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First Impressions: Mark 9:38-50

September 22, 2009

The three segments of this week’s text are only loosely connected, so the preacher should choose only one as a focal point of the sermon.  The three paragraphs describe the unauthorized preacher (9:38-41), cutting off body parts that provide an occasion to sin (9:42-48) and being salty-peaceful Christians (9:49-50).  I have always wanted to preach a sermon about being well seasoned followers of Jesus, but never thought I could pull it off well.  Maybe this is the week to try.

9:38-41 I have often used these verses to launch into a discussion of all the ways mainline churches attempt to protect their authority.  In The United Methodist Church, we often refer to our Board of Ordained Ministry as the “gatekeeper.”  Local church organizations and committees are often zealous in protecting their turf.  Jesus, though, seems to have no concerns about people who perform good deeds without prior authorization.

Is the text telling us that we are not competent enough to judge the motives and efficacy of another person’s (or group’s) work in the name of Jesus?  Or is the point that all good deeds are just that—good?  Verse 39 seems to point to the latter, though both are valuable reminders.  It seems that any good deed is liable to transform both the one who receives and the one who performs the act.

Or possibly, does the real importance lie in acting in the name of Jesus?  This speaks to motive.  Why do I serve my brothers and sisters?  What do I expect from my work?  One of my colleagues says that our service in the world often leads us to faith rather than the other way around.  How many of our youth have come to faith because they embarked on a mission trip?  Jesus says in verse 39 that the good work can lead to faith.

9:42-48 It is difficult to read these verses during worship and then make little reference to them in the sermon.  The sentiments in this paragraph become the elephant in the room, if for no other reason than the shock value.  Cut off a hand?  Tear out an eye?  It’s pretty gruesome stuff.  Then add the bit about hell and the worm that never dies and you’ve got a captive audience.

I read somewhere recently (I can’t recall the source) that if there are any verses in scripture that aren’t meant to be taken literally, it is these words of Jesus.  Lamar Williamson writes that these are “command[s] to be taken not literally, but seriously” (Lamar Williamson, Interpretation: Mark [Louisville: John Knox, 1983], 172.).  The way of life of the kingdom of God is of such surpassing value that we should make any temporal sacrifice in order to participate in the true life Jesus offers.  I think that’s a pretty good start for a sermon.  The issue is, as always, how to illustrate what that kingdom living looks like.

The loose connection between the first two paragraphs is that by preventing people who serve in Jesus’ name is the equivalent of putting a stumbling block in front of them (v.42)—or perhaps in front of impressionable new believers.  It’s better to examine one’s own sinful behavior (and perhaps to cut off the offending body part) than to worry about blocking others on their faith journey.

9:49-50 If I preach these verses, I’d like to be able to explore what it means to live a well seasoned Christian life.  Is this about energy and passion, or something else?  I myself am a rather calm, thoughtful individual, not prone to bursts of unbridled, Wesleyanesque activity.  I do my job and live my life in a calm, peaceful manner.  Am I letting the salt in me lose its flavor?  Instead, could this be an image similar to the yeast?  A little bit in the dough makes the whole thing rise.  A little salt adds flavor.  Does my small, simple presence in my neighborhood or community provide a similar effect?

The last verse of the pericope sums up the day’s lesson nicely: “Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.”  Don’t worry about the unauthorized servants of Christ.  Instead be concerned about your own participation in the kingdom of God.

Which of these three paragraphs have caught your interest?  Have you discovered any good illustrations?  Let me hear from you.

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