Monday, October 15, 2012

Becoming Blind & Lame for the Kingdom of God

                       Mark 9:38-48

In last week's Gospel, the disciples dispute with one another who is the greatest. They obviously do not understand the mission of our Lord and the kingdom of God. The kingdom is unlike earthy corporations and societies: it is not the forceful and powerful who are the first in the kingdom; rather, it is those who are like little children who belong to the kingdom. As Fr. Petley pointed out, to be a child of the kingdom does not mean to have the romanticized innocence of a child. Rather, a child is one who is wholly dependent for his needs on another; he is wholly vulnerable and has to trust in others for his security and protection. In the same way, the children of the kingdom recognize themselves as wholly dependent on God. They are those who know that they are unable to stand and carry on without God, and hence, they commend their lives in trust to the Lord.

In the passage before us today, once again we see the disciples thinking and acting in a way that is not at harmony with the work and mission of the kingdom. John comes to our Lord and reports that someone has been casting out devils in Jesus' name, and that someone is not among the twelve. John appears astounded that the mission of the kingdom could fall outside the work of the twelve. His report sounds narrow-minded and petty, and ultimately he is a figure of all those who cannot imagine the work of the kingdom outside of their own organizational structure. In the wider context of the Gospel, John is being further indicted because the evangelist has already shown a scene in which the disciples are unable to cast out a demon and have to ask Jesus for help. Now a stranger comes along, casting out demons, and John will have nothing of it.

We belong to a denomination that does not claim to be the sole representative of the Catholic Church, but it does claim to be part of the One Catholic Church throughout all times and places. Despite the fact that we don't think that we are the only true Christians, Episcopalians can still be rather negative and judgmental about other Christian denominations. Hopefully, our recent institutional feuding should give us a measure of humility about our obvious imperfections. But even before this conflict, we had good reason not to question that the Lord's work carries on even outside the structures we recognize. I am not trying to say that all denominations are equal or that we should not make value judgments about them. In fact, I believe there is something truly superlative in Anglicanism: our liturgical worship, our clarity on sin, grace and redemption, our tradition of common prayer, our commitment to the arts through the centuries in a belief that the beautiful points to God, even our emphasis on distinguishing essentials of the faith from non-essentials about which we can disagree. For all these reasons and more, I am and will continue to be an Anglican Christian. But that does not mean that we should imagine the mission of the kingdom of God as falling only within the boundaries of that with which we are familiar or with which we are comfortable. Rather, an attitude of humility and charity should pervade our attitude and conversation concerning other Christian denominations.

This is essentially what our Lord is telling us to do in the warning that follows in the succeeding verses of the lesson. He warns the disciples that “whosoever shall offend one of these little ones that believe in me, it is better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and he were cast into the sea.” Who are the little ones? Surely they must be those who are outside the formal structure of the disciples but nevertheless have a place in the overall mission. We encounter little ones all the time. Their faith may appear to be simple or even simple-minded. Those of you who have attended one of my Bible studies know that I am a critic of the theology underlying the popular Left Behind series. Years ago, however, I knew a young woman at the Episcopal Summer Camp that I worked at for many years who had come to faith after reading some of those books. Yes, our Lord can even make use of those things that appear to us to be simplistic or feckless. If we are honest with ourselves the faith we have is small and simple in its own way. In fact, we would be well-advised to come to understand ourselves as little ones.

This is the purpose of the verses that follow that speak of cutting off one's hand and plucking out one's eye. Probably the first great theologian of the Christian church was a figure named Origen who lived and taught in Egypt and Palestine. Because he was such a pioneer in the field of theology, some of his ideas are strange and some were even later declared heretical. One of the things Origen is infamous for is his self-castration. He, of course, justified his action by quoting the present verses. Contemporary and later thinkers were unanimous in their condemnation of this line of thinking. Our Lord is not envisioning a literal amputation. The trajectory of Jesus' teaching is clear: a mere outward change is not effective in changing the heart. If you have a will to lust, even taking out that eye won't change your will. Even taking out both eyes will not suffice. So, what is our Lord telling us in this warning? I would argue that it is another way of saying that we must become children if we are to enter the kingdom of God. We must see ourselves as blind, as halt, as lame, if we are to enter the kingdom of God. And really this is not as hard as it seems. We all have our battle wounds from life: There was this person who hurt you were young. There was that failure that made you feel powerless and meaningless; there was that sin that left you feeling spiritually dead. Christian faith is not about outgrowing these things or even forgetting them. There is a whole school of Christian practice that tries to take the human personality and put a veneer of religiosity over it. This is falsely termed Christian holiness. Authentic Christianity is a call to be born again. A veneer will not do. What we must do is take all those experiences, all those shames, pains and sins and not cloaking any of them, we must offer them and ourselves to God in faith so that he can begin the work of new life in us. Recollect that in the 12 steps, which is a tremendous model of conversion, step 4—the step in which a fearless moral inventory is made—follows the step in which one's life is entrusted to God. Our past, even our sins, remain in the consciousness of Christian walking. As Christians we are to take everything we are, everything we have been or have done, and everything that we will be and do, and offer them to God in simple faith. You see, the blind, the halt, the maimed are those to whom the Gospel comes as good news of healing, deliverance, and freedom. For the smug, the arrogant and the self-sufficient, the Gospel appears irrelevant: I am already whole, already delivered, already free. These are the rich who like the camel will hardly go through the eye of a needle.

As I composed these remarks I couldn't help but think of a short story by the great Southern writer Flannery O’Connor. The story is called “Revelation.” It tells of one Mrs. Turpin, a polite and proper Southern lady, whose Christian religion ornaments her life in same way as her good manners. The story unfolds almost completely in a doctors office on an otherwise normal day. Mrs. Turpin passes the time in the waiting room with an interior monologue about the demerits of the company with which she is surrounded. In fact, only the necessity of going to the doctor could compel one to spend time with such riff-raff. Along the way, she sings along with the gospel songs on the radio and prays to Jesus, but she is always looking down on others. She even at one point thanks Jesus for not making her inferior like the poor and the blacks. The climax of the story comes as Mrs. Turpin has a revelation about herself and her view of the world, a view that cannot in the end square with the view of world which our Lord Jesus presents in the Gospel. In the closing lines of the story, O'Connor writes these words:
A visionary light settled in her eyes. She saw the streak as a vast swinging bridge extending upward from the earth through a field of living fire. Upon it a vast horde of souls were rumbling toward heaven. There were whole companies of white-trash, clean for the first time in their life, and bands of black[s] [n-] in white robes, and battalions of freaks and lunatics shouting and clapping and leaping like frogs. And bringing up the end of the procession was a tribe of people whom she recognized at once as those who, like herself and [her husband], had always had a little of everything and the God-given wit to use it right. She leaned forward to observe them closer. They were marching behind the others with great dignity, accountable as they had always been for good order and common sense and respectable behavior. They alone were on key. Yet she could see by their shocked and altered faces that even their virtues were being burned away (654, Library of America edition of Collected Works). 
Brothers and sisters are you ready to have your virtues burned away and to know yourselves as the maimed and blind who are fit for the kingdom of God?

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