I was vividly reminded in this story of the millstones in Mark 9:38-50 of the preamble to my ordination, read out by the Bishop, standing before the whole congregation in the Cathedral, where the prayer book says:
Remember that you will be called to give account before Jesus Christ: if it should come about that the Church, or any of its members is hurt or hindered as a result of your negligence; you know the greatness of the fault and the judgement that will follow. Therefore, apply yourself with diligence and care, and fashion your life and ministry in accordance with Christ’s example’. My answer was a heartfelt – ‘with God’s Grace’.
I have to say it was and remains one of my most profound moments of terror and surrender in my journey of faith.
Mark’s gospel is notable because it is written for people who have an oral tradition; stories told in a way that will be memorable, words and phrases repeated to help aid our memories and which give a cadence and flow to enable moments of clarity and ensure those listening are seriously paying attention. Strong, simple examples, vividly told allow no excuses for not paying attention.
Earlier this week, my son told me about a stage show he went to recently with a friend, ‘George’s Marvellous Medicine’ written by Roald Dahl. You may be familiar with the story and with Dahl, who is remarkable for his vivid, hard hitting stories and with themes that attract children and horrify adults. Dahl’s stories do not include polite euphemisms nor does he bother to wrap up his ideas to make them acceptable. He writes directly!
I think that’s why children love his stories and parents wince. My son said what was so funny in this stage show, was the constant pausing by the adults – to remind children what was being done mustn’t be done in real life, ‘it was only a story and grandma should not be blown up or shrunk and stood on, because of homemade medicines’.
This story and my own reflection on Jesus’ vivid message fits somewhere in this mix.
In his 2011 book ‘Love Wins’, American writer Rob Bell rocked the evangelical Christian world by claiming the Christian tradition since the early church included disciples who insist history is not tragic, hell is not forever, with fire and damnation; it is not solely about those who are in and those who are out; instead it is about love, which in the end enables all to be reconciled with God. (Love Wins: A Book about Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Lived NY HarperCollins, 2011:109).
While many Christians today do not believe in a literal hell, many like to think that those who are wicked will receive their come-uppance at some point with God. There are people who prefer the black and whiteness of judgement, punishment, retribution, and refuse to share the resurrection hope for those who don’t fit or who are deemed wicked. Astonishing, egotistical and cruel judgements, highlighting preferences that allow no room for God and the Holy Spirit to work. It presumes we know God’s mind as we determine who is fit and who isn’t.
However, this concept is clearly, critically important. Even if we do not take Jesus’ words literally, we do need to take them seriously and pay attention. Our challenge is to help ourselves and others identify the metaphorical ‘hand, ‘foot’, ‘eye’ in our own lives preventing us from faithfully following Jesus; what are those millstones around our necks; and, we must identify who are the little ones and how we might be preventing them from believing in Jesus.
What might be our ‘hand’ causing us to stumble? Perhaps it is what we produce, or how we are making a living. In times of unemployment, poor working conditions, low pay, there are profound economic consequences to cutting off the hand that feeds you.
Potential whistleblowers wondering about exposing wrongdoing, employers improving profits rather than improving working conditions, individuals having to choose whether to resign a job because family life is being sacrificed for the impossible demands of work; or having to accept a job which conflicts with personal moral values. These are all individuals who hold the knife in their hands and wonder if they will have the courage to cut.
‘Feet’ move us to place to achieve our goals in life. It raises questions about the ethical nature of our goals; are they in keeping with being citizens of God’s kingdom?
Perhaps we are choosing career pathways in unethical jobs with unethical behaviour, how we choose to spend our retirement hours, how we spend the church budget, how we help our children make choices, what examples are they following.
The poor conduct of many of our professions currently being subjected to royal commissions, political corruption and personal behaviours, make a long list. How do we make the choices and what are we choosing as our goals?
The ’eye’ asks what is attracting our attention. The moral ranging of this question is enormous. What are we stumbling over, what is distracting us? And wandering eyes is more than sexual attraction, it includes how we use our time, how we spend our money as we establish the priorities on where our eyes are focussed.
Is our attraction to Christ being impeded by all that is competing for attention and affection?
And, I would suggest, in our world today, how our behaviour impacts on other people, is a critical reflection for each of us individually and collectively. In this time in history, where individualism is supreme, the idea what I do might have a moral consequence for those around me is becoming very counter cultural. We frequently deny such responsibility and accountability.
I think about hell as a paradoxical symbol of Christian hope. Hell I think, is the terrible weariness and incredible boredom of a life entirely focussed on itself, a life lived without God.
So to cause someone to stumble is a good description of how we might cause another to lose faith.
Jesus reminds us he is talking about children, God’s little ones about whom he returns time and again to enable us to focus on how best to care for them.
Such little ones include the rejected and outcast, the vulnerable, broken, poor, homeless, alien, foreigner and refugee, those whom governments and those in power wish to exclude.
Our welcome for such little ones, as we heard in last week’s reading, is a critical part of our discipleship. Jesus employs the image of the child to evoke the attitude we as disciples should take towards those with whom we minister and serve.
As the disciples express concern about what they see as competition, Jesus turns the matter round and puts the focus on the disciples behaviour. He says, in effect, don’t worry about them, make sure your own house is in order.
Jesus highlights their own myopic and shallow sense of values concerning others healing in Jesus’ name. There is no mincing of words here. Pay attention is Jesus’ consistent demand. And take note, following Jesus takes priority over everything else.
The demands from God are not a convenient, cozy, self-affirming add-ons to whatever we hold dear. They replace everything, no matter the cost. We may be saved by Grace, but that does not mean a free lunch and ticket entry into the club. This is no happy, feel-good prosperity gospel.
And as I think about my opening stories, of my promises to God relying on my hope ‘with God’s Grace’; and Dahl’s terror inspiring stories, the last two verses of this reading offer all of us hope.
Jesus speaks of the benefits of such a way of living: he speaks of peace. When all the impurities of our lives have been removed, burned off, salted, all the distractions, lies and misplaced priorities, all greed and guilty pleasures put aside, what remains is peace. Jesus’s peace. The peace God wants for us.
While we frequently see peace as a place to which we can escape, the peace Jesus offers is one of us understanding more clearly who we are and how we ‘be’ as Christ’s followers. Peace is not a reward for obedience or good behaviour, peace is gifted because we are in relationship with God and with each other, clear about our priorities, joyful as we serve the least among us in love and Grace.
The Lord be with you.