“Literalism. Stumbling Blocks. Salt. Prayer.” 09.27.2015 Sermon

Mark 9:38-50 • September 27, 2015

Click here to view a video of this sermon.

Brothers and sisters in Christ grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Savior Jesus the Christ. Amen.

Since the words in our gospel reading today were first spoken by Jesus and first written into what we know today as the Gospel According to Saint Mark, people have struggled to interpret the meaning of these words. This happens throughout scripture and maybe most especially when faced with difficult sections like the one we have from Jesus today. And I believe this interpretive challenge of scriptural understanding has been true for centuries. It is still the case for the church today and for those of us who seek to be stewards of God, disciples of Jesus in 2015.

And I’m not going to take on the entire 2,000+ year history of Biblical interpretation in a single sermon or for that matter – in a single lifetime. But there is one method of biblical interpretation that makes today’s text from Jesus especially difficult. It is an interpretive method in some sections of the Christian tradition that has become more prominent over the past 200 years or so. It’s called literalism. Biblical literalism calls the reader to stick to the exact letter with a strict meaning of the word or words; there’s little to no room for figurative or historical or metaphorical use of words.

When Jesus says cut off your hand or pluck out your eye, a strict literal biblical interpretation would mean that you have to do just that. One theologian argues that, “This approach often obscures the literary aspects and consequently the primary meaning of the text.”

The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Christian denomination to which Good Shepherd is part of, says this about the interpretation of scripture. I quote this from one of our denomination’s documents – “Despite the diversity of viewpoints and the complexity of the many narratives contained in the Scriptures, Lutheran Christians believe that the story of God’s steadfast love and mercy in Jesus is the heart and center of what the Scriptures have to say.”

Over the years as my own understanding of biblical interpretation has grown and deepened, I’m grateful for the witness of many biblical scholars across the church. Scholars like Karl Barth. Karl Barth is viewed by many to be one of the 20th century’s greatest theologians. When it came to biblical interpretation, Barth often said, “I take the Bible too seriously to read it literally.”

In our gospel reading today, this isn’t some crazy prophet yelling and screaming wildly in the wilderness. This isn’t a disciple trying to reframe Jesus’ teaching into something they could understand or make sense of. These words aren’t from the Apostle Paul trying to encourage an early Christian community of faith.

This is Jesus. These words, as difficult as they are to hear, are from Jesus. Our soft silhouetted picture of Jesus gently holding a lamb on his shoulders is a hard to image to imagine as we hear Jesus telling us to cut off our hands or pluck out an eye for putting a stumbling block in front of one of these little ones.

So, I don’t want us to read these verses literally – I don’t want you to leave worship today and pluck out your eye, even though every one of us has looked at someone in ways that should force us to follow through with the eye plucking. And I don’t want you to cut off your hand either, even though all of us have used our hands to do something or write something in ways that should result in a room full of people today that are missing at least one hand.

I don’t want us to read these verses literally – but I do challenge us to join some of history’s greatest theologians like Karl Barth. Because I do think we need to take Jesus’ words that we just heard today very seriously. After all, this is Jesus, the savior of the world, speaking to you. And to me.

In a reflection on today’s gospel reading, one pastor wrote that this section of Mark 9 “reminds us that we need to focus on our own faults, our own temptations and struggles, instead of pointing the finger at others. When the disciples are concerned because they see someone else casting out demons in Jesus’ name and he isn’t part of their group, Jesus tells the disciples not to stop him for ‘whoever is not against us is for us.’ All too often, we want people to conform to us, instead of to the way of God. Instead of worrying about the faults of others, we need to be concerned about ourselves and what we do to harm another’s relationship with God and with others.” This pastor concluded her thoughts by saying that, “We need to be the salt of the earth, giving all things flavor, blessing instead of cursing, encouraging growth instead of breaking down.”

When Jesus speaks of ‘these little ones’ today, I don’t think he’s just talking about children. He is also talking about you. And about me. I believe that Jesus is talking about those who are sitting next to us today in worship and about those whom we encounter every day who no longer believe that God exists. I believe that Jesus is talking about those whom you may be related to even though you really don’t like them and about refugees fleeing for their lives, leaving their homeland forever in other parts of the world.

So, I want to offer two very simple, yet very challenging questions.

The first is this…
How are you and I placing stumbling blocks in front of God’s children that causes these little ones to stumble?

And the second is this…
How are you and I placing stumbling blocks in front of ourselves that cause us, these little ones as well, to stumble?

I will openly and honestly admit that I got just a little caught up in Pope Francis fever this week as the bishop of Rome visited the United States. One quote from the week, and one that I’ve heard from him before, was particularly impactful on me. Pope Francis said, “You pray for the hungry. Then you feed them. This is how prayer works.”

Several times a month, including this weekend, there are grocery carts placed in the narthex and hallways of Good Shepherd. The food and household supplies that are gathered in these grocery carts are given to local food pantries. Food pantries that serve God’s children who are trying to pick themselves up after hitting a stumbling block or two. Food pantries desperately in need of our help.

So how about, instead of literally cutting off a foot or hand or plucking out our eyes, how about if you and I join together each week by using our feet and hands and eyes to look through our kitchen cupboards before we come to worship for something that can be shared or add an additional package of toilet paper to our own shopping carts once in a while that can be placed in the shopping carts at church?

This might seem like a tiny, insignificant gesture. But if we take Jesus’ words seriously, I believe this small sprinkling of salt might just be the kind of salt Jesus is talking about in our gospel reading today. It may even become salt that will change someone’s life forever and bring peace to a beloved child of God who has never experienced the peace of the risen savior Jesus the Christ before. Brothers and sisters in Christ, this is how prayer works. Amen.

“Vocation to Serve” 09.06.2015 Sermon

Mark 7:24-37 • September 6, 2015

Click here to view a video recording of this sermon.

Brothers and sisters in Christ grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Savior Jesus the Christ. Amen.

Believe it or not, Labor Day is not a High Holy Festival Day in the global Christian church. It’s not something that is celebrated throughout the world. And after all, what we do every day for our work or with our friends and family has nothing to do with what we do when we are inside of a church building, right? Many of you might even be familiar with the ancient saying “what happens in church, stays in church.”

But just as Jesus always does, Jesus shows up and shows us something completely different. In my own journey as a steward of God and a disciple of Jesus, I believe more and more deeply every day that what you and I do in our daily life can never be separated from who we are as children of God – especially if we are actually living out our lives as people who claim to be followers of the risen savior Jesus.

So, the first question that I’ve wondered this week is…what do you do? Are you a teacher? Or a father? Or a lawyer? Or a friend? Or a banker? Or a retired office manager? Or a student? Or a fast-food cook?

And the second question I’ve wondered this week is…why do you do what you do? Do you work 60 hours a week at your job so you can live in a big house, drive a fancy car, own vacation property – things that help you remember just how great you are? In other words, is the intention of your labor ONLY about serving yourself – my needs, my wants, my desires?

If we look to Jesus, which is something that we probably should do once in a while, the way we answer questions like that shift dramatically when Jesus is part of the answer. You see, when Jesus is part of the things that we do, we will see these things not just as something that we are forced to do in order to make our rent or mortgage payment. And when Jesus is part of the why we do the things that we do, we will see that why we do the things we do is because we are called by God to do them. Many theologians call this vocation.

You and I are called by God into vocation. Vocation lived out daily as teachers, students, mothers, retirees. And there is not one of us sitting in this room today who is called by God into only one vocation. All of us live out multiple vocations each and every day.

Brothers and sisters, first of all, if we believe that we are called by God into vocations, then at the very core of our life together in Christ – we cannot live one way during the week and another way when we step into a church building.

And secondly, if we take seriously the example that Jesus places before us today – our vocations are never focused on our own selfish interests. Our vocations always call us to serve. And serving is not always going to mean what we think it means. We will be called upon to serve people who may not be sitting next to us in the pew. And, are you ready for this…you and I may even be called upon to serve someone who is different than us. Jesus demonstrates this in our gospel reading by healing a Syrophoenician woman’s daughter. A gentile woman. An outsider. Someone who is different in every way, shape, and form from Jesus’ inner circle of followers.

It is such a tremendous blessing that Good Shepherd was invited to join thousands of brothers and sisters in Christ this weekend with the Order for Confession & Forgiveness that began our worship today. We began with the words “Gracious God, we thank you for making one human family of all the peoples of the earth and for creating all the wonderful diversity of cultures.” In all of the vocations that you and I are called to serve, isn’t it amazing that we get to serve God’s creation in all of its beauty and diversity?

I don’t know if you were paying attention yet in worship, but I hope you enjoyed the cell phone video that was played as we gathered. I know the video quality is bad, but that’s not what’s important or what I hoped you’d pay attention to – the song that was being sung and the woman singing it is what I was hoping you’d notice.

It was a hymn made famous by Mahalia Jackson and sung here by Mary Harris Gurley at a worship service I participated in in July at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia. Ms. Gurley, is now well into her 90’s. She is a lifelong member of Ebenezer. She witnessed the birth of the civil rights movement unfold right outside her front porch. She was invited by Coretta Scott King to sing at the funeral worship of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. because she was one of the favorite singers of the King family.

The words Ms. Gurley sang were, “If I can help somebody as I travel along. If I can help somebody in word or a song. If I can bring a little beauty to a world gone wrong. If I can spread the Lord’s message as the master calls, then my living shall not be in vain.”

On July 21, 2015, my sister in Christ Mary Harris Gurley reminded me of the importance of vocation in our life together in Christ. A reminder that vocation is never a call to serve only me. And in the seventh chapter of the gospel of Mark, I believe that Jesus is once again reminding us what all our vocations are about, to serve.

The 7th chapter of the gospel of Saint Mark is a turning point so to speak in Jesus’ ministry and mission. Not just a turning point toward the cross, but a turning point in why and even who Jesus came to save. In Mark 7, we see clearly that God did not send Jesus only to save an inner circle of disciples or rich people in the temple. We see clearly that God did not send Jesus to serve God’s self, but to serve all of God’s children. Yes, Jesus came for the disciples and for the children of Israel. But Jesus also came for a Syrophoenician woman’s daughter. And for you. And for me.

I was so thankful that Pastor Pam took us back to the waters of baptism last week at the end of her sermon. I’m thankful for that reminder, because it is there that we are renewed each day in the vocations that God’s call us to serve. As one theologian offered this week, “The waters of baptism wash away all distinctions. Like streams breaking forth in the desert, these waters surprise us with mercy in unexpected places. These waters open our eyes, unstop our ears, and loose our tongues to see, hear, and speak God’s partiality for the poor, the weak, and the outcast. Baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection, the Spirit fills us with faith – a faith active in showing mercy that knows no limits.”

I don’t know, maybe we should start seeing Labor Day more like a high holy day of the Christian church after-all. You and I have been called into vocations that are active and alive in the world today. Vocations from God that have no limits to the ways in which we can give and grow and serve. Brothers and sisters in Christ, may you be blessed as you live out the vocations that God is calling you to live out each day of this week and may others be blessed by your service. Thanks be to God. Amen.


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