Oct. 1, 2018 The Wideness of God's Mercy
I’d sure like to ask the evangelist Mark some questions about today’s passage. This morning’s reading does not show up on many people’s lists of favorite Bible passages.
The language is vivid, even grotesque. It seems to suggest self-mutilation which does not sound like Jesus at all. The one thing I do like about it however is that it seems to define the limits of literalism.
Walk into the most Bible-believing church you can find- where the women do not wear trousers or speak in church, where men do not swear oaths or mow their lawns on Sundays- Go into place as strict as that and I bet you won’t find many people with eye patches and wrapped stumps. Because even the most literal Christians balk at this passage! - Barbara Brown Taylor
It goes against their reason not to mention their sense of self-preservation. This passage, perhaps like no other, drives us all to become biblical critics.
Biblical criticism does not mean that we criticize the Bible - But, that we ask important questions of Scripture. And more importantly, that we allow Scripture to ask important questions of us!
We hear John’s implied question to Jesus in the opening dialogue of this passage. Listen again to John and the others along the Way: John rushing ahead of the Twelve, eagerly reports an injustice to Jesus:
Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name and we tried to stop him because he was not following us.
Teacher, this guy, this stranger is working wonders in your name and he doesn’t look like us!
For heaven’s sake- just who does he think he is?
JUST WHO DOES HE THINK HE IS?
Now perhaps John’s grievance does have some merit. In his day, wonderworkers and pagan conjurers often invoked a revered Jewish name to effect healing. So this perfect stranger, this performer of good deeds, could be an interloper.
And we can always put John’s complaint into a psychological framework. You’ll remember a few verses earlier, the disciples had been unsuccessful in casting out a young boy’s unclean spirit. Frustrated by their spiritual impotence and the crowd’s criticism, they watched Jesus release the boy from the spirit that had bedeviled him since childhood. And now this guy…
Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name
and we tried to stop him because he was not one of us.
Jesus answers: Do not stop him: (For Heaven’s Sake, we need all the help we can get.) For whoever is not against us is for us.
Jesus sounds tolerant. But already his words begin to make an incision in the hardness of our hearts.
For tolerance requires us to clear, to cut away space for the wideness of God’s mercy.
Tolerance provides growing room for ourselves and others so that God can act. Jesus’ answer to John speaks to us:
Cut away your rash judgments of others. In the Kingdom of God no one holds a franchise on the Lord’s power to heal.
That answers the question and maybe we can just stop there…
But Jesus speaks again… and nowhere in all the New Testament is Jesus so graphic about the wages of sin: Better you should hang a rock around your neck and jump into the ocean, He says.
Better you should maim and blind yourself than walk around like nothing is wrong.
Four times Jesus repeats: It would be better for you…
Better to limp and grope our way into the Kingdom of God than to be thrown whole and healthy into hell.
We recoil from the thought of self-mutilation - as we should.
Jesus means for us to take him seriously not literally.
Like any good rabbi, he uses the language of hyperbole to arrest our ears, to grab our attention- because it’s so vital that we take him seriously! Our Lord is serious about the radical removal of obstacles to His grace and power. Obstacles like:
Eyes which measure others according to our pattern.
Hands that are anxious to harness power and prestige.
Feet which are oh-so slow to follow.
Early in the 19th century, The Rt. Rev. Alexander Griswold served the the Episcopal Church as Presiding Bishop. Consecrated in 1811, Griswold became the PB during a time of strife and great dissension. He wrote, “The trouble and expense of a religious controversy are serious evils. The bitter and uncharitable spirit seriously injures the general cause of religion. That spirit which sets us to stretch or cut all to our length is the spirit of persecution and the enemy of Christ. To make for ourselves or for our party, exclusive claims is quite arrogant, uncharitable and wicked. We cannot be too careful how we judge our brothers and sisters: To their Master let them stand or fall.”
Bishop Griswold sought to bring the church back to her mission when he warns of “That spirit which sets us to stretch or cut all to our length." Bishop Griswold’s words echo Jesus’ response to John as Jesus brings us back to our mission. Do not stop him: For no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. Whoever is not against us is for us.
Jesus says to John and to us, “For Heaven’s sake do not spend time measuring others or cross-referencing their spiritual credentials with your own. In the Kingdom of God, disciples are called not credentialed. In the Kingdom of God, no one holds a franchise on the Lord’s power to heal.
In the Kingdom of God- there is no copyright on grace.
God’s promise of abundant life is made to all God’s people. If there is anyone in the world equipped to care for God’s people, body and soul, we are! We are God’s baptized- who have been given the gift of second sight.
When we look at God’s people, we see them whole as God intends then to be.
When we come in the Name of the One who comes to heal the sick, the lame, the blind, we must cut away space for the wideness of God’s mercy.
Because as St. Augustine reminds us, “Without God we can not. Without us God will not.”
9/30/2018 - Proper 21 - Year B - The Reverend Anne Bridgers