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Spiritual Plate


Series: Ordinary TIme

Category: 2018 Sermons

Passage: Mark 9:38-50

Speaker: Rev. Nicole Trotter

This week's passage from Mark lives within a larger context. Theirs a pattern. Patterns are wonderful opportunities for a greater awareness. If I do something once or twice that’s one thing, but when something becomes a pattern, it should cause any one of us to sit up and examine. Jesus is still predicting his passion and resurrection, followed by the disciples' lack of understanding. Throughout Mark, the disciples are often portrayed as clueless, confused or downright resistant. That’s a pattern. So in verses, 38-50 Jesus gets very specific in his teaching to clarify precisely what is expected of a disciple of Jesus.

That’s good news for us. We, like the disciples, will get confused, often do not understand and will need clarification. This morning’s scripture gives it to us straight. Keep your eyes on your own spiritual plate. Keep your eyes on your own plate is an OA saying intended to remind someone in recovery from food addiction that each person has their own path to healing, and the more we begin to compare what another is eating, the greater the chance for falling off the wagon. Why can they have bread? What does she have a cookie? Their plate looks fuller, I want that.

You see where am I going. Jesus turns the focus back onto the disciples themselves. The disciples have complained to Jesus about a rival exorcist whom they tried to stop. He’s not following you like we are but are casting out demons, and healing people in your name. We should tell him he’s not doing it right. Jesus essentially tells them to lay off, because "whoever is not against us, is for us" (verse 40). We get this clear message that the disciples' finger-pointing will not go down well with Jesus. While they’re ready and eager to bring judgment on this outsider who is acting in Jesus' name, Jesus himself wants the disciples to pay attention instead to their own behavior. Keep your eye on your own spiritual plate,

Those who were first hearing Mark’s Gospel would have recognized themselves in the disciples' sense of competition over who can use Jesus' name, who is right, who has authority. Early Christian communities struggled in the midst of persecution, conflict over Jewish-gentile relations, and all the growing pains of an infant church seeking identity and faithful witness. Christian groups disagreed with one another, contested each other's claims, and even sought to censure one another. [1]

It's as though Jesus says, "The problem is not the folks outside our group. Don't worry about others -- they are not the problem. Rather, look to yourselves. How are you getting in the way of the gospel? How are you a stumbling block?”

How is that any different from what we do today? It happens all the time. It happened most often when I was in seminary. Students and faculty judging how the different churches did church. “They’re like a country club, they're too conservative, they're too light, too new age, they're too political, they get it, they don’t get it” In both contexts, of then and today, Mark's Jesus sends a pretty harsh warning; our judgment, our comparisons, distracts us. And those distractions create stumbling blocks. Spreading the good news of the gospel is our larger purpose, rooted in our identity as disciples, and anything that gets in the way of that is a stumbling block. Listen again;

“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. If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off;….if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; … if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell, where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched.” 

That is definitely not the calm blue-eyed Jesus with a lamb in his arms that many of us we were taught about in childhood.

So he’s really clear. 

Professor Amy Oden at Saint Paul School of Theology says… 

Even our best intentions to reprove others can have unintended consequences for innocent bystanders. Indeed, great damage is done to the gospel when Christians are preoccupied with infighting and self-righteous proclamations about others. (end quote)

Now I read that and thought, ok good…but wait a minute. What about when some are doing great harm. Now today’s Gospel, is clear, this man casting out demons isn’t hurting anyone, he’s healing people. The ones doing the harm are the disciples for criticizing. But what about when Christians who claim the Gospel are hurting others? When and how do we make that call? When is it time to keep our eyes on our own spiritual plate and when is it time to stand up and say, No, you’re actually misusing the Gospel to hurt people. Just, for example, this week, in speaking to the hearings that took place in the Judiciary committee, there was an evangelical preacher who made the news, because he quoted the bible and said, that rape isn’t rape unless a woman screams. 

You can bet that a statement like that not only causes me to look up from my spiritual plate but makes me angry enough to throw my plate in an attempt to smash his plate to the ground. Regardless of how you view the hearings, regardless of who you believe to be telling the truth, that statement, in the name of the Gospel has the potential to falsely lead vulnerable young women and men into understanding horrific violence as acceptable as long as the woman is quiet. 

And my point is not to stay focused on that statement but to refer this question back to Jesus if I were with him that day, I’d ask- “what do we do when someone isn’t healing in your name, but hurting in your name? How do we stand up and defend you? And how do we do it in a way that still embodies your teachings of love and kindness and patience?

This question of how we, as a people in a divided time among all aspects of our lives, how do we hold both anger and kindness together? We are complex beings very capable of feeling both things at once. There is great love in this world, and there is great anger over injustice. How do we feed one and fight the other simultaneously? 

John Paul Lederbach, senior fellow at Humanity United, and peace builder for the Kroc Institute at Notre Dame put it this way-

You can be angry, but don’t become bitter. You can be angry, but don’t refuse to talk. You can be angry, but don’t forget to love.


Many of you know I sit as a liaison for the Committee on Ministry for the Presbytery to the Pastor Nominating committee in Novato. It’s been a wonderful teaching experience in the context of identity. In the process of searching for a pastor, churches put out what's called a Mission Information form. In theory, it lets the Pastor who is looking for a call understand who that church is. Some churches know exactly who they are and others are vague. And that speaks to this question of identity and keeping our eyes on our own spiritual plate. Who are we as a church? Do we really know? We know some things about ourselves, we know we are warm and friendly. We know how to create community among ourselves pretty well and we are really good at caring for one another in crisis. That’s wonderful and I don't want to diminish that at all by asking the following question….In light of this scripture, what are our own stumbling blocks? What is getting in our own way of deepening our identity as disciples? Are we looking at the other churches and trying to figure out how we will market ourselves to compete? Or are we focused on discovering new ways that speak to the needs of our surrounding community and culture. Many would say, well we do both. I would say in light of the words of Jesus this morning, we might be creating our stumbling block. To focus on the work does not supersede the desired result- but allows the focus of the work to take care of the result as a byproduct. Or to use a sports metaphor, just focus the game, doing your best, and the results take care of themselves. 

Finally, in listening to that podcast I’m always recommending, On Being, there was an episode with Yo Yo Ma, famous cellist and all around seemingly good guy who describes the highlight of his career as appearing on Mister Rogers…In the interview, he talks about needing a better word for classical music which conjures up dead white European music. This speaks again to identity and wanting to cross barriers and reach people who hear that word and avoid it because of whatever negative connotations they’ve acquired.

The same is true today for the word church. Especially in Marin County. Maybe in your circle of friends that's not true and maybe all the people around you go to church, grew up in the church, etc. But I doubt it. The truth is the word church for most people a negative connotation. So if we were to come up with a new word what would it be? What would we want our mission information form to say? Who are we? How do we want to define church? Like we always have? And keep doing things the way we always have? Or do we want to understand this bigger defining moment in our culture as an opportunity to create new ways of doing church that might better reveal who we are- as an invitation for all people to discover who they can be in relationship with God, Christ, and community.

Here are a few of our stumbling blocks in making that happen; 

But that's the way it’s always been. That’ll never work. That'll cost too much. We don't have the time or space. Let someone else do it. I don't want to make that big of a commitment. Getting nervous too quickly. Speaking ill of the person in the pew next to you who wants the same things for the church you do. Focusing on what's not going well instead of what is working. 

We have been given an incredible opportunity to metaphorically create new words for church. To allow ourselves to ask not so much what can we do to get them in the door, but what are people searching for, and the best way to answer that, is to go back to your won spiritual plate and ask what's on it, and what do you wish was on it for you, not in comparison to what the person next to you has or doesn’t have. Our identity holds no boundaries when we understand our plates as overflowing with possibility.

Yo Yo Ma, in his interview, says this about why an audience shows up to listen…

I often think of Julia Child, “Oh, the chicken's fallen on the floor! Yes. Oh, well pick it up and put it right back.” And you know what? Everybody's with you. And even if nobody's going to touch the chicken, they're not going to let that moment spoil their evening. They'll remember, “Oh, yes, oh remember when Julia dropped that?”

So, it's like, “Oh, well, this happened. Boom!” But, actually, that's not why we're here, to watch the bad things that happened. So whatever you practice for on the engineering side that fails is all right, because we have a greater purpose; the greater purpose is that we're communing together and we want this moment to be really special for all of us. Because otherwise, why bother to have come at all? 

So it's not about how many people are in the hall. It's not about proving anything. It's about sharing something.

Keep your eyes on the spiritual plate, and share with others the abundance that is created in the limitless identity of Jesus Christ.


[1] Amy Oden, Commentary