Thursday, September 24, 2009

Look Who's Talking

NW MN Synod Theology for Ministry Conference
Fair Hills Resort, Detroit Lakes, MN
September 23, 2009
Mark 9:38-50

So we’ve been playing with the metaphor of eating this year. Dwelling in God’s Word is like dining, like consuming food….we “eat this book”….and what we eat gets metabolized into witness and service in the world…..and that’s all well and good.

But why, I wonder, why doesn’t the Word furnish us with just a little more “comfort food?”

You know what I’m talking about. Comfort food. Moms’s mashed potatoes slathered with real gravy, not some fake stuff out of a can. White bread with the crusts cut off, toasted with a little pat of butter on top. Comfort food--the kind of stuff you nibble on whileshaking off a 24-hour flu bug….the kind of food that fills your tummy and sends you off to sleep on a Sunday afternoon. Nap-inducing food…..what most preachers need after a jam-packed Sunday morning.

Why isn’t there more all-white, all-soft “comfort food” in the Bible? Why is the Book of Faith so big on the “hot and spicy” menu—the Tzechuan entrees?

Take this gospel lesson, with which we’re all wrestling this week—why couldn’t Jesus have slipped in some banana bread or caramel rolls here? Why does he have to hand us a word that sets our teeth on edge, a word that gives us heartburn?

We’re deep into Mark 9….perhaps a little relieved that this long chapter on discipleship is coming to an end. The disciples have been slow to understand, blockheads really, and as we read last Sunday, they were disinclined even to ask questions of Jesus. Not going to get very far that way—if you don’t even have the gumption to ask the teacher questions, you’re probably not going to learn much.

So as we round the bend into the home stretch of Mark 9 we’re wanting Jesus to at least hand out a few “A”s for effort…but no such luck!

John is the first one to realize that here, as he offers his discipleship “scouting report” to our Lord:

“Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.”

You’d think Jesus would be happy to hear about this ne’er-do-well exorcist who had refused to pay the “Jesus’ name” franchise fee, or (if you prefer) someone masquerading as a pastor without the benefit of a “Lutheran year” at an accredited ELCA seminary.

You’d think Jesus would have given John a gold star for vigilance…but instead, Jesus adopts an amazingly “live and let live” approach to this fraudulent healer.

The bonafide disciples wanted to draw the circle tighter, make the boundaries clearer...but Jesus gets all loosey-goosey and tells his followers to back off. “Whoever is not against us is for us.”

Really, Jesus, that could potentially include all sorts of shady characters. “Whoever is not against us”—that standard of fellowship casts such a wide net…maybe especially for us right now, living in a church struggling with our own boundaries, our own definition of fellowship.

This is not helpful, Jesus. What if some flagrant, unrepentant sinner sashays up to us with a cup of cold water and gives it to us because we bear the name of Christ—then what are we supposed to do? Take it? Drink it? Jesus confounds us with his extravagant generosity.

All we wanted from the Word was some glorified rice and a warm blankie…but instead Jesus serves up spicy meatballs that make us run for the Pepto-Bismol!

And then it gets worse. This same Jesus who seems so soft on outsiders like that renegade exorcist…this same Jesus is a regular hard-nose when it comes to discipline among his precious insiders, the disciples!

“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.”

Funny thing, but I’ve never seen those words splashed in bold letters on plaques in the pastors’ studies in any of our churches. Maybe they should be—huh? Because if I’m reading these verses correctly, our butts are in the sling here, dear fellow servants and proclaimers of the Word!

Except at ordinations and installations we don’t talk this way very often. We forget those old scriptural charges to the ordained, the commissioned, the consecrated….charges like this one from I Timothy:

“Put these things into practice, devote yourself to them, so that all may see your progress. 16Pay close attention to yourself and to your teaching; continue in these things, for in doing this you will save both yourself and your hearers.”

We Word-proclaimers bear radical responsibility for others. How might we cause “little ones” placed in our charge to stumble? How do we speak to the straight woman who grieves over the church she feels she has lost? How do we minister to the gay teen so deep into despair that he’s pondered taking his life? Are they not both “little ones” in our care? What are we offering them in the name of Jesus?

But Jesus doesn’t stop with radical responsibility for each other. He beckons us, also into the fiercest of self-discipline. “If your hand…your foot…you eye….if any of these members of your body cause you to stumble….get rid of them.”

We want to flee from this Word, don’t we? Jesus can’t possibly intend for us to take this stuff literally, can he? Otherwise the church would be one huge mass of stumbling, bumbling, half-blind beggars, right?

But, precisely at this point, I ask myself: “why am I so intimidated by this Word that I feel like taming it?”

I keep hearing Lutherans aren’t literalists, which of course is not true.

My friends, Lutherans are and always have been literalists, when dealing with texts clearly meant to be taken literally. Martin Luther rudely carved the words, “This IS my body…” into the oak table at the Colloquy of Marburg, while arguing over the Real Presence with the Reformed. The issue isn’t whether we’re literalists, but when we’re literalists…

Still, dear friends, even when we conclude that we shouldn’t be purchasing a bunch of millstones or machetes for our churches, even when we’re pretty sure we aren’t meant to take a text literally….we certainly better take that text seriously…which in this passage from Mark 9 might mean: we best take a good look in the mirror daily, confess our sins (maybe even to a personal confessor who can absolve us!), and remain mindful of how awful it is to slip and stumble while carrying the Good News.

So…we come to the Word looking for Graham-crackers and warm milk….and the Word just leaves us with chili peppers and a bad case of heartburn….and in this gospel pericope there seems to be no rabbit to pull out of the hat at the end—just some puzzling statements about salt that all smack of judgment to me!

That’s where the Word sometimes leaves us, does it not?--staring into the maw of judgment for all the ways we cause little ones to stumble, and for our own lackadaisical discipline of ourselves.

What’s a body to do? Where’s a body to turn?

Roy Harrisville of Luther Seminary once offered this advice to preachers trying to wrestle a Yes out of God’s No, especially in a heavy-on-the-Maalox text like this one.

When the text itself seems unrelenting in judgment, heavy on demand, short on Gospel….always, always, always remember who the Speaker of the text is.

Recall the One who speaks it to us, lays it on us.

This One, our Lord Jesus, always figures out ways to draw the circle broader and wider.

This One, our Lord Jesus, is always offering up his life for his fellows, always ready to have the millstone tied around his neck, for you and for me.

This One, our Lord Jesus, submitted himself not to have his hands and feet chopped off…but rather pierced through…to have his eyes, not plucked out…but closed in death, for us and for our salvation.

All the difficulties in this text, all the hard words it speaks to us drive us toward the unparalleled preciousness of our salvation…the amazing treasure that is the kingdom.

Whoever in any way, shape or fashion is aligned with that kingdom…whoever is not dead-set against Jesus is somehow for Jesus.

Christ’s coming kingdom is so precious that surely we will avoid anything that prevents someone else, some little one, from entering it.

And surely, surely, the only thing that is finally worth fearing, is the mere mention, the remote possibility that we somehow might miss this salvation or be deprived of our place in this kingdom.

Please pray with me: “O most loving Father, you want us to give thanks for all things, to fear nothing except losing you, and to lay all our cares on you, knowing that you care for us. Protect us from faithless fears and worldly anxieties, and grant that no clouds in this mortal life may hide from us the light of your immortal love shown to us in your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”

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