Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on September 30, 2018
[sermon begins after one Bible reading. The other two readings may be found at the end of the sermon]
Mark 9:38-50 John said to [Jesus], “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” 39 But 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. 40 Whoever is not against us is for us. 41 For 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. 43 If 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. 44 45 And 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. , 46 47 And 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, 48 where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched. 49 “For everyone will be salted with fire. 50 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.”
Running. There are people who love running. The sound of shoed feet hitting the pavement. The sound of breath. The joy of movement. Then you have people like one of my gym friends who says that running makes him die a little inside. Or, like me, whose sprint looks suspiciously similar to jogging it out. Last week, we had a workout of the day that included a 400 meter run at the start of each of the four rounds. During the second run, a couple of the faster runners each threw out an encouraging word and a side five – you know, like a high-five but out to the side – as they ran past me on their way back to the gym. I felt so encouraged that I ran 100 meters past the turnaround point before realizing my snafu. I was joking after the workout that we should think about handing out side-fives at work and in grocery store aisles. Like, “Good job with the eggs!” Or, “Way to go scoring that broccoli!” How good would THAT feel?! You know, once you got past the weirdness of being high-fived in Produce. A little encouragement at any point in the day goes a long way.
Encouragement is a common way that many people experience Jesus day-to-day. Jesus cheering us on. Jesus carrying us. Jesus suffering when we suffer. Those stories are compelling and accurate to scripture. Then there’s the Jesus we get in today’s Bible readings. He is mad. Maybe better to say that he’s furious. He’s had it with his followers arguing with each other about who’s the greatest and completely losing track of the main things. And the main thing in the 9th chapter of Mark’s Gospel is the vulnerable child.
Jesus is still holding that kid preached about by Pastor Ann last week. The baby left by the side of the road by a family with too many mouths to feed. The one picked up by Jesus, planted in the middle of his followers, and then scooped up again in his arms saying, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” Jesus still has a hold of that kid as he continues talking to them in the verses we hear today. Jesus’ words about the child are ringing in the air and what do the 12 followers do? They change the subject.
They change the subject to other people. “But, Jesus, what about those other people, doing that other thing in your name?!” Jesus responds with “these little ones” like the one in his arms. Don’t “put a stumbling block before one of these little ones,” he says. Jesus’ words make me think about Prairie Rose Seminole’s keynote talks at Synod Theological Conference two weeks ago. Ms. Seminole is Program Director of American Indian Alaskan Native Ministries for the ELCA. She is an enrolled tribal member of the Three Affiliated Tribes of North Dakota, descendent of the Sahnish/Arikara, Northern Cheyenne and Lakota Nations through her Indian father and also of German Russian heritage through her white Lutheran mother.
Ms. Seminole talked about a lot things. She encouraged us toward conversation and actions that neither romanticize the American Indian experience nor idealize migrant Europeans looking for religious freedom at the expense of Indian lives nor immobilizes white folks in the ditch of guilt and shame. Tough balance but if anyone could help us get there it’s people like her. She also talked about her own experience of Indian Boarding Schools run by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Schools that first opened in the 1870s with the explicit goal of being a “solution to the Indian Problem…To “Kill the Indian in him, and save the man.”
The Indian Boarding Schools were founded by Army officer Richard Pratt who designed them after the education he developed for Indian prisons. The schools were still going strong through the early 1970s. People my age have vivid memories of these schools – the corporal punishment, the labor, and the childhoods lived without parents. Jesus’ words about putting “a stumbling block before one of these little ones” take on a different tone in light of Indian Boarding Schools. And now, today, in light of migrating families separated at the border by federal officers. Have we learned nothing?
I ate dinner with several friends last weekend who represent the spectrum of American politics. We agreed that separating immigrant families is out of line regardless of when such a policy was put on paper and when it was acted on – as if any of that matters when children’s lives hang in the balance. Trauma, especially in childhood, often generates lifelong problems. As people of the United States, we are responsible for acts committed in the name of our country. So what is a person sitting in Sunday worship to do? Fortunately, there’s not far to look.
Jesus’ rhetorical one-two punch about it being better to drown, or to lose a hand, a foot, or an eye rather than put a stumbling block before a little one, is a good place to start. We’re as attached to our body parts as we’re attached to our self-absorbed sins. We take both for granted and barely give them a second thought until we’re made aware of them. If history teaches us anything, it’s that we often act on self-interest, camouflaged as caution, and end up hurting a bunch of people in the process. The better angels of our nature occasionally prevail but they often hit obstacles. The first obstacle is the idea of ourselves as “good people.” It’s tough to uncover sin camouflaged by self-described “good people.”
I’ve thought about this notion of “good people” in my families’ history of owning slaves. My family justified slavery as “good people” and Christians. The internment of Japanese Americans during World War II was justified as necessary caution by self-described “good people.” Although then the script was flipped. It was lone Colorado Governor Ralph Carr of the Republicans speaking out against President Roosevelt and the Democrats. Here’s a shocker. No political party has a corner on the market of inflicting pain. Why is that? Because there are people involved.
Lutheran Christians have pretty low expectations when it comes to people. Especially when those same people are arguing about being the greatest like Jesus’ followers were. Especially when those same people create institutions in which accountability is tossed around like a hot potato rather than naming it and confessing sin. Confessing sin opens up the possibility for something different to happen. It would be cool if we could get ahead of the curve and prevent some of our country’s institutional sins. Alas, it is sadly rare. So, we are left today with Jesus’ fury, and an invitation to confession.
Today’s reading from the book of James urges our confession with these words, “Therefore, confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed.” This means that first we have to see our sin for what it is. That’s a painful process for self-described “good people” but not nearly as painful as the sin we inflict on other people or, even worse, the sin we inflict on children.
Remember that gym encouragement I talked at the beginning of this sermon? It was more than a way into these scripture readings. When we confess together and hear absolution, we also puzzle through how to better care for our neighbors – especially these last couple weeks when the scripture lifts up vulnerable children. A few months ago this meant that you all gave $3,500 dollars to the reunification ministry of Lutheran Family Services and ELCA congregations in El Paso, Texas. This reunification ministry houses and feeds parents and children for brief periods as they’re reunited by the federal government. 35 families were touched by your gifts. Way to go on that ministry (side-five)!
Encouraging each other to connect and help people in pain is something we do as the communion of sinners and saints. When we’re the ones causing the pain, the encouragement we give each other to confess and to listen to people affected by our sin is critical. Sharing the peace during worship represents connecting, listening and acting to make things right. Sharing the peace is a bit like those side-fives at the gym – helping us connect as bodies through our separation, through the limits we create.
If today’s readings from the books of Mark, James, and Numbers have anything in common, it’s that God reserves the right to break through the limits we create. God reserves the right to work through people who mystify us – whether those people prophecy outside proper channels in Numbers, or deeds of power done by people outside the authorized structure in Mark, or sinners who wander in James. It is good news that God through Jesus is constantly pushing us toward concern for other people, especially today for children, through very surprising sources. Seasoning the planet with people outside of our own experience to challenge us to notice and care for vulnerable children, and as Jesus says, to “be at peace with one another.” Thanks be to God!
 Mark 9:33-37 Then they came to Capernaum; and when [Jesus] was in the house he asked them, ‘What were you arguing about on the way?’ 34But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another about who was the greatest. 35He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, ‘Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.’ 36Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, 37‘Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.’
 Prairie Rose Seminole, Biography. https://www.montanasynod.org/uploads/3/0/9/6/30961995/prairie_rose_seminole.pdf
 The ELCA is one of the largest Christian denominations in the United States, with more than 3.7 million members in more than 9,300 congregations across the 50 states and in the Caribbean region. Known as the church of “God’s work. Our hands,” the ELCA emphasizes God’s grace in Jesus Christ and service in the world. The ELCA’s roots are in the writings of the German church reformer Martin Luther.
 Charla Bear. “American Indian Schools Haunt Many.” National Public Radio on May 12, 2008. https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=16516865
 Gene Griessman. “The Better Angels of Our Nature” How Charles Dickens Influenced Abraham Lincoln. How to Say It Right on February 12, 2018. http://whatyousay.com/a-quotation-you-can-use-in-writing-charles-dickens-and-abraham-lincoln/
 Jesse Paul. “In Gov. Ralph Carr, Colorado has a shining light in the painful history of Japanese internment.” The Denver Post on December 6, 2016. https://www.denverpost.com/2016/12/06/ralph-carr-colorado-japanese-internment/
 Mark 9:50 ends with Jesus’ challenge and blessing to “be at peace with one another.”
James 5:13-20 Are any among you suffering? They should pray. Are any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise. 14 Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. 15 The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven. 16 Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective. 17 Elijah was a human being like us, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth. 18 Then he prayed again, and the heaven gave rain and the earth yielded its harvest. 19 My brothers and sisters, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and is brought back by another, 20 you should know that whoever brings back a sinner from wandering will save the sinner’s soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.
Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29 The rabble among them had a strong craving; and the Israelites also wept again, and said, “If only we had meat to eat! 5 We remember the fish we used to eat in Egypt for nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic; 6 but now our strength is dried up, and there is nothing at all but this manna to look at.”
10 Moses heard the people weeping throughout their families, all at the entrances of their tents. Then the Lord became very angry, and Moses was displeased. 11 So Moses said to the Lord, “Why have you treated your servant so badly? Why have I not found favor in your sight, that you lay the burden of all this people on me? 12 Did I conceive all this people? Did I give birth to them, that you should say to me, “Carry them in your bosom, as a nurse carries a sucking child,’ to the land that you promised on oath to their ancestors? 13 Where am I to get meat to give to all this people? For they come weeping to me and say, “Give us meat to eat!’ 14 I am not able to carry all this people alone, for they are too heavy for me. 15 If this is the way you are going to treat me, put me to death at once—if I have found favor in your sight—and do not let me see my misery.” 16 So the Lord said to Moses, “Gather for me seventy of the elders of Israel, whom you know to be the elders of the people and officers over them; bring them to the tent of meeting, and have them take their place there with you.
24 So Moses went out and told the people the words of the Lord; and he gathered seventy elders of the people, and placed them all around the tent. 25 Then the Lord came down in the cloud and spoke to him, and took some of the spirit that was on him and put it on the seventy elders; and when the spirit rested upon them, they prophesied. But they did not do so again. 26 Two men remained in the camp, one named Eldad, and the other named Medad, and the spirit rested on them; they were among those registered, but they had not gone out to the tent, and so they prophesied in the camp. 27 And a young man ran and told Moses, “Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp.” 28 And Joshua son of Nun, the assistant of Moses, one of his chosen men, said, “My lord Moses, stop them!” 29 But Moses said to him, “Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit on them!”