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…
“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.” (Read the whole passage)
It seems like the disciples may have finally pushed Jesus over the edge this week.
Peter was rebuking Jesus a couple weeks ago, which caused Jesus to answer by calling Peter Satan and telling him to start getting with the program or else. Last week, Jesus found the disciples arguing amongst themselves about who is the greatest, and Jesus’ annoyance was clear.
But this week, John, the beloved disciple, comes to Jesus with a dubious complaint. He says, “Someone was casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because we not following us.”
Wow, John… Is this grade 3 where we tattle to the teacher?
Wasn’t it just a few weeks ago that Jesus said, “if you want to become my followers, deny yourselves…”
John has clearly not been paying attention.
And we know that Jesus in Mark’s gospel can be harsh. He called the Syrophoenician woman a dog a few weeks back.
But Jesus’ response to John is more than harsh. Jesus really rips into John and other disciples for failing to get it.
“If would be better to be tossed into the ocean with a millstone around your neck, than to be a stumbling block to one of these littles ones.” Jesus begins.
“Cut off your hand if it is the problem. Cut off your foot if it is getting in your way. Tear out your eye if necessary.”
If throwing people into the ocean to die, or cutting off body parts sounds extreme it’s because it is extreme. But this is not an instructional manual on how to deal with sin.
Jesus is trying once again to make the disciples get it. To make the disciples understand just how much they are getting in their own way. He is trying to express just how frustrating it is to have a bunch of followers who are so focused on themselves and how he doesn’t have time for John’s self-centred non-sense.
It goes without saying that we might be uncomfortable with this frustrated Jesus. And not just because Jesus is supposed to be gentle and nice, but because John’s actions are familiar to us. We too struggle with wanting to be clear with who is in and who is out when it comes to our families, friends, neighbours and churches. We don’t have to look much farther than the niqab and citizenship ceremony debate to be reminded.
Last weekend, I attended the Why Christian? Conference in Minneapolis. There, I was reminded of just how much like John we can be.
The conference was organized as a response to the vast majority of other conferences for Christians that exist. Most conferences feature white, male, middle aged and older speakers who are brought in as experts to lecture attendees. If women or people of colour are asked to speak, it is usually tokenism. One women out of 20 men. One person of colour out of 20 white speakers. And women speak to women’s issues. People of colour speak to issues facing ethnic minorities. They are never asked to experts on the real stuff.
Why Christian? was not a women’s conference. But the two organizers were women. A Lutheran Pastor from Denver and a Christian Author and Blogger from Tennessee. And all 11 of the keynote speakers were women. Straight women, gay women, women of colour, young women, transgender women. And all of them pastors, authors, writers, professors and leaders in Churches throughout the United States. All of them have been and still are being told that they shouldn’t be allowed to do their work, to lead people of faith because of their gender, the colour of their skin, because of who they love, because of their age, because of their tattoos or their voices or the clothes they wear or any number of arbitrary reasons.
It makes us wonder… what would have John the disciple said to Jesus about them?
John would have objected and tattled on them too.
But here is the thing about John.
Jesus called John out of a fishing boat and John has forgotten that. Jesus called him even though the people in power, proper upstanding appropriate people would have objected to Jesus calling a lowly fisherman to be the disciple of an important rabbi, to a position of status and privilege.
Or maybe John hasn’t forgotten… and maybe that is why he is tattling on this person who is out doing Jesus’ work in the world despite not being part of the club. John is worried that Jesus might replace him. John and the other disciples had just failed at casting out demons… Jesus might be on the lookout for new and improved disciples who can get the job done.
John should know better than to tattle on the outsider, because he has been one too. John as been both an outsider and an insider. Both one who has been deemed unworthy and now one worthy of privilege.
And whatever the reason John is tattling to Jesus, whether he has forgotten where he comes from or whether he is afraid… maybe Jesus’s extreme frustration with John has less to do with the fact of John being a stumbling block and more to do with that thing inside of John, the source of that forgetfulness and fear that is keeping John from realizing just who gets to gate-keep the Kingdom of God.
Jesus is frustrated because John’s sinful self is making him forget that Jesus decides who is in and who is out. Not John, not us.
As I listened last weekend to speakers who almost certainly wouldn’t have been given the chance to speak at any other Christian Conference, it was incredible to hear these women tell their stories, and as the name of the conference, Why Christian? suggests, answer the question of Why Christian? Why continue in a religion, tradition and institution that so often seeks to silence their voices in the very name of these women follow.
It was incredible to hear these women speak because even as they all had stories where some well intentioned but misguided disciples like John had told them that they weren’t worthy of doing God’s work because of their gender, their skin colour, their sexual orientation, their impropriety… even as they all their stories of being shut down and pushed to outside by John…
They also had stories of being welcomed and brought back in by Jesus.
They told the 1000 of us who gathered in beautiful and appropriately named St. Mark’s cathedral about the ways in which Jesus continually draws them back to Christianity. How Jesus draws them in by being outraged along with them at the injustice they experience. How Jesus draws them in by declaring that they are beloved and that they belong. How Jesus draws them in through the grace and mercy filled word of God, draws them in through the cleansing water of baptism, draws them in through bread that gets faith under our fingernails in the Lord’s Supper, draws them in through the community that swirls around in the cup of wine.
They told us how Jesus continually draws them back and offers them a place in the Kingdom.
And the stories those women told about Why Christian? tell us something about us.
We are all like John.
We have all been both the ones on the inside and on the outside. We have been told we aren’t good enough to do God’s work and we have told others the same. And we have done so because of our forgetfulness and our fear.
We have done so because of our sin.
And just when Jesus is enraged by the fact that we don’t get it. Just when he seems to be annoyed to the extreme with John and us.
Jesus pulls it back together and Jesus talks about salt.
Salt that acted as currency, food preservative, and fertilizer. Ancient impure salt that had the habit of going bad and becoming useless. Salt that once it became flavourless white powder had no purpose.
No purpose but one.
To be thrown on the roads where it helped keep the roads flat and walkable.
Kind of opposite to stumbling blocks.
Even though like John, we get in the way of our brothers and sisters, even though we have a habit of making things messy and complicated. Even though our sinful selves prevent us from seeing what Jesus is up to… Jesus has a use for flavourless salt.
Jesus has a use for people on the inside who are afraid of losing their place. And Jesus has a use for people on the outside who are excluded because of their gender, their skin colour, their sexual orientation, their voices and tattoos, their lowly jobs and lack of social standing.
Jesus has a use for us.
Because we are both. We are insiders and outsiders. We are tattling on each other and the ones being tattled on. We have been the ones trying to be gate-keepers, and we have all been told we aren’t good enough.
And for Jesus… none of that matters.
Because Jesus decides who gets to be part of the club, who gets to be disciples, who gets to speak, and teach, and serve on his behalf.
And Jesus decides that his kingdom will be full of stumbling blocks AND useless salt. Jesus decides that is Kingdom will be full of people just like you and just like me.
Insiders and outsiders
All beloved by God.
3 thoughts on “A Sermon on WX 2015: How Jesus uses Stumbling Blocks and Useless Salt”
While it is true that the speakers at WX would be outsiders at conservative Christian conference, many of them are not outsiders in the general population. Some of them speak from positions of significant influence and power, with major publishing contracts and full support from the largest mainstream Christian denominations. The messages were all excellent, but let’s not confuse voices of power and authority with those who are truly on the fringe.
I wouldn’t call Full support only allowing the ordination of LBGT people in the past few years or women’s ordination only a few decades ago. Nor is full support the glass ceiling for most women in ministry. These women have worked very hard to get where they are, but still don’t have anywhere the same kind of privilege that most men have enjoyed for a long time.
White males still hold a privileged place in society and in the mainstream. That is pretty clear.
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