Tuesday, October 02, 2012


Mk. 9:38-50[1]
One of my favorite Christmas stories is Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol.”  In it, Dickens tells the story of how Ebenezer Scrooge is transformed from a selfish, tight-fisted miser who could care less about the welfare of anybody else into a big-hearted, generous, and kind man.  Part of what effects this dramatic transformation is the fact that he’s visited by the ghost of Jacob Marley, his former partner who had been dead seven years.  Interestingly, the ghost of Jacob wore a long and heavy chain that he literally had to drag along with him.  When Scrooge asks Marley about it, he says that he wore the chain he forged in life—a chain forged by all the merciless, unjust, ruthless, and oppressive deeds he had done in life.  And he warned Scrooge that his own chain was as long and as heavy as his, and it had grown even longer and heavier over the seven years since Marley’s death!
It’s an interesting concept, that in death we wear chains forged from what we have done in life.  Though Marley claims that his chains were invisible until the day he died, I think it’s impossible for anyone to forge such a heavy chain of heartless unconcern for others without feeling something of its weight in this life. In our Gospel lesson for today, Jesus uses a different metaphor for the cost of a life lived at the expense of others—he says you might as well wear a millstone around your neck and throw yourself into the sea!  In case you are unfamiliar with the way grain used to be processed, a mill would grind the grain between two stones, the top one of which was called the millstone.  It was round and it was turned by livestock pulling in circles.  A modern day equivalent might be one of those cast-off tires full of cement that we use to hold up a volleyball net. 
Why would Jesus speak so harshly about “causing one of these little ones who believe in me to stumble”?  I think it was because he was serious about injustice.[2]  While the religious people of every day have identified sexual outcasts as the chief of sinners, Jesus pointed instead to the people used their power to diminish the lives of the least and the lowest in society, instead of helping them to thrive.[3]  In the eyes of the biblical prophets, this was the true sin that plagued Gods’ people, and I think it still plagues many who claim to follow Christ today.
I think there are a lot of people in our world who are walking around with virtual millstones.  They get rich because they are beautiful or talented or powerful or shrewd, and they help create a culture in which people think that the only way to have a decent life in this world is to be beautiful or talented or powerful or shrewd.  And if you can’t get rich that way, then you have to get rich any way you can—“get rich or die tryin’” as the rapster “50 cent” puts it.
And in the wake of this outlook on life is an unbelievable trail of the wreckage of human lives.  We have all kinds of monuments today that are named for the “robber barons” of the past.  People who enriched themselves literally on the backs of thousands who labored in poverty.  People whose hands are stained with the blood of those who died in substandard housing, with indecent living conditions, and barely enough food for their families. And today, their names are proudly displayed on our monuments—hospitals, universities, concert halls.  But if anybody is walking this world as a ghost dragging long and heavy chains, it is those who profit from the labor and the misfortune of the masses.
It’s easy to look back and identify the “robber barons” of the past.  But I wonder who they are in our day and time.  I think of the entertainment moguls and the sports moguls and the financial moguls as likely candidates.  They continue to keep people enthralled in the illusion of a “good life” for those who are beautiful or talented or shrewd enough.  But in our Gospel lesson, Jesus confronted the “moguls” of his day head on.  He told them it was better for them to cut off their own hands and gouge out their own eyes than to keep oppressing people the way they were doing.  Now, Jesus knew that “sin” isn’t located in any particular body part; he was exaggerating to make a point.[4]  But I’m afraid his warning fell on deaf ears, just as it does in large part today. 
So what can we as average, everyday people do about the injustice and the inequality that pervades our world?  Well, I really do believe in a version of “think globally, and act locally.”  I really do believe that we are making a difference in this world just by keeping on with the life of “doing justly, loving mercy, and walking humbly with God.”  As we do so we can help dispel the illusion that you have to be beautiful or powerful to have the “good life.”  And Just as Jesus did, I think we too can confront those who demean and diminish others to enrich themselves—whether they’re in Hollywood or on Wall Street or in Washington. 
But I think we also have to remember that we all have diminished another at some time in our lives.[5]  We all have our own millstones around our necks.  Fortunately, the same Christ who confronts all who enhance their own welfare at the expense of another also offers to set us free from our millstones.[6]  All of us who carry millstones, whether we’re “average” or a “mover and shaker,” suffer from what we do when we diminish others.  It’s no fun walking around with a millstone around your neck!   And just as Jesus offers freedom to the oppressed, he offers us all the chance to be set free from our oppressive deeds.  Like Ebenezer Scrooge, all we have to do is change our hearts and change our ways, and our millstones come falling off.

[1] © 2012 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 9/30/12 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.
[2] Cf. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 4.2:158.  He says, “It is because of His own clear-cut decision [to be about God’s business] that in the encounter with Him others must choose between Himself and all the things that perhaps seem necessary and important to them, e.g., wealth or satisfaction or pleasure or reputation.”  It seems to me that justice is the heart of the “business” that Jesus said he must be engaged in.
[3] Cf. Craig A. Evans, Mark 8:27-16:20, 74: “Arrogance, self-absorption, insensitivity, and tyranny are all negative attitudes that frequently lie behind the desire to be first and to be the greatest (9:34). Just as frequently these attitudes cause people to stumble, especially the younger, weaker, and less influential. Far from seeking positions of power, Jesus’ disciples should seek opportunities for service. Rather than causing the little ones to stumble, the disciples must help them stand and grow in faith. The matter is so important to Jesus that he describes the dire consquences in shocking hyperbole: better to drown oneself in the sea than to offend a little one.”
[4] Cf. Ronald Goetz, “The Costliness of Grace,” The Christian Century (Feb 6, 1986):111: “To be sure, the hand-chopping, eye-plucking remedy for sin could never work, if for no other reason than the fact that we have more sins than we have bodily parts.”  Cf. also A. Y. Collins and H. W. Attridge, Mark, 452; Pheme Perkins, “The Gospel of Mark,” New Interpreters Bible VIII:641.
[5] Cf. Joel C. Marcus, “The Millstone,” The Christian Century (Sept 13, 2000):902.
[6] Cf. Marcus, “Millstone,” 902: “The calculus of revenge seems too complicated! There must be some other equation, or no hope will remain for any of us. And, indeed, the New Testament seems to hint at another equation when Paul says that God has imprisoned all human beings in disobedience in order that he might have mercy upon all (Rom. 11:32).”

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