Toorak Uniting Church

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A cup of cold water or an unquenchable fire

James 5: 13 – 20     Mark 9: 38 – 50
Rev. Ian Brown
1 October 2006

I mentioned today’s gospel text to a friend last week and said I would be preaching on it. She was horrified and asked if there would be an ambulance ready after the service!
It is a confronting text – I hope not to cause any casualties,
And I’m certainly available after for any first aid needed, post sermon.

Choices are critical.
Much of the course of our lives is directed by choices we make in all the large and small things that come our way. You’ve chosen what to have for breakfast, or chosen not to have any or chosen to not choose and do what you always do. We can enjoy choosing – from the menu or on the ballot paper or in our giving or our matching of sock or scarves or collectables.
In all of life’s issues we can enjoy the choosing and consciously make a choice or passively let the responsibility go by. Today I want to suggest that Jesus, by the strength of his language and the seriousness of his imagery, wants to make us face our choices and the ultimate consequences of our choosing.

"A cup of cold water or an unquenchable fire." – well if you put it that way, Jesus, there’s not much choice is there?
But there is much to consider here!

There are many profound and challenging choices that Jesus seems to want to put a sharply focused spotlight on.

The first matter, John raises with Jesus sounds like a copyright issue, a demarcation dispute. They had found someone casting out demons in Jesus name – but the disciple didn’t know him. They clearly wanted to put a stop to this.
It was a reasonable concern: how could Jesus’ name be used like this without proper authorization and supervision?
But what at first seemed very reasonable does not win Jesus’ support. Bill Loader asks the question "Does this story reflect tensions within the early church? Does a story like this ring true in your experience of the church and discussions of who can do what in the church – choices about authority, about due process? Jesus’ answer appears to be that someone who uses his name is not likely to badmouth him in the next breath.

Who are we ‘for’ and who are we ‘against’ it seems to be a critical choice and more than one world leader has recently said ‘if you are not for us, you are against us.’
But Jesus is not so exclusive!
In fact he has the opposite approach.

Perhaps Jesus has no problems with copyright about the use of his name because he believes that miracles of exorcism are a good thing? Good work was being done, perhaps that’s enough. Now exorcism is an unfamiliar territory for us, it is often consigned to a superstitious world view, unenlightened, primitive, no longer relevant.
But there are still important value choices being highlighted here. If we dig here for the principles at work in Jesus answer, we could reach the conclusion that as long as people are being liberated from what oppresses them, freed from bondage, released from their captivity, that is all that really matters. This is something to celebrate, to affirm, to encourage!

This tells us something important about Jesus values and the way he, as a leader makes choices. We see Jesus, not as a control freak, concerned with guarding his territory, but as a generous and internally consistent teacher who most clearly put the care people as first priority.
So it doesn’t matter if the loving help comes from Jesus, his disciples or anonymously by someone with a different tag, as long as it comes. Remember this is the same teacher whose hero of helping in the story of the Good Samaritan is a non Jew, a non follower, an outsider.
Perhaps there are many people, using the name of Jesus or not, with whom we can join hands in the concern to set people free from what oppresses them: inside religions, outside them, everywhere.

And then, as if this wasn’t confrontational enough, Jesus goes much, much further. He goes uncomfortably, unreasonably further. Stumbling blocks and millstones like the mafia’s concrete shoes. The cutting off of feet and hands, the tearing out of eyes to avoid the ultimate worst case outcome. From care to terror is the shift of subject on the surface of it.

Maybe Jesus was far enough down the track of dealing with the hard issues, teaching these future leaders of the church, that he decides to get the most difficult matters out of the way all at once.
Maybe Mark has edited all the most challenging teaching together. Either way the spotlight of attention turns to the disciples and their ministries; ‘if any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones." But Jesus is not just talking to 12 apostles, it is broader than that. Jesus is talking about leaders and members of the community of faith.
These are words that cut through the dust of the ages to fix us in their focus and make our choices plain.

Jesus knows that in the community of the faithful there will be vulnerable ‘little ones’. He spends his ministry helping the least, the outcast, the ones who matter least and are smallest in the world’s eyes. They, above all others, have a place in the Kingdom community of Jesus followers. They will need support, wise, gentle and caring help. Blessed are those who support them!

Support, wise, gentle and caring help for the frail aged, for those challenged by different levels of ability, physically and intellectually, for those who are small in their newness and in their understanding, little ones in age, in power or wealth – there is choice in how we treat them.

They will need more than a cup of water, but even that counts. Mark spells out more on ‘these little ones.’ People may serve and support them; even with a ‘cup of water’ or they can harm them, the stumbling block image has the little one flat on their face. How? It is possible the dramatic sayings about causing little ones to stumble referred originally to the young, to real children. Hearers of the day would be all too familiar with exploitation and violation of the young – the vulnerable were taken advantage of: economically, sexually. Abuse is not just a modern phenomena.

It is a truly awful truth that in a community of trust and care, where the young, small and vulnerable are welcomed, that leaders can abuse their positions, abuse the little ones in their midst. Break the trust of the vulnerable, shatter hope and lives. For decades now, the Christian church has had to deal with consequences of these breaches of trust: ‘better if a millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea.’ It is not easy to sit with someone and deal with their pain, pain caused by the boundary crossing abuse of a clergyman seeking pleasure or power. ‘And if your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off, it is better to enter life maimed than to have two hands and go to hell.’

When you have met that pain, the barbaric imagery Jesus uses here fits.
The one prepared speech I gave at this year’s Synod just past was to report on behalf of the Synod Sexual Misconduct Complaints Committee, on which I serve. From it’s work I agree with this text and understand it as I never had before. Clear blunt language is necessary sometimes. ‘If your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better to enter the kingdom of God with one eye, than be thrown into hell with two.’

But it’s also important to note that Jesus aim is remedial – not punishment, and it’s advice for us to take care of ourselves – and not about inflicting on others.

This matter of dealing with care in the community is wedged in between Jesus taking a child in his arms and saying ‘whoever welcomes one such child in my name, welcomes me’ and on the other side a teaching that goes on to the subject of divorce. They are family matters for the household of faith and they are serious business!

This is not a matter of opinions or ‘personal belief’ – as many want to say religion should be limited to.
The kingdom Jesus spoke of is not about ‘hereafter’, but about how we treat each other now, it’s about the choices we make to take or to give, to care and support or risk sending vulnerable people flat on their face.
Should our refugees have to jump more hurdles to appease a populist constituency or should we focus on care and support?
Should our indigenous brothers and sisters welfare be left to a law and order regime for help or do we need to recognise how we Western colonists have benefited at the expense of their loss and do much more to help?
And around our church, here and now, what potential stumbling blocks do we need to be aware of?
Who are our little ones?
You and I have choices and the choices, Jesus reminds us have consequences.

"Are any among you suffering" asks James, "they should pray, the sick ask for the elders to pray over them, those who have committed sins, confess to one another, forgiven, pray that you will be healed.’ ‘Bring back those who wander from the truth.’
Christian faith is not about opinions or personal belief, it is a values core for right living. Following Jesus is as more about how we treat others than it is about doctrine. Remember Jesus is happy with the unknown exorcist, so long as he is helping.

‘A cup of cold water or an unquenchable fire?’

Care and protect as though for your own little ones, and if you are one who has been hurt, scripture advises; ask for prayers and seek healing. Never think that some one else’s abusive behaviour is your fault. And please feel that you can share your concerns in complete confidence.

Our gospel for today is not a cheery ‘good news’, with its graphic language and fiery warnings. But it is a serious and vital good news for it’s sober warning and it’s razor like cutting to the quick. It is great good news for the little ones who ought be saved from potential suffering or further abuse.

And the gospel portion for today concludes with a curious, but fitting saying about salt and losing saltiness. My paraphrase of it’s meaning goes along the lines of, ‘don’t loose the characteristic flavour of your faith, look after each other and be at peace.’ And a final word, please take care, don’t get burned! Amen.

© Rev. Ian Brown, 2006

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