September 30, 2018 – The Rev. Dr. Stephen Shaver

Year B, Proper 21, Track 2, Revised Common Lectionary
Numbers 11:4-6,10-16,24-29
Psalm 19:7-14
James 5:13-20
Mark 9:38-50

In the name of the one, holy, and living God: Amen.

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What do aspirin, cellophane, a trampoline, and an escalator have in common?

It’s not a trick question. All four of those words started out as trademarks, but eventually became generic terms.

When a brand name becomes used generically by enough people, a company can lose its trademark. Lots of companies today are fighting very hard against that very possibility. Think of Kleenex … or should I say Kleenex brand facial tissues, as the company would prefer we say. You can probably think of other trademarks that people often use generically: Jello. Xerox. Band-Aid.

It’s natural to want to protect your intellectual property—your brand. Recording artists tend to look negatively on people pirating their music. Academics treat plagiarism as a cardinal sin. Most authors are wary of letting their readers take their characters and write their own fan fiction—and even those few that encourage it are very clear about who retains the copyright.

Today we heard about John coming to Jesus to complain about a fan who has apparently gone rogue. Some unauthorized person is out there using Jesus’ name to cast out demons. John expects Jesus to want to put a stop to it. But Jesus is remarkably unconcerned about his brand. In today’s terms, we might say Jesus takes an open source approach. Instead of holding on and exerting control over his own movement, he seems willing to let others take it and run with it. What matters seems to be more about the fact that God’s work is being done in Jesus’ name and less about who’s in and who’s out.

It’s easy to identify with John. It feels good to be an insider. It feels good to be close to the action, in the know. All of us have a human urge to belong, to be recognized, to matter. And it’s easy for that to lead to defining ourselves over against others. We know who we are partly by knowing who we aren’t. It can happen in family life. It certainly happens in political life: studies increasingly show that people’s views on a given issue are shaped by what political party they say they belong to, rather than the other way around. And it happens in church life. We might find ourselves patting ourselves on the back that we’re not like some other kind of Christians. Or we might find ourselves so set in our ways that we’re unable to welcome people who aren’t like us into our community.

Jesus doesn’t seem to work that way. Unlike John—unlike most of us—he seems to be uninfected by the disease of envy. He has no need to safeguard his status or buttress his sense of self. He’s not offended by this freelance healer. We might say, he’s not scandalized.

I say scandalized because this gospel passage is full of wordplay in Greek on that very word. The Greek word that means “cause to stumble” is skandalizein—it’s the direct source of our word “scandalize.” And in Greek it has several related meanings. It literally means to trip someone up and make them stumble, but it can also mean to give offense, the way we use the word “scandalize” today. So Jesus isn’t “tripped up” by having someone else heal in his name. He isn’t caused to stumble. He isn’t scandalized, because he isn’t envious. Unlike us, he doesn’t derive his sense of self from status, from finding ways to make himself special or distinctive, or from being an insider over against others. His identity is secure because it comes from who he is in God.

The theologian Rene Girard suggests that the stern warnings in this passage are about the disease of envy, of being scandalized by others, of needing to put ourselves in by putting others out. Think of the messages in our culture that bombard our young people each day and suggest that to really matter, you need to be better than someone else—whether it’s through sports or grades or physical appearance. Those messages are putting a stumbling block in front of our young people, and they deserve to be tied to a millstone and thrown into the sea.[1]

Yesterday we had a parish workshop about how we live out our faith in public and political life. And one of the things we talked about is how important it is to take clear stances on issues and translate that into action—but also how easy it is to move from our own positions on issues to a place of judging others, or wanting to exercise control over the projects we work on. That need to judge or control is grounded in a place of anxiety—anxiety that comes from thinking that we ourselves are not enough. Thinking in terms of that anxiety, that envy, that need to be special or in control is one way to make sense of the hyperbolic language Jesus uses in this passage. If only we could cut envy off like a hand or a foot, or pluck it out like an eye! But in the end it’s not our eyes or our hands or our feet that cause us to stumble. It’s our hearts, the hearts hardened against our neighbors.

There’s only one way to get rid of a hardened heart. We can’t do it on our own. But God can. There’s a wonderful passage in the book of Ezekiel where God says, “I will give you a new heart and a new spirit; I will take the heart of stone out of your body and give you a heart of flesh.”[2] We can’t cure ourselves of the disease of envy. But we can invite God to do it. Little by little, through God’s grace, we start learning what it means to find our identity in the only place that matters: being a child of God.

That doesn’t happen all at once for us, any more than it happened all at once for Jesus’ disciples. It’s a lifelong process and it won’t be complete for any of us on this side of heaven. But Jesus is working on our hearts right now, every day, every week. And at this table each week he fills us with his own body and blood, his own life, his own heart.

[1] Here I am borrowing directly from a fine sermon on the Girardian idea of scandal by my friend Daniel London, now rector of Christ Church in Eureka:

[2] Ezek. 36:26; see also Ezek. 11:19.