by Rev. Sarah Buteux
Mark 9:38-50, Proper 21, Year B
There is a saying in ministry that you should preach from your scars, not your wounds. But my scars feel more and more like scabs these days. And the news of the day picks away at me the same way it picks at you. I am as hurt and angry and disillusioned and confused as the rest of you. I am human too. But I’m here anyway, and you’re here, and God is here to help us do our best to make meaning out of the mess. So before I begin would you please pray for me and with me. O God, be with us now, speak to us now, comfort us now, and help us to be a comfort to one another. Help us to see what you need us to see. Amen.
Years ago I was asked by a member of my congregation to go visit her son in prison. I went every few weeks and, as the months passed, I felt like I got to know this young man fairly well. I was there for him when he was released. I did what I could to help him as he got his life back together. He made a point of being in church every Sunday and I was really proud of him; proud when he got a job, then an apartment, and finally a girlfriend.
It really seemed like he had turned a corner and things were looking up, until the night he and his girlfriend got into a fight. She accused him of assaulting her that night and took him to court. It was devastating. Given his previous record, it was clear that if these charges were true, he would go back to prison.
He told me his side of the story. He assured me that the charges were false. Both he and his mother asked if I would come to the court to support him, and I did. But somehow, rather than just being there to pray with the family and sit with them during the trial, I ended up on the stand as a character witness.
In the course of the questioning, I repeated his side of the story and something didn’t add up. Whatever I said was enough to convince the judge that he was in fact guilty. I watched as his face fell and his mother collapsed in grief. I don’t remember exactly what the judge said to me, but I do remember that she looked at me like I was the most naive person on the planet, and in that moment I felt that she was right.
It was awful. I left the courthouse in a daze. I felt bad for letting the young man and his family down, and foolish for believing him. I felt bad for letting that young woman and her family down, and relieved that the judge had found him guilty in spite of my presence.
And I thought to myself that a courtroom is no place for a minister. The judge had looked at me with that particular scorn women reserve for women who don’t support other women, and I deserved it. But as I walked away I also consoled myself thinking: look Sarah, give yourself a break. Her job is to judge. Your job is not to.
Her job is to judge. Your job is not to.
And that made me feel a little bit better. Soon after, I resumed my visits to the prison, not because I thought the young man was innocent, but because I believed that for all his faults, he was still a child of God.
But now I wonder.
Not about the part where he was still a child of God – that will always be true. No, I wonder about the judging part. I wonder if maybe I wasn’t letting myself off a little too easy.
I’ve been thinking a lot about that episode in my life in light of the Kavanaugh hearings and this passage we have before us today. Because, you see, on the face of it, this is a passage about not judging one another.
Jesus comes down hard on the disciples for thinking it’s their place to judge someone else as unworthy. He tells them to root out that tendency in no uncertain terms. “If your eye, your hand, or your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off….be at peace with one another.”
And yet over the past week all anyone has talked about is how we should judge, must judge, or can possibly judge whether a man accused of sexual assault in the past should become one of the most powerful judges in our land for the foreseeable future. If there was ever a time to exercise judgement, it would seem that time is now.
I think it would be very easy to either ignore this passage completely or hide behind it and simply say that as Christians it’s not for us to judge, but the more I have sat with these words, the more I think that is simply not true. So I want to take a closer look at it with you now and see if it doesn’t shed some light on our present circumstance.
Today’s story begins with the disciple John coming up to Jesus and reporting that there is some random guy casting out demons in Jesus’ name. “We tried to stop him,” said John, “because he was not following us.” Notice that John says, “us,”(your disciples) not “you”(Jesus). Yeah.
Apparently, the disciples had shut this guy down because he wasn’t one of them. He hadn’t been chosen by Jesus, trained by Jesus, or commissioned by Jesus and therefore, in John’s mind, he had no right to walk around in public like he knew Jesus.
Somehow this guy had figured out that there was power in the name of “Jesus” and was using that power to cast out demons, but John – having caught him in the act – wanted him to give the power back. In John’s mind it would be crazy to let just anyone go around acting like a card carrying disciple.
“We tried to stop him,” said John, “because he was not following us.” But I don’t think that’s entirely true. I don’t think John is even being honest with himself. I think the real reason the disciples stepped in to stop this guy was because they were jealous and feeling threatened.
After all, just days before, they themselves had tried to cast out a demon and failed. Jesus had been left to do it himself. And then in the wake of their failure they’d argued about which one of them was the greatest.
It seems to me that the disciples are feeling pretty down and out and looking for a way to make themselves feel better. It seems to me that the real reason they stopped the random exorcist was because they needed to push someone down in order to lift themselves up. They needed someone to belittle so they could feel big… someone to push outside so they could feel more secure on the inside.
And Jesus wants none of that.
“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.”
John wanted to affirm that Jesus was on their side – not this other guy – but when Jesus hears all this, rather than commend John for his vigilance, he tells him to get off his high horse and stuff it.
“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 (you!) will by no means lose the reward.”
Notice that what concerns Jesus, is not that people know him in the “right” way or even know him at all. Jesus doesn’t actually care whose side you’re on. What concerns Jesus is whether or not you show compassion for others. He doesn’t care who has the power or who gets the credit, as long as they are using their power to do good.
The exorcist may not have been an official disciple, but at least he was helping hurting people, and ultimately that is what matters to Jesus. He is most concerned with how we treat one another – especially those on the outside and the underside – and seeing that his disciples have lost sight of that, he calls them on it in the harshest language possible.
“If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones” – like that poor man you just shamed back there, … “it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea.”
Jesus is looking at his disciples, and by extension I do believe he is looking at us, and saying: look, it is not for you to judge who is in and who is out. You don’t get to say who is good enough to follow me. It is not for you to say who is worthy to enter the kingdom or call upon my name. For the kingdom of God does not belong only to you. It is not yours to parcel out.
It belongs to all who seek it, but it belongs first and foremost to “the little ones” – the lost and the lonely, the sick and the sinful, the poor and the powerless – because the kingdom will always belong to the ones who need it most.
Therefore, those of you already on the inside, those of you who call yourselves my disciples, you are not to get in the way of them coming. Rather, you are to do everything in your power to make them feel welcome. Don’t cause them to stumble by making them feel unworthy with all your rules and standards, because the truth is, you’re not worthy either. Worth is beside the point.
If this was about being worthy, if the kingdom were reserved for the righteous, then you’re in trouble, because disciple or not, you’re human and all humans sin. It would be absurd for God to reserve heaven for the righteous.
And to drive his point home, Jesus says something equally absurd. He suggests that we cut off our hands and feet if they cause us to stumble, pluck out our eyes if they cause us to sin.
These are graphic words meant to catch his followers up short, and I think they contain a double meaning.
First: if you’ve been judging others and making them feel unworthy, then knock it off, says Jesus. Cut it out. That is not the way. And at the same time, if you think this is simply about being righteous, worthy, or perfect than you might as well knock off your limbs, pluck out your eyes, and cut out your tongue, because that’s the only way you’re ever going to prevent yourself from sinning.
(OK that last part wasn’t Jesus. That was me.)
I don’t care if you’re good enough, says Jesus. What I care about it that you are good to one another. You don’t have to be perfect, or worthy, or wonderful to enter the kingdom of God. You just have to be willing to do the little things, the little acts of kindness, that make the kingdom visible to one another.
A little salt goes a long way. So don’t go judging any one as insignificant, no matter how outside the bounds they might seem, because the smallest act of kindness on their part is enough to make them infinitely precious to me.
So precious – and here is where things get really interesting – that Jesus will actually judge his own disciples quite harshly if they judge those little ones at all. He will judge his own if they hurt the little ones in any way.
It seems that it is the little ones that most concern Jesus. It seems that it is the little ones whom he is most anxious to protect. And therefore, it is the little ones we must do all in our power to protect as well.
Which brings us back to the present.
Going into Thursday’s hearing before the senate judiciary committee, or any hearing for that matter, I think Jesus would want us to listen with an open mind and heart to the little ones who claim they have been hurt. Jesus would want us to listen to women like Dr. Blasey.
And in order to follow in the way of Jesus, show the love of Jesus, and practice justice like Jesus, we have a responsibility to use our best judgment, honor their stories, and judge those who have hurt them, to the best of our ability.
By which I mean that we have a moral obligation to hold abusers accountable for the wrong they have done and a moral duty to bar them from positions of power where they might abuse others again.
It may not be our place to judge whether a person belongs in the kingdom of God, but that doesn’t mean we give them the keys to the kingdom here.
I believe that the senate judiciary committee failed in this regard and it was heart breaking and infuriating to watch. Heartbreaking to watch another group of 12 men who were losing their grip on power push others down in order to lift themselves up.
Infuriating to watch those men push the account of a one small woman aside so they could secure their place on the inside.
It broke my heart for Dr. Blasey. It broke my heart for our country. It broke my heart for every victim of abuse who has or will or still fears to come forward. And it even broke my heart for the man at the center of it all, Judge Kavanaugh. It broke my heart for all of us.
Because you see, here is the rub, here is the other side of the coin, the paradox of grace. I also believe that if Judge Kavanaugh turned up here next Sunday, asking for forgiveness, for a cup of grace, for a shot at redemption and the chance to be a part of healing the world, I think we’d need to be open to that too.
We can and should judge whether a person is fit to run the kingdoms of this world, but the kingdom of God belongs to the ones who need it most. He may not be able to admit it yet, but that man stands in need of forgiveness as much as anyone, and when it comes to God’s grace, we have no right to stand in the way.
Years ago I left a courtroom in shame. I had stood up for the wrong side and then hid behind scripture when I rationalized that it was the court’s job to judge and my job not to.
Now, I don’t think it’s that simple. As followers of Jesus, I think it is our job to listen and listen close. It is our job to lift up, protect, and make space for those who have been silenced to finally speak. It is our job to remember that none of us our perfect, and yet we must still do our best to hold one another to account, not just to protect the little ones, but to help heal the ones who cause so much hurt…heal and hold them all till every last one us finds our way home. Amen.