One day last winter, I was driving our shiny, red, new-to-us Prius, in the middle of a snowstorm. The traffic jammed up on the interstate, so I decided to get off and take the streets. I glanced over my shoulder and noticed nothing. I turned the wheel to the right, to move over into the exit lane. Immediately, I heard honking. I pressed the gas pedal, trying to accelerate as quickly and safely as possible in the slippery conditions. A few seconds later, a black SUV slammed into my bumper. The honking continued, insistent, sustained, and angry. The truth is, all last fall, I had been struggling to notice vehicles in adjacent lanes while driving the new car. I would change lanes, and a car would suddenly surprise me, appearing in my rear view mirror just inches from my bumper. The design of the Prius seemed to create a larger-than-usual blind spot, and to throw off the reliability of my peripheral vision.
One of Pope Francis’ themes is “the periphery.” Those who wish to follow Jesus must, in the words of Francis, “get out of ourselves and follow him to the periphery. Jesus,” the Pope declares, “went to all, really all.” As I reflected on this idea that Jesus draws us to the periphery, my experience driving the Prius came to mind. It was quite unsettling to realize that a reflex I had come to take for granted—the casual glance over the shoulder—was no longer adequately serving me. I had to completely retrain myself: to fully turn my head, to carefully and intentionally examine my blind spot. It strikes me that this process of relearning a driving habit is kind of a parable for Christian discipleship. Disciples are those who train themselves to cultivate peripheral vision—looking over our shoulders and into our blind spots, seeing what Jesus sees: those at the edges of society’s concern, in pain, in need, without power or voice.
Today’s Gospel passage is just weird, isn’t it? It’s full of bizarre and disturbingly violent imagery: mill stones hung from the neck of drowning disciples; the threat of hands and feet lopped off; a worm that doesn’t die; fiery salt and salty fire. I won’t claim to have it all figured out. But it helped a lot to realize that this whole conversation is a continuation of Jesus’ teaching about true greatness. The disciples, as the story unfolds, get stuck in tattling and finger pointing. “Look at this guy casting out demons, Jesus! He’s using your name. Claiming your power. Who does he think he is?” Jesus responds, “Whoever is not against us is for us.” In other words, there’s no patent on his brand. He’ll collaborate with anyone willing to collaborate with him. It’s God’s power, after all, that’s loose in the world, through Jesus, and none of us can control or own that! In essence, the judgmental behavior of the disciples is a sign that they don’t understand (or don’t agree with) Jesus’ priorities. Their finger pointing is a distraction from the real mission of Jesus. Jesus calls them to go with him to the periphery, and there to enact the kingdom of God, to receive from God a new society in which the last are first; and the greatest are the servants of all. At the heart of this sacred community is the Christ-like welcome of the little ones—symbolized by the vulnerability of a child.
I listened to the Pope’s address to congress, marveling at the strangeness of the moment. How different the Pope is from our legislative leaders in his ways of conceiving and using power, in his priorities! What an amazing moment of witness, as Francis called these worldly, wealthy, important people, to place those at the periphery at the center of their concern: migrants, prisoners, children, the poor, and our home, the earth. Pope Francis is not such a radical theologian and certainly not an impassioned orator, at least in English! The remarkable thing about him is that he comes as close as any person to being an authentic disciple of Jesus.
The website Upworthy reports:
In a highly symbolic moment, Francis will pass on lunch with lawmakers after addressing Congress and will dine instead with homeless people in Washington… The meal will take place at St. Patrick’s Church in Washington, D.C. Washington City Paper reports that “Pope Francis plans to spend an hour with the group and will help serve the meal along with about 70 volunteers.” Blowing off John Boehner and Nancy Pelosi to serve blondies to homeless people is pretty much [what] we’ve come to expect from this pope when it comes to speaking up for the world’s most hard-up.
Professor Micah Kiel argues that the conversation Jesus has with the disciples in today’s passage probably does not reproduce an actual moment from his ministry. It’s more likely a story crafted by the early Christian community to address the dilemma of it’s own diversity and disagreement. Clearly, there were many different kinds of Christian theologies, practices and claims of authority in those days just as there are today. The message seems to be that, amid this challenge of disunity, disciples of Jesus just keep on following Jesus. We don’t judge. We don’t point fingers. Instead, we examine ourselves with as much honesty as we can muster. We cultivate peripheral vision. We crane our necks to look into our blind spots, to see as Jesus sees and value what Jesus values. We go with Jesus to the periphery, to the edge, the margin. And we collaborate with anyone willing to collaborate with us.
In my humble opinion, the Pope has his blind spots. But I couldn’t agree more with Bishop Gene Robinson, the first openly gay bishop in the Episcopal Church who wrote to Francis last week:
We disagree in our understandings about sexuality and the diverse and wonderful ways God has made us. But as far as I am concerned, that does not keep me from admiring you and praying for you and your ministry…. We have so much that binds us together, and so little that separates us. We are probably never going to settle those differences. As for me, I am willing to acknowledge the saintly integrity with which you hold your views, even if I disagree with them, as I hope you might acknowledge my striving for integrity in mine. It seems that in these times, the greatest sin would be to write one another off and to stop caring about one another.
So let’s return to our text’s wild rhetoric about drowning and losing limbs and the fires of hell. The warnings and threats are hyperbole. They are designed to wake the early Christian community up, to get them to take Jesus’ message seriously. The real problem, this story implies, is not “them” “over there.” It’s us, you, and me. We need to take a look at ourselves and the witness we present to the world. How do we, as a church community today, create stumbling blocks for the little ones Jesus loves so much? How are we failing to understand, and to live, Jesus’ priorities, his mission?
What will it take for the last to be first—among us? For us to seek greatness in servant hood? For us to welcome Christ, by welcoming the little ones he loves? What is the price we will pay to follow Jesus in this way? What will we lose? What is it that we need to let go of, or let die? Whatever the cost, Mark’s Gospel claims, it’s worth it. It’s better to lose something that feels utterly essential (like parts of our body, like our accustomed lifestyles) than to continue to support evils that bring hunger and death to the vulnerable, that pollute and destroy God’s creation, that establish hell on earth for so many.
Friends in Christ, let us follow rather than pointing fingers. Let us collaborate instead of judging. Let us examine our blind spots. Let us go to the periphery with Jesus. Amen.