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Pentecost 18 September 27, 2015 - The Rev. Samuel Torvend
Pentecost 18 Proper 21 Year B
Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29; Psalm 19:7-14; James 5:13-20; Mark 9:38-50
Christ Episcopal Church
Tacoma, Washington
September 27, 2015
The Rev. Samuel Torvend
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. If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell., And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell, where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched.
Based on previous patterns, we should expect to see a slew of books published within a year after President Obama leaves office in 2017, books from former members of his administration, books that would be categorized as “tell-all’s,” narratives filled with juicy gossip, with stories banal and lurid about the hidden workings of the White House. Sad to say, such publications are a time-honored tradition in U.S. politics and eagerly anticipated by a portion of the population that expects its darkest suspicions to be verified by dissatisfied or gossipy staff members. While some presidents have been successful in running a tight-lipped ship during their terms in office, such is not the case two minutes after they depart  the White House. As noted in the Scouts’ Law, the Boy Scouts might value loyalty as a bedrock virtue, but many Americans see it in a more pragmatic and provisional light: “I’ll faithful, I’ll be loyal, that is, as long as it suits me.”
Such was not the case in the social world of Jesus. For in that world then, the primary concern was not the rights or preferences of the individual – a remarkably un-American notion – but rather the survival and flourishing of the family, the village, the city; and, thus, for a family to survive the insults of natural or human-made disasters, for a religious community to negotiate the skepticism or intolerance of the dominant culture, the bonds of commitment to each other were of utmost importance.
Jesus expresses the need for such commitment negatively when he says, "If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these 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.” Clearly, this is not voice of Nice Jesus, Easy Going Jesus, a laid-back-anyone-for-a-cocktail Jesus, the one who will overlook just about anything that might disrupt his relationship with those who are drawn to him, in communion with him. No, it would seem that faith in Jesus or loyalty to Jesus (a more accurate way of understanding the word “faith”) is not something to be trifled with. It would seem that the relationship between Jesus and his companions and their relationships with each other are of considerable, of ultimate importance. While many Americans have breathed the air of “my personal relationship with Jesus,” it is good to remember that to be a Christian is to be grafted into his Body, the church, the community: not Jesus or church but Jesus and church.
But then we might wonder, why the gruesome advice? Cut off your hand, your foot. Tear out your eye. Better to be maimed then to be thrown into fire that is never quenched. As a historian, let me point out that most Christians have ignored this advice. Indeed, there is only limited evidence that Christians, remorseful at the thought of a weak relationship with Christ or other Christians, have mutilated themselves. I ask you, then, to consider this biblical understanding of the body alive at the time of Jesus: different forms of human activity were symbolized by different parts of the body. Let me say that again: different forms of human activity were symbolized by different parts of the body. For instance, the feet and the hands symbolized purposeful activity. Thus if your activities, your daily actions, cause you to stumble in relationship with Jesus and his followers, bring a stop to such activity. The human eye through which one encounters the world was paired with the heart: the symbolic center of thought, of intellect, in Jesus’ world (not the symbolic center of emotion as in our society; sad news, perhaps, if you’re a “bleeding heart liberal” or a “heart-felt romantic” or accept the modern dualism between “heart” and “mind”). Thus, if your eye is attracted to or is suffused with images or actions that disrupt loyalty or commitment to Jesus and his community, and transmits those images or actions to the heart, they will take up residence in the symbolic center of one’s thoughts. If this is the case, Jesus warns, look elsewhere, and put an end to focusing on images or words that feed, that disrupt relationship. For you and me, I dare say, this is no easy task given that many of us could turn on our smartphones and find images and stories of disloyalty, toxic individualism, unfaithfulness, privilege, racial hatred, and economic injustice in a few seconds.
And so I wonder: is Jesus asking you and me for blind loyalty, unquestioning faithfulness, and unthinking obedience? It wouldn’t be difficult to answer in the affirmative given that there are forms of Christianity, other forms of religion, of patriotism, of political life that expect and demand an unquestioned allegiance. You know: leave your questions at the door; or as one of my students said to me recently, “Don’t complicate “my faith” with new knowledge,” as if faith were a static object we possess rather than a dynamic quality of relationship between persons. But, then, I wonder if the promoters of “unthinking faithfulness” have carefully read the stories of Scripture in which people, often considered exemplars of faith, have argued with God (did you hear the incredible degree of complaint in today’s first reading?), have openly shared their doubts  with the Creator (have you read Job or the Psalms?), have badgered Jesus until he relents and accepts their argument (the Syro-phoenician woman), have shocked him by their unexpected trust in him (the Roman centurion), have pushed him to see another viewpoint.
Is it possible that faith or trust or loyalty to Jesus and his community – this community of his body – also has room for doubt, for persistent and perhaps troubling questions? God forbid that the church be the community in which we suppress the freedom to question given that the central figure in the Christian story raised troubling questions throughout his life and wondered if God abandoned him at death. 
Or this: is it possible that the trust Jesus places in you and me, the absolute and undying loyalty he offers you and me, in giving us his Body and his Blood, is the very ground in which a maturing relationship, a relationship that accepts the irreducible mystery of the other, is actually made possible?
Fr. Samuel Torvend