There are no more outsiders...

NOTE: Here are my notes for Sunday, September 27, 2009. I am trying an experiment with changing my study, prayer and writing day to Tuesdays so that I can fully participate in other wider church events in the region. It is a big/little shift for me as I've been doing my sermon work on Wednesdays for 25+ years. We shall see... At any rate, here goes and please know that if you are in the area it would be great if you stopped by any time. PS: some have asked if I am using Peterson's The Message for my quotes and that would be a big yes.

Most of us don’t hear today’s gospel as a summons to encouragement. If the truth be told, most would prefer not to even hear these words spoken in church:

If you give one of these simple, childlike believers a hard time, bullying or taking advantage of their simple trust, you'll soon wish you hadn't. You'd be better off dropped in the middle of the lake with a millstone around your neck… than to discourage or hurt one of these little ones. So, if your hand or your foot gets in God's way, chop it off and throw it away. You're better off maimed or lame and alive than the proud owner of two hands and two feet that lead to a furnace of eternal fire. And if your eye distracts you from God, pull it out and throw it away, too. You're better off one-eyed and alive than exercising your twenty-twenty vision from inside the fire of hell.

This isn’t about feasting at the table of grace – setting a place for the lost and wounded – and celebrating the radical inclusivity of Christ – or is it? Could it be that even these harsh words have something to teach us about the upside down kingdom of God? Is it possible, as St. Paul liked to ask, that what seems like a stumbling block to some and total foolishness to others is really a way into the essence of Christ Jesus our Lord?

That is my hunch – that these words that at first sound so rightfully jarring and even frightening – are part of God’s sacred surprise for those who wrestle with them faithfully. “The message that points us to Christ on the Cross,” Paul wrote in I Corinthians, “seems like sheer silliness to those hell bent on destruction, but for those searching for the way of salvation – inner healing and outward integrity – it makes perfect sense. This is the way God works… as it is written: I'll turn conventional wisdom on its head and expose the so-called experts to be crackpots.” Interesting, yes? Paul continues:

Now tell me, where can you find someone truly wise, truly educated and truly intelligent in this day and age? Hasn't God already exposed it all as pretentious nonsense? Since the world in all its fancy wisdom never had a clue when it came to knowing God, God’s wisdom took delight in using what the world considered dumb… to bring those who trust him into the way of salvation. So take a good look, my friends… isn't it obvious that God deliberately chose men and women that the culture overlooks and exploits and abuses, chose these "nobodies" to expose the hollow pretensions of the "somebodies"?

I have come to sense – and even trust – that these initially harsh and judgmental words of Jesus are also part of his invitation to God’s feast. They are part of his counter-cultural directive in servant leadership – his call to become first with God by taking up last place – practicing, as St. Francis said, a life as an instrument of God’s peace:

Where there is hatred, let us sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is discord, harmony; where there is doubt, faith; and where there is despair, hope… we do not seek to be consoled as much as to console, to be understood as to understand, to be loved as to love. For it is in giving that we receive; it is in forgiving that we are pardoned and it is in dying to self that we are both to life eternal.

Scholars have noted that this section of Mark’s gospel is really a series of eight different sayings from Jesus that have been collected into one story. And it seems that there are two parts to this story:

+ One chastises the disciples – and those in our era that are paying attention – for thinking they have a monopoly upon God’s favor. Our text says:

The disciple whom Jesus loved – John – spoke up saying: "Teacher, we saw a man using your name to expel demons and we stopped him because he wasn't part of our group." Jesus wasn't pleased. "Don't stop him. No one can use my name to do something good and powerful, and in the next breath cut me down. If he's not an enemy, he's an ally. Why, anyone by just giving you a cup of water in my name is on our side. Count on it that God will notice.

+ The other calls out anybody – in the church or beyond it – that causes a follower of Christ – particularly the most vulnerable and tender – to stumble.

If you give one of these simple, childlike believers a hard time, bullying or taking advantage of their simple trust, you'll soon wish you hadn't. You'd be better off dropped in the middle of the lake with a millstone around your neck.

Are you with me? Do you see the two parts to the story? Well, what I find fascinating is that Mark chooses to identify the disciple who asks the first question as John. Traditionally, John is called what? The disciple whom Jesus loved, right? Yes, he is the brother of James – one of the sons of thunder who is always making noise about who shall be first in Christ’s kingdom – and often they join Peter to become part of the inner circle of Christ’s closest confidants.

+ It is James, Peter and John who were up on the mountain with Jesus when they had that mystical experience we call the transfiguration – that blessed meeting between Jesus, Moses and Elijah – where God said, “This is my beloved one: listen to him!”

+ And tradition tells us that when Peter raced to the empty tomb after Christ’s resurrection, “he saw John, the disciple whom Jesus loved, following… he was the one who had reclined next to Jesus at the Passover supper and asked, “Lord, who is it that is going to betray you?”

So I suspect that it isn’t coincidence why Mark singles him out here. No I think it has something to do with how insiders – even those we love and trust the most – can sometimes be blinded to God’s presence in the world. And I say this because of the way Jesus responds to his dear friend John. As good as our modern English translations of the Bible are, they don’t do justice to the way Jesus rips into his beloved. He isn’t annoyed nor is he seriously displeased: he is furious – outraged – incensed and livid because one of his most trusted disciples was still so self-centered and insecure that he missed God’s blessing when it was nakedly shared with the world by someone outside the fold.

+ What did the exorcist who spoke in Christ’s name do? He brought healing to a person, right? Set someone free from whatever spirits had oppressed him – gave one of the wounded a blessing of hope – just as Jesus taught.

+ And the disciples did… what? They stopped him – forced him to quit the blessings – because… he wasn’t an insider.

Can you see why Jesus came unglued? “We stopped him, Lord – we rebuked him and brought an end to the blessings because he wasn’t a member of our church – our group – our way of being faithful.” That is, he wasn’t one of us…

This insider/outsider business is dangerous territory, my friends: it can sanctify our bigotry, feed our fears and confuse our curses for God’s blessings. No wonder the seminary professor always told her introductory New Testament classes: "Whenever you want to draw lines in order to mark who is outside the kingdom and who is inside, always remember: Jesus is on the other side of the line! Jesus is always with the outsiders!"

That’s part one of the story – be on guard against dividing the world into insiders and outsiders – because Jesus will always be on the outside with the rejected. He’ll be embracing the wounded and welcoming the forgotten to God’s feast while we’re busy building walls and barriers to keep us apart: they may look pretty but they are not of the kingdom.

Part two of the story is also about the feast in a wonderfully upside down or paradoxical way – and it has to do with how most of the stumbling blocks to real community are of our own construction. Most of the things that get in the way of our loving one another as Jesus loves us do not come from out there – or far away – or beyond our ordinary experience. Listen to Christ’s words again:

If your hand or your foot gets in God's way, chop it off and throw it away. You're better off maimed or lame and alive than the proud owner of two hands and two feet, godless in a furnace of eternal fire. And if your eye distracts you from God, pull it out and throw it away. You're better off one-eyed and alive than exercising your twenty-twenty vision from inside the fire of hell. Everyone's going through a refining fire sooner or later, but you'll be well-preserved, protected from the eternal flames. Be preservatives yourselves. Preserve the peace.

Did you get that: hands and feet and eyes and the ordinary things of everyday living are mostly likely what trip us up when it comes to being open to God’s grace. Bruce Malina, a brilliant biblical sociologist, writes that Jesus is using metaphor and Palestinian hyperbole to make a point for:

These verses are a parable on recompense for moral behavior. Should one's previous activity (the hands and feet) or one's preferred way of thinking and judging (the eye) cause you to fail the tests of loyalty to God, one must put an end to such behavior. For it is better to endure the difficulties of ending them now, than to be requited with pain (in the life to come).

Is that clear? Our habits and biases and fears can cause us real trouble when it comes to embracing God’s grace – so let’s deal with them rather than make excuses, yes? Let’s deal with the fact that most people choose to leave the church – or reject its blessings – not because of the music or the lighting or the way we serve communion or even the way the building looks.

+ No, most people are turned off to the way of Jesus because some ordinary person hurt them. Wounded them – pushed them out of God’s love with a careless word or an act of neglect.

+ Do you know the book: When Bad Christians Happen to Good People? That’s what I’m talking about – people who use their eyes and mouths and hands to wound or discourage others in hundreds of ordinary ways that most of the insiders don’t even notice.

That’s part of what’s going on in the reading from Numbers today: Moses has been given a task by the Lord – the job of leading God’s people out of suffering and oppression into a land of justice and com- passion – and what do most of the people do? Rejoice? Celebrate? Live with gratitude and joy at the center of their being? Um…. I don’t think so:

The riffraff among the people had a craving and soon they had the People of Israel whining;

"Why can't we have meat? We ate fish in Egypt—and got it free!—to say nothing of the cucumbers and melons, the leeks and onions and garlic. But nothing tastes good out here; all we get is manna, manna, manna." Moses heard the whining, all those families whining in front of their tents. GOD's anger blazed up. Moses saw that things were in a bad way…

So Moses said to GOD, "Why are you treating me this way? What did I ever do to you to deserve this? Did I conceive them? Was I their mother? So why dump the responsibility of this people on me? Why tell me to carry them around like a nursing mother, carry them all the way to the land you promised to their ancestors? Where am I supposed to get meat for all these people who are whining to me, 'Give us meat; we want meat.' I can't do this by myself—it's too much, all these people. If this is how you intend to treat me, do me a favor and kill me. I've seen enough; I've had enough. Let me out of here."

In the ordinary, everyday realm it is all too easy for God’s people to get lost in habits and fears and prejudices that wound and discourage.

So we’re asked to make a choice – a conscious decision that we regularly revisit – and in our tradition it has to do with living in the name of Jesus. You see, this lesson isn’t really about hellfire and brimstone – unless you understand hell to be separation from God – but it is about judgment and choices. Specifically it is about choosing to face the painful work each and all of us must do in order to become disciples in the name of Jesus: women and men who make the healing and hope of Jesus real in the world we live in – so let’s be clear:

+ When we talk about “in the name of Jesus” we’re not talking about titles or traditions or denominations or even one spiritual path over another. No, to live in the name of Jesus is to incarnate his power in our flesh – to link his spirit with our own – to join our humanity with the blessings of heaven just as he did before us.

+ In other words, it is to be disciples who choose to let the power of Jesus – from the Greek word dynamis from which we get the word dynamite – become our heart and soul and mind and inspiration. To live and act in the name of Jesus is to take his motivation as our own.

And that is what all this fire talk is about – the refining fire – that burns away the dross and distractions and purifies us like salt: “Everyone's going through a refining fire sooner or later,” Jesus said, “but you'll be well-preserved, protected from the eternal flames if you let yourself become preservatives for God.”

We’ve got some work to do together, my friends, some real and sometimes painful work. The bad news is we’re likely to get it wrong as often as we get it right. The good news is that even our failures can help us become refined in the name of Jesus.

That’s how the upside down kingdom works: It is in giving that we receive; it is in forgiving that we are pardoned and it is in dying to self that we are born to life eternal.

So let those who have ears to hear, hear what the Spirit is saying to the church.

(this is the setting of Ubi Caritas our new music dirctor will have us sing after my reflections.) images: 1) Encouragement small steps @ 2) St. Francis @ 3) Cross @; 4-10 photos by Dianne De Moot; 11) Taize candles @


ron cole said…
Just doin' a little surfin' last night RJ and came upon your site. Beautiful words brother, really touched my blessed my friend. I'll be back for more visits.
James said…
Why thanks, my friend. I am grateful... please know I value your blessing and look forward to more connections. I just read your blog, too, and loved it. Keep on making sweet, soul music.
Black Pete said…
By strange co-incidence, or kairos in overdrive, I am presiding at worship at Joyce's church this Sunday (same date). My theme will be The Others, or Art of the Vulnerable, with the life of composer Hikari Oe, son of Kenzaburo and Yukari Oe. Google Kenzaburo Oe and you will find an incredible story, with linkages to many disability and life issues in our society.

I am planning a "part 2" on Temma Lowly, and her dad and mom, Tim and Sherrie. Same issues, different art.
RJ said…
How incredibly wonderful is that? I am off to google, my man. Thanks.

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