Pentecost 19 September 30, 2018

The Rev. Janet Campbell

PENTECOST 17 Proper 21 RCL Year B

Numbers 11:4-6,10-16,24-29; Psalm 19:7-14; James 5:13-20; Mark 9:38-50

 

Christ Episcopal Church

Tacoma, Washington

Sunday, September 30, 2018

The Rev. Janet B. Campbell

 

 

The shocking sayings of Jesus.

 

“If any of you put a stumbling block

before one of these little ones who believe in me,

it would be better for you

if a great millstone were hung around your neck

and you were thrown into the sea.”

 

“If your hand causes you to stumble,

cut it off . . .

If your foot causes you to stumble

cut it off . . .

If your eye causes you to stumble,

tear it out . . .”

 

The shocking sayings of Jesus.

 

Whenever this passage

comes around in our cycle of readings,

I can’t help but think

of the oddball Rev. Leo Bebb

and his sidekick Brownie,

 

characters in Frederick Beuchner’s

quartet of wonderfully comic

and deadly serious novels called

The Book of Bebb.

 

Our hero is Antonio Parr,

a New York City journalist

wandering aimlessly through life

with a vague sense

of something missing . . .

 

until his eye is caught

by one of those curious notices

you find in the newspaper want ads:

 

“Put yourself on God’s payroll –

go to work for Jesus now.”

 

Out of curiosity,

and his journalist’s sense

there might be an exposé

waiting to be written,

Antonio sends the requested “love offering”

and a self-addressed stamped envelope

to

 

The Church of Holy Love, Inc.,

Armadillo, Florida,

The Rev. Leo Bebb, founder

 

Ten days later

comes an ordination certificate

in the mail,

authorizing him to marry, bury, baptize,

give last rites

and administer the sacraments.

 

And so begins Antonio’s

lifelong and life-changing journey

with the Rev. Leo Bebb.

 

Antonio is never quite sure

who Bebb really is –

 

poseur, pastor, phony, prophet,

scoundrel, saint –

lover of Jesus and the Gospel

and his fellow human beings,

lover of money

and those who might donate it . . .

 

possibly all of the above . . .

Antonio is never quite sure,

and neither are we . . .

 

 

Operating out of Bebb’s garage

in Armadillo, Florida

is his religious diploma mill,

the Gospel Faith College,

The Rev. Laverne Brown (aka Brownie),

“Assistant pastor and Dean,”

 

“an expert,”

Antonio discovers,

“in making the rough places of scripture smooth.”

 

Here’s Brownie’s sermon

on the millstone passage,

as recounted by Antonio:

 

 

“ ‘In the time of Jesus,’ [Brownie] pointed out,

‘the grain was of such poor quality

and so easily pulverized

that millstones were often made

of a very light, porous stone resembling pumice.

 

‘This stone was, indeed,

so unusually aerated

almost in the manner of styrofoam,

that, combined with the fact

that the salt content of the Dead Sea

was so notoriously high

that even fat men could float in it like corks,

a millstone around the neck might under certain circumstances

serve the function of a life-preserver.’

 

“And this was clearly what the passage intended,

Brownie argued:

 

‘it was better not to cause

one of the little ones to sin—

there could be no question about that—

 

but if you slipped up,

then out went the life-line

with a floating millstone

tied to the working end . . .’ ”

 

The Book of Bebb: Lion Country, p. 110,

HarperCollins one-volume paperback 2001

 

 

The lengths to which we will go

to neutralize

the shocking sayings of Jesus

in our search for an easy love

that excuses our slip-ups

and sends us on our way unchanged,

 

rather than the demanding love

of God revealed in Jesus —

 

a love that respects us too much

to let us off so cheaply,

 

that, yes, forgives,

but holds us accountable,

opening the way to transformation,

to growing up into Christ.

 

In Brownie’s life-preserver scenario,

we don’t ever have to die . . .

we can bob through life,

just as we are.

 

If we really want to follow Jesus,

we do have to die—

 

die to self,

die to sin,

let go of whatever we hoped

would keep us afloat,

 

let go of whatever is not-Jesus,

and drown in the waters of baptism.

 

 

Baptism instills in us the pattern

of Christian living,

dying with Christ in order to rise with Christ . . .

once in the action of baptism,

over and over again

in the living of our baptism.

 

Over and over again

dying to whatever false flotation device

we currently cling to . . .

 

a person or affinity group,

an idea or resentment or plan,

the way things are,

the way things used to be . . .

 

dying, and rising to Christ

and the gospel.

John said to Jesus,

“Teacher, we saw someone

casting out demons in your name,

and we tried to stop him,

because he was not following us . . .”

he was not a member of our group.

 

“Whoever is not against us

is for us,” replied Jesus,

 

“do not stop them . . .”

put no stumbling block

in their way.

This work of ours

is greater, wider,

than our small company . . .

 

Who is to say

upon whom the Spirit will rest?

 

Broaden your horizons, John.

 

It’s a terrible thing to be

a stumbling block,

to let human narrowness

get in the way of

the breadth of God’s love,

the wideness of God’s mercy,

the infinity of God’s possibilities.

 

Jesus makes that point

in shocking fashion . . .

by turning the religious norms

of his culture

upside down . . .

 

If your hand or foot or eye

causes you to sin,

then cut it off, tear it out . . .

it is better

to enter the kingdom of God

maimed, lamed, with only one eye . . .

than to be whole in body and thrown into hell.

 

In the Jewish thought of Jesus’ time,

such damage to the body

would render a person ritually unclean . . .

 

separate them

from the community of the ritually clean,

make the kingdom of God unattainable . . .

if the kingdom were based on such things.

 

But it is not the body, the exterior,

of a person

that determines holiness,

Jesus says,

but the intentions of the heart, the interior,

of a person . . .

 

You do not have to be whole in body

to enter the kingdom of God,

what matters is wholeness of mind and spirit,

wholeness of heart.

 

It’s a terrible thing

to turn away from God’s love . . .

to exclude another from God’s love . . .

 

How much better

to let go of our preconceived notions

and sink into God’s love

that washes away

whatever causes us to sin,

and brings new life.

 

Jesus’ extreme example

shocks us into the realization

 

that he has entrusted his followers

with awesome responsibility

toward all the little ones

of this world:

 

those who sense

there is something missing . . .

 

those who yearn

for something they are unable to name . . .

 

We are to be to them

the heart of Jesus:

the love that calls us

beyond ourselves

beyond the things of this culture

and this world

that can never satisfy . . .

 

a demanding love

that respects and takes us seriously,

that invites and receives us,

that requires much of us,

that loves us to death, and so,

into new and transformed life . . .

 

a constant love that holds firm

through every challenge . . .

 

an unshakeable love

that will see us through

the shocking, disorienting events

of this increasingly ugly age . . .

 

a challenging love

that calls us out of fear

into hope and purpose . . .

for even now,

even in these days,

the kingdom of God is coming into being

and our part in its coming

is more crucial than ever . . .

 

above all,

a bountiful love

that creates us a beloved community

and gives itself for us and to us,

Life given for life,

in the holy meal of the bread and wine,

Christ’s own body and blood,

Life itself.

 

Could there be any greater love?

 

Could there be any greater calling

than to carry this love,

be this love,

in the world?

 

Any greater challenge?

 

After all,

we are all the little ones, too,

aren’t we?

 

Let us then be

bold little ones,

unafraid of the light

that reveals in its starkness

the extent

of the present darkness,

 

for in that revealing

comes the urgency,

the demand,

for the work of healing.

 

 

Let us then be

little ones of healing,

of prayer and action,

committed to living the gospel,

faithful in struggle and uncertainty,

generous in sharing and self-giving,

welcoming to friend and stranger,

 

a self-examining people,

gentle and compassionate,

forgiving and seeking forgiveness,

zealous for justice and peace,

 

intent on Christ and following Christ,

always dying, always rising,

being transformed more and more

into the image of Christ.

 

Let us cast off

our life preservers

 

and swim

these stormy seas.

 

 

 

 

 

website by Branded Look LLC   |   photos by Winfield Giddings