This sermon was preached at Garden City Presbyterian Church in Garden City, Michigan and was focused upon the story that is told in Mark 9:38-50. The sermon also references Isaiah 49:8-23. The audio recording is above and a written manuscript is below.
In order to enter the context of our Gospel story this morning, it’s important to understand what has taken place just before it. It’s important to set the scene.
Jesus and his disciples are in a house together in Capernaum. They had traveled there on foot, and just before today’s passage, they arrived at the house. Once they were settled inside, Jesus asked the disciples a challenging question: “What were you arguing about on the way?” And there was silence… because the disciples had been arguing along the road about who was the greatest.
On that road, they tried to assert dominance with one another, creating some kind of hierarchy about who was better or who was closer to Jesus. But no one spoke up to the tell the truth about what they had argued about on that road.
And that’s when Jesus did something very powerful. In that house, he found one of the children who was staying with them, and he held the child in his arms. Then he said, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all. Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me, welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”
This child was not a symbol of dominance. This child did not speak or lead in the community, and this child did not have possessions or power. These are typical markers of dominance. Above all, this child had vulnerability, and it seems that Jesus was conveying, “If you seek to follow me, you are called to relinquish the pathway of dominance and instead walk this pathway of vulnerability. God is found in close proximity to the vulnerable.” It was quite a paradigm shift. It was likely difficult for the disciples to take it all in.
So right after this moment, John says to Jesus, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” It seems as though it was quite challenging for the disciples to understand what Jesus was saying — what he was demonstrating with the child in his arms. Maybe the same it is true for us.
In response to this beautiful invitation toward vulnerability, care, and relationship from Jesus, John immediately tries to decide who is on the inside and who is on the outside. He still doesn’t get it. He and the other disciples continue to compound markers of hierarchy and exclusion.
So Jesus breaks the paradigm open again. He says, “Don’t stop him, for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterwards to speak evil of me. Whoever is not against us is for us.” But they didn’t understand. They could not comprehend what he was saying to them.
Maybe this is why Jesus then suddenly speaks so strongly. He still has that child in his arms. . . This vulnerable one is loved by God. This vulnerable one bears God’s image. This vulnerable one teaches us that God lives in proximity to those who are suffering, those who are disregarded and pushed out, those who live on the margins, and those who are harmed and abused.
The disciples haven’t understood this, at least not fully. So Jesus speaks strongly and quite suddenly.
With that child on his lap, Jesus says, “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.” That is strong language. “If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off. . . if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off. . . It’s better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell.”
Strong language. The disciples haven’t understood. Jesus tries to wake them up. The disciples also have a calling to live in vulnerability and protect those on the margins.
What Jesus actually says here is, “It is better for you to enter life without these two feet than to be thrown into Gehenna.” Gehenna, that’s the word. Gehenna was not some sort of netherworld or hell in an afterlife. Gehenna was an actual place in this life — the name for a large, continually burning trash heap outside of Jerusalem. Jesus uses this word from time to time and names this particular place with an invitation: You can enter life or you can stay rooted in the context of Gehenna.
I think Jesus is placing this invitation before us also, speaking to our collective calling. He says, “For everyone will be salted with fire. Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.”
This is what Jesus tells his disciples, those who seem not to understand. They return again and again toward the pathway of dominance, the pathway of hierarchy and power, and the pathway of determining who is in and who is out. That’s not our calling. But in deeply human ways, we return to this so often.
Jesus calls us back. And it’s to a child. It’s to all the ones who are vulnerable. It’s to the vulnerable places within ourselves, places that God seeks to heal. It’s toward the vulnerability of our own neighbors, guided by love and protection… It’s toward belonging, freedom, and release… away from a life of Gehenna and toward the God who enters proximity with us and chooses us. Yes, this is our calling.
Yesterday, I had some treasured friends over for brunch at our house, and some of them are just getting to know each other. At one point in our conversation, it came up that someone at the table currently belongs to an ECLA Church. That is, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. When he mentioned this, he immediately added, “Though Evangelical doesn’t mean what most people associate with it.”
Some of the people around the table did not grow up in a congregation, and others have left the churches they were raised in. He said, “Evangelical means ‘Good News.’”
But my friends around the table had heard that word primarily in connection to particular forms of politics, as well as the communities behind them. “I associate that word with seeking power,” one said. Among some of our neighbors, that is how this word is often received and processed.
But my friend said, “No, this is about ‘Good News.’” And I was really struck by the power in the simplicity of what he said next. “It’s not about working our way up to God through power or hierarchy. This is Good News, the total opposite — God has come to us.”
God lives in proximity toward us… God is present with us in our own vulnerability and in the wounds that we carry… God is present with us in the vulnerability and wounds carried by the whole world…
Aren’t we invited into this kind of Good News?
Jesus teaches us that God takes very seriously harm to the vulnerable.
And so, if you are feeling vulnerable… if you are recalling challenging memories this week… if you are struggling in a variety of ways that have stories and particular pains attached… God descends to you. And God not only descends — God uplifts. God seeks to empower us. God loves you through and through. This is the Good News.
Have we believed somewhere within ourselves that God has forgotten us — perhaps forgotten us in these pains?
If so, we return to our first text, these gorgeous words from Isaiah:
“But Zion said, ‘The Lord has forsaken me, my Lord has forgotten me.’”
In response, this is how God speaks to us. God says,
“Can a woman forget her nursing-child,
or show no compassion for the child of her womb?
Even theses may forget,
yet I will not forget you.
See, I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands;
your walls are continually before me.”
God chooses to be this near to us when we feel vulnerability and pain.
And the calling is before us.
That same text says,
“Your builders outdo your destroyers.”
I love that language.
“Your builders outdo your destroyers.”
Are we prepared to leave this place today, recognizing that God lives in proximity to the vulnerable? And that God is calling us to accompany the vulnerable?
When we have destroyed, we are called to say we’re sorry, confess, make amends, and turn around — forgiveness is there for us, and abundantly — and instead, we’re called to live as builders, ones who built one another up even as we ourselves are being built-up.
If we keep centering our neighbors — the neighbors that God loves, all our neighbors — then we will be called once again, and consistently, to leave this pathway of dominance, relinquish it, and come alive on this pathway of vulnerability and wholehearted living.
This is our calling as disciples. And thank goodness that we have each other, because we keep calling one another. And we keep proclaiming love toward one another — forgiveness, release, connection, belonging, and life.
May God bring us into this life once more, even today.
I am grateful to the contributions of the Rev. Rolf Jacobson of the Sermon Brainwave — Working Preacher podcast, who spoke this week and last about “relinquishing dominance.” That influenced my sermon direction.