Sermon–September 27, 2015


18 Pentecost—Proper 21-B

September 27, 2015

William Bradbury

Esther 7:1-6, 9-10; 9:20-22, Psalm 124, James 5:13-20, Mark 9:38-50

They say a picture is worth a thousand words: if you saw any of the coverage of the pope walking among the crowds in Washington, New York, or Philadelphia, then chances are you saw him bless and kiss someone whom we would characterize as the least and the last: a girl in a wheelchair, a boy with Down Syndrome, a tiny child with tubes bringing oxygen to his nose. It appears he is naturally drawn to such people. The cynic might say, “Well, big deal, that little girl was still in that wheelchair after his blessing.” True enough, he does not cure her. But look deeper: He cares for her enough to enter her suffering and transform it. Here’s the thing: pain and suffering are not the same thing.

Imagine early one morning you’re getting ready for your day and you whack your little toe on the edge of the dresser. You are in serious pain and you sit on the bed, looking to see if your toe is still attached or pointing in an unnatural direction.

That’s pain—and we all feel it. But at that moment we still have a choice as to whether we will turn our pain into suffering.

It may depend on your mood—one day you may already be in a bad mood, so after hitting your toe you blame your spouse for moving the dresser a quarter inch or for calling out to you causing you to turn your head at the crucial moment. Then you may start reciting that litany of bad things that others are doing to you that make your life miserable. Every time during the day you feel a twinge in the toe you get angry and frustrated all over again.

Or maybe you turn the rage inward and blame yourself for being in a hurry and if only you were a smarter, better person this wouldn’t have happened…on and on.

This is suffering—and it starts not in your toe but in your mind.

And you know this because on another day your reaction is different: as you examine your foot you take two or three deep breaths and you ask God to heal your toe and to fill you with peace. You pray for the grace to slow down to the speed of life. You may thank God that you have a toe to hurt since there are thousands of people who don’t have feet because they stepped on a land mind or lost their leg to cancer. You do not create a story of woe is me.

In short, you have pain in your toe, but no suffering in your mind.

As I’m using the word, suffering occurs whenever I am not in control and thus not getting what I want. See Richard Rohr: See CD teaching “Jesus and Buddha”, with James Finley

Standing in a long line at Market Basket can be suffering or it can be an opportunity to catch up on celebrity gossip or to pray for the cashier who has to put up with the public all day.

In hugging those broken people Francis is seeking to bring the love of Christ into their suffering, into minds that feel unloved, because when most people turn away from them they imagine it is because they are unlovable.

When they experience a loving hug their suffering is being touched at a deep level so that they can drop the untrue story their minds have been telling them.

In that embrace they can believe the true story of who they are: they are the beloved of Christ! Therefore they are lovable and have a purpose in this world, which is to transfer that love to others caught in the poverty where only wealth, beauty, and success are valued.

I think this is what Jesus is getting at today when he says, “If your hand, or foot, or eye causes you to stumble, cut it off or tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God lame and blind than to have two of each and to be thrown into hell, where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched.

Notice something strange: on one hand we have been trained to read the first half of this saying metaphorically, but the second half literally. See Rob Bell’s Love Wins

No one in their right mind thinks Jesus is instructing the church to buy butcher knives so its members can wound themselves when they fall short of perfection.

Yet, we have been trained to think Jesus is talking about a literal place of eternal torment of worms and fire.

First of all, the Greek word translated hell is Gehenna, which is a real place on this earth: it is a valley south of Jerusalem where child sacrifice used to be practiced in olden days but in Jesus’ day is a smoldering garbage dump for the city.

I want to suggest Jesus is making this point: what good is it to be physically whole, if your mind is filled with suffering? A calm, peaceful, joyful mind and loving heart are worth everything in this life.

So Jesus is asking us to wonder how we might find the liberation from suffering that leads to the peace that passes all understanding.

Our default answer is we will find peace when we can control our lives so we get what we want. Therefore the way to peace is to focus on creating control and comfort for ourselves, regardless of much pain this might cause others.

Volkswagen decided as long as their deceptive software allowed them to make a lot of money, it didn’t matter what damage they did to the environment; which of course is the decision we make every time we leave our homes well-heated while we’re out of town.

Jesus says, “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.

Another metaphor, but the meaning is clear: to live our lives without regard for our neighbors, we’re all little ones, is to live a life of immense suffering, even if we’re unconscious of where it comes from, for we are punished not for our selfishness, but by our selfishness.

Entering the kingdom of God here and now means letting Christ be our Savior who transforms our suffering through death and resurrection, so that we can live the way he lives, which is as a person for others.

My daughter passed on a song called “Just be held” by Casting Crowns that says in part:

“When you’re tired of fighting, chained by your control,

There’s freedom in surrender, lay it down and let it go.

So when you’re on your knees and answers seem so far away

You’re not alone, stop holding on, and just be held.

You’re world’s not falling apart, it’s falling into place.

You’re not alone, I’m on the throne, stop holding on and just be held”

Francis, Bishop of Rome, is 78 years old and walks slowly—which allows him to see and then attend to the hurting person along the way.

English is his fifth language so he speaks slowly—which allows us to listen deeply to what is being said about Jesus Christ.

As we slow down half a step we will kick our toes less often—and when we do experience pain we turn to Jesus Christ for his grace to drop our story of suffering and live out his story of affection and liberation.