Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost 2021, Year B—26 September 2021
Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29. Psalm 124. Mark 9:38-50
May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight: O Lord, my strength and my redeemer. Amen.
There’s a significant danger with the gospel passage that we have just read.
The first danger is to take it absolutely literally. Fortunately most of us don’t, particularly the bit about plucking out sinful eyes and amputating stumbling feet. Even the most fervent Biblical literalist will draw the line at this point.
The second danger is not to take the text seriously enough. To find all sorts of ways to limit its impact, to use high blown language about metaphor and rhetoric. Both of these options, frankly, are a cop out!
Last weekend I attended a virtual conference organized by Holy Cross Parish and St Margaret’s Uniting Church. They invited Mr Jamie Isbister to respond to a series of questions on climate action put by two students from Dickson College. Mr Isbister is Australia’s Ambassador for the Environment and will be the lead in negotiations at the COP26 Conference soon to be held in Glasgow. Before I joined the Zoom I looked up Mr Isbister’s credentials. I expected to find that he was Climate Scientist or a Biologist or someone who knew David Attenborough! But he was none of these things.
His CV tells us he was Director, International Programs Caritas Australia; then AusAID’s Assistant Director General - Humanitarian and Africa Branch, then the head of AusAID Africa before leading the Humanitarian Division of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and finally becoming Australia’s Ambassador for the Environment.
He responded carefully and clearly to the questions put to him by the two students, both of whom were articulate and well informed. I’m sure that you can imagine that whilst the issues of CO2 and fossil fuels and sustainability were at the forefront of their thinking and questioning, another issue kept coming to the fore, that of justice. There is, I would suggest, a very good reason why the government have appointed someone with significant humanitarian credentials to negotiate on climate change, because the issue is as much an issue of justice as it is science.
In today’s passage from Mark’s gospel Jesus clearly is surrounded by his disciples, they have arrived in Capernaum and have retreated indoors; much is happening. The disciples it seems are discussing and arguing amongst themselves, who is the best, who is in and who is out. In the course of their conversation Jesus has taken one of the children of the household and probably has that child on his lap. We hear him today speak of ‘these little ones;’ they are to be welcomed, cherished, and he speaks harshly about the failure to care. There is debate about what this expression means, ‘these little ones’ is he referring to the child or to those generally who are vulnerable? I think both are valid. The child represents the vulnerable and in our discussion last weekend on climate action this became apparent. Our young folk are rightly concerned about the environment their faith in government and corporate sector has been diminished. But there is also the issue of the people of developing nations crying out for affordable power, some of the most vulnerable in our world. The voices of the young and the vulnerable are calling for justice.
Jesus responds to the disciples by suggesting that nothing is placed in the way of the vulnerable, he suggests that our response will be costly. Plucking out eyes and removing limbs is Jesus’ warning that the way forward for justice is one that is costly. He reminds his hearers that failure is hell!
Hell is the the valley of Hinnom and in Jeremiah, this was a horrific place where pagan idol worship led to human sacrifice. Isaiah also alluded to this scene when he wrote of a ‘burning place’ where ‘the fire is not quenched and the worm does not die.’ Jesus this morning quotes these words from Isaiah and they would have been familiar to those around him. The New Testament authors called this place ‘Gehenna’ in Greek and place this word on Jesus’ lips, what our contemporary bibles translate as ‘hell.’ This real, historical scene provides the background to our contemporary notion of hell. The similarities are obvious: fire, suffering, death, etc. We don’t need to be reminded of such things in our own nation and indeed in recent times in places not so very far from where I stand.
The poor old Hebrews wandering in the desert would have happily returned to lives of slavery in Egypt because there they could enjoy the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic! They were prepared to give up the freedom promised them for a simple diet! It does seem quite extraordinary. But it does reflect the attitude that we see around us and sometimes even find in ourselves. There is an unwillingness to change, to move forward, we might call it an unwitting sin, a sense that it is all too hard, and it would be so much easier and simpler just to stay as we are. But we can’t, if for no other reason than the issue of the environment is an issue of justice, an issue that lies at the very heart of our faith.
Our brothers and sisters in the Catholic Church are soon to gather in a plenary session one of the items on the agenda is the question: How might the Church in Australia respond to the call to ‘ecological conversion’? How can we express and promote a commitment to an ‘integral ecology of life’ in all its dimensions, with particular attention to the more vulnerable people and environments in our country and region?
Ours is clearly a call to ‘ecological conversion’; this involves repentance, the Psalmist rather says it all in regard the indifference that has been apparent in our inaction. Our faith tradition has much more to say than perhaps we realise; an integral ecology of life involves the entire creation and a complete reorientation of our relationships with all parts of our creation, particularly the most vulnerable. We need to work alongside other organisations who share this vision, as Jesus reminded his disciples today. Ultimately it is a vision for justice. Amen.