Rev. Dr. Greg Osterberg
John said to him, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried
to stop him, because he was not following us.” But Jesus said, “Do not stop him; for no one
who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterwards to speak evil of me.
Whoever is not against us is for us. For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to
drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.
“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; it is better for you to enter life maimed than
to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to
stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown
into hell. And 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.
“For everyone will be salted with fire. Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you
season it? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.”
You know, there is a lot of weird stuff in the Bible! If not “weird,” then hard to discern,
understand, even “believe” — at least at face value. So much of this is in “The Good Book,” that
sometimes, don’t you wonder how any “good news” at all could get out, even from between the
Today’s reading in Mark, for example: demons, stumbling-block, millstone around neck,
unquenchable fire, never-dying worms, hell… and the gouging & cutting of body parts!
Sounds like a Wes Craven horror movie!
But, believe it or not, there is good new in there! We’ll get to that… eventually!
“Do you believe in the Bible?” the vigilant college student asked me, checking on me as
College Chaplain. What his test question looked for, is a dogma that The Bible is a perfect
instruction book like that Owners Manual tucked in the glove compartment of your car. If only!
So, hearing “Do you believe in the Bible?” I often relpied,
“Sure. But, what do you mean by that?!”
“If you mean that somehow God reached down and moved the hand of biblical writers as
if performing “automatic writing” — like a medium in a seance — sending us cryptic
messages. No, I don’t believe in that.”
But… I do believe that: somehow Divine Love still seeks to get through to us, even through the
imperfect lives and human words written down in the Bible — and lived here and there since!
In the Kindergarten class our son Erik attended in New Zealand years ago, the teacher, Ms.
Noakes, would exclaim, “Use your brains, children!”
I think God would say the same regarding the Bible! “Use your brains, children!”
The Bible did not fall out of the sky, an instruction book from God, neatly packaged in black
leather, gold leaf trim, with a nice ribbon bookmark attached!
But, that’s how some people use it.
John Robinson, in 1620, (English Pastor to UCC forebears) told Pilgrims sailing to seek
religious freedom in America,
“There has yet more light and truth to break forth out of God’s holy Word.”
Yes! And, it is our job to discern together with mind, & heart, & shared wisdom
what is being said now, as “God is still speaking…” through the Good Word and in our lives
Now, all parts of the Bible are “not created equal” as if it’s a tech manual, or a dictionary.
The Bible is a library, more than just a “book.” It’s a library with lots of different kinds of books,
and lots of genres of “spiritual” literature:
History & mystery /, geneology & laws / wisdom, prayers, poetry, letters and gospels…
Not only that, but context matters! Where does a story, or a teaching, or a parable happen?
“Where” makes a huge difference in meaning.
Where in history? Where in physical locale? Where in the book itself does it happen?
Our Gospel Reading this morning, (Gospel genre) happens physically where Jesus is in
“private training” with his closest leaders. Capernaum was their home base, they were indoors.
First, Jesus nixes their ideas about having an exclusive franchise on God, saying,
“Whoever is not against us is for us.”
Inclusive faith — from the get-go! This tells the expanding, culturally diverse early churches,
first readers of Mark: “Be accepting!” That late first century is when Mark’s first readers saw
this (historical context!) Plus, it was just as persecutions took hold, & Jerusalem fell. So…
“make friends where you can!” right?
Next, in our reading — Jesus goes hyperbolic! He exaggerates!
“If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off;
it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands
and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire.”
Yikes! Now, many fundamentalists I’ve known, and loved, like to say “I believe in the Bible, it is
all literally true, and you cannot interpret…”
They read Jesus’ words, “cut it off” (a wayward hand that is) and often say, “That’s a teacher’s
exaggeration — hyperbole!”
But, as Jesus’ next sentence ends, a fundamentalist shifts back to literalism for “to hell, to the
Wait… Hand-cutting is hyperbole, but not Hell? That’s neither logical, nor honest, is it?
The “where,” the context, it matters!
Same goes for lots of other difficult (or weird) Bible readings, so often quoted out of context,
Conservative Fundamentalists, who like to be called “Evangelicals” implying “good-news,”
often love to quote Old Testament Law — when it suits their argument against something.
And, “against something” usually equals bad news, not good news!)
A favorite book for this is Leviticus, a book of Hebrew tribal laws, like:
“Thou shalt not wear cloth made of 2 different kinds of yarn,
it is an abomination,” Thou shalt be put to death.” (What?!)
“Thou shalt not eat [shellfish] it is an abomination; and thou shalt be put to death.” (What?!)
These decrees are in the same literary context as:
“Thou shalt not lie with male as with a woman; it is an abomination;” “Both shall be put to
Wait… So, between eating lobster, wearing wool/acrylic-blend sweaters, or being gay, most of
us would be facing death by stoning for one reason or another! Unless… we “use our brains!”
which God gave us, and understand these ancient laws were for a pre-scientific, tribe of
nomads, living under a sacrificial religion in the desert, struggling to preserve identity and
enlarge their tribe, some 3000 years ago!
That’s a very different historical “context” than today, when we know scientifically that:
— some people are just genetically allergic to shell-fish
— some people are just genetically gay
— most people just genetically hate itchy sweaters!
Still, the “Word of God” is somehow written there between the lines of all those many kinds of
words in Scripture. So keep reading “The Good Book!” There is “good news” there. It just takes
a little work to sort it out, to hear this “God who is still speaking,” who keeps trying to get a
Word through to us!
Ultimately, as Fred Buechner puts it, all those words and genres of books in the Bible didn’t get
thru to humanity,
“So God tried once more in Jesus as the “perfect phrase” (mot juste) of God.”
“Jesus as the Word made flesh means, take it or leave it: in this life, death, life, God finally
manages to say what God is, and what human is.” [Frederick Buechner, Beyond Words]
So in the end, God is still trying to “get a word to us!”
In all our reading of the Good Book, we ourselves are intuitively seeking that living Word who
translates Divine love into human life “personally,” as Jesus did.
And, that Story goes on, in you, in me, as we too seek to translate that Divine love into human
To borrow from John’s gospel:
May that Divine “Word become flesh,” that Love that “dwelt among us,” now dwell in us, and
live through us, God… still speaking!