September 12, 2021
“Teacher,” said John, “we saw someone driving out demons in your name and we told him to stop, because he was not one of us.”
“Do not stop him,” Jesus said. “For no one who does a miracle in my name can in the next moment say anything bad about me, for whoever is not against us is for us. Truly I tell you, anyone who gives you a cup of water in my name because you belong to the Messiah will certainly not lose their reward.
Causing to Stumble
“If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them if a large millstone were hung around their neck and they were thrown into the sea. If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life maimed than with two hands to go into hell, where the fire never goes out. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than to have two feet and be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to stumble, pluck it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell, where
“‘the worms that eat them do not die,
and the fire is not quenched.’
Everyone will be salted with fire.
“Salt is good, but if it loses its saltiness, how can you make it salty again? Have salt among yourselves, and be at peace with each other.”
Grady Knox is an exceptional young man. He’s a Junior at Central Magnet School, part of the Rutherford County School District. On Tuesday he prepared and shared remarks to address his district. His remarks were recorded, and you can tell he’s tired, and a little nervous. But he got up and shared about the difficulties of his fellow students. As he spoke, you could tell he was exhausted from trying to study and take exams, when fellow students parents refuse to wear masks, or have their children do so in school, and then entire classrooms having to quarantine when they become ill. Grady just wants to go to school, and not harm others. He’s considerate of other people, like his grandfather who is at higher risk of COVID. He wants to spend time with him, but he’s concerned that, with fellow students and their parents not wearing masks, and refusing to get vaccinated, that he’s putting him at risk. And it’s not some abstraction in his family. In his remarks, with two unmasked mothers behind him, one chewing gum, and waving an anti-mask sign, he risked being honest and vulnerable; “This time last year,” he spoke, “my grandmother, who was a former teacher at the Rutherford County school system, died of COVID because someone wasn’t wearing a mask.” It was a painful moment to watch his honesty. But it was made all the more devastating when the adults in the room, and I use that term loosely, started to laugh, shake their heads, and heckle him. Eventually they were silenced by others in the crowd, and he regained his composure, and he finished saying “this is irresponsible. We’re killing people.”
The video was a shocking, but also not surprising example of what I think Jesus is tackling in our reading this morning. Jesus isn’t playing around. He knows the challenges that face those who try to love their neighbor, and he’s done with people’s excuses. “Don’t struggle against those trying to love God and neighbor, by tripping them up.”
We live in a culture that can be damagingly individual. Straight White American Cis Men have revealed just how little responsibility they are willing to take for the well-being of others, and our democracy. I pray for all of you that in your schools, work, retirement communities, families and friendships, there’s a deep spirit of cooperation and mutual concern, with folks taking responsibility for how their actions impact others. But I think it’s safe to assume that we all know folks who don’t play well with others. God’s dreams for us and our neighbors’ lives, collide with a society that pushes folks to only care for themselves, and even then, not to do that particularly wisely. There’s an exhaustion that I feel, and I imagine many of you are too, at hearing “sorry I upset you, this is just part of who I am.” We hear folks complaining about their freedom being infringed on, while they are putting children, the immune compromised, and the aged at risk. This morning’s reading makes abundantly clear that Jesus is not having any of it.
This is one of those texts that we can find ourselves disoriented by. What’s this talk of hell about? Why is Jesus telling people to harm themselves?
First, let’s talk about Hell. The actual word in Greek is Gehenna. It’s a trash dump just outside of Jerusalem, in a valley. It’s constantly burning and is a fairly busy place. Folks who have been exiled from their family and community, this is where, in Jesus’ time, they’re going to hang out. It’s as close to society as they can get; no one’s going to run them out of such a place, even though it’s close to their former community. I imagine that many of you, like me, are made uncomfortable by the idea of folks being pushed out of a society, put out of their homes. I think many of us probably imagine folks who are marginalized for unjust reasons, who they love, being a racial or ethnic minority, being an empowered woman. And for sure, in Jesus’ time folks were likely shunned by their people for reasons that had more to do with their prejudices, than reality. We see this in the beginning of our reading. The Disciples try to stop someone from working miracles in Jesus’ name, because they’re not part of their group. But this is missing the point, Jesus points out.
Over the past few years though, I have grown more comfortable with the reality that sometimes, folks might need a little time away. I’m not talking about the injustice of mass incarceration, or stigmatizing folks experiencing poverty, or pushing LGBTQ folks and woman out.
Many of you, I imagine might be like me, in that you like to be liked. You approach others with kindness, thinking we can teach, find common ground, work towards harmony. The hard part is that this can lead us to getting pretty badly hurt emotionally by those who just take, and expect the benefits of the common good, without contributing. I’m not talking about folks who are experiencing poverty. Often folks with less privilege and financial resources are more accustomed to working with others; those who are marginalized by unjust systems, often see daily more of the importance of cooperation. I’m talking about the overly entitled, who try to justify greed or disregard by claiming that it’s just part of who they are.
And that’s where Jesus gets creative with language. Hurting others is not something that is inherent to who we have been created to be. Sure, we can find ourselves participating in systems that, without our express consent enact oppression of others. But when we learn about that impact, we can dismantle systems of white supremacy. The ills of capitalism can be addressed, and different, more humane economies can emerge. Christian Nationalism’s evil can be exposed. We can learn and adapt, taking public health measures to address the threats we pose to children, the elderly, the disabled and immune compromised. But Jesus sees and hears, all to often, “it’s too hard. This is just the way life is. I can’t do anything about it, even if I’m hurting others.” And Jesus doesn’t have much patience for that. White Supremacy and Christian Nationalism is fundamental to the Church? Then cut off church, let it wither. Capitalism’s too big a beast to tackle to make ethical. Hmm, maybe then just drop out of commerce. It’s too hard to wear a mask? You don’t want your kids to be slightly inconvenienced? Then leave. Given this kind of choice, adapting doesn’t seem so bad.
A central part of Jesus’ ministry, and the Apostles after his Resurrection and Ascension, was going to those who had been cast out, or those marginalized because of the harm they inflicted on others, think tax collectors, soldiers, those reviled by society like sex workers and the mentally ill, and providing a path back into community. For those who had, or were harming others, his Grace came with a way to make restitution, to repent, to recreate community that had been broken. And for those who were unjustly pushed out, Jesus transformed the community to make space for new friends, changing the very nature of those who gathered.
Beloved, I am thankful for you all, and how we work together. But outside of this little church in the woods, gathered virtually and in person, outside of this family of faith, I know there are times you will need to set boundaries. You’re kind folks, and I imagine it’s uncomfortable to have to set a limit, to hold others accountable. Or maybe in your life you’ve experienced that you’re hurting someone and are held to account for that harm. It’s not pleasant. But my friends, Grace abounds when we choose love and community, inviting God’s creative Spirit to transform us, and society. When we speak out for justice and mutual care, sometimes we’re going to be looked down on. May we journey knowing Jesus won’t allow anything to separate us from the love God has for us, not our own actions, or others. Thanks be to God.