The Little Ones

Scripture can be found here

For the past several months my daughter has been in rehearsal for a play that goes up next weekend in Beverly, MA. (That’s right next to Salem, MA.) It’s a devised play, which means, the director started with characters and situations, but has allowed the actors to develop their dialogue scene by scene.

The play is called “Daemonologie: Blood and Bones.” It takes place in 17th century New England, and will be performed in a 17th century farmhouse owned by one of the characters in the story. My daughter plays a servant who has begun having mysterious fits, and if you’re familiar with any of the history of the Salem witch trials, you can begin to imagine where her plotline is going.

Modern day writers, including psychologists, scientists, and plain old armchair enthusiasts have suggested reasons for the “fits” related to accusations of witchcraft. They range from hysteria, to poisoning by contaminated crops, to a particular type of encephalitis, to a need and desire for attention combined with jealousy. Whatever the cause or causes, the fact remains: for a period of time, certain symptoms became associated with the presence of evil, and the community wanted nothing more than to root it out.

This morning the gospel of Mark once again tells us a story involving people who have been possessed by demons. Just out of curiosity, I looked back over the gospel, from the beginning to the end of chapter nine, because it seemed to me, we’ve heard a lot about demons. As it turns out, this is the seventh mention of demons in nine chapters, and I believe this tells us that the presence of demons was a pervasive, ongoing concern in this place and at this time.

And I think we need to sit with that for a moment. We need to sincerely try to understand this without waving it away as something merely superstitious or from a more primitive era: In the gospels, demons pose a real threat to people’s health and well-being. Whatever modern science has suggested to us as possible explanations for what the bible calls “possession,” certain behaviors and symptoms people displayed in this place, and at this time, became associated with the presence of evil. That community felt completely helpless against this evil until Jesus came along, and started, in his own way, to root it out. The way of Jesus, the way of God, is healing, and wholeness.

And here come the disciples, and they are predictable, aren’t they? They have taken news of someone else casting out demons—someone not-them, invoking Jesus’ name and successfully healing people of this terrible thing—and they’ve turned it into something about them. Specifically, that, gosh, we’re being left out. (You may recall that, a few weeks ago, our reading mentioned that the disciples had failed to cast out demons. So, there’s maybe a bit of jealousy in there?)

Healing is at the heart of the reign of God that Jesus so often talks about. The gospels tell us that Jesus is the great physician who is able to alleviate a fever, to stop a 12-year hemorrhage, to bring a dead girl back to life, to make the blind to see, to restore to the paralyzed man the ability to walk, and, yes, to cast out demon after demon after demon… whatever that means. Jesus is a healer, and healing and hope are at the heart of the reign of God.

And now Jesus learns, via his jealous disciples, that there is someone out there healing in his name—and the name of Jesus does seem to be central to the whole healing project. And his reaction is not at all to call a lawyer and file a “Cease and Desist” order, or to go find that rogue healer and tell him off. Instead, Jesus says, very simply, “Whoever is not against us, is for us.” And then, he proceeds to have a very serious discussion with his people. A discussion that cuts to the heart of the matter—if you will excuse the expression.

The disciples don’t get it… which, in a certain way, is incredibly comforting. Because I don’t always get it, we don’t always get it. These stories are both extremely simple and amazingly complex, and we can spend our lives digging ever deeper and still finding new treasures.

The disciples don’t get it. They’re saying, in effect, Hey, that other guy can’t cast out demons… we’re the only ones who get to do that. They are still talking much as they did last week; they’re still stuck on greatness, and status, and power. So Jesus says: “If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea” (Mark 9:42). You know how big a millstone is, right? These massive stones used for grinding grain can weigh anywhere from a half a ton to a ton or more. A millstone around the neck is a shocking image; it’s overkill. Literally.

We talked this week in the Monday bible study about who exactly “the little ones” might be. Last week’s passage ended with Jesus holding a little child as an example of who was the greatest in God’s reign. But it’s clear from this passage that the people who are being healed are also among them. A search through the gospels suggests that “little ones” are those Jesus calls elsewhere “the least of these”: the poor, the vulnerable, the sick, the scared… someone possessed by a demon would certainly make the list. Also, anyone who had witnessed healing in Jesus’ name, and maybe, just maybe, had started to wonder about Jesus. Had begun to dare to begin to believe. And so Jesus says, I swear, you guys, if you scare off these vulnerable people—any of these little ones—with your jealousy, your need to be top dog—you’d be better off at the bottom of the briny deep than you will be when I get done with you.

The next part of what Jesus says is shocking and a little gross. Cut off your hand; cut off your foot; pluck out your eyes, if any of them leads you away from God.

Jesus is telling his disciples that they are responsible for their actions. They can’t blame their own behavior on anyone else. They can’t say, “But he was casting out demons without our permission,” as an excuse for stopping healing from happening. They can’t say, “He made me angry” as a defense for violence. They can’t say, “But she was wearing a short skirt,” as a defense for sexual assault. The responsibility is theirs, and theirs alone. It is their responsibility if they respond to someone offering healing outside their little circle as if it somehow diminishes them. It is their responsibility if they focus more on turf wars, or who is the greatest, than on what Jesus came to do, which he says very clearly in the very first chapter of Mark.

Jesus said, “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.” And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons. ~ Mark 1:38-39

The message? The reign of God is here; turn your life around and believe in God’s love.

I don't know about you, but this has been a tough week for me, and for a lot of people I love. Our nation spent several days more or less glued to the TV and other media as we watched dramatic testimony in the confirmation hearings for our next Supreme Court Justice. And for anyone who has ever been the victim of violent physical or sexual assault, this was very, very difficult. Women in particular found a new urgency to tell their stories, sometimes for the very first time.

All of us, at different times, find ourselves in need of healing. All of us have difficult stories to share… or maybe, which we choose to keep to ourselves.

At the same time, all of us are called to bring God’s healing to a hurting world. “That is what I came to do,” says Jesus, and then he goes out, proclaiming that message and casting out those demons.

I wonder… what can each of us do, today, to help someone else to turn away from their demons? What words of comfort and strength can we offer one another in the face of our mutual woundedness? At the end of our reading, Jesus says a couple of mysterious-sounding things about salt, and then, finally, settles on, “Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.”

We talked about salt in our Bible Study, too. We pondered sayings like “You are the salt of the earth,” and phrases like “old salt” and “worth his salt.” Salt is used for seasoning today, but has been used to preserve foods for nearly 8000 years. At one point salt was so precious it was used as a commodity for trading, and even as currency. The word “salary” comes from the Latin word for “salt.” Salt has a history of adding flavor, adding value; of preserving and enhancing; and has come to symbolize human goodness and safe harbor. And later in the week, I had a sudden memory of being 11 years old, with brand new braces on my teeth, and the only soothing thing in those first uncomfortable weeks was gargling with warm water with a spoonful of salt mixed in.

We can offer these gifts to one another. We can be salt for one another in offering spaces for healing, whether that means sitting together in companionable silence or while sharing our painful stories. We can be salt for one another in recognizing one another’s value, one another’s basic human dignity, whether or not we are on the “same side.” We can be salt for one another by offering the gift of basic human goodness and kindness—no strings attached.

The reign of God is here, Jesus tells the people: turn your lives around; believe in God’s love. Even at this late date, when he and the disciples are well on their way to Jerusalem and the last days of Jesus’ ministry, he is still teaching them the Good News. Over and over again.

God’s reign is here, and that means the little ones are the greatest, the ones we should love, protect, and preserve. God’s reign is here, and the way of that reign is the way of healing and wholeness. God’s reign is here, and that means letting go of our notions of status and power and turning our hearts to those who need our care when life is hard and cruel.

God’s reign is here, and God is love. Love without limits, love that never runs out. Love that it is with you, even when you are haunted by your memories or frightened by the future. Love that is willing to listen to your story, to believe you, to stand by you. Love that will be angry with you, or infinitely sad, or simply quiet and at peace. Love that says, “You are not alone; I am with you.”

Thanks be to God. Amen.