Catholic Contextual urban Theology, Mimetic Theory, Contemplative Prayer. And other random ramblings.

Saturday, 24 October 2015

Sermon at Parish Mass Trinity 17 2015

Numbers 11: 4-6,10-16,24-29
James 5:13-20
Mark 9:38-50

“After Jesus had finished teaching the disciples”, so begins our gospel reading today. To understand what we heard today, we need to remind ourselves what Jesus has been teaching the disciples just before this scene, in the passage we read last week. There were two main points.
Firstly, the Messiah is going to be rejected and killed. Secondly, who is the greatest? You will remember that the disciples were arguing among themselves who was the greatest, and Jesus took a little child – a non-person in the culture of the time, someone of no significance, and said that the greatest in the kingdom of God were those who made themselves least of all.
But these disciples are really very slow on the uptake. How patient Jesus must have been with them, because as we hear today they still they don’t get it. “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” They’re still thinking in terms of power and control, and of needing to protect their own position and status. Thinking that way has been a problem for the people of God from the beginning, as Moses discovered in our Old Testament reading today.
But Jesus says, simply, don’t worry about the other people, and don’t stop them. “Whoever is not against us is for us.” There simply is no need, no place, for rivalry and fear in God’s kingdom. Because God’s kingdom is about God’s superabundant generosity and love breaking in to a world which is deeply resistant to love. It is about love being made known in the excluded, the powerless, in the victim of human rivalry and fear and control. And it is ultimately about love made known in the Man on a cross, Jesus who so completely trusted the Father’s generous love that he gave himself up even to death, knowing he would not be abandoned.
But to the disciples in today’s reading that is a contradiction and a scandal. And scandal is the key to unlocking today’s Gospel reading, in particular the very hard and startling things that Jesus says at the end.
Scandal crops up all the time in the New Testament, though we aren’t always aware of it because the Greek word skandalon is translated in a number of ways: scandal, stumbling-block, offence, obstacle, and sometimes as “sin”. The image is of a block of stone in your path that you fall over or can’t get round, but at the same time that you can’t leave alone. It both attracts and repels, and worries away at you. And the big scandal of the New Testament is the crucified Messiah, a seeming contradiction which is an obstacle to faith for those who can’t understand it. St Paul says in 1 Corinthians “We proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling-block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.”
Jesus does not want the disciples to avoid the approaching scandal. The scandal that the Messiah, the saviour of Israel, is going to end up on a Roman cross. But they still want to think that there isn’t a scandal. So he confronts them directly with what seems to be very scandalous teaching:
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... And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off... And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out...
This saying of Jesus is very shocking. And it is meant to be. But it is not so much about hands and feet and eyes as about the scandal itself, the stumbling block. And there’s irony in it, because if your foot or your eye caused you to stumble, you wouldn’t exactly cure the problem by cutting it off or tearing it out. 
Jesus is trying to focus the eyes of the disciples on the scandal, the stumbling block, that they are trying to avoid. They are still thinking of the Messiah in earthly terms, of power and control and fear, and that is an obstacle for them. They need to unlearn that, and learn instead that God’s kingdom is quite other from what they had thought. God’s kingdom is founded on God’s generous love alone, not on power and control. This is a kingdom that will become real through a Messiah who will be rejected, and killed, and will rise from the dead.
In the end, they still don’t get it, and they still won’t understand, right up to Good Friday itself, when the betrayal and crucifixion of Jesus will finally completely shatter their whole conception of what God and his Kingdom are about. It will only be once they have lost everything that they will discover the Kingdom of generosity, the kingdom only given to those who know that they have nothing.
We too are called to own our poverty and so discover God’s generosity. Like the disciples, we too need to be alert for the scandal we are trying to avoid. That may be the desire to possess and control, because we don’t really quite trust God’s generosity enough.
That’s something to be alert for in the community of the Church, as the disciples show us. I was reminded of this when reading some of the election addresses from people standing for General Synod. The new synod, which will be elected next month, will have to deal with some controversial issues. There’s nothing new in that: arguments and disagreements have been part of the church’s life from the beginning, as we can see by reading the Acts of the Apostles. Indeed in God’s providence this is part of the way in which the church grows and develops.
But in the midst of disagreement we must not lose sight of God’s generosity. God has called all of us to be part of his holy people, and that is his gift. God has given us to each other, and we must not therefore be scandalized by one another, whatever our differences. And that applies not only to the Church of England, but to all Christians whatever church or community they may belong to.
But we need to look within ourselves as well. Scandal can mean many things: stumbling-block, obstacle, offence, sin. What is there in our own lives which is an obstacle to Jesus coming to us, or to us giving ourselves totally to him? What is it that provokes offence? Where are we still following the way the world thinks, the way of power, control and fear? Where is it that we are still not trusting God’s generous love?
Jesus calls us as we are, whatever our stumbling blocks, our scandals and our sins. Jesus calls us to the embrace of God’s generous love, the love that forgives all sins, the love that raises the dead. In the embrace of God’s love our minds will be transformed as we leave behind the way the world thinks, trapped in power and control and fear, and are set free into the unlimited, generous, and utterly vivacious love of God.

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