Jesus didn’t say, “Go forth and clobber”

Preached on 7 October 2018 at Church of the Ascension, Seattle, Washington
The twentieth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 22, Year B Thematic track

There’s a church doing an adult ed series this fall called “Clobbering the Clobber Passages.”  Now, their focus is on how certain passages are often used to clobber people because of sexuality and gender.  The thing is, though, that as long as there have been people with more power than others, the Bible has been used to clobber people; to justify oppression, or just plain cruelty.

But I don’t remember Jesus ever telling the disciples to go forth and clobber.  No, Jesus commissioned them, and us, to go forth in his name to proclaim the Good News, to heal the sick, to cast out demons, to forgive sins, to raise the dead; to baptize and teach; to be agents of the reign of God.

This morning, our lectionary gives us two readings that are often used to clobber people.  You may have even been on the receiving end of one of those attempted clobberings.  First, there is the Genesis passage in which we find God has created the first human (not man, just human being) and sees that it is not good that the human is alone.

You might remember that in the first creation story, in the first chapter of Genesis, humankind was the last thing God created before the Sabbath.  God created humankind in God’s own image, God created male and female human beings at the same time, and in that Creation story, after each step, God declared the creation good.

In this second story, though, God creates humankind first, and sees that just one human is not good.  So, God begins creating the animals to try to find a suitable companion for the human, but none is satisfactory.  Finally, God creates another human being out of the first.  And the first human being says, “Yes!  Bone of my bones; flesh of my flesh.  This one is just right.”  Only then are they man and woman, male and female.

Now, I’m sure there will be other people who might want to get into word study arguments so they can continue to use this to clobber women; to insist on their inferiority and to justify their subjugation and oppression.  But that brings up some questions:

  • Who gets to interpret the Bible? And who decides?
  • Whose voices are heard and whose count?
  • Who gets to use the Bible to clobber people? To assume the role of judge and declare of certain people that they are permanently beyond the reach of God’s grace and love; to oppress them, to say they deserve to suffer and they don’t deserve help?

To answer that last question – Nobody does.  Nobody gets to clobber people with the Bible.  I would add that no one has to justify their existence to anyone.  No one has to prove their full humanity to anyone who thinks that they get to be the judge or the higher authority on how to interpret scripture.

I thought I was going to just briefly comment on that one.

Today’s gospel is another clobber passage.  And you know, Jesus does, at times, (and in this passage), clobber people.  But who is the object of his rebuke here?  Is it divorced people?  No, he is directing his critique at the Pharisees because they have used their interpretation of the law to increase suffering.

We have to remember that marriage in 21st-century American society is not anything like marriage in first-century Palestine.  For that matter, marriage today is significantly different from what it was even 75 years ago.

So, what do you think Jesus is getting at here?  Do you think this is primarily about condemning people who are divorced?  Let’s look at a somewhat broader view of the story.

In the previous chapter, Mark tells us about Jesus teaching that we must take care not to put up stumbling blocks, between “the little ones, those such as these” and God.  He insists that we welcome the children.

Then, at the end of today’s reading, Jesus again turns to the children – and presumably their mothers and possibly their fathers, who have been listening to him speak; standing in the back, looking on.  They want Jesus to touch their children; to heal them, perhaps? Again, he chastises those who try to keep them away and insists that they come to him.  He welcomes them.  He blesses them.

So, there’s this arc of welcoming and caring for the children and the vulnerable along with warnings about stumbling blocks, trying to keep others away from God.

In the middle of this arc, Pharisees show up and start talking about divorce.  Jesus lights into them; clobbers them, so to speak.  He condemns their hardness of heart in allowing men to divorce their wives, to set them aside to find a new one.  So, it sounds like he’s still teaching about caring for the vulnerable.

Like I said, the marriage they’re talking about is not like our marriages; marriage that we like to think is based on love and for our mutual joy; a joining of two people who freely enter into a legally binding relationship as equal partners.

The marriage Jesus and the Pharisees are talking about is more of a property arrangement.  The woman would be transferred from her father’s care to her husband’s. The man has a responsibility to provide for his wife and children.  To divorce her is to condemn her and their children to a life of poverty and disgrace.  He is reneging on his responsibility to her.  A writ of dismissal only allows her to legally marry another, if she finds a man who is willing take her.

Unfortunately, too many people have been clobbered with this passage and shamed or bullied or “advised” to remain in a marriage that should end.  Sometimes it is even to the extreme of risking the health, safety, or lives of the wife or child.

The sad truth is that even when two people enter into marriage intent on making a lifelong commitment, if doesn’t always work.  There may come a time when it is best to end the marriage.

When that happens, it is painful enough for the people without others clobbering them with the Bible.  It is not for us to put stumbling blocks before someone who is already suffering, keeping from God who is the source of healing.

God does not desire harm to God’s people simply to satisfy a law.  God’s desire is always human flourishing – especially within marriage.

Jesus doesn’t command us to go forth and clobber in his name.  He commands us to love one another; to have compassion for one another; to care for the least of these.  And he also promises to be with us always – especially in our pain and our vulnerability, in our frailty and our fumblings.
Jesus promises to be with us to the end of the age.
Thanks be to God.

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As Important as a Millstone

Preached on 30 September 2018 at Church of the Ascension, Seattle, Washington
The nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 21, Year B, Thematic Track

How IMPORTANT is it?  We answer that question dozens of times every day.  Most of the time we don’t really even think about it – it’s a no-brainer.  It’s easy to let go of the little things:  the other driver who wasn’t paying attention and wouldn’t let you in, that homework assignment that is just busywork, but you have to do it anyway, something your boss said at work today. You let it go and move on.

Then there are the gray area decisions.  Do I spend extra time writing that paper for class or do I go shopping with my daughter for things she needs for her prom?  Prom is once in a lifetime, after all, and she will be moving out soon.

But sometimes we face more challenging situations.  Do I just let it go when my friend, or co-worker, or boss makes racist or sexist statements or jokes?

There are ones that seem like there is an obvious answer the other way – of course we can’t let THAT go.  It may be closely tied to our identity or to societal norms and expectations.  It may involve something that seems to be essential to life or even something we hold Holy.

When it comes to such essentials, for what are we willing to let them go?

I think that’s what Jesus is talking about in today’s gospel.  He’s getting a bit desperate and frustrated.  In the course of the story, Jesus is nearing the end. He and his disciples are on the final journey to Jerusalem and the Passion.

It was just a few days ago, at the beginning of this chapter, that Jesus took Peter, James, and John up the mountain where he was transfigured.  They saw him talking to Elijah and Moses and they heard the voice from the cloud.  The one that said, “This is my beloved Son.  Listen to him.”  Now they’re travelling through Galilee toward Jerusalem.  By the end of the next chapter, they will be at the gates of Jerusalem on Palm Sunday.

Jesus is using these last few days to teach his disciples just what discipleship demands.  And they don’t seem to be getting it!  In his storytelling, Mark sets up a pattern that he goes through three times:

  1. Jesus prophesies his Passion – his death and resurrection.
  2. The disciples don’t understand.
  3. Jesus teaches them about discipleship.

Today, we’re in the middle of the second iteration.  Last week we heard the prophecy of the Passion and the disciples’ confusion.  They were afraid even to ask him to explain.  We heard Jesus teaching that discipleship means serving others in his name – especially serving those on the fringes; those whom society considers of little account, and he brought a child into their midst to make his point.

Today we hear a series of teachings about discipleship, while Jesus is still holding the child:

  • Don’t concern yourself about who’s in and who’s out, he teaches them. When they see a person who isn’t one of them driving out demons in Jesus’ name, he tells them don’t try to stop him.
  • Hospitality and kindness are important. Anyone who so much as offers a drink of water to someone who comes in Jesus’ name will be rewarded.
  • And then he comes to the teaching about stumbling blocks and leading others astray.

In shockingly graphic detail, he tries to drive home just how important this is.  We hear so much hyperbole in public speech these days, we often just ignore it.  But Jesus uses hyperbole to get our attention; to emphasize just how crucial this is.

Living in the kingdom of God, living in eternal life, living in intimate relationship with God – right now, not as a reward after you die, but RIGHT NOW – is worth more than anything!  And you can’t come in if you’re at the door, keeping others out.

Don’t let stumbling blocks remain in your way, he teaches.  And don’t put stumbling blocks in the way of others.  Just in case they don’t get it he talks about drowning with a millstone around your neck and cutting off hands and feet and plucking out eyes.

This is our invitation into the kingdom.

This is a good time to examine our lives – as individuals, yes, but even more importantly as a community.  It’s important to remember that we are One Body.  One Body not only with other Christians, but One Body with all other people, especially “the least of these” as Jesus so often said, especially the children and those whose voices are often ignored.

So, what are our stumbling blocks?  What gets between us and God?   What do we hang onto so tightly, thinking that it is absolutely essential, when it is actually hiding the Good News.  It gets in the way of the Gospel and keeps us out of the kingdom of God right now.

What stumbling blocks do we put in the path of others – especially the little ones, leading them away from God’s love; making it difficult for them to even hear the gospel?  We cannot live fully in God’s kingdom while others are left out and suffering.

Now, it’s budget season.  It’s stewardship season.
And in case you missed it, it’s election season.
The decisions we make together are important.
They matter.

They are discipleship decisions.

Will we concern ourselves with deciding who’s in and who’s out?  Will we extend hospitality and kindness in Jesus’ name?

Will we be led astray? Or lead others astray?

Will the budget we develop over the coming weeks be one that fosters discipleship?

Will your vote (or your pledge) put up stumbling blocks?  Or will it open wide the doors of God’s Kingdom?  These are hard decisions, but just as Jesus teaches, it’s worth the effort.

And finally, I feel that I need to say something about this week.  I probably won’t do it well, and I apologize for that. However, I think it would be worse to say nothing just because I can’t do it well.

It’s been a traumatic week.  We’ve seen posturing by politicians and pundits and commentators.  We have heard sincere and heart-wrenching testimony not only by those called to testify but by people, mostly women, but some men, telling their own stories.  And we have seen and heard how those stories have been received; how people have responded.

You can’t get away from it.  And that’s what I want to talk about.  This has been a particularly traumatic week for many people you know and love, precisely because it’s nearly impossible to avoid all the coverage.  They may be reliving their own trauma.

Whether you’re aware of it or not, we all know people who have experienced sexual harassment, abuse, and assault.  Whether you’re aware of it or not, we all know people who have experienced domestic abuse.  And whether you’re aware of it or not, we all know people who have abused or even assaulted others.

Statistically, many of the people here this morning are included in those groups.  And because we are unaware, it’s important that we be sensitive and compassionate in our speech and in our topics of conversation.  Some may not want to hear about what’s happening in the news; they shouldn’t have to.  Others may feel the need to talk; to tell of their own experiences; and they should be able to.

The only way this violence will end is if people can safely come forward to tell their experiences without fear that they will be blamed or shamed and that they will be believed; that we care and that they matter.  Obviously, we’re not there yet as a society, but perhaps there can be some places where it is true and I hope that the church is one of them.

But that’s not enough.  We must stand up, step up, and say, “Enough.”  Demand that it stop, intervene when necessary, and hold people accountable for their actions; for the pain and trauma they have caused other people.  How important is it?  This is not a gray area question.  This is as important as a millstone.

This, too, is discipleship.

That’s all I’m going to say about it, except that I’m here if you want to talk.

As disciples of Christ, we can make a difference.  Thanks be to God.