The Love Paradigm

Mark 9:38–50, preached by Rev. Jane McBride on September 26, 2021

This weekend the Minnesota Council of Churches launched a ten-year reparations process, with an event called “Finally Telling the Truth.” This effort is the first of its kind in the country. It gives me hope that Minnesotans can break out of our patterns of racism on repeat, that we can get beyond our nice words and good intentions and move into a place of active healing and repair. One of the keynote speakers at this weekend’s event was Christine Diindiisi McCleave, CEO of the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition. From her point of view, the shared trauma of the COVID pandemic has inaugurated a crucial shift. This experience of vulnerability is changing things. She said a spiritual movement is afoot that is bigger than any of us; miracles are happening;we are in an era of awakening. Countless Black men and boys have been murdered by the police. And yet, at last, the murder of George Floyd provoked a global uprising. And, as she explained, the families and the government both knew about the unmarked graves at residential schools in Canada. But the public acknowledgement of this crime is new. She said that over the last several years, our government has been slowly returning the bodies of native children who were stolen from their families, abused and murdered in boarding schools. This year, a caravan of 400 cars accompanied the bodies of children home to the Rosebud reservation. Never before, she said, has there been such an immense outpouring of grief.

In today’s Gospel passage, Jesus and his disciples are in the middle of a conversation. Previously, Jesus had brought a child into their circle—little and vulnerable; and, in the culture of their time, disposable, a person whose life did not matter. Jesus taught the disciples that in his community, values were reversed. The practice of welcoming little ones was central to their life together. Among Jesus’ followers, no one should seek to be the biggest and the best. The community should instead seek to serve one another and show solidarity with the smallest and the least. Today’s section of the conversation begins with John’s statement: “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” These words may seem disconnected from what has come before, but in fact, they are a reaction to it. They reveal John’s profound resistance to Jesus’ teaching.

John is upset because outsiders are wielding the power of Jesus’ name, and using this name to bring freedom to people possessed by destructive forces. John doesn’t want to share this healing power. He wants to control it, to keep tabs on it, to decide when and how to dole it out to those in need. Jesus rejects this arrogance, saying: “Whoever is not against us is for us.” John is mirroring the domination culture around them, the same worldview and way of being that hoards power and uses it abusively against children. Jesus’ paradigm is instead characterized by love, which is manifest in collaboration and inclusion. And Jesus pushes his point further: his disciples should not always be the ones giving, the ones in control, the ones with power. If they are willing to receive even a cup of cold water from an outsider, then they will be able to recognize that person as an ally and co-conspirator, rather than a competitor. They will listen and learn instead of needing to be the experts. They will experience kinship with all who practice mercy and justice.

The first three practices of revolutionary love we are exploring are ways of loving others—wonder, grieve and fight. This past week, we’ve been wondering about others, seeking to re-train our eyes to see others not as separate from ourselves but as a part of ourselves we do not yet know. Soon you’ll hear more about this week’s invitation to grieve with others. In her book See No Stranger, Valerie Kaur describes how, after 9/11, she and her cousin drove across the US for months, recording the stories of Sikh and Muslim people who were the victims of hate crimes. Here’s one of these stories, told in Kaur’s words:

Navinderdeep Nijher was one of the first doctors at Ground Zero. [He] stayed at the triage center all night, treating firefighters. In the haze of floodlights, he saw bodies carried past him covered in gray ash—one man with half his head missing, another with his toes missing. Body parts arrived in bags. Nausea overcame him. He kept his head down and focused on saving the life in front of him. Three days later, he stumbled home to sleep for a few hours, got up, and went out for a walk. “There goes one of those terrorists!” someone shouted. More people pointed at his turban and yelled, “Hey, you terrorist, go back to your country!” He rushed back home. His roommate told him not to go anywhere alone. From then on, he went only from home to hospital, hospital to home, for weeks, even after Newsweek published an article that named him one of the heroes of 9/11.

Reflecting on an array of deeply painful stories like this one, Kaur concludes the that the fuel for this injustice and hypocrisy is our collective inability to grieve with others. She says:

Many [in America] who suffered enormous loss and destruction have had to do so alone, had to marshal language to tell the story, only to find that there was no one to hear it because their suffering contradicts the story that the nation keeps telling itself—the story of American exceptionalism. America is a beacon of light, the singular enforcer of truth. Our story of exceptionalism doesn’t allow us to confront our past with open eyes. A nation that cannot see its own past cannot see the suffering it has caused, suffering that persists into the present. A nation that cannot see our suffering cannot grieve with us. A nation that cannot grieve with us cannot know us, and therefore cannot love us. (See No Stranger, pp. 57–58)

In the middle section of Jesus’ conversation with his disciples, he returns overtly to the child, the little one, who is in the midst. Jesus has been teaching his community to be ready to receive the gifts of outsiders. Now he warns the disciples that threats to the community’s integrity may very well come from within its own inner circle. Though the love of Jesus is radically inclusive, Jesus is very clear that this love cannot tolerate behavior that does harm to little ones. It’s better to die than to perpetuate a system of domination and abuse. Losing a part of one’s self—a hand, a foot, an eye—is preferable to continuing to live in a way that injures the community.

To translate a bit, those of us who hold white privilege may need to relinquish something—money, land and power, cherished beliefs and cultures, and biases. To state it positively, consider the possibility that we will all be happier and more alive if we renounce the culture of domination, if we cut ties with the parts of ourselves that are addicted to competition and control, that are driven to hoard wealth and power, and that believe we have the right to own the land and other beings. We will feel pain, as we grieve with those who have been harmed. And we will be free at last from the hell we have created, this hellish lack of justice, this unquenchable fire that is our failure to love others.

Jesus’ final words about salt have long puzzled interpreters. The phrase “salted with fire” is a complete mystery. And it is chemically impossible for salt to lose its saltiness. Apparently, however, in the Hebrew scriptures, salt is a symbol of covenant, a sign of the promise that God and God’s people make to each other, a tangible reminder of the community that is formed with gift of divine love. That’s good enough for me. May Christ bless this community with saltiness, with covenant-love that centers the little ones, that resists the impulse to dominate and control, that chooses collaboration and mutuality, that grieves with and heals with others, and that awakens a world of justice and peace. Amen.