Year B Proper 21: A Long, Loving Look at the Real
A Sermon Preached at the Cathedral Church of St. Mark
Esther 7:1-6, 9-10; 9:20-22; Psalm 124; James 5:13-20; Mark 9:38-50
The Reverend Tyler B. Doherty, Priest-in-Charge
Last week, we heard Jesus speak of the necessity of welcoming the little children. After James and John get through arguing making Israel great again, Jesus takes a little child and sets in the center of the circle declaring—" Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.… Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” Children, of course, are symbolic of the very least of these, the most marginal group. They have no rights, they are utterly dependent upon their parents for survival, and can do nothing on their own. They are at constant risk, both then and now, from the predations of adult power, privilege, and domination.
When Jesus sets the little child at the center of the circle and takes it in his arms he is tangibly, sacramentally, enacting a new kind of societal configuration—one where the margins are lovingly carried from the periphery to the center. All that has been pushed aside, forgotten, made invisible and voiceless by the purposes of empire is now honored, welcomed, cherished, celebrated, seen, and heard, at the center of the new kingdom Jesus is inaugurating. It’s a kingdom where the King is not slavishly served, but is instead the servant of all. A Kingdom where the King will not even spare his own life in order to free his subjects from their hellish entrapment in the illusory, self-created fires of greed, anger, ignorance, and self-infatuation.
This image of the great reversal—where the margins are carried tenderly to the center and the stone that the builders of empire have refused becomes the rock on which the new kingdom is built—is key to understanding our gospel for today seasoned as it is with images of amputation, eternal fire, demons, and worms. I’ve often wondered why it is that in a country where so many folks purport to read the bible literally (think Jesus performing the miracles of the loaves and fishes in the company of Pteranodons) there aren’t more people walking around with one eye, one hand, and one foot. Clearly, we’re not meant to read this in a literal sense. But how then are we to hear such rather terrifying imagery?
The great Catholic southern writer Flannery O’Connor gives us, I think, a way into hearing these images in a way that approaches Good News. She writes, “I use the grotesque the way I do because people are deaf and dumb and need help to see and hear.” Mark’s Gospel is filled with injunctions to “Listen!” and “Watch!” That's because Mark knows we're deaf to the call and invitation of God and to serve him in the little ones. Mark knows we're blind to the presence and action of God in our midst and to the suffering of others whom we are called to serve. Like O’Connor’s use of the grotesque and the gothic, Mark’s Jesus is using powerfully symbolic and hyperbolic language to grab our attention, to wake us from our slumber, to get us to see and hear in a new way that will usher in a regime change where love, mercy and justice instead of power, prestige and possessions are enthroned at the center, where the one who is least of all and servant of all is King.
So when we hear talk about cutting off a hands, plucking out an eye, and lopping off a foot, we shouldn’t think this is a call some kind of self-mutilation in the name of God. Scripture, even from the earliest days, has always been read on multiple levels of meaning—the literal, the moral, the mystical, and as glimpse of the final consummation in God. If we understand that Jesus is using arresting imagery to arouse us from the waking-sleep of our present state, what then might these metaphors mean? One way might be to see these images as emblems of the ever-present love of God whose only desire is always to make us partakers of his life, to love us into loving. Leave aside everything that is not love Jesus is telling us. Let it fall away. Let God’s love for you, freely and graciously bestowed upon all God’s children, be the ground from which you live. That’s the way to enthrone the little ones at the center. That’s the way to true happiness. That’s the way to co-operate with God’s grace in the bringing about of the Kingdom right here and right now.
Being a stumbling block for others begins, always, with being a stumbling block for ourselves. With what we reach for with our hands, with what we stare absorbedly at, and with what where we walk. The Christian path to true happiness, joy, life abundant, and unending life in Him is always about have Christ, the Little One, at the center of our lives. We look to Him and only Him and if we look long enough, lovingly enough, we slowly become that which we gaze upon. The Jesuit theologian Walter Burghardt calls prayer, “A long, loving look a the real.” It’s through prayer, worship, dwelling on scripture, serving others, through turning ourselves to the source of all beauty, truth, and goodness, and staying there on a regular basis that we become a little more like that which we adore. Our grasping hands unclutch and offer the cup of water. Our blind eye falls out to be replaced with the eye of love that sees and ministers to the suffering and shoved aside. Our lead feet that keep us treading the tight circle of self-concern are lightened and we find ourselves walking where Jesus walks in solidarity with the suffering in his mission to the margins.
Which brings us, happily, to hell. Former Archbishop Rowan Williams was asked by a gotcha journalist from the BBC about hell during his tenure. In characteristic Williams fashion, there was a long pause which the producers wanted to edit out. But Williams insisted that the silence be left in. He wanted his listeners to experience with him the power of questions of judgment and hell and not appear to skip blithely to a prepacked answer. When he did reply, here’s what he said, ““All we really know about the after-life is that God has promised to be there. My concept of hell, I suppose, is being stuck with myself for ever and with no way out. Whether anybody ever gets to that point I have no idea. But that it’s possible to be stuck with my selfish little ego for all eternity, that’s what I would regard as hell."
Hell for Williams is self-enclosure. Being trapped with one’s “selfish little ego” for all eternity. Sartre makes the opposite claim, that “Hell is other people.” But Jesus’ teaching for us today gives the lie to such a claim. To the mind of empire, to the mind of power and privilege, other people are hell precisely because their needs, their cries, their requests for a cup of water impinge on our self-satisfaction, or sense of comfort and control. We can protect ourselves, insulate ourselves from their cries, distract ourselves from their calls with Facebook, television, or our smartphones, but the end result is not little paradise we expect. Life with ourselves at the center, in rejection and alienation from God who reveals Himself in the little ones, is hollow, empty, barrenly sterile and turned in on itself in fear. Hell is simply wanting to be oneself apart from God’s grace and in isolation from others. Hell is self-destructive resistance to the love of God. Hell is something of our own making and never a retributive punishment of a God who licks His chops at our suffering.
When we seek our happiness in protective strategies over-and-against-others we “lose our salt” because we are acting in a manner which is contrary to the way God, in whom in there is no over-and-against, acts. Our saltiness comes from opening to the love of God Our saltiness comes from giving ourselves away to true and transformative encounter with the other, the stranger, the widow, and the orphan—all the little ones we’ve been taught not to notice in our pursuit of happiness through getting and spending.
The past few weeks in the Letter of James have provided with a rather hellish portrait of the nascent church community in Alexandria that was rife with rivalry, gossip, favoritism to wealth patrons and the like. James is writing to a community in danger of losing its salt, of imploding under the pressure of its internal divisions.
Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you? You want something and do not have it; so you commit murder. And you covet something and cannot obtain it; so you engage in disputes and conflicts.
This week, however, after that rather grim diagnosis of the ills that plague community, we arrive at James’ prescribed cure. And what is that? To love one another. To pray for each other. To give thanks and be grateful. To care for sick and offer to walk alongside and journey with those who are lost. It’s a beautiful vision of the priesthood of all believers, of a community that roots and grounds itself in love, lets everything that is a stumbling block fall away and lives that love out for others—others inside the community and others outside the community—as rain on parched soil and as a bountiful harvest to the materially and spiritually hungry.
It all begins with that long, loving look at the real—that is Jesus. Slowly, and God’s own time we start to see as God sees. Our hands become His hands. Our feet his feet. We gently, imperceptibly become old salts of the spirit, purified in the refiner’s fire with only one word on our lips and in our lives—love. As Julian of Norwich writes at the end of her Revelations of Divine Love, “Would you learn to see clearly your Lord’s meaning in this thing? Learn it well: Love was his meaning. Who showed it to you? Love.... Why did he show it to you? For Love’.... Thus I was taught that Love was our Lord’s meaning.”