Esther 7:1-6, 9-10; 9;20-22; Psalm 124; James 5:13-20; Mark 9:38-50
Preached by Rev. Dr. Jason Haddox
The Animal Channel has a reality/pet care show entitled “My Cat From Hell.” For those of us who own cats (or who are owned by them) this is an intriguing title, and one that I thought worthy of investigation when I discovered it. The story line is always the same: The pet owners apply to be on the show because their cat (or cats) are acting out in some way that is disrupting the household. The cat guru (a tattooed rock-n-roll musician by the unlikely name of Jackson Galaxy) comes to the house, meets the humans and the cat, observes their interactions, and helps them figure out what’s really going on. Inevitably, there is some source of distress that is upsetting the cat, and the cat is responding to that upset. Remove the source of distress, and the cat will relax and be just fine. And the signal of that relaxing is when the cat allows its belly and chest to be exposed to the humans.
The willingness to expose one’s vulnerable places to other human beings is a signal of great trust. The opening of the midline—from neck to navel—in felines, or canines, or in humans—is a gesture of absolute openness. Arms spread, defenses lowered, hands open to give and to receive. Very different from arms crossed, hands made into fists, tensed to strike, the gestures of self-protection and immanent combat.
The disciples seem to be ready for combat this morning. They have seen someone, someone not of their inner circle, an outsider, who is casting out demons in Jesus’ name, and they want to know what to do about this interloper on their turf.
We know that instinct. That all-too-human habit of drawing lines, and circles, and classifying things and people into “like” and “unlike”, “Us” and “Them.” It is a way of protecting ourselves from the unknown. And it’s a useful way of dealing with the world to a point, but past that point it can become more of a problem than a solution.
Both our Epistle reading from the Letter of James this morning, and the gospel passage from Mark are dealing with this inside/outside dichotomy. In the church, and often here at St. Augustine’s, we use the language of “Family” to describe ourselves. The problem with that language is that in scripture, “Family” in Jesus’ time was not what we think of when we use that word. A family meant more than just Mom, Dad and 2.5 kids. Multiple generations lived together in a household, with attendant slaves, indentured servants, and various others. When Jesus or Paul or other New Testament writers use the language of “brothers and sisters” to address the followers of Jesus, they are making a very particular claim about what that relationship is, or at least ought to be. That concern for one another—and that willingness to be open and present to one another—is a remarkable thing.
The middle of the gospel passage is terrifying. We can’t just take it at face value, and yet people try to do just that. The early Christian teacher and writer Origen cut off his “boy parts” because he felt that that was the only way he could avoid temptation to sin. Which is one way to do it, I suppose. But I don’t think that most of us are going to do anything of the kind…and Jesus knew that. So what’s really going on here?
An exasperated parent says to a child: “I’ve told you a million times—don’t exaggerate!” This is called hyperbole: Figures of speech deliberately drawn so absurdly large as to be laughable, but impossible to miss.
Jesus is using hyperbole to be sure—but the context is an accumulation of the disciples “not getting it.” Over and over they have seen for themselves, they have touched with their own hands and heard with their own ears and tasted with their own mouths the miraculous and outrageous and just plain WEIRD quality of what Jesus has been sharing with them. This “kingdom of God” that he keeps talking about, utterly confounds all the ordinary expectations they’ve been carrying around. He’s just gotten through telling them that the image, the icon of power in this way of living is complete powerlessness, that it looks very much like a little child—who is utterly dependent, utterly trusting in someone outside of itself for everything. And then John—JOHN, the beloved disciple, the closest of all to Jesus, the one who leans against Jesus’ heart at the last supper—asks if they should try to stop someone who is doing good in Jesus’ name “because he’s not doing it the way we do it.”
Jesus surely must have done another double face-palm on this. And in annoyance and perhaps amusement decides to just go with it. “Okay, fine. Have it your way. You want to talk about power like that? You want to condemn other people because they are not doing my Father’s will according to your gameplan? Let’s talk about YOU for a bit. Who is the powerful? Who is the wise guy? Who is the one who’s got it all together? You? You there? Oh really?”
He’s turning on them—more than a little bit—using exaggerated imagery and an over-the-top preaching style to make the point. Which is, NOBODY has got it perfectly together all the time. No one always knows what God is up to, even in their own lives, let alone the life or ministry of someone else in the Christian household. I may not like the message that the pastor of First Church of What’s Happening Now is preaching—but maybe God is doing something through him. I may think that the writings of some Christian author are really drippy and sentimental and vacuous, but who am I to say that the Holy Spirit cannot use those words, and that writer?
Psalm 131: “O Lord, I am not proud; I have no haughty looks. I do not occupy myself with great matters; nor with things that are too hard for me.” We meditated on that text at our Wonderful Wednesday gathering this week. I have a facial expression that Shannon calls my “You are too stupid to live” look—and I realized that I probably need to cut that out. It’s not helping me, or anyone else, to use that look on someone.
“It is better to cut off parts of yourself, than to throw a rock in the path of another believer.” Not body parts, but parts that interfere with others’ and our own growth in faith.
This concern with caring for others, with making a generous space for others in the household of faith, does not mean we cease to be ourselves, any of us. And it does not mean putting up with abuse, couched in religious language. But it does call us to mutual forbearance, to always look to the well-being of one another as a first principle. And in that, to be vulnerable and open to one another. To hold the position of vulnerability, which is the position of prayer—the Orans position. Breast and belly exposed, hands uplifted and open. To model that in our bodies and in our spirits. To tell the truth about ourselves—that we are NOT perfect, that things are not always “oh just fine, thanks very much.” We cannot possibly follow the instructions of the letter of James—“Pray for one another, that you may be healed” if we are closed off and hiding from one another. We cannot be the body of Christ if we dis-member our own selves from one another.
Jesus is not encouraging anyone to “dis-member” themselves this morning. Quite the opposite. He is urging them to “re-member” who they really are, and WHOSE they really are, and how very LARGE their new family of faith is—and especially to look after and care for those who are on the edges. The little ones, the least of these, the children, the most vulnerable.
To do this—to pay attention to those on the edge, in “re-memberance” of Jesus, himself marginalized, vulnerable, crucified and raised from death on the third day by the power of God—is to participate in the kin-dom of Christ, the household of faith, in this world, in our own time.
May it be so for us.
May it be so among us.