People Matter

Sermon by Reverend Dr. John W. Mann | September 26, 2021

Mark 9:38-50

I found my way to church when I was nine years old. A friend took me along to the boy’s club at a Baptist church in our neighborhood. That church, Temple Baptist, was like family for me; only a family where people knew my name and treated me with kindness and respect.

At church, I never had to think about being yelled at. No one at church ever hit me with a coat hanger or belt. At church, violence was not the solution to most of life’s problems.

In this world of ours, in our lives, we wrestle with issues of justice and morality, anger and hope. The world we live in can be a very angry place. People matter. And how we treat people, matters.

There is an image of Jesus that we might call the “Minnesota Nice” Jesus. He’s a nice person. He’s nice to people. He says nice things and talks about lilies of the field and birds of the air.

Jesus says that he loves us, for instance. He even gives us his most important commandment: to love one another as he loves us.

He also says, so the stories go, we are not servants or slaves to him, but friends.  He is not our master.  We are friends. We lay down our lives for friends. We bear fruit; fruit that will last. We picture him as kind and loving and patient.

But that’s not all there is to Jesus. He lived in a world where people were mistreated and abused; where the rich and powerful trampled on the poor and the weak.

Sometimes Jesus said some harsh-sounding, angry words. We say, “Take him at his word.” But we tend to think that only when he is speaking the pleasant words. Typically, when Jesus says something harsh, we say, “He’s speaking metaphorically. What he really means is…” And then we explain it away.

I don’t know for sure. I wasn’t there when he said what he said. I never had the chance to ask him, “What did you really mean?”

Today’s story is one example.

“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.”

It sounds as if Jesus is advocating for capital punishment, or some kind of vigilante justice.  So how do we read this?

Jesus could get angry – as angry as anyone. What helps me understand his anger in this is whenever we baptize a child. We affirm God’s love and goodness in human life. We pronounce the blessing that “You are God’s beloved child, in whom God is will pleased.”

And when I hold that child and walk him or her through the congregation asking the Church to offer a word of blessing – that’s the heart and soul of our message. It’s a symbolic gesture to show that this child is held safe in the arms of God and surrounded by the blessing of God’s people.

The child may not understand the particular words, but the child feels it and has a profound sense of the underlying meaning.

So to take that blessing and twist it around into a “stumbling block,” some form of painful encounter that alters that child’s path in life, that substitutes abuse for the love of God, often done in the name of God, then certainly for the person who serves as the source of that abuse it would be better to make a quick end of it, because the clear implication of what Jesus says is that God will remember.

One way to try to understand this is in a prayer offered by Auschwitz survivor Elie Wiesel at the 50th anniversary of the camp’s liberation.  He said –

“Those who are here remember the nightly marches [into the gas chambers] of children, and more children, and more children.  Frightened, quiet.  So quiet and so beautiful.  If we could see just one of them our heart would break.  But did it break the hearts of the murderers?  O God, O merciful God, do not have pity on those who did not have mercy on Jewish children”

A powerful, angry prayer against forgiveness. Ultimately though, the final judgement is up to God.

It’s not just a message about religion; Jesus revealed God’s message about humanity. Religion is supposed to reflect God’s vision for humanity. A vision where people are brothers and sisters.

When he shared his vision, Jesus broke down some walls, he removed some barriers, he erased some lines and he widened some circles. 2000 years later we’re still trying to make that message work.

One time one of his followers said to Jesus, “We were in town yesterday and we saw this guy ministering to people. He said he was a follower of yours. He was using your name and a lot of people were crowded around him. He even healed some people. None of us had ever seen the guy before so we told him to knock it off. Peter and Andrew ran him off.”

Jesus told them, “If he’s not working against us, he’s working for us. If someone hands you a cup of water compliments of Jesus, then what difference does it make whether or not they fit your brand of truth? Nobody owns Jesus.”

But we want to. People have always wanted the final word when comes to God. The cheek of that. C.S. Lewis wrote a couple of things that I’ve grown to appreciate more and more over the years. One is, “No doctrine ever looked as threadbare to me as the one I have just finished successfully defending.”

Another is, “It’s easier to defend a fortress than it is to defend a landscape.”

God is bigger than we think, or can ever imagine. If that were not the case, God would be too tiny to be God.

That statement, “If someone is not against us, they are for us,” sounds familiar. But when we look at what he’s saying, we realize he turns the status quo of commonly held belief on its head.

Usually how we hear this statement expressed is, “If someone is not for us, they are against us.” And we know what that leads to. But what Jesus seems to be saying is that there are people out there working for God’s purposes who do not fit our definitions of acceptability.

He told his followers, “When people are trying to make their way on the journey of faith, don’t put things in their way that will trip them up. If you want to worry about whether someone is causing offense, then worry about yourself. Take care of your own business first. If your foot causes you stumble, then cut if off. If your eye leads you astray, then pluck it out. If your hand causes you fall by the wayside, then hack it off.”

He wasn’t encouraging some strict new form of religious extremism. His point seemed to be that if we want to be concerned about someone else’s integrity, orthodoxy or conduct, then we should take care of our personal integrity first.

Jesus seemed fairly liberal in his interpretation of who was included in God’s realm. Much more liberal than some of his followers have been and still are. This story ends with him saying, “Be at peace with one another.” A simple word, peace; but a powerful one. That word ‘peace’ should not to be a stumbling block to us; it should be our greatest inspiration.

Twenty years after the end of WWII, some of the folks at Temple Baptist who had been through the war would visit our Sunday School classes and talk about their experiences.

I remember hearing a story in Sunday School from one of the women who was the grandmother of one of the other boys. She was a middle-aged woman in Denmark when the Nazis invaded in 1940.

She told of how people were being gathered up and marched from one place to another and the woman in front of her stumbled and one of the soldiers shot her dead. She spoke with calm dispassion, but there was an underlying pain.

In 1940, the Nazi army invaded Denmark. The Danish government was given one hour to surrender or have the cities bombed.

The king and prime minister urged people to join in nonviolent resistance with the hope that they could drive the Nazis away.

Once a swastika was hung on the palace wall. The king ordered Nazi officials to remove it.  They refused.

So the King said he would order a soldier to take it down.

The Nazis said they would shoot that soldier.

The king said, “I’m that soldier,” and proceeded to remove the swastika.

The Nazis tried to scapegoat Danish Jews, making them wear yellow arm bands. So the king and most other Danes put on armbands as well.  The king threatened to move his palace into the Jewish ghetto.

For two and a half years, the Danes resisted the Nazis with creative nonviolent methods. They were angry at the foreign oppressors, but with integrity, they found ways to channel that anger and blend it with the hope that they could indeed end the occupation.

There is much anger in the biblical stories.  Even in the Jesus stories. Because people matter. And how we treat people, matters. Amen.

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