Lectionary Sermon for 30 September 2018 on Mark 9: 38-50

I suspect the real attraction of long running soap operas on TV is that human strengths and weaknesses are not unique to any place or any time. Down through the centuries, each nation’s leaders and each tribe within that nation jostles for the right to speak for all. Perhaps that is why the ancient parables and words of wisdom in the Bible and other religions Holy books seem as needed today as they did when first recorded. Over recent months for example there seem to be Christians on both sides of the political divide in the US who have insisted that their own particular group is the only one fitted to speak for the whole of America and God is invoked by groups on polar opposite sides of the debates to give additional authority. Going back to what Jesus actually taught should give us cause to pause before assuming any group – even us – has the right to tell others how to organize their lives.

While some of those involved in the US in-fighting and the issuing of ultimatums to other nations, appear to see their opponents and critics as irretrievable stupid and unethical, others watching from a distance appear to see it more as the sort of sabre rattling and tub thumping associated with children playing at being adults. Mr Trump seemed disconcerted at the apparent derision of the representatives of other countries at the recent meeting of the United Nations. They failed to see the same level of success in his leadership he is accustomed to hear reflected back at his election rallies, yet the polls are a constant reminder that, like the rest of us, he has no absolute and acknowledged right to make decisions for those who live in very different communities. But if Mr Trump doesn’t get it I want to suggest perhaps many of the rest of us don’t get it either. There is something about the human psyche which seems to have us delight in identifying those who don’t quite fit our particular insider group so we want to impose our “wisdom” on their decision making.

Which brings us to today’s gospel. In today’s reading from Mark, we find the disciples complaining to Jesus about some who are apparently trying to claim working in Jesus name without being part of the inner circle of disciples. While we know the writer of this passage is apparently writing years after the event, the sheer likelihood of such an attitude being shown by the disciples suggests highly plausible reporting.

Jesus will have none of their expressed concern. “He who is not against us is for us”. We might do well to reflect that these words suggest an openness to include others which is far from modern day norms. According to Robert Roth, an insecure community or even an insecure nation suggests by its dealings with others the direct opposite. “He who is not with us is against us” is a more typical standard approach.

Thus we find a superpower acting harshly with trade barriers and other exclusions against those who are reluctant to show direct support for the superpower’s political stance. No doubt you will have also noticed that where commodities like oil are involved, trade partnerships with other than one’s own bloc is traditionally described as a warning sign and is sometimes enough to attract some form of embargo.

At a more local level we find it difficult to have anything to do with those identified as different. This happens where religious affiliation is used to judge others in advance. For example, as Protestants we are not traditionally very good in acknowledging pacifism in Jehovah’s witnesses, social action from the Seventh Day Adventist church or positive family programmes from the Church of Latter Day Saints. We may run our own Church charities seeing this as Christianity in action, yet prefer to remain entirely ignorant about say the followers of Islam who place a high priority on almsgiving.

Notice, here in Mark’s account, Jesus is focusing on the actions of the strangers who have offended the disciples by taking actions involving healing. He draws attention to these actions and finds in them confirmation that these strangers are essentially sharing his own mission.

Perhaps it is only Mark’s choice of which words to recall, but in Mark’s account Jesus then immediately goes on to talk of those who place stumbling blocks in the way of what he calls “the little ones who believe in me”. Here it is by no means certain he is talking of children and might equally be talking of placing obstacles in the way of the vulnerable newcomers to the faith. By his juxtaposition of ideas, Jesus seems to be saying that to worry about people who are doing good works, yet who are not officially signed up members of the inner group is placing a totally unacceptable and unnecessary stumbling block in the way of potential followers.

“Stumbling blocks” would have been better understood in Jesus day when the night could be dangerously dark, and referred (in this case metaphorically) to either naturally or deliberately placed rocks or large pieces of wood which might trip up the unwary in the dark. The word Skandalon – (or in this case Mark is using the form Skandalizo) – both of which are words from which we get the word scandal. Using these words suggest Jesus’ disgust at the thought people might use such tricks to trip the unwary up.

The suspicion with which a given human group regards those who don’t quite share one’s own religious preferences has been part of the human scene since the historical record began. Where the different religions differ more markedly, the response to those of other faiths can be even more extreme. In the news over recent days we learn that once again, protests over religion in the Middle East have turned violent.

When mobs attack embassies with cries like “Death to America”, or “kill the Christians” we would do well to check on the history that has led them to that point. Although many would have us believe this is entirely a consequence of the violence and terrorism which now almost seems a part of modern Islam, we might also do well to remember that the current waves of violence are at least partly a response to high handed interference by the Western superpowers.

Of course the current violence against the American embassies is totally reprehensible (even if in fairness it seems understandable) and it is certainly far from the tolerant words of Jesus about forgiving one’s enemies and showing love for neighbour. Yet if we looked back on our history and found there past enemies coming to take our resources or change our governments are we certain we really would have behaved differently.
Well then, do current events in the Middle East show Islam to be a religion following precepts of justice and love? As we are often reminded it is true Jesus said that He alone was the way to the Father (John 14:6), and that He alone revealed the Father (Matt. 11:27; Luke 10:22).

But did you notice? If Jesus is the way – that when he tells us to have nothing to do with separating off those who are not members of our particular group – in fact calling this action “placing stumbling blocks” – we are hardly following his way by identifying the heresy of those who will not join us. To be precise, the Jesus way is to say “those who are not against us are for us”.

Yes, we have reached the point where some tell us they are against us – but we should also ask ourselves how, in turn, we might look to them. Might we not by recent actions in modern history seem to be against them. Sending reconstruction investment to Afghanistan and Iraq must be seen as positive yet the issue for the local people must include asking at whose hands did the destruction come in the first place?

At the end of the passage Jesus makes the unexpected connection between salt and fire. Some commentators suggest that here he is probably referring to the fact that salt was used where the fire was for a sacrifice. A sacrifice is made at personal cost. Perhaps this is why we should particularly note Jesus finishing this section with the words “if salt has lost its saltiness how can you season it….. Have salt in yourselves and be at peace with one another.” If we look at others and label their witness as unacceptable because they do not have the right credentials, they in their turn will be looking at the salt we display in our lives. Jesus seems to be saying it is our salt rather than someone else’s salt that needs attention.

Rather than focus on the extremist Islamic protestors who find in some of our behaviour apparent insults to the prophet, perhaps we need to be asking what it is about past and recent Western Christian actions in the Middle East that causes the Radical Islamists to overlook our salt.

Are we for example satisfied that our side bombing civilians by mistake when trying to kill terrorists conveys to the local population that what we represent is in their best interests? How will embargos on food and medicines aimed at governments who are non cooperative with policies we favour demonstrate to the locals we are not against the local population?

When we think of the natural indignation in the West of a few thousand al Qaeda caused deaths we might at least pause for thought at the words of the then Secretary of State Madeline Albright when she claimed in a 1998 CBS 60 minutes interview that the embargos causing the loss of half a million Iraqi children was “a price worth paying” for keeping the pressure on Bagdad.

An alternative view was offered by the Secretary General of the Arab league H E Amre Moussa who in 2002 put it this way:
“…The situation in the Middle East is not a situation related to terrorism, as some want to believe. It is a case of foreign military occupation and all the military repercussions built on it that causes agitation, anger and frustration. This definitely has the highest priority in the eyes of all Arabs.” (H E Amre Moussa 2002 http://www.arableagueonline.org)

Such issues inevitably affect the way others see us. Although religion is not customarily seen as part of our international politics, since there are relatively high proportions claiming affiliation with the Christian church in the West, those who deal with the West make the assumption that Western politics is reflecting Western religion. As long as we make similar assumptions about those in Islamic countries we can hardly expect different treatment for ourselves.

Fortunately for our consciences, it is left to our politicians rather than ourselves to make the international policies which may at first glance seem to absolve us from direct responsibility. It is nevertheless the sign of a population’s wish if an international policy is continued over a long period of time and it can only do so if we either approve it or chose to keep quiet about our feelings.

One of the implications of Jesus’ suggestion that we look to our own salt must surely mean we should consider our personal responsibilities and actions. If our religion is to have meaning at all, surely it must affect all our relationships – at a personal level, at local church level, at community, at national and even international level.

Have salt in yourselves and be at peace with one another”. If we follow his suggestion, what might that mean for us and those we meet?

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