A reflection on the readings for Pentecost 18B By the Rev. Dr. Kate Hennessy-Keimig
I have been blessed by two vocations, priest, and my full-time “day job” as a psychotherapist. In both of these, I have had the opportunity through the years to learn amazing things about how humans function, how underneath it all we are so much more alike than we are different, and in reflecting on both the readings from Numbers and Mark, I had the additional thought that….that apparently we have not changed in some rather fundamental ways over the last few thousand years.
The people God redeemed from slavery in Egypt had made a covenant with the Lord at Sinai. They have set off on the long journey to the land that God has promised, and things are not going well. They have left behind the known and familiar, as oppressive as it might have been. The future is uncertain. They are anxious and fearful. And in their memories of their “old life” in Egypt, they fondly remember the good things, “We ate fish in Egypt—and got it free!—to say nothing of the cucumbers and melons, the leeks and onions and garlic. But nothing tastes good out here; all we get is manna, manna, manna.”
The people Jesus called to be his disciples have been traveling with Jesus for the better part of three years. Living with him day by day, listening, watching, learning who he is and who they are called to be. And lately, things have not been going well. They have been faced with the mind-boggling news that he is NOT the kind of Messiah that anyone really expected him to be, he has told them about his betrayal, death and resurrection. Any certainly that they might have felt about the future seems to be gone, they are anxious and uncertain. And in response they have struggled among themselves, getting attached to position and pecking order, having an argument among themselves as to who was the “best disciple,” and then calling out someone else to Jesus, "Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us."
Sometimes I wonder what Jesus thought sometimes as he listened to them. If he wondered just what would become of them; if he got angry and frustrated like the Yahweh portrayed in the first lesson. His words in today’s Gospel might suggest that at the very least he does not want their all-too-human struggles to get in the way of the big picture here, warning in stern words of stumbling blocks and millstones; cutting off feet and hands and tearing out eyes. Clearly this is strong stuff. This is Jesus speaking in 24 point bold type using language that is guaranteed to get our attention. But what, I wonder, is he really saying? What was Jesus, through Mark, really trying to tell the disciples, the people of God who were the early church and to us, the people of God here and now?
As I listen to my patients and reflect on these readings, one of the things that occurred to me that seems to be one of those great universals is our tendencies to get really, really attached to things sometimes. The Israelites became overly attached to their memories of the good old days. That things perhaps never really were as they remembered them didn’t really matter, it was their attachment to them that was the thing that caused the problem ; their attachment to how they wanted it to be (“how it used to be”) that got in the way of gratitude for what was now before them. Their loss of gratitude led them to further rebel against Moses and ultimately, against God, leading to consequences that affected them and their children through several generations.
It is clear that disciples deeply loved Jesus. They cannot stand the idea that he will be taken from them simply because they do love him as rabbi and teacher and friend. But they also had an idea about who he was and should be that came to them through their own understanding in the culture and the scriptures and they were attached to this idea as well. When this idea is challenged, this is upsetting to them. All of this gives rise to the infighting and finger-pointing that Jesus is responding to in his strongly worded comments, that are ultimately, if we read closely…about attachments!
I think it’s safe to say that most of us feel pretty closely attached to body parts…to our hands, feet, eyes. The parts of us that enable us to apprehend the world and navigate through it, indeed these things that can help us do God’s work as God’s eyes and hands and feet in the world. And yet, Jesus says, if these most useful things become obstacles, if they get in the way of connection with God, especially for one of the least or vulnerable ones …off they should go.
I think it’s also safe to say that many of us have some things that we feel pretty closely attached to. And in this case I’m not really thinking about our stuff or our body parts. I’m thinking more about the beliefs and values and attitudes we hold. The shoulds and shouldn’ts we have in life, the “rules of the game” as we see them. Sometimes, like the Israelites and the disciples, we get attached to these things because we are struggling and stressed and we just need something dear and familiar to hang on to…and that comfortable, familiar “way we have always done things,” or safe corner of knowing that “this is simply the ways things are and there can be no discussion” we can retreat to can provide that.
Sometimes we get attached to our thoughts and beliefs and ideas simply because we are so very, very passionate about something. And this is a good thing. It gets things done and makes things happen, and generally makes the world a better place. After all, Jesus calls us to be salty people, to stand up and take risks and let our voices be heard in defense of the outcast and weak and the powerless.
And yet, Jesus also says, be peacemakers. So then…what if our attachments to a thought, a belief, an opinion, a way of doing something becomes an obstacle to another finding a way to God, a way to being in community with us…what then? What if our attachment to speaking our truth keeps us from deeply listening to and hearing other voices? What if our attachment to the way we see the world keeps us from seeing another, from considering them, from connecting with them, from loving them?
So many of us define our lives as Christians by our passions and beliefs and strong voices. We strive to create churches that are welcoming places to the poor and the disenfranchised. I have absolutely no doubt that people who might struggle to feel comfortable in many places would find open doors and open hearts in our communities. And yet I wonder….are there those who would find obstacles in these places to God’s love? Are there stumbling blocks we place before others, unknowingly, enthusiastically and with the best of intent that would be obstacles to them? Is there something we are attached to….words, attitudes, beliefs or ways of being that might cause anyone to feel less than welcomed, less than loved, or just “less than” that we might need to change? Are there things we need to do to balance our saltiness with our peace that all may truly find welcome among us?