The Stones That Weigh Us Down

Stones in river

Proper 21 (26) | Mark 9:38-50

The Stones That Weigh Us Down

Lectionary Project—Part of an ongoing three year project of weekly posts based on the Gospel reading from the Revised Common Lectionary. A study in practical theology.

John said to him, “Teacher, we saw someone throwing out demons in your name, someone who does not follow us, and we forbade him because he does not follow us.”

Mark gives us such odd things. Why have John say this to Jesus? Why John? Why not just ascribe it to the disciples in general—”and they came and said to Jesus…”?

Perhaps, if early church tradition is correct and Mark was Peter’s disciple, it is simply because Peter remembered it that way, and Mark recorded what Peter had told him. Perhaps we are meant to see that John, later famous for preaching love, was once not so keen on love himself. Perhaps we’ve got it wrong, and John was not complaining about the rogue exorcist; maybe John came tattle-tale to Jesus and threw the other disciples under the bus for rebuking the fellow.

We see that the unnamed exorcist is managing what the disciples have just failed at doing. Perhaps they did not rebuke him for being an outsider, but for succeeding where they themselves had failed.

You have to love the disciples. They are so much like us, so prone to selfishness and to failure.

Jesus throws them some encouragement, telling them that just giving someone a cup of water to drink can be an act of faith. They may not have cast out demons, but surely they could manage a cup of water or a crust of bread.

Then Jesus goes off in a different direction. In Mark’s Gospel, he is always the Jesus they know and the one they do not.


It is better to tie a great stone around your neck and be thrown into the sea, he says, than to lead a child astray. It’s better to cut off your foot or your hand, he says, or to tear out your own eye, if they cause you to go astray—better your body be maimed than your spirit. It’s hyperbole, we hope, throwing out images that are over the mark, clear exaggerations, such astounding word-pictures that we cannot forget them.

In hell the worm never dies, he tells them. In hell the fire is never quenched. It is not at all clear that the hell Jesus describes is a future thing, a one day place. In the gospels, he invites people to join him—presently—in the kingdom of God. If the kingdom of God is at hand, why should hell have to wait? We may walk, maimed or whole, in either.

Looking at a person’s face, can we see the landscape of his soul? Sometimes we might. Sometimes joy or pain is so etched in faces we see that we know where the souls behind them are walking. Hell is where our doubts gnaw at us. Hell is where our regrets burn us. We cannot say what is within another person, and who knows how many souls are trying to walk a narrow valley between water and fire?

We are lost ourselves. How can we help but lead others astray?

Candle in SaltHave salt within you, Jesus says. Be seasoned. Be preserved. Be kept whole.

There is so much symbolism in salt. Purity. Preservation. Consecration. Friendship. But do not forget the great salt sea, deep, and ever moving, and as treacherous as the people lost beneath its waves, held there by the weight of regrets they’ve carried like millstones tied to their souls.

We might start cutting things off and pulling things out, just not our hands or our eyes. Maybe we could pull out the notion that we are smarter than we are, or better than our neighbors, or more deserving than the strangers at our doors. We might throw away eyes that only see faults. We might throw away feet that step on hope.

We might let go of the stones we throw. In the end, they only weigh us down.

Stones in river

Kingdom of the Least

Fifth Sunday After Epiphany  |  Matthew 5:13-20

There is no privacy around God.

God is in our houses and in our Salt Fireyards, on the sidewalk, at our offices and workplaces. Worst of all, God is in our minds, the little corners and dark boxes of our hearts where we thought we had hidden the things that would make other people think less of us. Or point at us. Or at the very least pretend that they are better than us and would never do, never think, never feel the terrible and the petty things that we have done and thought and felt.

God has known them all, and that may be the most terrifying aspect of God.

If Jesus is to be believed, God knows these things and loves us, without reservation. Knowing all of it, God loves us.

For some, that is great and well received news, the gospel itself. For the rest of us, not so sure about receiving unabashed love from an unseen God, it takes some getting used to.

Salt. Light. Cities on hills. These are tasted, seen, entered into, or they are of no purpose. Jesus says that if we are not seen,  if our lives cannot be touched and tasted, if we are not open to other people, then we are of little use.

There is so little privacy around people anyway, we say. Our lives are open, we are seen, and more than we care to know is known about us. Most of us may be read as plainly as these words may be read, if a person has learned the skill of reading.

The law was clear. Leviticus and Deuteronomy. (That should be an exclamation—“Leviticus and Deuteronomy! — along the lines of “Jumpin’ Jehoshaphat!”)

We read all of those rules the ancient people lived by — what to eat, what to wear, most of all how to act toward other people, toward God — and we hear Jesus saying that if we have broken the least rule, then we are the least soul in God’s kingdom, at the bottom of the great heap of souls.

We are all on the bottom of the heap. This heap has no top, not even a middle, just flat bottom all the way.

Yet the law itself was not meant as a burden. The law was a way of life, the way of life, the way to live in this life. It was not a means to an end, not a key that fits the gate of the next life.

How then could this man Jesus be the fulfillment of the way to live? What does it mean to fulfill the way of life?

Life was never about the rules. It is always about the love.

Do not murder, since it is against the rules, we say? Love one another, and we will not cause harm.

They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea. — Isaiah 11:9