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
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
The Church of Holy Love, Inc.,
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,”
“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,
‘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
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 . . .
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,
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 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 . . .
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,
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?
we are all the little ones, too,
Let us then be
bold little ones,
unafraid of the light
that reveals in its starkness
of the present darkness,
for in that revealing
comes the urgency,
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
these stormy seas.