Sunday, September 27, 2009

Danger: Biohazard

Sermon Sept. 27, 2009
by Katie Mulligan

Disclaimer: Lest anyone think that I think I'm some paragon of virtue, let me assure you that this sermon was written in the midst of intergalactic sibling warfare in the living room with occasional outbursts from me like: "Stop it stop it stop it! Why can't you get along for just three minutes?" *foot stomp* *glare*

Your absence has gone through me
like thread through a needle.
Everything I do is stitched with its color.

--W.S. Merwin

1st Scripture Reading: Mark 9:38-50

2nd Scripture Reading: 1 Corinthians 12:12-26

Well, I come to you this morning with scripture that is somewhat radioactive. Reading the Mark passage this morning I had a vision of watching a cute little fuzzy baby bunny suddenly transform in front of my eyes into a monster with fangs and claws. I mean, the words of Jesus can be very challenging at times, but at least much of the time there is a loving side to the words. But sometimes Jesus’ words cut sharply no matter what side of an issue one is on. This week’s passage is one of those times for me—this scripture is toxic. Usually this makes me want to put it down and go find something else to read, but this time we’ll just dive in and spend two weeks on this passage. As a pastor friend of mine said about this passage this week: Good luck with that.

It starts out simply and sweetly enough. The disciples had been arguing about who was the greatest disciple, and Jesus, as usual, turned their words inside out. Whoever wants to be the greatest has to become the least. And then he took a child into his arms and told them that by welcoming a little child, the disciples would therefore welcome Jesus, and then by welcoming Jesus they would therefore welcome God. Simple, sweet, fuzzy baby bunny stuff. Love the children, love me. Love me, love God.

But the disciples didn’t stop with their arrogance and quarreling, and here I think Jesus got annoyed and angry. For the disciple, John, said, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” Teacher, teacher—he wasn’t following the rules! Teacher, we knew you wouldn’t like someone outside the tradition, outside our inner circle, outside your grace doing the special things you do. So we tried to stop him, ‘cause he wasn’t doing right. Aren’t you proud of us?" Anyone who has ever tattle-taled can probably remember the intense feeling of satisfaction that comes over a person when you know you are right—when you know you’ve got someone else on the ropes—especially if it’s someone you don’t really like. Especially if you’ve been feeling badly about yourself and your own abilities. And just a few verses before this passage, the disciples had been trying to heal a boy possessed by an unhealthy spirit. They failed and Jesus had to bail them out and heal the boy himself. “You faithless generation, how much longer must I be among you?” Jesus said, as he prayed over the child. No wonder they lapsed into “I’m better than you are” talk. And no wonder John tattled.

But don’t slink out of church just yet, all you tattle-talers, for we can all relate to the other side of that too—we know what it’s like to be the one ratted out. Maybe we really were breaking rules, or maybe we were just doing something someone else didn’t like, or maybe we just ran up against someone who doesn’t like us, or maybe the rule was unjust and needed to be challenged, but at some point or another in your life, someone has ratted you out.

Maybe you’re a parent, an aunt or uncle, and you’ve listened to the incessant tattling of little children. Or maybe you’ve been the boss and had to navigate the shark-laden waters of employee tattling. Maybe two friends have come to you, each secretly telling you why they don’t like the other. It’s maddening, really, to listen to any of that. “Why can’t we all just get along?” I ask myself (when it’s not my fight). Why does everyone have to ARGUE so much? Don’t we have better things to focus on? And so here at this point is where I think Jesus kind of lost it a bit.

He said, “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.” I get a little lost in this passage sometimes—who exactly are the “little ones” Jesus is talking about? There is the boy possessed by an unhealthy spirit, the child Jesus takes in his arms, the disciples, and the guy who was casting out demons. And then there was a whole crowd of people gathered around at the healings—who are the “little ones?” Who is it that gets preferential treatment by Jesus—who is it that is so important? And isn’t this the question the disciples were asking anyway? “Teacher, which one of us is the greatest?”

Maybe the disciples looked at him with a look that said, “I don’t understand”. Or maybe they looked smug and self-righteous. “That’s right, Bartholomew don’t be putting a stumbling block before ME.” Or, “Take that John, beloved whatever, clearly I’m the greatest littlest one.” But Jesus didn’t stop there—he went on with these terrible instructions.

If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off. If you foot causes you to stumble, cut it off. If your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out of your head. Better that than spending eternity in hell. In between the drowning of people who cause others to stumble and the cutting off of one’s own bodies parts, Jesus shifted the frame of reference from others who cause us to stumble to the parts of our own bodies that cause us to stumble. Looking at this group of disciples arguing over who is the greatest and who has the right to minister to others, Jesus said, “Check yourself. Yeah, woe to the ones who cause you to stumble, but if you’re doing it to yourself, better pluck out your own eyeball first.” This story is full of ambiguity about who’s in and who’s out—who are the little ones, who are the stumbling blocks, who’s blocking themselves. His final words on the subject are “Be at peace with one another.” I can’t think that Jesus intended for the disciples to start whacking off body parts; rather the harsh words were meant to cause the disciples to think about what they were saying and doing to one another—jockeying for position, even as Jesus was talking about his own premature death—a death that would come about because he allowed himself to be the least of these.

Who are the littlest ones? Who are the ones to be cut off? What constitutes a stumbling block? And who gets to do the drowning and cutting off of limbs? These are questions we must ask of this text, and the answers are not straightforward.

Our own denomination has been rocked by controversy in recent years (although if we are honest, we have been rocked by controversy since our inception as a denomination). Preacher folk don’t always want to bring it up in church, but we’re having quite the row over civil unions and Christian marriage. How shall we define these terms, who shall be allowed to participate in these rituals. Will we allow same gender marriages or will we not. Will we allow clergy to officiate same gender marriages or will we bring such clergy to trial for operating outside of our rules. “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” Who is righteous, who is the stumbling block? Who gets cut off, who will drown? Who are the persecuted “little ones?” We all lay a claim.

This last year 13 men and women were assigned to a task force to study civil unions and Christian marriage in the PCUSA. They are a diverse group, representing many voices in this ongoing debate. They are tasked with developing a history of civil unions and Christian marriage, as well as studying the effects of such partnerships on families. If they are able, they have been asked to make recommendations to the church about the place of same gender marriages in the PCUSA.

Can you imagine such a task? And not just the writing of this report—which is bound to infuriate people on all sides of this issue, by the way. But can you imagine the difficulty of sitting in a room with people who disagree so strongly, being tasked with the job of finding consensus where there isn’t any, and then having to go home to the people you represent and listen to how you didn’t push the “right” agenda hard enough? And so they made Christ their common ground and worshipped together daily. They prayed and sang and ate together. They still do not agree about homosexuality. They have agreed upon a preliminary report, but have yet to discuss recommendations. It is possible that they will not come to any agreement on recommendations. But here is a piece of what they were able to say to us, the church, as one body:
Throughout our time of prayerful deliberation—and sometimes difficult disagreement—the members of the PC(USA) Special Committee to Study Issues of Civil Union and Christian Marriage have been blessed and challenged by a profound sense of our unity in Christ. Because of that deep awareness of our communion in Christ’s body, the Church, our time together has been marked by a remarkable degree of mutual respect, commitment to one another, and Christian love. We can only attribute these gifts to the living presence of Christ among us, and to the transforming power of the Holy Spirit... 
• The church is not ours. It belongs to Christ, and we are part of the church solely by the grace of God. Thus, it is inappropriate for us to seek to answer definitively what “the place” for any of our sisters and brothers in Christ might be in Christ’s church. Rather we confess that, apart from anything we have done, Christ has prepared a place for every one of us. 
• Every one of us is called to mutual forbearance in how we practice our lives of faith together. 
• Together, we are the body of Christ, called to live into our Christ- reconciled life together, acting in a manner that lives out our confession “Those whom Christ has joined together, let no one separate.” 
The report doesn’t solve the dilemma or make the argument go away. It doesn’t legislate action. It doesn’t grant permission to officiate same gender weddings, and it doesn’t condemn those who do. It’s hard to say what the recommendations might look like—we’ll see. But it does document that when quarreling people eat, pray, worship, and study together, it becomes very difficult to cut off any part of those people.

And perhaps this is a lesson we can draw from this passage: that amputation is so permanent, so drastic, that we must think carefully before cutting off limbs and plucking out eyeballs. There’s no going back from a cut off limb, no eye replacement surgery that can put the eyeball back. And there’s this too: no matter how hard we try to remove a body part, we can never remove the influence of that body part. Amputees speak of feelng a “ghost limb” in place of the amputated arm or leg—years after losing a limb, a person might still “feel” the limb’s presence in their body. We are all so interconnected that it is impossible to cut off one of our brothers or sisters and not feel them ghosting around in our body.

W.S. Merwin wrote a poem “Your absence has gone through me like thread through a needle. Everything I do is stitched with its color.” We can throw out the clergy who officiate same gender marriages. We can throw out the clergy who legislate against same gender marriage. We are still bound together in Christ, and everything we do will be colored by their absence.

We are each of us the “little ones” and so this passage is a warning to us. Danger: Biohazard. Be careful what constitutes offense. Amputation is permanent and drastic. We cannot escape one another. We are our own stumbling block at least as often as we cause others to stumble. Be at peace with one another, for the church is not ours, it belongs to Christ. And the rest of this toxic mess will have to wait until next week.


  1. From the nitpickers... conflation of W.S. Merwin with Thomas Merton to form W.S. Merton (who I'm sure would either be an amazingly poetic monk or an amazingly spiritual poet...)

  2. It always comes down to right and wrong and certainly will in the end. Today it almost seems
    impossible to declare anything as wrong. What is worse in GODS eye's than an unrepenting sinner? A proud contemptuos unrepenting sinner!
    As long as we refuse to accept the truths of the bible, and try to rewrite them to suit our own selfesh needs, we will accellerate Christ's return, which will be a blessing to his chosen ones. I wasn't there, but my guess is that Sodom and Gomora had some same gender activity going on as well as idol worshipping etc. Once the church accepts same gender marriage and allows them to preach, adopt, teach whatever...I will just pray that GOD will save
    his own before he sends total destruction to those who think they can justify their own sins by declaring them right! Craig

  3. "But it does document that when quarreling people eat, pray, worship and study together, it becomes very difficult to cut off any part of those people."

    I think you nailed it right on its tension-filled head there, Katie.

    Funny enough, one of those thirteen people on that committee attend my home church - it is easy to see how draining and heart-wrenching this discussion has been just by watching his countenance over the past year. We are all watching and waiting the outcome. May God be glorified on both sides of the body, regardless of the outcome.

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  5. As far as Sodom and Gomorrah, I wasn't there either, but I suspect there was also activity going on between different genders.

    Perhaps more critically, would Christ have destroyed these places and their inhabitants? Or would have He accepted them as He did all sinners? Katie's point about amputation is certainly valid here: once you cast them out and destroy them, you have also given up on them. Would Christ do that?

  6. Digital Kahuna... do you make a distinction between Christ and Yahweh, then? For if Christ is one with the Father...

  7. Lauren,

    I draw a distinction in their approach to sinners. I'm trying to avoid a flareup of the whole Arians vs. Athanasians schism, however.

  8. I do believe in equal opportunity, that is the way of the world these days. That means everyone has the opportunity to atone for their sins. I say great, we're all sinners. First you have to recognize sin as the bible describes explicitly throughout. It's easier today to sell wrong doing as acceptable behavior than to admit ones sin. Everyone has become so hyper sensitive that we have lost the substance of the text. I am not giving up on anyone, Christ didn't give up on me....I take offense to selling wrong for right, that will be settled in the end.Society as a whole is turning their heads from Jesus/the bible and GOD.I praise GOD everyday! Peace+

  9. "the church is not ours. It belongs to Christ"

    Thank you so much for reminding us of that. I also heard a pastor say that the "church is not for those inside of it, but for those outside of it." (He was speaking of the physical and spritual structure for us.) With both yours and his sentiments, I will be challenged and charged.


  10. Great sermon! I think like others you nailed it. Also the bible calls eating shellfish an abomination so there's that...