St. Philips Episcopal Church, Marysville, WA
Nineteenth Sunday After Pentecost
Readings - Episcopal Church
First reading Esther 7:1-6, 9-10; 9:20-22
Second reading James 5:13-20
Gospel Mark 9:38-50
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."
Sermon – Rev. Karuna Duval
In the readings today one of the major themes is about “us” vs “them.” In Ester, the king asks her “What is your petition?” She didn’t ask for “half the kingdom” as was offered, she asked for the destruction of the one who harmed her people – “them.” In James there is a division between sinners and “the righteous.” And in gospel of Mark, the apostle John identifies those who are following Jesus and those who are not.
Any of this sound familiar? Us vs Them?
The last part of the gospel today is a bit more confusing. Jesus talks about what can get in the way of the “reward” what can get in the way of heaven. But cutting off our hand, or foot or poking out our eye!? Really?! Do we really need such drastic measures? The answer I believe is Yes – sometimes. NO, no I’m not saying maim ourselves. However, what is often needed can certainly feel like we are cutting off a limb. Sometimes what we need is to “poke our eye out” so we can see differently.
A 36 yo friend of mine, last week tried to take her own life. We went to graduate school together. She is brilliant, kind, sweet and compassionate. She is a social worker and therapist for the very marginalized. She has great boundaries and can spot BS from a mile away. She has two rescue dogs. She is a recovering alcoholic. And she tried to mix vodka and pain medication to end her life. When that didn’t work and she was hospitalized, she tried to hang herself. What was it that she so felt hopeless about? Whatever it was, she believed it was better to be dead than to continue walking the path she was on. The other thing I know about her is that she has experienced serious abuse and trauma in her life, which has resulted, for her, in a profound lack of self-worth. Even though she is all the wonderful things I described, she still feels deeply worthless; and in an “us” vs “them” world with “us” (my friend) believing she is far less than “them,” and living in that hell for so long, she was led her to where she is now. What is it that needs to change for her? Whatever it is, whatever big change needs to take place in her mind, her heart and spirit, it needs to be serious enough to move her in a different direction than where she was going. And it’s not going to be a quick or easy process. Whatever toxic beliefs she has about herself (and perhaps the world) that contributed to her suicide attempt, those need to be let go of in order to heal into beliefs that more supportive and life affirming….And since these harmful beliefs have been with her for the majority of her 36 years, it is going to feel like she is cutting off a limb to let them go. She needs to be able to see herself and the world differently by “plucking out the eye” that she has been seeing with for so long.
Jesus is asking us to take a hard look at ourselves and identify that which we need to change within ourselves that is getting in the way of experiencing the authentic Love, Grace and Kingdom of Heaven within us even if changing something about ourselves is big, difficult and seemingly impossible even if what we need to do will not be a quick and easy change – like a new haircut, or giving up coffee (that is not easy, really). Even if we can’t know the total outcome of those changes, Jesus tells us that IT IS better that we let go of the “millstone around neck” because letting that go will not only (re)connect us with our deepest, most loving selves, but it will also bring more peace into the world, and begin to diminish the power that continues to pull “us” and “them” apart. Then we will live in service for the community, with ourselves as an integral part. OR as Paul Wellstone said, “we all do better, when we all do better.”
Right now, we live in a society of deeply held beliefs of the importance of the individual over the community. This has contributed to a climate of power-over, fear and mistrust. The events of this week are glaring examples. Regardless of any particular belief you have about the events, what is clear is that there are many limbs and eyes that need to be eliminated that have led to a destructive “us” and “them” culture: a culture of the powerful vs the disempowered, where unkindness, disrespect, manipulation and more, are not only tolerated, but encouraged. The process of letting go of that which is dividing us is not going to be quick and not at all comfortable. It must start within each of us.
When I look out for just myself, to the dismissal or at worst the harm of another – that affects me, the other, and the whole community, leading down a path of more harm and tearing down of the individuals and whole societies. When I focus on myself – honestly examining what is in the way of living the truth of Jesus’ teachings of being kind to others, helping those who are vulnerable in order to bring peace to the world then the path leads towards values and actions which lift us ALL up. But I have to be willing to cut off a limb or poke out my eye, if necessary.
Sts. Francis and Clare of Assisi are two of the more well-known examples of this teaching. Francis’ metaphorical eye was plucked out when he saw what real war did to people and the world. He was a party guy and had a dream of being a knight but when he became involved in the war of the time, saw and experienced the devastation it caused individuals and communities, he became deeply depressed. He turned his eyes towards the gospel and Jesus’ messages of kindness, care and love of ALL creation. Francis literally disrobed, leaving his family of wealth and means to become a man of simplicity, compassion, inclusion and peace, and creating a community that embodies the same. Similarly, Clare, upon witnessing Francis’ actions, began her own “plucking” and instead of seeing the world of wealth, marriage and servitude to a husband, she saw the world through the gospel, as well as through Francis’ new eyes. Clare ran away from her family, cut off her hair and entered the Franciscan community, serving Jesus’ messages in similar ways as Francis.
In the liturgy of Yom Kippur, the end of the High Holy Days for our Jewish sisters and brothers, there is a place where we all confess to a litany of sins (with sins meaning missing the mark or being disconnected from God, and from the Kingdom of Heaven within). All present recite ALL the sins listed even if they don’t apply to each individual. In traditional Judaic thought is the concept of communal repentance, as contrasted with individual repentance. The communality of deeds is consistent with the Jewish belief that redemption, forgiveness, and returning to connection with God, is a societal event. Therefore, society as a whole is obligated to provide for both the material and the spiritual welfare of every individual. If one individual in the community is in need, we are all in need. In the words of the poet rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, “we may not all be guilty, but we are ALL responsible.”
So, for us, for you, for me – what internal work must I do – what must I cut off, or pluck out to purify myself towards living Jesus’ messages of Love and caring for others, and caring for the world? I believe when we commit to removing, letting go and transforming that which limits US from Grace and the Kingdom of Heaven within, then we can be as Jesus says “at peace with one another” within a Oneness that includes us and them.