Sermon for the Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost, September 26, 2021 – the Rev. Dr. Elaine Ellis Thomas

ASEP Sermons

Esther 7:1-6,9-10, 9:20-22+Psalm 124+James 5:13-20+Mark 9:38-50

There is a scene early in the 1987 classic Cher film, Moonstruck, on the morning after spending the night with her fiancé’s brother, Loretta Castorini (played by Cher) tells Ronnie Cammareri (played by Nicolas Cage) that they have to forget that their little tryst ever happened, and they have to forget about each other because she’s going to marry his brother. Ronnie objects, saying he can’t do that because he’s falling in love with her. To that little announcement, Cher/Loretta walk over to him and smacks him across the face, not once but twice and shouts, “Snap out of it!”

Here at the end of the 9th chapter of Mark, I do believe that Jesus is saying to his disciples, “Snap out of it!”

Jesus has turned his face toward Jerusalem, made two predictions about what is going to happen when he gets there, and here they are all worried that some other person who is not part of the in-group is casting out demons. You can almost hear the exasperation in his voice.

“C’mon guys, he’s not hurting us. And why are you so worried about what somebody else is doing instead of making sure you’re on the right track? Are your hands doing the work of God’s reign? Are your eyes seeing others as God sees them? Are your feet walking in paths of righteousness where the people of God are in need? If they aren’t, you’d best take care of that instead of pointing fingers at some other person or group, as if you’re all that. Whoever is not against us is for us. Snap out of it!”

Don’t forget that last week we read about the disciples arguing who amongst themselves was the greatest and Jesus taking a child into their midst and telling them to welcome the children, the little ones, as if they are welcoming him and the God who sent him. The next thing they say, or at least, that John says is that there’s some guy over here doing good works and we need to stop him because he’s not one of us. John and the others don’t seem to be able to stay on message with Jesus. Maybe it’s too painful or too profound or just plain scary, so let’s deflect from the really important stuff by pointing to that shiny object over there.

We all do this, really. It’s how we are made, psychologically. When our emotional pain destabilizes us, we tend to externalize it rather than dealing with it. We point out someone else’s faults rather than confessing our own. We project our own shame about some inadequacy we sense in ourselves and criticize others for the same thing. And Jesus says, “Snap out of it!”

Jesus doesn’t teach the disciples hard things because he’s angry with them or disappointed in them. No, he tells them these things to prepare them because he knows how hard the road is going to be. He tells them because he loves them. And that kind of love is hard for some to bear. They’d rather deflect that kind of intense, all-encompassing love elsewhere.

The poet Caroline Bird wrote about our inability to receive love from another in her collection, In These Days of Prohibition

When love comes through
the vents, you press wet rags against
of your loneliness; you tape egg boxes
to your ears so you can’t hear
the hissing; you swathe yourself
in shame like vinegar
and brown paper. At sundown,
you gather up the rags
and press them to your face
like the dress of a lover, hoping for
a slight effect, the remnants of a rush –
not enough to change your mind – just
enough to pacify the night.[1]

Go away from me, Peter said, for I am a sinful man (Luke 5:8). Sometimes Jesus is more than we can bear because it heightens our sense of falling short, of not living up to who Jesus says we are, beloved of God. Who me? What did I ever do to deserve such love?

Nothing, actually. There is nothing I or you or anyone else can do to merit God’s mercy and love and forgiveness. All we can do is receive it. Resist the urge to cover the vents with a cloth for fear of some of that love seeping in.

The Letter of James gives us a pretty good idea of what a community of faith living in that love should look like, praying for one another, asking not just for God’s forgiveness but for forgiveness from one another, “so that you may be healed,” James writes (5:16). God’s healing of our troubled hearts and minds is mediated through the prayer and forgiveness of our neighbors. In the company of a community of faith, our feet stay on the right path, our eyes are fixed on heavenly things, and our hands are out to use doing the work of healing.

Sometimes it feels like we are doing battle on every front. Anti-vaxxers over here, barring asylum-seekers over there, conspiracy-theorists all around us. It is exhausting. But our strength and courage come from each other, from time spent in prayer, from loving and forgiving one another in Jesus’s name.

“Our help is in the Name of the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth,” the psalmist said (124:8).

So don’t be dismayed. Don’t be distracted by what others might be doing better or more “successfully” or maybe not the way we do things. When you feel your anxiety or fear or discomfort arising and start to lash out or blame or have your attention diverted to whatever is happening over there, snap out of it. We have work to do, together.

[1] Carcanet Press Ltd. (August 1, 2017)

ASEPSermon for the Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost, September 26, 2021 – the Rev. Dr. Elaine Ellis Thomas