Year B Proper 21, 26 September 2021
St. James the Less Episcopal, Ashland, VA
“Keep It or Out With The Trash”
Collect: O God, you declare your almighty power chiefly in showing mercy and pity: Grant us the fullness of your grace, that we, running to obtain your promises, may become partakers of your heavenly treasure; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
John said to Jesus, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” But Jesus said, “Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. Whoever is not against us is for us. For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.
“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; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell, where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched.
“For everyone will be salted with fire. Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.”
Jesus loves us, and wants us to be successful and at our best. Not as the world means success, necessarily, Prosperity Gospel is not what I am talking about here. As was petitioned in our Collect for the day: Grant us the fullness of your grace, that we, running to obtain your promises, may become partakers of your heavenly treasure…
That is our goal, our endgame. That is the thing around which we gather and strive. Today we will explore some of the sage advice that Jesus gives his followers, then and now. We need to look carefully at his rhetoric. How someone says something is often more important that what they say, tone of voice, rhetorical device used, irony and humor, exaggeration. We need to know what is being said in how it is being said. Sometimes Scripture would be much easier if it had emojis to make it clearer. A little wink emoji sure could help at times.
But let’s dig in and see what Jesus is calling us to do and who to be!
Jesus has three clear teachings in today’s lectionary reading. Know who your friends are, take out the trash, and be what you are. Let’s look at each of these in order.
The reading starts with disciples coming and complaining to Jesus that someone was doing things in Jesus’ name and he was not a part of the inner circle, or in the group at all.
One of the key things that was part of Jesus' mission to create the Kingdom of Heaven here on Earth is to break down the barriers and divisions that kept humanity divided historically, and that we can see all of humanity as God’s Children, made in God’s Image, and called to God’s Purpose. Old walls were to be torn down, and new pathways trod to welcome any and all.
This outsider was performing acts of power in Jesus’ name. The disciples did not know him. [whining] “He’s not one of us, Jesus!” I hear it in that tattling kindergartner tone of voice. “But Jesus!!!”
But Jesus is teaching us to know who are friends are! If they are for us, they are not against us. Ancient wisdom Jesus is repeating here, in essence, “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.” It is as practical as history can show, repeatedly. Think of it, the United States teamed up with the Soviet Union of all things, giving them food, weapons, and tanks to fight World War II with us, it showed how true this statement is. We had a common purpose, defeating the Third Reich in all its degeneracy. The first known use of the phrase dates back to the 4th Century B.C. in the Sanskrit Arthashastra. Truth is truth wherever it is found. In Latin: Amicus meus, inimicus inimici mei. Jesus’ version: Whoever is not against us is for us.
We need to know who are friends are. Jesus even taught us to love our enemies, and if we do that it is hard for us to see them as enemies any longer. Our “enemies” are really just Friends Becoming. For the last twenty years I have been very careful in how I preach. Are there differences between groups of people? Of course. But at the same time, they all, WHOEVER THEY ARE, are fellow children of God. When I speak of Jewish people, or Muslim people, or any group seen as “other” I am explicit to say “our ________ brothers and sisters.” We make the divisions. Jesus does not.
We can work with anyone who is out for our common goals and purpose. In our work with the community, in our making the world a better place, we team together. In a few weeks we will call folks to come to our church for joint service of prayer and Christian unity before the election. We have done this for three years. It is important to be reminded who holds our first allegiance, and we cannot state that in isolation. We state that in unity with our fellow Christian brothers and sisters on November 1st. Hope you will be with us in person or online.
Know who your friends are, and welcome folks who are emerging friends and making the world a better place, no matter where they come from.
Three lessons: Know who your friends are, take out the trash, and be what you are.
This next passage has caused such problems. Obvious hyperbole. Exaggeration to make a point. Anyone can see that. The mixing of the interpretation, however, is what gets us into problems. The cutting off of hands and the plucking out of eyes are not Jesus’ intention or desire. He goes to the absurd to show the absurdity of keeping problems in our lives. He wants us to get rid of the problems, not our body parts. But when he goes on to what to do with these hypothetical dismembered body parts, we suddenly tend to read this literally. Know your literature, folks! Read poetry like poetry. Read fables like fables. Read hyperbole like the exaggeration it is. And part of the problem is the evolution of language and two thousand years of the impact of Jesus’ teaching.
The problematic word here is “hell.” What we picture and what Jesus said are not the same. I can point you to many books about the concept of hell and how it has grown and expanded since Jesus first said the word he used and the word we translate as Hell. Gehenna is what Jesus said. Now his first hearers would have heard the word Gehenna and would have had an immediate image, and it was NOT a dark and smoky cavern filled with fires and lava, and punishing imps with pitchforks. Gehenna was a place, known to most who has wandered to Jerusalem at some point, which would have been a large majority if not all of his hearers.
Gehenna was the name of the trash dump of Jerusalem. It was not underground. It was not hades, hell, eternal punishment, etc. It was a specific image and one that would have been well known. And if we take hell out of this and put in what Jesus said, it makes an entirely different teaching!
If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to Gehenna, to the trash fires that always consume the trash. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into Gehenna. And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into Gehenna, where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched.
To sum it up, “Better to rid yourself of your problem and put it into the trash instead of your whole self going there!” Jesus came and enables us to be different, to take the things that are our issues, personal or social, and transform them! Jesus came to enable us to escape the status quo! He does not want us in the trash, where this world is headed. He came so we can be who God made us to be. Thanks be to God!
Three lessons: Know who your friends are, take out the trash, and be what you are.
You may have heard the phrase, attributed to Gandhi: “Be the Change you wish to see in the World.” But for us to be the Change, we have to Envision it. If we cannot see it, we cannot be it.
Close your eyes, really! Really close them up. Picture who you want to be. What do you want to look like? What character do you want to have? What difference to you want to make in this world? Can you see it? Can you picture it? What steps do you need to take to get there? What can you do to start today? In a few moments we will be embarking a young soul on this path, one barely begun, in the life-giving, life-changing waters of baptism. And when we commit to uphold her in that journey, commit yourself, too! You need not stay where you are. As Jesus taught:
For everyone will be salted with fire. Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.
Salt is salt and nothing more, or less. Salt that is not longer salt is pointless. You are you, nothing more, or less. You that is not you is pointless. Don’t you forget that.
Three lessons: Know who your friends are, take the trash out, and be what you are. Amen