Truth be told, I struggle to follow Jesus in his teaching now. Perhaps this is because it is just so much to take in, for we begin with someone casting out demons who is not a follower of Jesus, we move to the acknowledgement that something as simple as a cup of cold water is worthy of reward, and we wind up with all kinds of direction about stumbling blocks and millstones and removing that which causes you to stumble, not to mention his final words about salt and peace. It seems almost impossible to reflect on all of it and so for now, at least, I have chosen to focus in on the part in the middle: that bit about little ones and stumbling blocks and Jesus’ demand that we do what needs to be done no matter what that is to keep ourselves from stumbling, too.
And there is this, of course. We really have no idea who the ‘little ones’ are that he refers to now. One is tempted to think he speaks of actual children here, particularly since just a few verses before he has placed a child right in the midst of the disciples. On the other hand, some have thought it refers to the disciples themselves, which is also possible. As for me, I find myself hearing it now as speaking of anyone who is vulnerable and anyone who is trying to find their way on this journey of faith. Which could be any and all of us at one time or another. And I find myself hearing that second part about removing that which would cause you to stumble as being that which needs to be addressed which would, in fact, pose a stumbling block not only to you or to me, but to anyone else. For in the end, we are all in this together, as we hear at the end of this section where Jesus urges us to ‘be at peace with one another.’
Now this is true. I was not a child who listened all that intently in church, but when it rolled around, this is a passage which filled my child’s heart with confusion and more than a little fear for I could not comprehend what Jesus meant by cutting off hands and feet and tearing out eyes. I hear it differently now, of course, although the gruesomeness of it does reinforce the seriousness with which Jesus takes all of this. For at the very least, we are certainly reminded that those things which we consider essential (hands and feet and eyes) are utterly dispensable when we consider the ways in which those same things can certainly hinder one another (and ourselves) on the way.
And so I would offer an example now of how these words came alive to me in a whole new way this week.
It was Tuesday afternoon.
I had been wondering for a couple of days about how to deepen a conversation with leaders who would be gathering that night. Even though we have been gathering in person for months now, it is powerfully apparent that what we thought would be a return to ‘normal’ in short order those many months ago when Covid-19 first seemed to change so much, that ‘normalcy’ continues to be elusive. And oh, we can debate all day long what ‘normal’ is and whether ‘normal’ is good or at least better for some than others, but whatever it is, it doesn’t seem to be coming any time soon. And really, how could it? Not a one among us is the same as we were eighteen months ago. We have encountered and grappled with grief and loss and fear and confusion with hardly a pause since the day we first heard of the virus. So even if everyone were to return, it would not make sense to pretend that things are or perhaps ever will be as they were. And as much as this, as you know, many are just not coming back, which means things will never be ‘as they were.’
Surely this is a conversation congregations need to have. We need to talk about where we have been and who we are called to be and where we are called to go now as we are in ministry with each other for the sake of the world.
And while it’s not as though we haven’t been talking about this in some form or another for many months, I could not quite focus to determine where and how the conversation might best be led that night.
In the midst of my befuddlement, I sat down with our congregation’s intern. I had floated some ideas earlier which were not great, to be sure, but I was ready to go with them. Only our intern had a much better idea than I had been able to surface. In the end, we went with hers, using a series of focused questions to invite those gathered to explore and to listen to one another.
Only there was this. After we went our separate ways, I had this pang of angst and wondering. I mean,
I’m the pastor, I should be coming up with this, right?
More than this, I’m the supervisor with decades of experience…
And underneath that wondering was this: one of my weaknesses is a long held tendency to try to do things on my own, to take responsibility for more than I should, to not lean on others until or unless it becomes absolutely necessary.
Indeed, I left that meeting knowing we were doing what was right, but tasting deeply my own sense of inadequacy in it.
And it occurred to me then as I considered the words before us now that this is what I need to be tearing out or cutting off: that part of me that always thinks I need to be out in front, doing the hard work alone.
- Because if I had done differently that afternoon, I would have been putting a ‘stumbling block’ in front of a ‘little one’ — for interns and students are always more vulnerable than their supervisors, aren’t they?
- If I had insisted on my own not as good idea, I would have been denying another the opportunity to shine in the gifts she has been sent to bring.
- And all of this would mean that the work of Jesus would not have been done, not be done, in the ways we are being called to do it.
Indeed, it strikes me now that this part of me which I have struggled with my whole life long is the very thing which caused our first ‘ancestors’ to stumble in the garden, isn’t it?
- That tendency to think we can do this on our own.
- That temptation to believe that it is ours to strive to somehow be equal to God.
- That too frequent habit of forgetting that it is not about us, but that we are in service of so very much more.
I don’t know much about cutting off hands or feet or tearing out eyes, and I don’t much care to, but this matter of cutting off or out that which is the essence of sin itself because it interferes not only with our own flourishing, but also that of those ‘little ones’ within reach of our care? Well that makes sense to me.
This is not to say it is easy, for everything in our culture and yes, in our congregations, tends to reinforce this in us. I think now of a colleague lamenting the other day that in these ‘returning days where nothing is the same,’ his leaders expect him to make it all happen — as though one could or should possibly be expected to do all of this. Perhaps the pressure of this is your lament as well, whether it comes from the outside or the inside. No, particular practice of cutting off or tearing away is surely not easy, but it is necessary and it is faithful and it is something I, for one, only learn to do by doing it. Almost like a brand new practice, one decision, one conversation, one sometimes excruciating moment at a time.
Indeed, I expect some among you will resonate with this. Others will have other things or habits or tendencies that Jesus would urge you to discard now, for your own sakes as well as for those within reach of your example and your partnership and your care. And I expect because we are all so raw, so vulnerable right now that these may be more apparent than ever before.
So I would end with this much needed blessing as I lean into the promises with you:
May God give us what we need as we navigate this time.
May we trust that God will lead us as we go, wherever that is, whatever that means.
And may we see this time of cutting off or tearing out as a step to an even greater wholeness. A wholeness that perhaps we cannot yet begin to imagine.
- How do you hear the teaching of Jesus now? Do you find yourself landing in the middle as I did, or is another part of this piece of Mark’s Gospel pulling you in?
- What do you suppose Jesus is getting at when he tells his listeners (and all of us) to cut off or tear out? What might he be urging you to eliminate for your own sake as well as those within your reach?
- Are you finding as I am that this unusual time makes what needs to be ‘cut off’ or ‘torn away’ all the more apparent? Is doing so an ongoing practice for you as it is for me or are you able to ‘cut off’ or ‘tear away’ only once and be done?
- Can you see how this ‘cutting off or tearing away’ can lead to a greater wholeness for us all together? How do you imagine this particular ‘discipline’ making a difference?