Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost (proper 21) October 1, 2006.
These are the kinds of texts that make a person hungry. First we hunger for the cucumbers, melons, and garlic that the Israelites complained of; then, like Moses, we hunger for more prophets. As we listen to the words of James, we hunger for his vision of community, faithfulness, and the oil for healing. In the reading from Mark, we hear of salt and hunger to be the people whom God intends, without having to cut off our feet and hands, which undoubtedly have caused us and others to stumble. Garlic, oil and salt; all we need is a good loaf of bread.
At the beginning of the Gospel reading, John--from whom we don't hear much throughout the Gospel of Mark--seeks to maintain a tight control over those who are performing exorcisms; John is possessive of work done in Jesus' name. He is worried that people will just use Jesus' name without proper knowledge, a known relationship to Jesus, or faith. It is, after all, a slippery slope; pretty soon just about anyone could do works in Jesus' name.
This theme of tight control plays out in our own communities each day as those with power hold onto their power, unwilling to share (even at their own cost) the work of being God's people. There is great fear in opening up our ministry to others; like Joshua in Numbers, we seek to stop those who prophesy. Joshua, like John and like many of us, was worried about Eldad (which in Hebrew means "loved by God") and Medad (Heb. "measure"), two seemingly random men from the camp who were prophesying there among the people. While these men seem obscure both to us and to Aaron, they were not obscure to God and were chosen to act as prophets, by no one other than God.
I find it most interesting that, while the people complain about food, Moses lifts up his complaint to God about the burden of his leadership and ministry. In the end, God satisfies both hungers. God gives the people quail with their manna, and Moses, by the gift of the Spirit, is given partners in his ministry and prophetic work.
The first part of the Mark text and this reading from Numbers call us all to dare to ask, "Would that all God's people were prophets and that the Lord would put the spirit upon them!" Loosening our strong hold on the ministries of the church can be terrifying. Yet, I believe most of us are like Moses, longing for God to take away our burdens. And God's people are longing to be fed, and yet many of us, like John and Joshua, live in fear of this slippery slope of sharing ministry. Meanwhile, the Spirit continues to descend on the most unlikely of candidates. Today's readings demonstrate that the Spirit of God will descend and, if we dare to listen to those who experience it and long to work in our communities, amazing things will begin to happen.
The reading from James speaks of what it means to live in faithful community. The work of salvation is not individual. Instead, who we are as God's people and the way God acts are always communal. This radically countercultural reality pulls us away from thinking just about "me and Jesus" and toward care and responsibility for one another.
How might we do this? How might we counter our persistence toward entrapment, scandal, and possessiveness? James offers this prescription: Sing songs of praise, anoint the sick with oil, confess your sin, and, most important, pray for one another. For God heals us and makes us whole through our relationships with one another, as we enact our care for one another in worship and acts of compassion.
Jesus, too, is greatly concerned about how people of faith live in relationship with one another. He speaks of those who cause the little ones to stumble and of the terrible and eschatological consequences of being the cause of another's stumbling. The Greek word for this causing to stumble is skandalish, from which our contemporary English word scandal is derived. The Greek word holds the sense of causing another to fall or to sin. The noun form is used to mean a trap, enticement, or temptation. Anyone who causes another to stumble (as many a scandal may do) will experience great travail, not just being thrown into the sea with great weight tied around one's neck but also thrown into an unquenchable fire. The word here, which tends to be translated as "hell," is actually Gahenna or the valley of Hinnom. This valley, located outside of Jerusalem, was at one time the site of child sacrifices, and this kind of horror, punishment, and death is associated with the name.
Jesus was not being gentle here but rather used images and words that caused great concern and pain for his first hearers. They still cause great fear in us. Jesus uses hyperbole to make it clear to his disciples that their ministry and their words have impact on others. Again, our faith and salvation are never individual but deeply entrenched in community and the way we live together. Sometimes for the care of the community, for the body, the hand must be chopped off, a piece must be removed. This does not mean that we cut people off or break away from the community whenever we think that they are unfaithful. It does mean that sometimes, for the wholeness of the body of Christ, we need to name the pieces that are harmful--be they old stories, experiences of abuse, ministries that are no longer working--and claim God's healing power in change and removal.
These are tough words to hear, because they seem to counter Jesus' previous words, which call us to be open to the work of others in Jesus' name. Do we open ourselves up or cut people off? Do we long for the Spirit to descend upon all God's people or tear ourselves apart from those who cause us to fall?
Perhaps it is both. As God opens us up and empowers us to cut ourselves from pain, old stories, and harmful people, we will be transformed and experience salvation and hope. These texts cause us to consider both what we are not opening ourselves up to and also those things that we are holding on to, which, like a millstone, cause us to drown. In both of these experiences God creates space and newness so that we live as ones whom God longs for--with the Spirit upon us and salted. And it is in being salted, living as the flavor God has made us to be, that we "are at peace with one another" (Mark 9:50). It is enough to make us hungry. God will most certainly fill us. SKO
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|Title Annotation:||Preaching Helps|
|Author:||Olson, Sara K.|
|Publication:||Currents in Theology and Mission|
|Date:||Aug 1, 2006|
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