The readings on which this sermon is based can be found at: http://users.bigpond.net.au/frsparky/r138.htm
s138g97 Somerton Park 28/9/97 Pentecost 19 Sunday 26
"If your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out ..." Mark 9.47
This is of course one of the classic texts in the New Testament which is not meant to be taken literally - even though it is an unequivocal word from our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. If we took this literally, then heaven would only have people without hands feet and eyes - for we all sin. I hardly think that either Jesus or God is interested in heaven inhabited by such.
In order to try to discern what Jesus means by this saying, it is important, indeed crucial to realise that at that time, the blind and the lame were excluded for temple worship. 2 Samuel 5.8 specified: "The blind and the lame shall not come into the house." This originated from the taunt of the original inhabitants of the city of Jerusalem - the Jebusites - who taunted David that the blind and the lame could hold off David's army. So "David had said on that day, "Whoever would strike down the Jebusites, let him get up the water shaft to attack the lame and the blind, those whom David hates.""
So the Temple worship was restricted to the normal people, people who were socially acceptable, with all their bits. Jesus turns this upside down, and with some force. It is the blind, the lame and the maimed who will get into the kingdom - not the able bodied.
I am indebted to the Rev'd Andrew Neaum who regularly writes the "Rector's Journal" in Church Scene for the following comment ("Blessed are the poor" September 12 p2). He says: "Perhaps the church, then, would be truer to its founder if it attempted to demonstrate the beauty of poverty more, and nagged governments less for bigger welfare payments to help the poor be less poor ... There is nothing blessed about starving ... and ... blessed poverty should be encouraged and preached rather than imposed ..."" Perhaps the church, then, would be truer to its founder if it attempted to demonstrate the beauty of poverty more, and nagged governments less for bigger welfare payments to help the poor be less poor ..."
Similarly with sickness and healing, we are caught in this cleft stick. Certainly Jesus went around healing people, but if he had in fact healed everyone - there would be no "blind, lame or maimed" to get into the kingdom.
Let us be quite certain, it is not the eye that is actually blind which will cause us to sin. It might cause us to trip over and harm ourselves. We might indeed swear and curse, but that is more likely a justifiable reaction rather than a sin - we would be inhuman if we didn't. There is no point what so ever casting out an eye that is actually blind. That does not help one to see any clearer.
No - the eye that will cause us to sin is the eye which seeing doesn't see any good in those around them. The eye that I am talking about is the person or the Church which sees in others, people who do or do not live up to their expectations, people to convert rather than accept for whom they are.
Fr Andrew's words about "nagging governments" prompts me to comment about the "pokies" debate. With the introduction of pokies, which parts of the Church has steadfastly opposed, it seems to me far too late now for the very same parts of the Church to demand funds to rehabilitate gambling addicts. Perhaps we ought to be redirecting these to our parliamentarians. The government knows that the Church is too kind hearted to turn these people away ... and the rich get richer and the poor get poorer ... and the Church tries to pick up the pieces ... I have similar difficulties with the Church's "work for the dole" scheme. Now that it is up and running I wonder how many of those who criticised it before it came about are now clamouring for funds? I am too ashamed to even consider it. I am complaining about the long standing habit of "the Church" to criticise everything a government might try to do - to pick holes in schemes ... We do it so often, for everything, that like the person who was continually crying "wolf", when something which actually should be opposed is brought up - no one bothers to listen.
I think that it is wonderful that this passage from the gospel of Mark is linked to the passage from James about healing, and on the Sunday when we have our time of prayer and anointing at the Altar Rail after the sermon. The passage from James is the proof text and justification of our actions in laying on of hands and anointing. It reminds us in a powerful way that true healing is not necessarily restoration of complete bodily and mental wholeness - coming up to some preconceived notion of what "normality" is. Some of the greatest geniuses in their various fields throughout history were, for instance, afflicted with depression. This is a terrible illness, one would not wish it on one's worst enemy, and one can fervently pray for God's healing. Yet how much poorer the world would be without the contribution of these giants of humanity. I am talking about people like Winston Churchill and Florence Nightingale.
Similarly death can often be seen as the greatest healing of all.
True healing is far more linked to our relationships one with another and with cutting down those preconceptions of normality which we impose on one another. James, in the very same sentence, links healing and confession. True healing is when relationships are restored, when people love rather than expect. True healing is when people love us as ordinary and unique individuals not clones one of another. I know of one particular person who rejoices in being colour-blind because it makes him unique. It is a simple example of how we can sometimes love our disabilities.
Jesus turned everything around and proclaimed that those in need of healing were precisely those able bodied "normal" religious leaders who saw others as beneath them - as people unworthy of religion and to be kept away from the Holy of Holies. Even though they could see - their eyes were causing them to sin - they were in danger of being thrown into hell. Such a hell is described in lurid terms: the "worm never dies ... the fire ... never quenched" - not all that different from some people's earthly existence I ponder. I am always taken with that other expression of hell - "where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth" - where the man without the wedding garment is consigned. In fact the man was weeping and gnashing his teeth "having to be" at the wedding celebration when he obviously would have preferred to be elsewhere. So he is only consigned to the existence he chooses for himself ...
The gospel passage finishes with the words about being salt. What is salt, but something that brings out the unique flavour in another food. So often when I hear people talk about Christianity, we have this mind set that our job is to convert the world. CS Lewis speaks of the Fatal Charm of National Repentance (The Business of Heaven p 59). Some Christians speak of converting Australia for Christ. I confess such grandiose schemes fall into the same trap as the religious leaders of Jesus' day. Jesus calls us to love our neighbour, not convert him or her into something they are not. We are called to be salt, to enhance the unique differences amongst us, so we begin to appreciate the beauty and unique contribution all others make to our society. But if we were all salt - all Christians - it would be a terribly boring and nondescript world, as barren as the salt pans north of Wingfield - where absolutely nothing grows.
Being salt is however vital, without the little that is needed, no one would ever begin to appreciate the beauty in others.
So I am not at all interested in converting those of other faiths to Christianity, for that would mean my eye was causing me to sin.
I really wonder what is being said when a Church School proclaims it has: "always affirmed its commitment to Christian teaching based on the doctrines of God's sovereignty and saving grace, and the Biblical view of man and society." ("The Right School for your Child?" AHISA 1992 p42) My difficulty stems from the realisation that much of the Biblical view which was faithfully reflected by the religious leaders of Jesus' day and time and again by the Church down the centuries is resoundingly negative, when Jesus was so positive.
Recently I have been thinking that some of the Anglicans I know who so stress the sovereignty and Fatherhood of God - that they seem to be the ones who are the most conservative of modern movements - in particular - the ordination of women. If God is so sovereign then that surely means that we can trust God that the direction the Church and society are moving are actually God's. Certainly there are passages in the Bible, largely written by men, and clearly written out of their own preconceptions, which put down women and see them as lesser beings. I have mentioned here before the classic text - the last of the ten commandments which is in order of importance. Do we really think God wants us to continue to say "Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's wife ..." (Exodus 20.17) implying that a wife is of less value than real estate? If it wasn't the Old Testament one might even suggest it was the Blessed Virgin Mary who was causing the thunder and lightning! (20.18) (:->) Surely God wants us to move on from these preconceptions.
As we move into our time of prayer and anointing at the Altar rail, we come with confidence, for whatever we might think is the cause of our dis-ease, God will sort our what we actually need and are ready for. We might pray, whether we choose to come to the Altar Rail or not, that God give each and everyone sight to see the good in ourselves and the good in others, for that is the greatest healing of all.
As is our custom, the prayer that we use is printed in the pew bulletin, for those in the pews to pray silently as those in the front pray for those who come forward. If you come forward, there is no need to say for whom you are praying or to say what the particular disease or concern is. Let us pray ...
Links to other sites on the Web:
About the author and links.
To a Lectionary Index of Archived Sermons.
To a Scriptural Index of Archived Sermons.
Back to a sermon for next Sunday.