Taking Sides

Eighteenth Sunday After Pentecost

Psalm 124

Mark 9:38-50

One of the frustrations of our present moment is the constant attempt to draw lines in the sand, to make almost every hill one on which to die. One group or person will agree with another on most things (and likely all essential matters), but the remaining disagreements – no matter how minor – become a bridge too far. We see it both inside and outside the church. Every difference becomes a potential point of division. 

The results are all too familiar. Constant anger at someone else and their tribe. Frustration at the ongoing tension, which is often exacerbated by the trivial nature of the disagreement. Isolation as we slowly cut ourselves off from others. And exhaustion as the mental and emotional weight of such tension takes its toll.

Sometimes the history of the church can occasionally offer some solace. Perhaps we can find some context to our present perception of the world. Perhaps we realize that it is not as bad as it was in the past. Of course, it is also possible that we discover things have been like this for a long time, which can actually add more frustration.

Recently, I was struck by the similarities between oft-used contemporary rhetoric and that of Charles Spurgeon within the so-called Downgrade Controversy of the late nineteenth century. Among other things, Spurgeon was concerned about the embrace of new methods of biblical interpretation that he saw as threats to the Bible’s authority. He also railed against violations of expected moral guidelines such as ministers going to the theatre.

While there were some serious theological concerns that needed to be addressed, Spurgeon did not seek to address them through conversation. Instead, he offered divisive rhetoric, declaring that a “new religion has been initiated, which is no more Christianity than chalk is cheese.” 

This view further contributed to division, as Spurgeon argued that “Christian love has its claims, and divisions are to be shunned as grievous evils; but how far are we justified in being in confederacy with those who are departing from the truth?” It is quite easy to hear echoes of these sentiments in some contemporary tribes of Christians. Even if his opponents approached him with openness to conversation, Spurgeon expressed his skepticism of their sincerity: “Let every believer judge for himself; but, for our part, we have put on a few fresh bolts to our door, and we have given orders to keep the chain up.”

The result of this controversy was a split between Spurgeon’s church and its denomination, and his censure by that denomination. While there is quite a bit to lament in this story, in recent years (and quite recently), Spurgeon’s actions have actually been hailed as heroic and as an example to emulate.

The appointed Psalm reading for this week echoes this perspective as well. In it the psalmist gives thanks for God’s actions on behalf of Israel. The repeated phrase, “if it had not been the Lord who had been on our side” (Psalm 124:1-2), speaks with certainty that God was (and is) on their side. For the psalmist, this is about the futility of Israel to save itself from the grasp of its enemies or from the overwhelming flood. Gratitude becomes the result here. However, from another vantage point, we can easily project the psalmist’s certainty forward, concluding that since God is on our side, who can stand against us?

The gospel lesson enters the conversation at this point. As Jesus is traveling with his disciples, John states that he and several of his companions saw a person invoking Jesus’ name in order to perform a miracle to help someone. In response, they worked to stop that person “because he was not following us” (Mark 9:38). This exchange is placed immediately after last week’s gospel lesson, where Jesus said, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me” (Mark 9:37).

We are not told what motivates John to speak up in this moment and tell Jesus this story. Perhaps he is concerned that this new miracle worker is usurping the disciples’ self-described importance. Maybe he thinks he is protecting Jesus from outsiders. Perhaps he simply picks up on “in my name” in Jesus’ previous instruction and proceeds to talk about another instance where his name was used. Of course, Mark’s gospel is filled with examples of the disciples simply failing to understand what Jesus is talking about. That is especially true in this particular section of Mark.

Jesus’ response is simple yet profoundly helpful: “Whoever is not against us is for us” (Mark 9:40). He notes that anyone who can support Jesus to the extent of performing a miracle cannot truly betray him elsewhere. 

As we saw in last week’s lesson, Jesus uses a single word to open doors to the marginalized: whoever. There is an inclusivity here that holds off on painting lines of division. Whoever. This word seeks to find friends and allies in unexpected places. Whoever. Rather than taking sides against our neighbors, we are urged to take sides with God and find fellowship and common ground with whoever we find there.

Contemplating these passages in light of our present experiences (and even reflecting on older events such as the Downgrade Controversy), we see Jesus unsettling our certainty about God being on our side. More importantly, we see Jesus blurring any lines we may prefer to draw or divisions we might like to solidify. This undermines the entire project of excessively drawing lines in the first place.

This does not mean that there will not be serious doctrinal differences that might be problematic, but Jesus cautions against seeing every difference as a fault line and point of division. “Whoever is not against us is for us.” This is crucial for taking Jesus’ closing admonition in this week’s lesson seriously: “be at peace with one another” (Mark 9:50).

Image Credit: Chris Goldberg

Then He Took a Child

And an argument arose among them as to which of them was the greatest (Luke 9:46).

Seventeenth Sunday After Pentecost

Mark 9:30-37

Jesus’ face was turned toward Jerusalem; he was on his way to meet death. Things were different now.  He didn’t want to mingle with crowds; he wanted to go deep with his friends, to teach them the most important lessons at all.  Time was short and the days were desperate.  Jesus knew if he didn’t get his message across to these twelve, his mission had failed. He was desperate to see some measure of understanding in the disciples’ eyes.  

“The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into the hands of men.”  Jesus scanned their faces—there was a traitor among them, and he knew it.  “They will kill him, and after three days he will rise.” He announced it as fact, a warning, maybe even as an appeal.

Not a glimmer of insight showed on the faces of his friends. His words didn’t fit their plans or dreams; they grew quiet and began to fidget.  The Master’s sense of gloom, his talk of death, cast a shadow on them all.  They were like a patient who receives a dreaded word from the doctor: “We’ve found something in your x-rays…”  There are times when you don’t want to know more.  

“They did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.” Fear kept the disciples from asking hard questions. Peter already made one attempt to manage Jesus, and earned the name “Satan” for his trouble. Maybe it was just easier to keep quiet. If they could have worked up the courage, what questions do you suppose the disciples might have asked? 

Why must you suffer? What kind of a Messiah dies? Will you leave us? What will happen to us?

Pause for a moment and ask yourself: What questions am I afraid to ask of Jesus?

Jesus’ frustration bubbled out after they found a place in Capernaum to spend the night. “What were you arguing about on the road?” he asked them, and a guilty silence filled the room. They  glanced at one other, hoping someone would come up with a decent answer. On the road they had been working out seating arrangements for the ticker tape parade that awaited them when they hit Jerusalem with the Messiah in tow.  They had squabbled over who got the office next to the boss, who was the alpha disciple?  You can almost hear Jesus pray: “O Lord, how can the keys of the Kingdom be entrusted to these guys?”

Do you demand proper respect? Do you enjoy the titles and trappings of your position?  Are you driven to succeed in your field, to rise to greater levels of authority or respect? Do you long for recognition, fame, wealth, security?  Does being stuck where you are stick in your craw?

If so, join the circle of the twelve.  It may be hard to find a place; everyone is elbowing in for the best seats.  The morning session has already begun.  

He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

Standing By Words

Pietro Perugino, Christ Giving the Keys to St. Peter, 1482

Sixteenth Sunday After Pentecost

Proverbs 1:20-33

Psalm 19

Isaiah 50:4-9a

James 3:1-12

Mark 8:27-38

In the opening paragraphs of his 1979 essay “Standing by Words,” Wendell Berry states:

“Two epidemic illnesses of our time—upon both of which virtual industries of cures have been founded—are the disintegration of communities and the disintegration of persons. That these two are related (that private loneliness, for instance, will necessary accompany public confusion) is clear enough…What seems not so well understood, because not so much examined, is the relation between these disintegrations and the disintegration of language. My impression is that we have seen, for perhaps a hundred and fifty years, a gradual increase in language that is either meaningless or destructive of meaning. And I believe that this increasing unreliability of language parallels the increasing disintegration, over the same period, of persons and communities.” 

I often share these remarks with the Rhetoric and Composition students I teach, as a way of diagnosing a problem that I believe it is our calling to address, in whatever small way we can. This problem, which certainly hasn’t gotten any better in the forty-plus years since Berry published his essay, is our careless neglect and misuse of one of God’s greatest gifts to humanity, the gift of words, whether written or spoken. While we might not always treat this gift with the respect it deserves, that doesn’t change the simple fact that words matter. They matter to God, and they should matter to us.

As our lectionary texts for this week demonstrate, this is a concern that has been with us far longer than any of us can fully grasp. That is to say, for as long as human beings have been writing—probably for as long as human beings have been speaking to one another—the mystery and the responsibility of language have weighed heavily on us. 

The passages from the Old Testament point to some of the most important uses for this gift, the tasks of worship and prayer, of teaching and proclamation, of exhortation and lament. With the speaker of Psalm 116, we cry out to God in our trouble. We join in the prayer of Psalm 19, asking that the words of our mouths will be pleasing to God. With Isaiah, we wrestle with the responsibility that comes with having “the tongue of a teacher,” knowing that we might be called upon to “sustain the weary with a word,” but at the same time knowing that our words might be met with derision and even abuse. 

Still, we strive to be faithful to that calling, balancing the knowledge that it is the Lord God who vindicates us when others might declare us guilty, with the humility that comes from knowing it is never our words, or our wisdom that we make known. We are, at most, vessels of that divine Wisdom that cries out in the streets, calling the wayward home. We are, even at our most eloquent, simply part of the chorus of creation that declares the glory of God. And so we pray that the words of our mouths and the meditations of our hearts would be pleasing to our God, our Rock, our Redeemer.

In the New Testament texts, likewise, we are confronted with the reality that this gift of language, the ability to express the meditations of our hearts, to speak truth and wisdom, is not to be taken lightly. In one of the best known passages about the power of speech, James reminds us that our tongues, despite being small, exercise an enormous amount of power, both within us and in the world around us. Like a rudder, the things we say can provide guidance, steering the lives of our friends and family, our neighbors, our students, our brothers and sisters in Christ, where they need to go. But just as easily, our words can provide the spark that burns a life down. When we speak, whether from a pulpit or in private conversation, whether in a sanctuary or on social media, we must do so with an awareness of what our words can do.

Finally, the Gospel recounts the story of Peter’s confession, a moment when Jesus asked his followers a question and the words of Peter’s mouth revealed the meditations of his heart in a way that pleased his Lord: “You are the Messiah.” Other accounts of this same event depict Jesus acknowledging just how significant Peter’s statement was, declaring that this confession was not revealed to him by human beings but by God. But just as quickly, almost before we, the readers of this story, have fully digested the import of Peter’s moment in the sun, Peter does what he so often does. He speaks in a way that reveals his lack of understanding. He speaks from the heart, to be sure. He speaks with honorable intentions. Upon being told about Jesus’ imminent betrayal and death, Peter takes Jesus aside and rebukes him. When Jesus responds with what must have been the most withering critique that Peter (or any of us) had ever received, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are not setting your mind on divine things, but on human things,” it not only serves as an indictment of Peter’s words, but a powerful reminder of James’ teaching, that out of the same mouth can come good things and bad things. Our words should therefore be measured carefully, spoken with discernment, and guided by a wisdom that is beyond us.

Of course, we also do well to remember that, just as speech is a gift, so is silence. The Wisdom that cries out in the streets only helps us if we listen. To be a disciple is, first and foremost, to be a student. If we would be faithful teachers, messengers, evangelists and encouragers to those around us, this must begin with a willingness to hear what God is saying to us, through creation, through the Holy Spirit, through Scripture, and through the discerning community of the saints that God places in our lives. Only by listening can we become more attuned to the Word of God at work among us, and thus stand by our words more faithfully.

Pissed Off and Lonesome

Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-9

Psalm 15

James 1:17-27

Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

On this lonely road, trying to make it home
Doing it by my lonesome, pissed off, who wants some
I’m fighting for my soul, God, get at your boy
You try to bogart, fall back, I go hard
On this lonely road, trying to make it home
Doing it by my lonesome, pissed off, who wants some
I see them long hard times to come…

–Gangstagrass, “Long Hard Times to Come”

If another sins, what is that to you?

When the sinful suffer publicly, do you

find secret comfort in their grief, or will

you also weep? They are surely grieving;

are you weeping now? Assuming sin is sin,

whose do you condemn? Who is judge? Who

will feed the lambs? The sheep? Who, the goats?

Who will sell and give? Who will be denied?

Whose image haunts the mirror? And why

are you still here? What exactly do you hope

to become? When will you begin?

Scott Cairns, from “Bad Theology: A Quiz”

I’ve been thinking a lot about anger lately, if for no other reason than it’s become all but ubiquitous. Anger and reports of anger pervade news cycles, as alienated souls fortified by the railing of television and internet pundits launch verbal and sometimes physical assaults on those they’ve been told are their enemies. So angry have we become that it’s worth asking whether we’re any longer capable of anything other than spleen venting. I use the word “we” deliberately here because I am far from immune to outrage. Truth be told, my own struggle with anger is the likely source of my noticing – and (ironically) becoming angry toward – the anger of others. I realized this was a problem one morning last fall, when I was reading an article about the horrors to which detained immigrants at our southern border were being subjected, including accusations that American physicians had performed involuntary sterilizations on some of the women who had been detained. Quite spontaneously I found myself yelling at my computer screen, “What the hell is wrong with these people? God damn them!” Later that day I sheepishly confessed my violation of the third commandment to a friend, who advised me, “Maybe you should pray for them.” Maybe, indeed.

To be sure, there is plenty to be angry about. The recently released report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change presented us with what looks to be a choice between things becoming incrementally worse before they stabilize somewhere between really bad and imminently cataclysmic, depending on whether we finally find the courage to pull our heads out of our rears, reduce consumption, and start paying the debt we’ve been accruing to Creation for the past 150 or so odd years. The exuberance attending our fleeting and ultimately illusory control over Covid-19 in June and July gave way by the beginning of August to overfilled intensive care units and escalated squabbles over local mask ordinances–reminders of how deep the opportunism, gullibility, and suspiciousness that have given us the mask wars and anti-vaccine conspiracy theories run. And this is to say nothing of myriad, less-reported tragedies, from the continued reign of an exploitative economy to the innumerable divisions wrought by racial and ethnic bigotry. How could any caring, right-thinking person not be angry about all this?

But there’s a line separating righteous anger from sanctimonious outrage. The latter is a form of self-deception, and its consequences are invariably unhappy. This week’s gospel text, from Mark, nicely illustrates the difference. In the story, a group of Pharisees, likely the leaders of surrounding Galilean synagogues, and some scribes from Jerusalem, ostensibly in the region to confirm (or challenge) what they’d heard about the new Galilean prophet, gather around Jesus and begin asking questions. These experts in the Law of Moses observe that Jesus’s disciples, who were eating, hadn’t first washed their hands, which they found at least offensive and perhaps an indication that Jesus was no prophet at all. 

Ritual washing of various types was a significant practice in first century Judaism, thanks primarily to the “tradition of the elders,” a collection of orally transmitted glosses on the Law, of which the Pharisees and scribes regarded themselves the custodians. In this passage, it becomes yet another point of contention in the ongoing argument between Jesus and his interlocutors about how best to understand and embody the Law, including its very point – what it is for. From the perspective of the scribes and Pharisees, ritual washing was necessary, either as an acknowledgment of one’s ritual or moral uncleanness or as a safeguard based on the presumed danger of becoming polluted by daily interaction with a world full of unclean things and people. Just so, they simply assumed that Jesus’s disciples were defiled by their failure to wash before eating, which they found outrageous, especially among the followers of a supposed prophet. 

Jesus’s response was not to attack the Law of Moses, nor even the tradition of the elders as such, but stridently to call out the hypocrisy of those experts who used the tradition of the elders to supersede the Law, often as a means of exercising self-interested social power (e.g., Matthew 23:1-26). His argument is predicated on an example having nothing to do with hand washing, which serves both to make his broader point about his opponents’ intentions and to divert attention from their undue concern with clean hands. The Decalogue, he notes, clearly tells the faithful to honor their parents (Exodus 20:12), an instruction that includes the obligation to support those parents financially when they become unable to provide for themselves. Yet the tradition of the elders frees those who follow it from this obligation by instead making a voluntary sacrificial offering – a “Corban” – to God. The point Jesus makes here is not that sacrificial offerings are wrong, but that using them to override the tenets necessary to maintain the integrity of the community and the health of its members is a giant case of missing the point of the Law, which Herbert McCabe describes as “an outline of friendship,” which “draws a boundary around friendship to show where it stops.” This is important, he says, insofar as “the Decalogue is part of God’s summons to be his people,” the first step of which “is to be human people, and that means living in friendship.”

The supposition that living in friendship is requisite to living as God’s people is entirely consistent with what Jesus says when he turns his attention from his interlocutors to the crowds gathered around them. “Listen to me,” he says, “all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.” Later, explaining his assertion to his disciples, Jesus names some of the defiling things that “come out,” offering a list that seems more exemplary than conclusive. Either way, though, the point he argues with his interlocutors and the list he shares with his disciples suggest that those attitudes, words, and actions that divide us, those that alienate us from each other and harm the most vulnerable among us, are those with which we ought to be most concerned.

Which brings us back to anger, which comes from within us and which the epistolary, from the book of James, addresses by making a point not unlike the one Jesus makes in the gospel lesson. In James, as in Mark, the author is concerned to show a distinction between religiosity and faithfulness, between godliness and the mere appearance thereof. James also works with a contrast, not between defilement from without and within, but the goodness of that which comes from above and the potential wickedness of that which comes from within. Those things we receive as gifts – good things – James says, come from God, who is not simply the author of goodness, but goodness itself. Such gifts are to be used, he suggests, not simply for our own benefit, but for the benefit of our fellow members of Creation, of which the people of God are to be “first fruits.” 

The author of James is calling on his readers, then, to cultivate a disposition of gratitude and generosity, which he contrasts in what follows with anger born of certitude, resentment, and envy: “let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness. Therefore rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls.” What matters most, he concludes, is performing, rather than merely hearing, the word. While the latter yields a religiosity that is not, one might imagine, unlike that of the scribes and Pharisees, the former produces a “pure and undefiled” religion, which consists in caring “for orphans and widows in their distress” and keeping “oneself unstained by the world.”  

What both of these passages suggest is that faithfulness consists in being a faithful member of a people, one constituted by the call to love: one another, our neighbors, and even our enemies. The name for that love, at least according to McCabe, is friendship, which is made impossible by the sanctimonious outrage that today passes as anger. For what I take to be the most significant consequences of anger, one often overlooked, is alienation, or, if you prefer, loneliness. Anger makes enemies, spawning and perpetuating alienation, which in turn fuels further anger, for there is no one quite so angry as the one who is isolated and cut off from the fellowship that makes us human. 

So perhaps a way forward in a world so divided as ours is to seek ways to hear, understand, discover commonalities, and perhaps even welcome those angry others whose outrage tempts us to anger – especially those who call themselves Christians, with whom we share a baptism. Nothing concrete may come of our efforts, but that is not really the point; or so says our friend and former EP board member Brian Volck, who asks

What would happen if I acquired the habit of listening to the other—even the ranter, the bigot, and the prig— with the necessary compassion to acknowledge that person’s adversities and brokenness, unique to them yet so similar to mine? What would it take to tell someone not only where I think they’re wrong but also what part of their truth I need to hear? What would I have to change in me in order to love my enemies? What, in short, must I do to follow the Christ I say I believe in? 

What, indeed. We’ll only know as we try. Let us begin.    

Image Credit: Christ Among the Pharisees by Jacob Jordaens