Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Sermon for Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Sunday, September 27 2015, 10:30 am
Mtr. Maggie Helwig, Church of Saint Stephen-in-the-Fields, Toronto
Est 7:1-6, 9-10, 9:20-22; Ps 124; Jas 5:13-20; Mk 9:38-50

“He who is not against us is for us,” Jesus says, reprimanding the disciples—who appear, during this middle section of Mark’s gospel, to be on a systematic campaign of getting discipleship wrong every possible way. Last week they were arguing about who would get the gold star for awesomeness. This week—immediately after Jesus has tried to tell them, to tell us, that that the kingdom is not about status but about welcome, about inclusivity, about opening our arms and our lives to the weak, the poor, the vulnerable, the despised—they decide that they will, rather than competing with each other, try to draw a good clear hard line between their own small group of right-thinking people, and those on the outside who must be controlled and policed.

But no, says Jesus. It is not about any of that. It is about giving a cup of water to one of the little ones. To any small thirsty human being who bears the name of Christ, which is to say, any human being, all of us frightened and thirsty, and all of us, each bit of creation, made in his image and bearing his stamp, carrying the name of the Word which moved in the darkness of our being and brought us into life. And this cup of water, the action of giving this cup of water, is the only thing that matters.

It is an important truth, and well worth our remembering, that much of the work of the kingdom takes place outside of our the officially recognized church—in protest camps, poetry readings, hospitals, on the streets. It’s crucial for us to know this, that the Holy Spirit is not constrained by any of our institutions, that the kingdom is breaking in everywhere, in the most unlikely moments, through the most unlikely people. Those who are out there healing the world, whatever group they may or may not belong to, are part of the holy conspiracy, are with us more deeply than we are, often enough, with ourselves. But that part of my mind which loves complication also cannot forget that in Matthew’s gospel, we hear Jesus saying exactly the opposite thing — “He who is not for us is against us.” They cannot both be true at the same time, you would think. But maybe they are, maybe it is not different at all. A sentence you see quoted quite often — “If you choose to be neutral in situations of oppression, you have chosen the side of the oppressor” — says basically the same thing. Or, in the more vivid metaphor of social activist Howard Zinn, you can’t stand still on a moving train.

They are both saying the same things, these sayings, though from different perspectives—there is no neutral ground. Either you give that cup of water or you don’t. Either you walk into the stringent demands of God’s love and justice, or you don’t. And of course we won’t, all the time; we will fail. At best we will keep trying to pull ourselves along to the side of the kingdom, bit by inadequate bit, and falling short, and being sorry, and trying to do better. And often, in a complicated world, we cannot be sure if we’ve gotten it right, or even partly right and we are not condemned for that, for being human and weak, because that is just who we creatures are. As Mark’s version of the saying makes clear, if all you manage is that one cup of water, just that once, it can be enough. But we can never pretend that any of our choices do not matter. They matter entirely, every time.

It is this context of ultimate concern in which we need to be thinking, before we approach the second part of this passage, with its deliberately shocking imagery of cutting, severing, discarding the eyes and hands which offend. The church has often misread this passage badly, and even worse, has misused it, has employed it as a weapon. We have used this passage, for instance, to tell people that doubt is wrong, that questioning is wrong, that we should cut off our uncertainties and our inquiries. Or we have used it to tell gay and lesbian Christians that they must deny and destroy some of the deepest and most precious parts of themselves, must mutilate their own being in order to belong. We have used it as if it were meant as a warning against thought, or against desire, or against our full humanity. In a church which has often, far too often in its history, demanded that its members hide or deny great parts of themselves as if this were good, a passage like this can be very dangerous.

We are creatures made of doubt and desire, and none of that is wrong; this is who we are, this is how we move, in our awkward beloved way, filled with questions and confused longings, into the life of God. But we do all have in ourselves those things which block us from that life, things which take us away from our own full being, as selves and as community; and there is sacrifice, there is stringency, which is required.

That we have so often misidentified where those sacrifices lie does not mean that we are, in fact, all perfectly fine just as we are. We are not. You must change your life. We must all, always, be changing our lives. We are not asked to mutilate ourselves; but we are asked, indeed required, to be become better and truer selves, braver and more creative and more generous, more willing to let go of old certainties, more able to open our hands and give, to sacrifice our self-interest for others, and there is nothing easy in any of that. It is easier to stay where we feel safe; to open the boundaries of our understanding of ourselves and our communities means a great deal of the hard interior labour of acknowledging and confronting our own fears, our own fragility. It means the constant striving, through prayer and thought and daily work, to tear away our illusions of stability, our attachments to the familiar. It may leave us, at least for a while, feeling lame and half-blind, vulnerable and confused.

So we cannot leave this passage aside, any more than we can leave aside some of the other difficult passages; though we must realize that those things we do need to cut away may not be those which are obvious, or traditionally recognized, or socially approved. One of the most creative readings of this passage that I’ve encountered recently came from a trans person I know, who found a way to use it to express his conviction that those aspects of his body which hindered the living out of his male identity were also hindering his ability to live more truly as a Christian, more deeply into the life of God; that for the body to be truly sound, in his case, did require the cutting off—somewhat literally—of those aspects. Not because of any inherent badness or evil, but because they were a roadblock, an obstacle, a frustration of that particular body’s own full life.

Most of us do not need to cut off parts of us in such a literal sense—but we all do need to identify accurately, and work to sever ourselves from, those parts of ourselves which are taking us away from fuller, truer life. Our small addictions and compulsions, the things that send us around in circles of self-absorption. Our dependence on the artificial painkiller of material consumption, the momentary act of possession which protects us from too much awareness; or our need for quick hits of emotional adrenalin, the brief satisfactions of personal drama. Our desire for status, our wish to win at the expense of others, to be that inner group which the disciples also wanted to be.

Maybe most of all, our fears—fears of losing, of failing, of stepping out into that unknown, fears of change and difference, our attachment to the safer comfort of the familiar, however sad it might be. And, drawing energy from that fear, those broken impulses in us which drive us to judge and exclude, to draw boundaries and barriers, and to push those who are difficult or different to the outside of those boundaries. Because that is the specific context of this teaching, this is what Jesus is talking about—judgement, exclusion, our wish to be “in” when, and because, someone else is “out”. These are the rocks on which we fall, these are the gangrened parts of our selves which we must cut off.

And it is hard work, and it is serious, but it is not about being less than ourselves, it is about being more; the constant, demanding call to be more. And we will fail, and we will confess our failures to ourselves and each other as we can, and we will press on, occasional salt, as kind and as good as we can be, half-broken, half-sick and profoundly one with all the sick and broken. Struggling and wholly loved.