawn to that which is dismissed and exploited by the world but exalted and raised up by God. Jesus embraces and uplifts all that is humble and lowly, counting himself as the same. 

Jesus goes one to tell us that everyone will be salted with fire, and that this “salt” is good. Perhaps this means that everyone will be tested and refined in the fire of divine love, and purified and sanctified by this fiery salty love that saves us and keeps us from sin and decay. As Jesus would have it, this fire of God’s love is upon us all—every body—that we may walk on earth and carry this flame, this shining light, this glowing ember of promise and possibility to others—it’s why we have legs, and not wings! 

What God desires is that someday, as philosopher and priest Pierre Teilhard de Chardin writes: someday, after mastering the winds, the waves, the tides and gravity, we shall harness for God the energies of love, and then, for a second time in the history of the world, man will have discovered fire.

After putting the fire and fear of God into his disciples, Jesus offers a soothing last word: be at peace he says; be at peace with your self, with one another, and with your Father in heaven. Peace, shalom, and wholeness is both our vocation and identity as children of the living, loving, and liberating God. 

Though the headlines may change, and they will, the good news of the Gospel never does, nor does the lead story of our faith: The Good News of New Life in Christ.