Blind Bartimaeus the Preacher and Confirmation is not what we think it is

GOSPEL: Mark 10:46-52
As [Jesus] and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside. 47When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout out and say, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” 48Many sternly ordered him to be quiet, but he cried out even more loudly, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” 49Jesus stood still and said, “Call him here.” And they called the blind man, saying to him, “Take heart; get up, he is calling you.” 50So throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus. 51Then Jesus said to him, “What do you want me to do for you?” The blind man said to him, “My teacher, let me see again.” 52Jesus said to him, “Go; your faith has made you well.” Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way.

If we are honest with ourselves, Confirmation is kind of weird. Most of us know what is involved in Confirmation. We think of teenagers sitting in stuffy church board rooms, listening to pastors drone on about the small catechism. Or terrified confirmands having to answer questions from the pastor in front of the whole congregation. Parents dragging reluctant kids with unhelpful lines like, “I suffered through confirmation when I was your age, and you can suffer through it too.”

More recently, we tend imagine a rite of passage provided by caring mentors, families and teachers for youth coming of age in the church. We picture something graduation-esque, complete with corsages and gowns that kind of look like academic robes. 

We can describe all kinds of aspects of and events surrounding confirmation, and yet, I am pretty sure that very few of us, if pressed, could actually describe or say what conformation is. Like what does confirmation mean and what is it actually. We know that baptism is the pouring of water on someone’s head, even if we attach parties, pictures and candles. We know that communion is receiving bread and wine, even if we devise complicated ways to distribute and receive it. 

But with confirmation… often we can only describe the things we attach to it and not the core element of it.  We aren’t quite sure what it actually is and that makes it a bit of an oddity. 

Deep down, we know that confirmation isn’t actually about making teenagers uncomfortable or sweat through very public knowledge tests. It shouldn’t be something to suffer through. But it also isn’t really a right of passage per se, it isn’t graduation from or to something. 

In fact, confirmation is actually something altogether different. 

The story of Jesus that we hear today kind of starts to get at what confirmation is really about, even if in a roundabout way. We begin with blind Bartimaeus begging on the roadside, when he hears that Jesus is coming by. He begins to make a scene, calling out and bothering the people around him. The more folks tell him to be quiet, the more of a scene he makes. Until finally Jesus notices him. 

I am sure we can easily imagine the embarrassment of the moment. We are people who tend to avoid making scenes, we avoid causing or enduring discomfort. 

And yet, making the scene, causing the annoyance and embarrassment is important. Bartimaeus isn’t just asking for help. Bartimaeus is proclaiming the gospel. His sermon is the same at the Kyrie we sing most week, Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy. He isn’t telling those around him that they need help, he is setting the example by going first, by showing the world what Gospel can for him, by making public the healing and reconciliation that Jesus provides. 

Bartimaeus shows us that on some level, making a scene for Jesus is what Christian faith is about. All these strange things that we do, the hymns and prayers, the baptisms and communion, strange robes and old books, the flowery ancient language and unusual rituals… all of it is so different than what we see on TV or hear in our EarPods or spend time doing when we are out with polite company. Maybe there was a time 60 or 70 years ago when flowery prayers, funny robes, and solemn rituals were a part of service clubs, government meetings, civic observances and even seen often on TV. But not today, Christianity is as foreign to the majority as speaking another language. Openly displaying Christian practices, openly discussing our faith can be embarrassing. Being associated with Christians who have been making other scenes and getting noticed for their misbehaviour during the pandemic is not something we want. 

Yet, living our faith out in the world, sharing our faith with neighbour, passing our faith on to successive generations is something we do want, or least should want to do. 

And in this way, Christian faith is a strange experience of joining together with other people of faith to make a scene for Jesus, to hear and then re-tell the gospel through Word, Water, Bread and Wine, through hymns, prayers and worship. And inviting others into that shared experiences and community. 

Confirmation then is rooted in being  officially welcomed to that scene making community of faith called the church. 

Now technically, confirmation has historically been the laying on of hands by the bishop that follows baptism. As the early church grew, it took Bishops longer and longer to get around to confirm all the baptisms, to lay on hands in blessing and prayer. And so confirmation was combined with catechesis, the intentional teaching of the faith to new Christians who waited for the bishop to come by every few years to confirm all those newly baptized into the faith. As Lutherans we technically include confirmation with baptism, so Katie, you have actually been confirmed for a long time.

But at its core, confirmation tied to baptism is the final blessing that joins us to the Body of Christ, that group of followers that makes a scene for Jesus.

Confirmation is a final sign of our welcome into the body of Christ, into this weird group of faithful folks who do things that are so different than everything else we see in world, that loudly proclaim God’s promises even if it is weird and strange to our ears. 

And like Blind Bartimaeus who called out for mercy until Jesus heard him, being confirmed finally connects to this group of Jesus’s followers who loudly proclaim the good news of God’s love, mercy and forgiveness for all those who would listen, even if it makes a scene and a bother. And again like Blind Bartimaeus who makes this scene, Jesus comes and meets us too. Jesus meets us in the middle of our loud bother and Jesus confirms the good news of our faith, the Good News that God’s love has indeed been given for us. In the Word of Faith, in the waters of new life, in the bread and wine that nourishes our faith, Jesus meets us with love, mercy, and salvation. 

So yeah, confirmation is weird. And even when it is explained, it is still kind of weird. 

And being confirmed is about being joined to a community of faith that does weird things together, often making a scene… but also a community of faith that is inspired together to proclaim the good news to the whole world. 

So welcome into this faith that we all share, even if it is a little bit strange. 

Letting go of what we cannot do, because God does what only God can do.

Mark 10:17-31
As Jesus was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone….

Here we are at yet another unusual Thanksgiving weekend. Compared to last year when we were encouraged by Public Health Officials to keep Thanksgiving to our own households, vaccines have changed what is possible. Yet, the pandemic situation in Manitoba is remarkably similar to last year, I am sure many of us are remaining cautious without Thanksgiving activities. 

Thanksgiving is not a Christian holiday. Rather it is rooted in the celebration of the harvest for the gifts and bounty of the land provided to us for the year. Harvest festivals are as old as human beings cultivating the land, and certainly thankfulness and gratitude are connected to our faith. 

And thanksgiving is a moment to step back the consider the bigger picture of our lives and communities. This year that might prove to be a difficult task. We have been living small for a year and half now, with things to both bring us hope for an end to pandemic but also realities that have not lived up to expectations. Our journey out of this crisis is going to be neither short nor straightforward. 

As we have been hearing for a number of weeks from Mark’s gospel, Jesus again encounters someone who is struggling to get it. But it isn’t Jesus’ followers or disciples, and nor it is Jesus chief antagonists the Pharisees and Scribes. Instead a curious and wondering rich man comes to Jesus with a big question. You could also say that he was having a Thanksgiving moment. A moment when he is considering the big picture of his life and asking some pretty questions. 

The man comes to Jesus right to point, ““Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

Right away Jesus starts challenging the Rich man’s assumptions. Good? Why do you call me good? Only God alone is good. And lest we hear the Santa Claus version of the question, “Have you been a good by this year Timmy?” “Good”in this case is surely connected to the idea of righteousness. Being good and righteous with God is more than just following the rules of being nice, it is justified and righteous down to the very core of one’s being. Jesus is undermining the Rich man’s assumption that goodness or righteousness is something to be achieved. 

And then Jesus continues. He starts to list the commandments. In fact he lists six of them. Commandments intended for us to keep good relationships with our neighbour. But it is noteworthy the commandments that Jesus omits… all the commands that have to do with our relationship to God. Having one God, taking the Lord’s name in vain and keeping the sabbath. 

But still the rich man doesn’t hear any of Jesus’ clues in his answer. Like so many who are used to being in control, he sees inheriting eternal life as a problem to fix, a puzzle to solve. He claims that he has kept all the commandments. You can sense that the rich man is getting ready to declare victory on the whole eternal life thing. So Jesus gets ready to throw a curve ball. But first Jesus looks at the man with love. He wants this man to understand what he is asking, he wants this rich man to understand the nature of the mission that he is on, the Mission of the Messiah to bring the Kingdom of God near. 

Jesus says, “You have to give it all up. All the money, wealth, power, security, comfort and control. All of it. And then follow me.”

But the rich man can’t. Of course he can’t. Jesus knew that wouldn’t be able to do it. 

The rich man cannot let go of all the things. He cannot let go of all the things that form his identity, his understanding of the world, his certainty and foundation. 

Letting go is hard to do. We have always known it is hard, but during the past 18 months we have learned lessons how much we hold on to those things that bring us certainty and security, those safety blankets and supports around us that give us our sense of self, our foundations and strength. 

All the things that have been put to the test during this time of crisis. In fact, almost certainly we have held on even tighter. Whether it is family or our jobs or our wealth or our hobbies and passions. Even our faith and faith communities. Our convictions and opinions, our politics and biases. 

We have been holding on, hoping that if we hold tight enough to those things that we can make it through the storms around us. We have hoped that we can use those security blankets, the things we think we control, to fix our problems and solve our puzzles. And yet know that that hasn’t exactly been going well. 

With all the drama around pandemic restrictions and now vaccinations, we see people holding on to things that are making it harder. 

With revelations about our history of racism, sexism, colonization, economic inequality we have learned that holding onto our past or the status quo isn’t working. 

With this struggles being faced by churches, volunteers groups, charities and nearly every public institution, that holding on, hoping to return to the past will not fix the problems. 

We have discovered over and over again that we don’t have the solutions we wish we had. 

Jesus hammers the point home with a now famous passage saying, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” 

Jesus isn’t talking about cramming a camel through the eye of the needle. He is talking about the challenge of trying to get a notorious stubborn animal who is hard to get to do the simplest of tasks when dig their heels in and comparing that to how even more stubborn human beings can be. The rich man just cannot let go in order to see what Jesus is telling him. 

And that is Jesus’ point. 

The rich man wants to know how he can inherit eternal life, and Jesus response is to first divert him from notions that there is something he can do and refocus him on caring for his neighbour. And when that doesn’t work, Jesus suggest something impossible. 

But not because eternal life is impossibly hard. But because getting there, earning our salvation by our own merit is impossible. 

Jesus message from the start has not been about how to get into the Kingdom, but how the Kingdom of God is coming near to humanity, coming near to us. The rich man is focused on himself. The rich man cannot hear what God is doing. 

The disciples ask the question that the rich man could bear to hang around and ask. They were greatly astounded and said to one another, “Then who can be saved?” Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”

God is the one doing the saving. 

God is the one who saves. 

God does the work and gives us eternal life. 

We do not earn it, we do not achieve it, we don’t problem solve ourselves into it, we don’t hold onto our power, control, and security in order to find our way to it. 

God does the work. 

And that is so hard to hear. 

It is hard to hear that there is nothing we can do, because we desperately want to do something, we want some measure of power and control. 

It is why holding onto our faith and having faith are often two different things, it is why the rich man cannot do the impossible and give up his wealth. 

It is why we are so divided as a society, why we struggle to get on the same page about things, we just cannot trust those in authority or those who vote for the other guys. 

It is why we have been holding on so tight to our own personal security blankets during this crisis, whatever they may be. 

Because hearing that God is the one doing the work of saving us is unsettling to the core. 

And yet, even as grip our own power and control and security as tightly as we can… God finds a way. 

The christ enters into created life, meets with sinners, and tells them the good news anyways. 

The Messiah walks the path of salvation, even when that path goes through death. 

Jesus steps out of the tomb and into new life bringing with him dumbfounded disciples who somehow carryon that message around the globe. 

The church, despite all our flaws and imperfections, our mistakes and divisions and conflicts, still has managed to proclaim the good news for 2000 years.

We though holding on tightly to whatever we can in have still been gathered here, gathered together as community to hear the promise of the Word, to be washed in Holy Baths, to be fed by Holy Meals despite all the odds. 

No we cannot save ourselves, no matte how hard we try, no matter the power and control wield. And yet we are forgiven, granted new life and salvation, none the less. 

[Because] Jesus looks at us and says], “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”

Jesus is not talking about divorce in the way we think

GOSPEL: Mark 10:2-16
Some Pharisees came, and to test [Jesus] they asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” 3He answered them, “What did Moses command you?” 4They said, “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her.” 5But Jesus said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you. 6But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ 7‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, 8and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh. 9Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”

When I was 7 or 8 years old, I remember the first one of my friends telling us that his parents were getting a divorce. It was a strange and complicated situation. Over the following weeks and months, he began living one week with his mom and the next week with his dad. And while there were two birthday parties, two thanksgivings, two Christmases, I could tell that having parents who didn’t live with each other anymore and having to move your whole life back and forth every Saturday was not something I would ever want. 

Fast forward to one day when I was 19 and working as a camp counsellor, we got a panicked call from the camp director during our hour off. We were needed to come and settle a group of unruly campers. The old pastor who was doing bible study with the group of high school aged campers, had gotten into a heated discussion with one teenaged girl over whether or not it was a good thing for her parents to divorce. He was insisting it was a sin. She was insisting that the fighting, and anger and frustration that was tearing apart her family had finally gone away once her parents separated and that this was a good thing. 

Despite being relatively common and something that many couples experience these days, divorce is still a word that carries stigma and shame. The wounds of divorce can be deep and slow to heal. 

So, when we hear Jesus offer some pretty strong words about divorce, it can sound like condemnation. “Because of the hardness of your heart.” he says… and yet ask anyone going through a divorce what their heart feels like and they will probably tell you the story of a heart being ripped to shreds, a wounded and broken heart. Not a hard one. 

So what is the deal? Doesn’t Jesus get how messy and complicated this is? Doesn’t God have compassion and mercy for two flawed people who don’t know how to find their way back to each other? Can’t Jesus see that sometimes a marriage needs to die for the individuals in it to live?

We can’t forget which Gospel we are reading today. This is the Jesus who has just called the Syrophoenician woman a dog, who has called Peter Satan, who has told John that it would be better if he were thrown into the ocean than get in the way of Jesus’ mission. 

Jesus in Mark’s gospel does not suffer fools and he doesn’t have time for people who don’t get it. 

So what are we not getting?

For a long time the church has used this passage to clobber anyone considering divorce. Pastors have told abused women that it would be a sin to leave their husband. We have told incompatible couples that they must continue to suffer together. The church has forbid divorce on any grounds, just like Jesus seems to be doing here. 

So again, what we are not getting that Jesus gets? The clue is in the in the question. “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?”

Not is it lawful for a couple to get divorced, but for a MAN to do the divorcing. 

The Pharisees and Jesus are not talking about marriage as we know it. This is not about two people who enter into a loving covenant to share a life of love together. 

This is about the contract between a man and a woman’s father. This is about men buying women just like they would buy a cow or a sack of grain or a piece of land. 

In the world of the Pharisees, women were not people. They were property. Property whose function was to serve and provide pleasure for the man, and ultimately provide a male heir. And if these things were not provided whenever the man wanted them, this was grounds for divorce. In fact, pretty much any dissatisfaction was grounds for divorce.

All man had to do was say, “I divorce you.” and his wife was cast out of the marriage and onto the street, where her only two options were prostitution or begging for survival. 

So when Jesus calls the Pharisees hard of heart, he is speaking of a power imbalance in a contractual and economic relationship. Not hardness of heart between a modern husband and wife. 

Jesus is calling out the Pharisees for being selective in their reading of the law of Moses. They say that the legal procedure of divorce is simple. But they know that the law of Moses is full of concern for widows and destitute women. It was the duty of a widower’s brother to marry a widow. It was the duty of a widower’s kin to provide a widow with children if she didn’t have any. And if re-marrying was not possible for a widow, it was the duty of the community to care for her. The men harvesting fields were to leave a portion of the harvest behind to be gleaned and collected by the widows. It was a law that a portion of the offering collected in the synagogues and temple be given to the widows and poor. 

For a set of laws to be so concerned with the care of husbandless women in a community to make it so easy for a man to divorce his wife doesn’t make any sense… it is a deliberate misreading of the rules. 

And Jesus knows it. The Pharisees know it. The disciples know it. Mark knows it. 

It is why the passage about people bringing children to Jesus is tacked onto this passage about divorce. 

Jesus is calling the people around him to care for the weak and vulnerable among them. He is telling men that it is wrong to dump their wives onto the community to care for. He is telling those in power that they don’t get to abdicate their responsibility to care for the powerless. Jesus is calling out and condemning those who would tell the weak and vulnerable to pull themselves up by their own boot straps. He is telling those in authority that their power comes with the obligation to use it for good. 

If Jesus were to have this conversation with us today, it would not be about divorce at all. 

If Jesus were talking about our hardness of heart he would be calling us out for very different reasons. 

Jesus would say, because of your hardness of heart it took the discovery of unmarked graves for your nation to wake up to the tragedy that is Indian Residential Schools in Canada. 

Let those are who have been lost and forgotten by too many for too long come to me, because the Kingdom of God belongs to them. 

Jesus would say, because of your hardness of heart many are persecuting and causing violence to the healthcare workers, doctors and nurses and other medical staff who are simply caring for those that need it.

Let these tired and exhausted and depleted caregivers come to me, for there is rest and comfort and peace in the Kingdom of God. 

Jesus would say, because of your hardness of heart you are afraid of those who are different, those from other countries, who worship and pray differently, whose skin is differently coloured. 

Let those who are marginalized for the way they worship, for the colour of their skin, for the language they speak come to me for the Kingdom of God belongs to them. 

Jesus would say, because of your hardness of heart you have told married couples on the ropes that their need to divorce is a sin. 

Let those who dying to separate in order to live come to me. 

Yeah… it is hard to hear Jesus challenge the hard places in our hearts. 

Yeah… it has been rough to listen to Jesus call us out week after week. 

Yeah… this might not feel like good news. 

And just when it feels like Jesus has just come to stomp all over us for having hard hearts, Jesus reminds us that we easily forget who we are, and we easily forget what Jesus is doing for us, to us. 

As we gather around the Word, as we remember being washed and joined to the Body of Christ in the waters at the font, and as we are given bread and wine from the table of the Lord… Jesus is blessing us. For ours is the Kingdom. 

Jesus is reimagining our world. Jesus re-humanizing all those are pushed down to the bottom. Those who are marginalized by those in power, those who wind up the victims of hardened hearts. Those whom the disciples would try to send away but Jesus would welcome and bless. 

Jesus is restoring humanity and dignity to all. Lifting up those on the bottom by bringing them back into relationship with their community, but also by bringing down the high and mighty by bringing them back too into relationship with their communities. 

Yes, we have hard hearts. No we have not lived up to the power and responsibility we have been entrusted with. 

Jesus names that and it is hard to hear.

But Jesus also names our humanity and dignity, restoring us to community – wether we are the privileged on top or the marginalized on the bottom. 

Despite our hard hearts. Despite what we have failed to do for the weak and vulnerable, Jesus says, come to me. All of you. Because you too are all the weak and vulnerable in some way. And because I have named you my children, the Kingdom of God belongs to you.

Being Salted with Fire

GOSPEL: Mark 9:38-50
38John 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.” 39But 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. 40Whoever is not against us is for us. 41For 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.

49“For everyone will be salted with fire. 50Salt 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.”

Today, we continue through the gospel of Mark, delving deeper and deeper into the question of what it means to follow Messiah, to be a disciple, to figure out our place in the world. As we head into these homestretch weeks of this long season of green, we will continue to be confronted with the difficult questions of faith and the difficult questions of our human condition. 

And as we face these questions, Mark is revealing a vision of how God is breaking open our world to make room for the Kingdom. Slowly but surely, we are being invited into this mission that Jesus is on in Mark – the Mission of bringing the Kingdom of God near to those who need it. 

One of the things about Jesus in the Gospel of Mark is that he gets a little cranky. Jesus has been cranky off and on during the past few weeks. Yet, last week he showed surprising restraint and patience with his struggling disciples. But this week he more than makes up for it, by ranting in frustration about the inability of his disciples to get out of their own way. 

Today, we continue from were we left off last week, when Jesus had sat down his disciples to unpack their struggles. They had been arguing about who is the greatest among them because the didn’t know where they fit in their world. Jesus had picked up a baby and holding the baby in his arms, told them the first must be last and the last must be first; that Kingdom of God was for the least of these. 

Still in that moment, gathered around, baby in arms, the disciple John interrupts his teacher.

“Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.”

Rather than letting Jesus’ message sink in – the message that in the Kingdom of God there is no order or rank or hierarchy, there is only belonging – John cannot let go of his insecurities. John is thinking that if the group cannot be measured by rank, then at least they can figure who is inside the group and who is outside. It is almost as if John needs to be able to quantify his worth and place this group. He cannot trust that God knows. 

Even still, John’s question reveals a particularly deep insecurity. He is upset that there are people out there casting out demons in Jesus’ name because the disciples had struggled to do the very same thing. Jesus had sent them out, but when the disciples had retuned they were unable to do the deeds of power. Now, here were some people doing the thing that the disciples could not do and they weren’t even a part of the group. 

John is revealing the thing that keeps the disciples from ever really getting what Jesus is up to – their insecurities about their role as Jesus’ followers. 

It is an insecurity that still pops up for us – the thing inside of us that cannot rejoice in the successes, talents and abilities of others, but instead seeks to tear down those who seem to threaten our place and position. On the sports team, dance group or musical ensemble, it is person who cannot abide the talent and ability of teammate.  In the workplace, it is the one who undermines the capability and productivity of a co-worker. In the church, it is the leader who shoots down every new idea before it is given a chance. In a family it is the jealous sibling, spouse, parent or child, who resents a loved one for the gifts they show, rather than rejoicing. 

This insecurity is almost certainly at the heart of most divisions and conflict we endure in our world. It is why political campaigns start out positive but go negative when another seems to poll better. It is why internet debates turn so rancid so quickly, when argument and reasons cannot sway opinion, people quickly turn to attacks and insults. It is why expert opinion no longer holds the water it once did, because so many of us think we should be experts on everything and get our backs up when it feels like someone or something is suggesting we might not know as much as we think we do. 

It is an insecurity rooted in the deepest part of our humanity, in the sinful self who just cannot let go of our own needs to feel adequate and needed and capable at all costs, even the denigration of our neighbour. 

And this insecurity is why Jesus erupts into his angriest rant to date:

42“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.”

And on Jesus rants, declaring that if one part of our bodies cause us to sin, they should be cut off and thrown away. For some reason, preachers and other church folk have heard this rant from Jesus as some kind of formula or prescription for dealing with sin – a tough love approach to community conflict. But certainly it is not that. It is Jesus losing his cool with disciples who just cannot get out of their own way – disciples who cannot see that good ministry happening in Jesus’ name does not need their approval or sanction. 

But what is perhaps the most striking about Jesus’ angry rant is not the vivid imagery of being tossed into the ocean with a rock tied around one’s neck, nor cutting off hands, feet or pulling out eyes that cause sin. It is that Jesus is still holding the baby, that little one, the least of these. 

As Jesus has gathered his struggling disciples, who just need to know how they fit into their new world, as he tries to give them a symbol of their equality before God. As he reminds that God has room and a makes a place for even a helpless baby – a person with little value or import in that world – Jesus is frustrated that the disciples cannot let go of their insecurities. They cannot get past their fears and trust what has been promised and given to them by God. 

But then… before going too far, Jesus reels himself back in. And though it may sound cryptic, Jesus comes back to the point:

  49“For everyone will be salted with fire. 50Salt 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.”

Ancient salt and fire were central elements of daily life. Salt was used for money (or salary), for roads, to preserving food, for making brine for forging metal. And it worked along with fire to make things pure and safe. But ancient salt was also impure and needed to be carefully maintain and used. Fire and salt worked together in so many areas of ancient life. 

Jesus is using this image of salt and fire – obscure to us, but common to the disciples – to remind them again of their role in the mission of the Messiah. The Messiah who realized that God’s grace was give for all people by the Syrophoenecian woman. The Messiah who is on the road to crucifixion AND resurrection, no natter Peter’s objections. The Messiah is not concerned about first and last, but about gathering up all God’s people. This Messiah reminds the disciples to be at peace – God is making them worthy!

It is no accident that at the lowest of the lows, hiding away in the upper room after the crucifixion of Jesus, that the risen Christ appears to his followers saying “Peace be with you.”

And it is no accident that this is God’s message for us too. 

Even as we feel like our hands and feet and eyes have been cut off, even as feel as though our saltiness is fading away… Jesus’ promise to us that that God is transforming us for the Kingdom. 

Despite our inability to get out of our own ways. Despite our tendency to hang on to our insecurities. Despite feeling unworthy of the mission of the Gospel. 

Jesus is salting us with fire. God is making us ready for Kingdom. 

Yes, that might mean that some of our baggage needs to be dropped. Yes that might feel like parts of ourselves are being cut off. Discipleship is not easy. Being transformed by God sometimes takes us to uncomfortable places and out future is less certain than it ever was. 

But it is exactly in these times of change and crisis, that the work of transformation takes place. This is exactly where God is doing God work. Here with insecure people who are certain we aren’t good enough, who want to know if and where we belong. 

And yet, God is salting us with fire, removing our imperfections, making holy, and preparing us for the mission of the Kingdom. 

Who is this greatest? There are only sinners, like us.

GOSPEL: Mark 9:30-37
35He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” 36Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, 37“Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

Sermon

As we round into the final weeks of this long season of green, on our way to the end of the Church year and Advent, we continue to hear Jesus interact with his disciples. Last week, Jesus asked them who they thought he was. It was a moment of revelation followed by rebuke. Peter declared that Jesus was the Messiah but then turned around and lost the plot, getting upset with Jesus for following the path set out for the Messiah, the path of suffering and death. 

This week, following this key revelation, as they are traveling between towns, the disciples begin to bicker about who among them is the greatest. It sounds childish considering who they are following and the teaching about what it means to take up their cross that Jesus had just given. Arguing about who is the greatest feels like it is something that belongs on the playground, a conversation for children….

And yet, it is an argument that drives so much of our world these days. Only about a month ago three billionaires raced to see who could be the first private citizen to fly to space. As we speak, Canada is in the midst of a Federal election with the leaders’ debate was last week, where every question was a nuanced version of ‘who is the greatest?” And of course, our society is full of controversy over COVID-19 public health measures, including vaccine requirements. My home province of Alberta tried to win the race to be the greatest in declaring the pandemic over in July, only to now be looking at a total healthcare system collapse over increasing numbers of COVID-19 cases. 

So this argument that the disciples are having might seem immature, but it is certainly not an unusual one. Maybe it is worth considering just what is really going on. 

As Jesus continues to preach and teach, he has been speaking more and more about what is the come for the Messiah – more and more about his impending suffering and death. And the disciples have started to put it all in the context of understanding Jesus to be the Messiah – just as Peter confessed last week. 

Yet, the disciples still don’t understand what this all means for them. Before, when they were fishermen and tax collectors, they know their place in the world and their place in their communities. In their extremely ordered Hebrew society, they knew their rank and station.

Yet now, as Jesus has called them out of those known places and into this unknown position of being his followers, followers of the prophesied Messiah, they are struggling to know who they are and where they fit. The place of the Messiah in the world comes predicted and described, but where Messiah’s number 2 through 12 followers fit might not be clear. 

So they do what human beings so naturally do, they try to sort out where they fit and who they are, within the context of their community. They try the best they can to answer that deep question within all of us that asks who we are and how to we fit into the world around us. 

But also like us, they go about it in toxic and self-destructive ways. They try to order their community by rank, putting themselves on top and those around them below. It comes from the same place that the question that the serpent posed to Eve came from, the question about knowing her place in the garden. 

This question is one that continues to plague us today, this desire to know where we fit and who we are. And even though it can feel like the kind of question that children ask or argue about – think “my dad is stronger than your dad” – it is is one what drives so much of our world. 

It is a question subtly asked in car commercials, suggesting that a new car would improve our station in life. It is one baked into the marketplace and corporate world, constantly demanding more productivity, more profit, more loyalty. It is part and parcel with every political move and decision, and at the heart of every political campaign. It often shows up in churches when we look at and wonder about the neighbour congregation down the street and how they are doing. 

And in the midst of crisis, as we are now, it shows up as we try to figure out what to do and how to proceed. And when opinions differ, especially when agreeing to disagree isn’t possible but instead decisions have life and death consequences, we can be guilty of posturing according to our position rather than searching for the course of action that it is best for all. 

Trying to sort this all out, trying to understand where we fit – or more specifically “Where do I fit?” is something deeply imbedded in how we understand ourselves. We need to know where we stand and where we fit into the world around us, no matter how destructive the search for the answer can become. 

When Jesus hears the childish argument of his disciples, we might expect the grumpy Jesus who called the needy but persistent Syrophoenician woman a dog two weeks ago or the angry Jesus who rebuked Peter. 

But instead Jesus stops and calls his disciples to gather around and asks “What were you arguing about on the way?”. When none of them has an answer, Jesus has them sit down with him. You can imagine that Jesus sees beyond the childish argument, and instead sees disciples who are struggling to understand their place in the world. Disciples who need reassurance rather than competition, disciples who need to be reminded that they belong. 

“Whoever wants to be first must be last and servant of all.” he declares.

Then Jesus brings in a little child and puts it among them. But not just any child, but greek suggests that Jesus has brought an infant into their midst. Children in this world were considered to be blessings but also people for whom you didn’t get too strongly attached, lest they didn’t survive childhood. Children’ weren’t considered full persons until grown. 

So with this baby in his arms, Jesus holds one who is considered to be the least of all in that world. And Jesus says that whomever welcomes this one, who is the least and lowest in world, welcomes him. 

Jesus is chipping away at the disciples need to establish an order, their need to know where they fit by creating ranks and status among themselves. Jesus is using the tangible example of this baby as the means of showing his disciples what it means to belong to the Kingdom of God. There is no rank, first and last have no meaning. Belonging is what matters. God welcomes them, they belong to the Kingdom. They are children of God, servants to one another, members of the Body of Christ. 

The question about who is the greatest doesn’t apply here, instead who do you belong to is what matters. And with God, all belong in the Kingdom. 

It is a message that almost does’t compute in our hyper competitive world. Defining ourselves by who is on the top feels like the only way to understand ourselves. But God gives us a different understanding, an understanding based on belonging and not on rank. 

It is a part of our understanding of who we are that has been challenged by this pandemic. Our sense of “we” or community has been shaken. We have had for more opportunity than we really need as individuals to contemplate our individual identity.

Yet, God reminds us again and again, there is no greatest among us. 

There are only sinners to whom God gives grace, mercy and absolution. 

There are only suffering people for whom God promises healing and reconciliation

There are only the lost, least and forgotten, whom God welcomes into the Body of Christ. 

There are only the unwashed, whom God makes clean in the waters of Baptism. 

There are only the hungry and starving, whom God feeds at the table of the Lord. 

There are only disciples, whom God sends out to heal a world in need. 

In confession, in the Word, in praise and prayer, in baptism and the Lord’s Supper, God reminds us again and again of not who, but whose we are – we belong to God. There is no greatest and there is not least, but instead there is a place for all in the Body of Christ – all belong to God. 

An iPhone Pastor for a Typewriter Church

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