Extend a Hand

Proper 21, Year B (James 5:13-20; Mark 9:38-50)

Now, everyone — let’s take a deep breath and remember that we are not literalists. And Mark even says in chapter 4 “he did not speak to them except in parables” (4:33). So, let’s be clear: Jesus is not advocating literal self-mutilation.

Additionally, we know the gospel is good news. So as uncomfortable — and maybe even embarrassing — as this passage is; we know if we stay with it, there’s good news for us. There is a blessing in it.

We are in the second week of a series of three Sundays featuring Mark’s chapters 9 and 10 which contain “this Gospel’s most concentrated cluster of moral teaching.”[1] In this string of challenging and puzzling sayings (I mean, what does a community of chemists make of these statements about sodium chloride?)… Mark is teaching us about discipleship. And the way he is teaching us, indicates there is much at stake.

Author Flannery O’Connor was paraphrased by one commentator to make the point, 

“when you can assume your audience holds the same beliefs you do, you can relax a little and use more normal means of talking to it; when you have to assume that it does not, then you have to make your vision apparent by shock — to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures.”[2]

The first part of today’s reading teaches that there is good outside of the community. “Whoever is not against us is for us.” The second part of today’s reading warns of scandals within the community.

The disciples want to focus their attention on outsiders, but Mark’s Jesus directs their attention to themselves and their community.

It reminds me of what my Oma said to me in my childhood: remember, when you point at someone, there are three fingers pointing back at you. (Ah, the wisdom of grandmothers!) 

And so this section begins with “If any of you…”

And then notice the word “stumble.” It appears three times.

And let’s sit with it for a bit. What images or experiences does the word “stumble” evoke for you?

I remember stumbling in junior high and tearing a hole in my favorite blue jeans. I remember watching my oldest child when he was a toddler, stumble and fall — red scrapes on his knees, hands, and face… and many tears. And, in one of the worst moments of my life: helplessly watching my mother-in-law stumble and fall — face-down on the pavement.

You have your own memories, your own experiences. Allow them bring emotion and feeling to what the gospel is saying here about discipleship — and stumbling.

 In the experiences I recalled … I could patch my jeans (albeit decidedly uncool in the 1980s). For my toddler, I had first aid supplies in my bag. And my mother-in-law — I took her to the emergency room for x-rays and stitches.

When this gospel was written, there were no antibiotics. No surgical remedies involving plates and screws. Stumbling could result in death.

It is becoming clear why Jesus is so dramatic; shouting for the hard of hearing, drawing in big stick figures for the almost-blind. What is at stake is our well-being as his disciples, his band of followers … called the Church. The body of Christ.

And it was common in antiquity for “the body” to be used as metaphor for the political and communal.[3] We see that in St. Paul’s letters which precede the writing of the gospels. This further instructs us in the hearing of these sayings as “referring to problems encountered within the Christian community.”[4]

Within our own community, what we say and do matters. Whether we are striving to live out the gospel and prayerfully examining our beliefs and behaviors in light of the gospel — really and truly matters! 

While it has always been the case, in our increasingly diverse community, we must be vigilant about the tendency to bring personal bias into the center of our commitments and then, because it belongs to us, then simply labeling it as “Christian.” This is a way in which our beings (our hands, feet, eyes) lead us in the wrong ways, as this gospel passage warns.

To be sure, none of us are perfect. And some of our stumbling behaviors happen outside of our self-awareness. Therefore, we must actively seek to increase our self-awareness. Prayerfully striving to be faithful, to live into our gospel values and commitments. For, we have all seen much harm done to the body of Christ and the faith of others when this is not the case.

In our own tripping up, we can cause others to trip. When we lose faithful footing, it effects others. In ways far more serious than a skinned knee.

And, to further drive home the danger: This notion of stumbling, of tripping up — it’s translated from the Greek word skandalon which “is a trap for catching a live animal.”[5]

So, what is being affirmed in today’s gospel passage? Strongly, dramatically affirmed?

“The supreme value of life in the Kingdom of God,” is being affirmed. As Jesuit Brendan Byrne notes, “One’s own salvation and that of other members of the community is of such overriding importance that one must be prepared to act vigorously against immediate self-interest or temptation in order not to lose it.”[6]

And the good news is: we are not alone in this effort. God is our partner through the gift of the Holy Spirit.

Further, God has given us the gift of one another. To walk this road together. To grasp the hand of one another. 

And when we struggle, when we don’t get it right, we have one another to speak the truth in love — extending a hand so that we need not stumble.

As you know, my go-to benediction at the end of the service, evokes the concept of traveling the road of life together. It speaks our role and duty to one another — and all whom we encounter in this life. 

I will close with it today as a reframing of today’s hard teachings from Mark’s gospel. And, for today’s gospel to provide deeper, more challenging, and costly meaning to the benediction:

Life is short. 

And we don’t have much time to gladden the hearts of those who travel with us.

So be quick to love and make haste to be kind.

This is our work, St. Timothy’s. 

Fix our eyes on Jesus and follow him closely on The Way. 

Reach out and hold his hand. Extend your hand to those near you. 

We need not stumble.

[1] C. Clifton Black, Commentary on Mark 9:38-50, Working Preacher from Luther Seminary.

[2] Ibid.

[3] John R. Donohue, S.J. and Daniel J. Harrington, S.J.  Sacra Pagina: The Gospel of Mark. The Litugical Press: Collegeville, Minnesota, p. 287.

[4] Ibid.

[5] C. Clifton Black, Commentary on Mark 9:38-50, Working Preacher from Luther Seminary.

[6] Brendan Byrne, S.J. A Costly Freedom: A Theological Reading of Mark’s Gospel. Liturgical Press: Collegeville, Minnesota, 2008, p. 153.

Working Preacher’s Sermon Brainwave #803.

Image above: Living Word, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN.  https://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=56650 [retrieved September 28, 2021]. Original source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/denisecarbonell/2106528380/ – Denise Carbonell.

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