The following sermon was preached by Benjamin G. Ingelson, LSTC Senior M.Div. student, in Augustana Chapel at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago on Thursday, October 5, 2006.
Last week Elaina invited us forward to sit like children during a children's sermon. I can't say enough about how much I enjoyed sitting with you all listening like a child. In last week's Gospel lesson Jesus talked about welcoming a child and Jesus even told the disciples that whoever welcomes a child in his name not only welcomes Jesus but the one who sent him.
Inspired by Elaina's creativity, I thought we might try something interactive with today's text as well. I've actually got some millstones and rope up here….Lord have mercy!
Not so long ago I was returning home to my apartment complex. It was a sunny summer day. As I parked my car and opened the door, the sounds of children playing filled the air. The most popular game around the complex seemed to be throwing pines cones at one another. It seemed harmless enough. After all, much like wadded up paper, pine cones quickly lose their initial velocity.
I honestly did not pay too much attention to their game as I pulled up, but what originally sounded like playing now sounded a bit different. One kid was clearly having fun while the other was not. Actually, most of this pine cone game took place by the dumpsters, that whole don't play on or around doesn't apply when the mother load of pine cones hang just above the dumpsters. Surrounding these dumpsters was a tall wooden fence, apparently designed to keep kids from playing on and around the dumpsters. Each fence was quite wide and tall. Somehow, one of the boys managed to get himself completely stuck on the fences. One of these tall fences was going up the back of his shirt. I had to stare for a couple seconds to make sure my eyes weren't playing tricks on me, but his flailing arms and legs quickly assured me that they were not. He could not free himself from the fence.
I walked over, all the while his friend still throwing pines cones at him, and asked him if he needed some help. Obviously he did. I lifted him up and off the fence. As soon as I started lifting him the other kid took off running. As I walked away amused, the once stuck kid was now chasing down the other. Ahhh…a good deed. Help one so the other gets beat up.
Sin is being stuck on a fence. We can't get down by ourselves. Our feet don't quite touch the ground. Try and try as we might. Stuck. In this sense, forgiveness is being placed back on the ground. In Mark's Gospel, it seems that we could define sins as that which keeps us from following Jesus, and it also seems that whatever it is that keeps us from following is exactly where Jesus is willing to go so that we can follow. Whatever the fence might be, in Christ, God sets us back on our feet.
Well, by this time in the ninth chapter of Mark, it seems like the disciples had been on and off the fence quite a few times. They had just been admonished for arguing who was the greatest and Jesus just spoke to them about welcoming children. Without seemingly hearing Jesus' message, John says, "Oh yeah, well, we saw someone casting out demons in your name and we tried to stop him."
Maybe John thought this might impress Jesus. After all, John tries to point out that this unnamed other person was not following "us." Jesus didn't respond with a thank you or a commendation, but rather these warnings about placing stumbling blocks in front of others. It is better to wear a millstone around your neck and jump in a lake. It is better to remove your right hand. It is better to lose a foot than to put stumbling blocks in front of others.
This unknown person was doing something the disciples failed to do just a few verses earlier. The disciples could not cast the demon out of the young boy. And now, here's some unknown guy successfully casting out demons in Jesus' name.
In Mark's Gospel, we hear an emphasis on following Jesus. When the disciples attempted to stop someone who was casting out demons, they blocked people from being healed and from being able to follow Jesus. If we can take this analogy of being stuck on this fence a bit further, we might be able to say that these fences prevent us from following Jesus. But Jesus lifts us up and off these fences. That which kept one from following is removed.
Way back in the sixth chapter, Jesus also gave the disciples this same authority to lift people off fences and put them back on their feet. Following Jesus in this sense becomes empowering others to experience being freed to follow. However, now just a few chapters later, the disciples are building fences and maybe even being that kid throwing pine cones at those stuck on the fence.
First the disciples couldn't lift someone off the fence, the boy with the demon. Then they seemed to argue about who was the greatest at lifting others off fences. Then they tried stopping someone else from helping others back onto their feet. Now we see that Jesus isn't playing around. You're building fences he says! You're keeping people from following me! Now he turns it up: millstones, amputations, and unquenchable fires!
I probably don't like these words any more than you. But can we read over them? Safe to say, we all get stuck on the fence, daily for that matter. But in Jesus' life, death, and resurrection, we experience being lifted off the fence and being placed back on our feet. Through forgiveness and healing, we are freed to follow, and like the disciples, we receive the power to share this good news, to forgive, and to heal so that others might also follow Jesus.
On the cross, Jesus took our place on these fences. In his resurrection we've been placed back on our feet, once and for all and over and over again. God seems crazy enough to free us from these fences and to entrust us with an authority to break down other fences in this world.
So we too, like the disciples will sometimes build more fences while other times we might walk right past those stuck on a fence. Or, we might be like the kid throwing pine cones at those on the fences or we chase after someone as soon as our feet hit the ground.
Discipleship starts at the cross and the empty tomb. In other words, discipleship starts when our feet hit the ground. After today's Gospel lesson, I think we know how Jesus feels about preventing others from following him. Yet, what kind of stumbling blocks and fence fences do we build around here? Theological labels perhaps: "she's a feminist;" "he is against being an RIC seminary;" "liberal", etc. Or perhaps, we pelt people with pine cones through gossip: "did you hear what she said in class?" and avoidance of those who aren't following "us."
Like the disciples, maybe it is easier to build fences or point out others who are stuck on a fence rather than following and inviting others to follow. Like the disciples, we create stumbling blocks for our brothers and sisters.
Thankfully, the grace of God destroys these fences. Following Jesus does not start by wrangling ourselves off the fence. It starts when God lifts us up and sets us on our feet. Nor can we assume that our own powers and convictions enable us to go out destroying fences because otherwise we probably only help people down who think and act like us. Rather, Jesus gives us the authority, fills us with the Holy Spirit to break down fences with the good news of Christ and the power of God's love. This is for all people: for you, for me, and for us.
May you daily experience the joy of being set back on the ground. As Fredrick Buechner says, "When you wake up in the morning, called by God to be a self again, if you want to know who you are, watch your feet. Because where your feet take you, that is who you are."