Scripture - Mark 9:38 - 50
Mark 9:38-50 (New Revised Standard Version)
38John said to him, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” 39But Jesus said, “Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. 40Whoever is not against us is for us. 41For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.
42“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. 43If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. 45And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell. 47And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell, 48where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched.
49“For everyone will be salted with fire. 50Salt 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.”
Let us pray - these words are written by Kathrine Hawker:
God of the salt
God of the fire
God of anger
God of laughter
God of parables and riddles
God of story and proclamation
God of comfort
God of affliction
God of the salt
God of the fire
I’ll always remember a conversation I had in a small group setting...probably about 10 years ago. I don’t remember the passage we were discussing, but somehow the distinction came up about being nice versus being kind. You can probably articulate the difference right along with me. Being nice is often related to being polite, agreeable, congenial. Being nice generally doesn’t ask us to extend ourselves in any meaningful way. It’s about manners and cultural currency like holding the door open for someone, or paying it forward at the tollbooth or coffee counter. There’s a place for being nice, but it’s often a surface level exchange.
Leadership coach Banu Hantal notes this about the dangers of those who identify as being a “nice person”, when speaking of the difference between “nice” and “kind”, “They do not ask for what they need, they do not give crucial feedback and they enable dysfunctions of others by overcompensating for them – all in the name of being nice.”
“Frequently, it’s the disguise of our selfish need to be liked. We want to think that we are nice, but more than that, we want others to think that we are nice. This kind of niceness makes us lose our voice and leads us to become inauthentic.
When we stop speaking up on important issues because we are afraid to hurt or offend others (translation: when we are afraid they won’t like us or be mad at us), it locks us and others to the status quo. It rips off the chance for things to get better.”
Kindness, on the other hand, costs more and proceeds from a deeper place within us. It’s about having our hearts in the right place for others and, oddly enough, for ourselves. Kindness is about authenticity and empathy. It’s about caring enough for people to face their reality and grow from it. It’s not about being liked, but it is about loving others enough to want what is best for them, even if it means sharing hard truths.
Niceness is simple and easy. Kindness often is not. Sometimes there is overlap between the two, but sometimes, there is not.
Now circling back to the conversation I was having in my living room 10 years ago about the difference between nice and kind...what was shared in that space was that the church is full of nice people, but not often full of kind people.
This sentiment was shared by a group of young adults who knew this because they had experienced the general niceness of most church folk, but they had also witnessed and experienced the extreme lack of kindness from Christians in their lives, like Christians who were overtly judgmental (but who proclaimed grace and love)...like Christians who said they’d be there for you in hard times (but wouldn’t help out if you were in desperate need)...like Christians who said they’d love you, if only you changed your behavior.
The biggest stumbling block for these friends of mine wasn’t Jesus...but other Christians.
Our passage this morning gets at the heart of this hypocrisy, as we look at the witness of community, the pain of sin, and the call to be salted with fire. It’s not an easy passage and we definitely don’t get meek and mild Jesus here. Contrast this to last week, where we have Jesus embracing a child in this image of what it means to embrace and welcome the divine. Now we have severed limbs and drowning with millstones and fiery punishment. This is a hard teaching - certainly not a nice teaching - it’s one that contrasts the popular image of Jesus as a docile and distant teacher dispensing wisdom in placid, peaceful tones.
No, this teaching comes from a Jesus that boldly names reality and one that does so for the sake again of the most vulnerable...for the most dismissed and overlooked...for the sake of the oppressed and exploited...for the sake of the voiceless and disempowered.
It’s threatening. It’s painful. It is a warning shot to those who would even think about harming or being an obstacle to the “little ones” - and it’s a statement about how far we as a community of faith need to be willing to go to for the sake of life and liberation for others.
It’s kind, but harsh. Definitely not nice.
Jesus starts out in this story by putting John in his place because the disciples tried to disabuse someone for casting out demons in Jesus’ name - but he wasn’t one of the group. Jesus rebukes John for stopping this person and draws the circle wider - “whoever is not against us is for us” right? Jesus doesn’t want the disciples putting up barriers - nor does he want them policing the behavior of others. It’s like he says, “don’t pay attention to what they’re doing over there - I’m not concerned about what they are or aren’t doing, whether they do a deed of power in my name, or whether they give you a cup of water because you are one of mine.”
“No,” he says, “tend to your own self. Look at your own behavior and what’s causing someone else harm -- and what’s causing you harm. Cut that stuff out of your life. If what you do puts blocks in the way of others - these children, these vulnerable ones, these disempowered ones - who are trying to embrace me, it would be better for you to drown. What are you willing to sacrifice for that to happen? How far are you willing to go to ensure life and liberation for these little ones...and for you?”
Now I don’t quite know in what tone Jesus might have delivered these words, but I can’t picture him being dispassionate in his delivery. And he absolutely wasn’t being nice - and it may even be a stretch to say that he was being kind in this instance, but he certainly was more concerned with the welfare of the vulnerable and with the disciples not preventing those who are suffering or hurting from having access to him. In that way, he was doing a great kindness to those looking to get in on the abundant life Jesus was about - and he was doing a great kindness to the disciples in correcting their course, even if he had to use shocking images to do it.
Because what Jesus says to the disciples is this: what you do - or don’t do - matters. Clear the things from your life that prevent access to me - either your access to me or another’s access to me. Don’t let anything get in the way.
Sometimes, those things are personal individual things - and it can feel really painful to do, as painful as severing a limb -- getting rid of a toxic relationship; forgiving a friend who has deeply wounded you; breaking an addiction; changing a damaging habit, admitting when you’re wrong and confessing sin. Sometimes, those things are systemic and pervasive -- identifying your privilege and working to become more aware of it and helping others identify their own; decoupling yourself from the constant need to associate self-worth with productivity; changing your worldview from a whitewashed history to name the complexities and threads of Indigenous peoples, Black and Hispanic folx, Asian Americans and more.
All these things point to a communal witness of an embodied love - that we as individuals and as a community are intentional about identifying and growing in love, about admitting when we’re wrong and seeking God’s reconciliation, about authentically showing up and being present to who we are and who God is calling us to be. In other words, we’re rooting ourselves in being kind - not nice. Because the world doesn’t need more nice people. But it does need more kind ones.
The conversation held in my living room ended with a resolution - that the church we were creating, birthed in small groups and block parties and board game nights, would not be a nice church. The church would be a kind one - in the way that true kindness is hard and authentic, unafraid to name difficult realities, and deliberately centers others in their growth as disciples and in their wholeness as beloved children of God.
I want to end with this poetic reflection shared by Steve Garnaas-Holmes entitled “Cut it off” - and it’s a beautiful reminder of how these painful separations are healing for ourselves and for others:
The hand that causes you to stumble
is not at the end of your arm. It’s deeper than that.
What is the hand in you
that reaches for what is not yours? Cut it off.
There is nothing you need to grasp.
What is the eye in you that does not look with love?
Pluck it out. The eyes of love are good enough.
What are the feet in you that that won't trust,
that lead you away from the path of love?
Cut them off. You don’t need to go there.
Does it sound harsh? Don’t worry,
they’re not part of the real you.
Besides, they’ll grow back.
The Teacher is not asking you to maim yourself.
He is inviting you to name what interferes,
and to take away its power.
He's leading us out of the unquenchable fire
of our fears, desires and attachments.
Without our grasping, fearful, compulsive parts,
perhaps then we will rely more
on the eyes and hands and feet of Jesus.
This pruning is how we become whole.
May we ever be on that journey towards wholeness in God’s love and care - for our sake, for the sake of Jesus’ little ones, and for the sake of the world. Amen.
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Pastor Melissa Yosua-Davis has been serving the community of Chebeague and its church since July 2015. She currently lives on the island with her husband and five year old son and 2 year old daughter, along with their yellow lab. Read here recent sermon excerpts, thoughts on life and faith, and current announcements for the church community. She also blogs at Going on to Perfection.