St. Thomas’ Church, Whitemarsh
Proper 21, Year B, 2015
“Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, * O LORD, my strength and my redeemer” (Psalm 19:14). Amen.
One of the things I love most about Jesus’ disciples is how comically human they are. Yes, they are the founders of the Church and do many incredible things, but they also fail to grasp key points of Jesus’ teachings. Last week, we heard how they were arguing on the road about who was the greatest of them. Jesus tells them that they’re missing the mark; they should be humbling themselves rather than trying to outdo one another.
This week’s reading shows us that they haven’t seemed to learn much. John, presumably hurt by Jesus’ gentle correction and wanting to regain Jesus’ favor, tells Jesus that the disciples saw someone the other day performing exorcisms in Jesus’ name, and since he wasn’t a follower, and since the disciples had been unable to perform an exorcism themselves earlier—which made the disciples look bad (Mark 8:14-29), they tried to stop him. Maybe John expects a pat on the back, but even Jesus doesn’t appreciate tattle tales. Jesus turns around and, harking back to Moses’ rebuke of Joshua (Numbers 11:26-29), admonishes John and the disciples, saying, “whoever is not against us is for us” (Mark 9:40).
You see, a big theme in Mark’s Gospel is the cosmic battle between God and the forces of evil. In fact, the first of Jesus’ public demonstrations that Mark writes about is an exorcism of a demon (Mark 1:21-28). In this ongoing war, help is not needed, but is definitely noted and appreciated. Furthermore, in doing deeds of power in Jesus’ name, the exorcist might be inspired to become a follower of Jesus.
Jesus goes on with his teaching, further correcting the disciples’ behavior by sharing some pretty violent metaphors. I’m pretty sure that all of us can agree that our hands, feet, and eyes are important parts of our body, and so I don’t think Jesus is saying that he literally wants us to chop them off and tear them out; Jesus is exaggerating to make a point.
And the point he is trying to make is that no one should stand in the way of other people’s faith in Jesus, especially other Christians, and leaders, in particular. If the disciples are arguing among themselves over who is the greatest, what message does that send to followers? And if the disciples prevent someone from exorcising a demon and freeing the person just because the exorcist isn’t part of the inner crowd of disciples, how does that reflect on Jesus and his message?
Jesus continues with other metaphors, this time using salt. Most everyone loves salt; it preserves food and provides flavor to meals. The Good News of Jesus Christ is what flavors life, and this is what Jesus’ followers are called to do. In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus calls his followers “salt of the earth” (Matthew 5:13). As Jesus said in today’s lesson, “salt is good” (Mark 9:50), but salt can also be misused. Too much salt can ruin a meal and salt rubbed in a wound is a form of torture. There are also stories that during the Civil War, after an army destroyed a town, they would sometimes sow salt on the fields to ruin them so that the townspeople couldn’t grow crops, causing a food crisis for their enemies.
We in the Church are not exempt from the ability to cause harm to others. When we are jealous, hateful, or exclusionary, we lose our effectiveness in proclaiming the Gospel; we lose our saltiness. Here’s where the part about “everyone [being] salted with fire” comes in (Mark 9:49). The image of being salted with fire symbolizes cleansing, purging, and refining. Jesus doesn’t expect us to be perfect, but he does expect us to try our best to follow him and when we stray, to admit our wrongdoing and ask for forgiveness.
Today’s passage is calling us to self-reflection: what stumbling blocks are we putting in others’ way? When have we prevented someone from receiving the Good News of Christ? What parts of our lives that we think are essential are actually separating us from God?
Perhaps no one in the past few years has done more to spread the Gospel of Christ than Pope Francis. His actions have brought hope to millions of people, Christian and otherwise. Actions like refusing the fancy clothes, cars, and housing typically reserved for the Pope. Like sneaking out of the Vatican at night to feed the homeless. Like spending some of his limited time in Philly meeting with prisoners to highlight the problem of mass incarceration in this nation.
What appeals to people about Pope Francis is his humility and compassion; the Pope points to Christ with his words as well as his actions. In his speech to Congress, among other things, he said, “A nation can be considered great when it defends liberty as Lincoln did, when it fosters a culture which enables people to “dream” of full rights for all their brothers and sisters, as Martin Luther King sought to do; when it strives for justice and the cause of the oppressed, as Dorothy Day did by her tireless work, the fruit of a faith which becomes dialogue and sows peace in the contemplative style of Thomas Merton” (Pope Francis’ address to the U.S. Congress, September 25, 2015).
We need reminders from time to time of how and why we need to lead our lives according to the Gospel. Pope Francis lives out the Gospel of Christ, adding flavor to this typically cynical, bitter world.
The Pope’s message is the same as Jesus’. We are being called to live into our baptismal vows of spreading the Good News and recognizing each person as a beloved child of God. May we be inspired this weekend by Jesus’ words and the witness of Pope Francis to follow in Christ’s footsteps.
Waiting to see Pope Francis drive by in the Popemobile
Saturday, September 26th, 2015