Sermon preached September 30, 2012
Text: Mark 9:38-50
Obesity is an issue in the United States. People just need to eat more healthy foods. I mean look at all those other people and their poor eating habits. They really need to make some changes. They need to watch what they eat. They need to exercise more. Of course I can handle burgers and fries sometimes. And there are lots of days when I just have to miss exercising.
And doesn’t it bug you when those people are on their cell phones while in a check out line. I mean couldn’t they just wait a bit. I am sure what they are talking about is no great emergency. They are probably reporting on the cover of The National Enquirer. Now sometimes I’ve had to be on my phone while checking out, but it is always vitally important.
And do you ever get in line at a sandwich shop behind a person who has like never been in a sandwich shop before. I mean, please – look at the menu before you get in line. Figure it out a little bit first. How hard is it to choose cheese or bread or vegetables? Of course, sometimes I just want to try something new and am not sure what that should be. Give me a little time.
As human beings we are pretty good at finding fault with others and letting ourselves off the hook for the same thing. Someone has called this a “ubiquitous human failing” (Martha Nussbaum, The New Religious Intolerance, 100).
Many have recognized this tendency among we humans. How many of you ever took a philosophy class? I won’t ask how many of you ever slept through a philosophy class. One of my college majors was philosophy and every few years there comes a time when I can say – “it was good that you were a philosophy major.” Today is such a day.
Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) is a well-known name in philosophy, both for his thinking about human knowing and for this thinking about ethics. Kant tried to figure out the nature of morally right actions, and he came up with a few ways of talking about that. One of them goes like this: Act only on that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law. Kant was trying to get at the ubiquitous human problem of people exempting themselves from the rules. If you don’t think people should talk on their cell phones while in a check-out line, then the same applies to you.
Martha Nussbaum, a contemporary philosopher, and this will be the last philosopher mentioned this morning, in her recent book The New Religious Intolerance, says that Kant’s ideas have deeper roots. She finds the same message in Jesus. She cites the saying of Jesus about the beam and the speck that we used for our invitation to worship. She writes: The Gospel is saying that people have a strong tendency to self-blindness and to insulating their own faults from critique. She believes it is a “failure to acknowledge the equal reality of others” (Nussbaum, 100, 102).
We easily see the faults of others. We are willing to scrutinize others. We want to exempt ourselves. Nussbaum thinks that this is a form of considering ourselves more important than others, the center of the universe. It is a way of saying, “it’s all about me.” Nussbaum says that the testimony from Jesus to Kant is that instead we should be working toward – “it’s all about not about me.” It’s all about not about you.
I would even go a bit further. I think Jesus wants to flip the equation. Rather than being harder on others, more willing to scrutinize others, I think Jesus encourages gentleness toward others and more scrutiny of ourselves.
Mark 9. In the first part of this reading, the disciples are put out because someone was casting out demons in Jesus’ name, but he was not with the group. It’s all about us, isn’t it? Jesus tells them otherwise. His words suggest that we should celebrate good wherever we find it, and if someone else is up to it that is o.k. There is something bigger going on, God’s work in the world. It’s all about that. It’s all about not about you.
There is another wonderful illustration of this attitude in the New Testament. I was reading Philippians this week as part of my own spiritual discipline. In the first chapter we find Paul writing: Some proclaim Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from goodwill. These proclaim Christ out of love, knowing that I have been put here for the defense of the gospel; the others proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely but intending to increase my suffering in my imprisonment. Not exactly complimentary. But then Paul writes, “What does it matter?”
What does it matter if good is being done by someone else, even if we may suspect some things about them? Good is being done. It’s not all about you. It’s not all about us.
The second part of Mark 9 drives home the point even more starkly, using uncomfortable imagery. Pay attention to others. Be gentle and nurturing toward others. It’s not all about you. The startling images of burning and cutting are a dramatic way of making that point. Jesus isn’t inviting self-abuse. He is pushing a point – it’s not all about you. We are good at scrutinizing others, and being gentle toward ourselves. We would do better to scrutinize ourselves and be gentle toward others. It’s all about not about you.
Yet it is all about you. I enjoy word play and this sermon title is meant to be word play. The Christian life is both all about and not about you. It is about contributing to something bigger than we are – God’s on-going work in the world. It is about celebrating the good wherever it is to be found, and encouraging and nurturing it. It is about being gentler toward others and having the courage to scrutinize ourselves.
There is a lot of “me” there. There is a lot of “you” there. The gospel reading poses the question to us of what kind of salt we will be. What kind of life will we lead?
Let me address one image in particular in this reading – the image of hell. “Hell” – where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched, a quote from Isaiah 66:24 which is not speaking of individual afterlife. Hell translates the Greek word “Gehenna,” which refers to the Valley of Hinonom. “This valley south of Jerusalem, once the site of pagan sacrifices, was later made the city garbage dump, where stench, maggots, and fire were always present” (The People’s New Testament Commentary).
What kind of life will we lead? If we don’t care, if our lives are not about service and love and helping the little ones, and contributing to something bigger than ourselves, they are like garbage. The choice is ours – fine salt, goodness, or garbage. The reality is we have some of both, but we are always better at spotting the trashy parts of other people’s lives than seeing the garbage in our own. We need to turn that around. Yet, finally, we should find that place where we can be gentle with others and with ourselves. I have long appreciated that line from Desiderata: Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself. Living the Jesus way requires some self-discipline and self-scrutiny. The only way we know if we are getting that all about/not about thing right is if we are willing to look gently and firmly at our own lives – celebrating the goodness and trying to let the garbage go.
Here’s the thing. God wants to love the world through you in a way that is only through you. So you matter a great deal. It is all about you and your response to this ever present invitation from God. It is not about you in that the work to which we give ourselves is always bigger than any of us and the work needs all of us.
There is a story that comes from the Hasidic Jewish tradition . Every person, the tradition states, should carry two pieces of paper, one in the right pocket and one in the left. One of the pieces of paper should read, ‘I am but dust and ashes.” The other should read “For my sake the world was created.”
Exercise wholesome discipline. Be gentle with others. Celebrate goodness wherever it is found. Offer the cup of cold water. Nurture the little ones. Let God love the world through you. It’s all about you. It’s all about not about you. Live with it. Amen.