It’s not just about loving other people
A sermon preached by the Reverend Deacon Jason A Burns
on 26 September 2021 [18 Pentecost]:
Numbers 11:4-6,10-16,24-29; Psalm 19:7-14; James 5:13-20; Mark 9:38-50
For a while now I have been struck by the dualism that exists in the teachings of Christ Jesus. Most of the time we focus on what Jesus has taught us to do for others, but rarely do we talk about what Jesus instructs us to do for ourselves. We give a great deal of lip service to the fact that God loves every person and wants, no desires, a deep compassionate relationship with each and every person. We also, occasionally, talk about how we feel connected to God, but rarely do we talk about how the teachings of Jesus apply to that deep connection and because we don’t talk about it. We may think that the connection is not there or at least not there all of the time, when the truth is that we just don’t know how to recognize it because we don’t look for it. I was recently reminded that we tend to turn to God when things are not going well, which is natural since we when we do talk about God it is in terms of unconditional love and a source of comfort, but what we don’t do in those situations is turn to Jesus, at least not as Episcopalians. We have learned to compartmentalize our understanding of God; Jesus teaches us how to interact and treat others, God comforts us, and only the God knows what the Holy Spirit does; and by doing so, we are in fact limiting God and denying ourselves the full loving and compassionate relationship we could be having.
Howard Thurman, who was a brilliant theologian, wrote about how Jesus was, and I would argue still is, a disinherited person, and what he meant by that is that he was a member of a community that was oppressed and persecuted; he and the people with whom he interacted were the disinherited, he spent his entire ministry fighting against the oppression of his people and ultimately all people and he taught that, through God, you can find an inner sense of peace, a peace that cannot come from the external and tangible world. So, as we explore our relationship to God, as revealed through scripture, we need to focus on more than just what Jesus tells us to do as we interact with creation, we also need to look for what he tells us to do to deepen our connection to God because without developing that deep connection we will be left empty and angry.
Let’s use today’s gospel as an example. Jesus is, once again, correcting his disciples’ behavior. He is chiding them for attempting to control who gets to be in the club and who doesn’t. They are upset because someone, who is not one of them, invoked Jesus when casting out a demon. Presumably they are concerned that these so-called outsiders are going to get it wrong or give their group a bad name. In response Jesus tells them a lovely parable about removing body parts which seems strange until you look closely and connect it with other parts of scripture. We understand we are all a part of the body of Christ, which is a mysterious metaphor for the church. In this passage Jesus is saying that it is better for a person to remove themselves from the body of Christ than it is for them to get in the way of someone else’s ability to be a part of it. So, if you think someone does not have the right to invoke God during prayer, or approach God through the eucharist then you need to remove yourself from the body of Christ because you are the one who does not understand that you do not get to decide who and how someone else accesses God or carries out God’s vision. Effectively, Jesus is telling the disciples and us, stay in your lane and don’t concern yourself with things you don’t understand. While that is what I think the tangible meaning of this passage is, I also think that there is a deeper meaning, one that is likely more important because if revealed and followed the more tangible or the more external meaning would not be necessary.
So same story but let’s change the context. The disciples are complaining about someone doing something that they believe should not be done. What if what they are really talking about is their own fear that they are not worthy to cast out demons in the name of Jesus? What if what they are saying is that they just don’t understand how it is possible and they are afraid of getting it wrong, so they point to someone else to see what Jesus says?
This changes things and I suspect hits home for many of us as we realize that we need to point a finger at ourselves because we constantly judge other people, because we know we have things in our hearts and our thoughts that we either don’t understand and things we are afraid to explore. It is those things that keep us from fully experiencing God. In this context, the directive to cut off our hand or our foot is a metaphor to work through the thoughts and feelings that cause us to stumble. This is a different side to Jesus, a side that we give lip service to, but struggle to embrace because it is hard. It is so much easier to water our faith down to “what would Jesus do”, which is just an idiom that means, be nice to people. Well, being nice to people is easy, and it is not actually the point of being a follower of Christ. Anyone can be nice, most people are, and most of them ignore God or even deny their existence. The point of being a follower of Christ is to become closer to God and then because of that relationship God will be able to care for creation, which includes other people, through us.
If we want to deepen our understanding of God, then we must be willing to do some really hard work. We must be willing to examine our flaws, not through the lens of psychology, but through the eyes of Jesus. To do that we must engage with scripture in a deep and meaningful way, and we must develop spiritual practices that help us to do so. If we do the internal work that is necessary to love ourselves then the external work of loving our neighbor will become much easier. It is our attempt at doing the external work without deepening our connection to God that cause us to burn out and to only turn to God in the darkest of times. It is the internal work, the rooting out of our flaws, our demons, that makes us a resurrection people.
Now, I am not saying that using Jesus as an inspiration for external behavior is a bad thing, I am simply saying that it is limiting. In fact, it limits God because when we refuse to work on our selves we are choosing to be in control and are indicating to God that their assistance is both not necessary and likely not wanted. If we truly believe that the world can be transformed into the kingdom of God, then we must start with the one thing we can control, and that is ourselves. The good news is God is patient, and loving, and forgiving, so no matter how long we need God will be waiting. Amen