Cutting Things Off!
2009-09-24 by Rochelle Stackhouse
The first thing I need to say about Mark 9:42-48 is: HYPERBOLE! So much of scripture is metaphor meant to drive home a point, and we go and take it literally! The ancient church Father, Origen, struggled with sexual temptation and, reading this passage, decided to castrate himself. Let's reconsider this because I don't want to just ignore this reading for fear of what it might drive people to do.
Who is Jesus speaking to here? Not the crowd, but his disciples, those very disciples who had been going around arrogantly telling people who were healers that they shouldn't heal in Jesus' name if they weren't part of the official "disciples." He has just told them again he is headed toward death, and Jesus must have had a hard moment here knowing that soon the whole future of this venture would be in the hands of this group of leaders! How to get them to understand that as leaders they needed to lead in a new and different way? They would need to sacrifice their need to control, their arrogance, their need for privilege of position! As he said in last week's passage, they needed to become servants.
So this isn't about people in general sinning in general at all. It is about leaders understanding that they are not responsible only for their own lives, but for those whom they are leading, and for those not yet in the group but who might be called by God and given gifts for service. It's about not putting stumbling blocks that would cause others to lose faith.
It's another way of trying to get the disciples to see that it's not just about "Jesus and Me," but about community. To be in community sometimes meaning sacrificing one's own desires, privilege, etc. for the good of others. "Have salt in yourselves and be at peace with one another." Yes, be who you are with your own giftedness, but be who you are and at peace with others, those already inside the community and those you might not think should be, but God has other ideas.
2009-09-23 by Stephen Schuette
The more I consider it the more I think the allusion to an army that is sent to maintain order fits this text, or at least a Crossan/Borg reading of the text. There's a kind of gang language here: "Hey, Jesus, we met a competing gang and we tried to protect our turf." (Or is it corporate, brand-name language? Or denominational language?) The disciples were transferring a Roman idea of order and exclusiveness onto Jesus’ ministry - an it's-about-us mentality. Jesus responds by saying if your hand or foot or eye is serving an order that is not of God’s making, get rid of it! These are liberating words to a conquered and occupied people. Commit yourself to God’s reign and know wholeness. Jesus refocuses the attention on the internal, spiritual struggle. That's the real battle ground. It’s not about fighting “fire” with “fire,” or raising an army to fight an army, or even competing with others involved in the effort. It’s about aligning your own goals and objectives with God’s and not fighting God…who does not want you to fight others for God's sake. The Pax Romana is no peace. Peace begins with your wholeness with God, giving yourself wholly to God. The "dominion" is of a different kind and grounded in God. So the message is to free any part of you that serves another dominion. The movement is not about competing with each other in the group (last week's text) or competing with others "outside" the group. What would it mean if our "gang" insignia really is the cross?
There's certainly room for this message in this embattled, competitive age...many directions to take with the hermeneutical thrust.
2009-09-23 by David Howell
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Esther and James
2009-09-23 by Rochelle Stackhouse
As I thought more about the call in James to gather with the community in prayer in time of need, I also remembered the Esther reading set for this Sunday. The problem with reading just what the lectionary has set for Esther is that it makes absolutely no sense without the whole story, which we cannot assume everyone knows. So if I want to work with this passage, I need to at least do a quick summary of the story before the scripture reading.
So Esther has a considerable challenge ahead of her: save her people from genocide, the scheduled Persian holocaust. After having protested her inadequacy to address this, she finally asks Mordecai to gather the people for fasting. And though God's name does not appear in this book, I think it is safe to say that in Jewish tradition from forever, fasting and prayer are connected, and so God is assumed.
But what really stands out here is that Esther, though Queen of Persia, reaches out to her people and asks them to become one with her, albeit from a distance, in prayer and fasting, so that she might find the courage, the wisdom and the strength to do what needs to be done. She is a witness to the power of a community at prayer, even when that prayer is done at a distance from the one in need.
So now I've traveled a bit far from my original idea about this sermon, but maybe not so far. What the disciples were trying to do in the Mark story is limiting God's power to a small in group of people, maybe the "elders." Jesus urges them not to limit the community which is at work in God's name doing "deeds of power." Esther understood this long before Jesus, and James after Jesus' death. So how do we understand this, or deny the power?
An Open Kingdom
2009-09-22 by Stephen Schuette
The words startle and shock. Perhaps they were meant to, all this bloody business of cutting off hands and feet and gouging out eyes. But it’s helpful to see that what comes before provides the context for what this really means.
Gehenna is the trash yard in Jerusalem. It’s where a fire burns constantly to keep down the odor and worms devour. (See the many references in your study Bible, but especially Jeremiah 7:30-34 where there are clear connections with how children are treated, linking it with the previous pericope.) It has nothing to do with an after-life, but everything to do with the choice between fullness of life now or a living death now – linked with the immediacy of the Kingdom at hand and the choice that it requires.
But here’s the important context: the cause of the stumbling is the disciples’ boundary-making exclusiveness. It’s the way they (we) block others and bar them with our traditions that are of human origin. The disciples keep wanting to make the relationships exclusive (and therefore special?) and Jesus keeps pushing the relationships open (and therefore makes them special!). It is a precursor to the “abundant” life of John’s Gospel. It doesn’t run out. It doesn’t have to be preserved. It has to be lived and shared and we need to be open to it because it’s not of our making. It’s from God.
Could it be, then, that we tend to read this text through our tradition of Lenten sacrifice where we give something up as a discipline when rather this sacrificing of a part of ourselves is about a joyful liberation from anything that blinds, lames, or hinders us from the fullness of the relationships of God’s Reign? And could it be, in fact, these verses suggest a radical or even joyful trust that Jesus who is the one who came to heal the blind, the lame, the maimed, will make us whole – that our wholeness comes not from preserving ourselves but in trusting him? Is there more wholeness in this trust than in any bodily wholeness we can cling to?
Perhaps what Jesus is saying is directly anti-militant too. To the disciples’ exclusiveness and order he is suggesting that any army which maintains such order with soldiers who march, handle weapons, and see enemies undo themselves! This should be good news to unarmed followers of a non-militant Messiah, if they understand his message.
No question, it’s radical stuff. But I want to suggest that the tone underlying the whole text is not onerous or hard or even meant to put-off. This is not what the larger context suggests. Instead this is a consistent message of freedom, liberation, and even joy in this different way of Jesus.
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