Sunday, October 4, 2009


Sermon October 4, 2009
by Katie Mulligan

I promised a second sermon on this Mark passage, so here it is.  In more ways than one, this passage caused me grief.  Peace to you and yours...

First Scripture Reading: Mark 9:38-50

Second Scripture Reading: Psalm 13

Last week, we also read the Mark passage—the one where Jesus said to cut off your own hand or foot or pluck out your eye if it was causing you to stumble. If you remember, I suggested that at least one thing this text was telling us was to be careful what we consider an offense—to be careful of what we consider offensive enough to cut off our own body parts. Since plucking out an eyeball is an irreversible action, it makes sense to think things through before reaching for the knife.

As Christians, we often speak of the body as a metaphor for the larger body of Christ, encompassing brothers and sisters across many denominations. The body of Christ stretches across continents and permeates borders. We are not alone in our beliefs; what we do here every Sunday matters to the Christian body as a whole. There are no unimportant body parts—the worship and affection of a tiny church in Mt. Laurel matters to God and enriches the body of Christ. We are connected to our brothers and sisters in far away places of which we have no knowledge. We are connected to our sisters and brothers who worship nearby whom we have never met. And we are connected to the two other congregations who worship in this sanctuary. The body of Christ. Today is World Communion Sunday, and we will celebrate the Lord’s Supper along with believers all over the world. At the end of the Mark passage Jesus says to his disciples, “be at peace with one another.” Well, today, this is us, making that effort.

I went back through this scripture several times this week. And I feel a sort of obligation to talk about those times when it becomes necessary to remove a part of the body. Medically speaking, there are times when it becomes necessary to amputate—times when to keep the body intact means the death of the whole body. An infected or cancerous limb can spread poison to other parts of the body, and quickly a decision must be made whether the limb or part can be saved. Sometimes there is time to discuss and sometimes there is only time to act. Regardless, there are legitimate times when a part of the body must be removed.

This week I watched a new television show called Mercy. It’s a sort of ER for the next generation—new younger nurses and doctors in an emergency room setting. The show follows the lives of both patients and hospital staff, little snippets and vignettes of people’s stories. Lots of drama, overblown romance, poignant scenes, and funny moments. In the episode I watched, a young man came in to the ER for a relatively minor problem, but then things went south and they had to amputate his leg unexpectedly. When he awoke and discovered he had lost his leg, the second half of the show became about grief. You might say that this is all sensationalistic and just a ploy for ratings—a silly TV show with little substance, but I remember working in a hospital for a short while and meeting people with similar stories. I met people who lost parts of their bodies. There are some of us in this room who have lost parts of their bodies. Our bodies fail us sometimes, and as we live on and get older, we lose pieces of it—or at least functionality. This is all of our stories if we live long enough—somewhere along the line we have to let go of pieces of our bodies.

Jesus used stories about the body frequently to tell stories about the soul—perhaps because body and soul are intertwined and cannot be separated. What we understand with the body, we come to understand with the soul and vice versa. There are times when we have to let go of parts of our souls for the sake of life. Perhaps this is an old pattern or habit. Lately I have been considering my own dependence on procrastination to inspire creativity—nothing like a deadline to get your brain thinking. But procrastination takes a toll on those around you—other folks who are dependent on your work or your time. And it takes a toll on one’s own peace of mind. It is something for me to consider, because it causes me to stumble—and sometimes my lateness causes others to stumble as well. Perhaps you have your own stumbling blocks? Your own patterns, habits, addictions? There is something in this text that speaks to that. When I worked in the hospital, I met with many people who had been unable to give up unhealthy parts of themselves, and those parts had taken over and made life unbearable. It’s an old clich√© that Jesus meets us where we are, but refuses to let us stay there—that we are called into new and better life in Christ—we are called to cut out (or at least shave off) those habits of mind that cause us to stumble. Yes, there is that.

This passage has so many layers! For there are times when we need to separate from one another—when it is no longer healthy to remain in constant relationship with another brother or sister in this world. I would like to say that love heals all things and all wounds—and I hope for that dearly in the end (that is indeed the Christian hope). And yet, in the immediate moment we may need to separate from one another in order to preserve life. Two Sundays from now is a day designated as Domestic Violence Awareness Sunday, and I’ll be preaching about intimate violence (I am working up my courage to preach about intimate violence!). Oh yes, there are times when to preserve life we must separate. We draw national borders, in part, to protect ourselves from those we fear—and sometimes those fears are legitimate. Sometimes our lives are so wrapped up in the pain and damage of another person that we cannot live our own lives—this happens personally and professionally—a lot of us even choose to be wrapped up in other people’s lives, so that we do not deal with the pain of our own. Lost in serving another, we do not notice that our own lives are at stake, or that we are causing damage to people we love through neglect.

When I was in seminary, I took class on pastoral care. The professor told us a story. He said, “Imagine you are on your way to a conference, the conference of a lifetime. It is very important that you get there, and as you hurry along you cross a bridge. Halfway across the bridge, a man stops you and hands you the end of a rope. ‘Hold this!’ he says. ‘Promise not to let go, no matter what!’ Then the man wraps his end of the rope around his waist and jumps off the bridge. He hangs there, refusing to climb back up or jump all the way down. ‘You can’t let go or I’ll die!’ he says. As you stand there holding the rope, day turns to night and you begin to lose hope of getting to your conference. More importantly, you begin to get hungry and realize that you might very well starve to death holding this rope. Discuss what you do next.”

As you can imagine, this was a very intense discussion among 50 people planning to become Christian ministers. How long do you hold the rope, and at what cost to yourself? What would Jesus do? What circumstances might change your decision? These were all discussed in argumentative detail. Some insisted that it would never be okay to let go of the rope—you promised, after all. You’re a Christian, after all. Others said that perhaps there was a time to let go—Jesus’ words in this scripture suggest that might be so. And yet what a terrible dilemma! How often does that dilemma play out in our own lives?

As I think on this scripture for a second week, what comes to me is grief and loss. Perhaps we share this with our worldwide communion more than anything else: grief and loss. In our worldwide conflicts we share in the loss of children and fathers and mothers—those who actively participate in the conflicts and those who are killed as bystanders. The terrible grief of losing contact and connection with brothers and sisters all over the world has only seemed to increase over the last century as we have been at war in almost every corner of the world. Cutting off parts of our bodies and souls causes grief and sorrow, and though we may find it necessary at times to preserve life, still it is a loss. And when we take up arms against other humans made so carefully by God, we lose a piece of ourselves as well.

And it seems to me at times here in this tiny church that there is an unspoken grief rippling through our congregation. The grief of losing those we love. The grief of not being who we think we should be or who others think we should be. The loss of dreams. The loss of children. The death of friends and lovers.

I drove through the neighborhood around the church the other day, and there is grief here too. Half the stores down the street are closed. The other way, back toward 295, there is a park, which I had never paid much attention to. But I drove by because I noticed that there were many cars in the parking lot and I thought there must be some event going on. Excited, I pulled up only to realize that the lot is being used as a park and ride. There were no children at the park. The basketball hoops were rusted, and the fences too. The tennis courts are busted up with weeds growing through the cracks. The tot lot looked sad and lonely—there is grief in that park—a pervasive sorrow that there ought to be life where there isn’t.

The community itself was supposed to be something different. In the 1960’s RCA was going to build a large plant here, and Mt. Laurel was going to grow up into a mega community. This church was planted here to take advantage of the RCA expansion—we were supposed to be the next big mega church in this area. But RCA didn’t build, and the community grew a different way, and our church became something different. We’re not the mega church envisioned by our founders—we never built all the buildings in that elaborate design in the hallway, with the giant sanctuary leading out to Creek Road. We have become tiny church, with a history of lost dreams, renewed expectations, many joys along the way, but a lot of missing the mark of what other people have hoped for.

Whatever we are to become next requires a letting go of what was and what was hoped for. Grief. Sorrow. Loss.

We are not alone in our grief—Jesus shares that grief in this passage. For all along he has been speaking of his own death, a time when he must cut away from those he has loved. Yet the disciples he loved remained confused, argumentative. He scooped up a little child and said “Like this! Become like this!” And yet, to become like a little child means giving up so very many things—its not easy to give up power and control, wealth and security. So Jesus grieved too. Cut off your hands, pluck out your eyeballs, do what you must do in order to stop causing yourselves pain! The disciple’s squabbles were killing the spirit of what Jesus was trying to teach—“Be at peace with one another,” he said.

In our grief, we pray with Jesus the psalms:
How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I bear pain in my soul,
and have sorrow in my heart all day long?
How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?

Consider and answer me, O Lord my God!
Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep the sleep of death,
and my enemy will say, “I have prevailed”’
my foes will rejoice because I am shaken.

Consider and answer me, O Lord my God! Pay attention over here, if you don’t mind! I know you hear me, but are you listening? I grieve, we grieve. Where is the hope, and how do we become whole again after losing a part of ourselves? We confess together that we do not know how to go on living after loss and grief. We long for a better way.

So where is the hope in this passage? Be at peace with one another. War continues to ravage our world and we love our fellow humans inadequately. Sometimes we cut off limbs when we should have tried harder to keep them, and sometimes we keep poison around too long until it begins to kill us. But however imperfectly we love one another, still we gather around the Lord’s table to eat bread and drink wine, and to share in the promise that one day this world will come right again.

As we join together in the Lord’s Supper, I share with you a few words from Miroslav Volf, from his book The End of Memory: Remembering Rightly in a Violent World. I’ll tell you about his life another time, but it is enough to say that he has experienced pain and grief at the hands of another. He writes frequently about forgiveness and reconciliation and about our future hope in God. Today, aware that the body of Christ is still broken and cut off, and that we still haven’t gotten it right, listen to these words of assurance:
By opening ourselves to God’s love, through faith, our bodies and souls become sanctified spaces, God’s “temples,” as the Apostle Paul puts it. The flame of God’s presence, which gives us new identity, then burns in us inextinguishably. Though like buildings devastated by wind and flood, our bodies and souls may become ravaged, yet we continue to be God’s temple—at times a temple in ruins, but sacred space nonetheless. Absolutely nothing defines a Christian more than the abiding flame of God’s presence, and that flame bathes in a warm glow everything we do or suffer.
That psalm of lament ends with our hope:
But I trusted in your steadfast love;
my heart shall rejoice in your salvation.
I will sing to the Lord, because he has dealt bountifully with me.

So, let us gather around the table to share with our sisters and brothers everywhere. And let us sing, Allelujah!


  1. I often have cause to reflect on the grief I have caused others, and the two different ways I have dealt with it. First, I can engage: take steps to "pay back" what I have done by changing my behavior and making a conscious effort to do better. Second, (and this is the one I am most conflicted about) is to withdraw: to avoid causing more harm, I remove myself from the situation.

    The first seems fairly rational, and easily arguable as a moral thing to do. I have done wrong, and I seek to compensate others for the grief I have caused. One thing I always try to be mindful of is to not aggravate the situation by my presence and actions, which leads me to my second option...

    The second also seems rational, but the morality is a bit more ambiguous. I find myself asking many questions on this matter. Am I just walking away from grief I have caused? Am I really preventing more grief? Is this just depression I haven't dealt with? Is this my attempt to alleviate my own grief at the grief I have caused others?

    Speaking of my own life, I isolated myself for many years, time I called "living in the cave", because I was sure that all I brought to others was grief. I thought I was doing the right thing, so as to not cause more grief. I left the cave last year, and I have been happy to learn that I was wrong about how others viewed me, although I wish I had figured that out sooner.

  2. Dear Digital Kahuna,
    I am glad you emerged from your sabatical, you were missed. I too have practiced abstance of feelings to a point of perfection where it seems I can not feel anything at all. I hope to leave my cave someday too.
    Thanks for your words
    and thanks for the sermon