In one of the Churches I served as an interim minister, I met a man we will call John. John was a wonderful and delightful man. He was dedicated to the Church and one of the people I could call on when I needed something. If I called John, he would drop whatever he was doing and rush to help.
Like me, John had come to the Church after being raised a Roman Catholic. There was not one instance or event that caused John to leave the Church of his birth; instead, it was after a long period of discernment. He felt more comfortable where he was now than he had ever felt before.
It was time for elections for the Church council to occur, and I asked John if he would be willing to serve. It felt right to me to ask John; he was, after all, dedicated to the Church. John said that he would pray about it and get back to me. After a couple of weeks, I asked John if he had come to a decision, and he answered that he was willing to serve.
After about a year, John came to me and said he needed to drop off the Council as he had determined it was not for him. He was constantly getting frustrated with the slow pace that the Council was taking. He wanted decisions to happen much faster than they were and felt like we were dragging our feet. He was also concerned that all we talked about was money.
John and I sat for a while and listened to all he had to say. I tried to explain that we needed to move slowly to ensure we were making the right decisions and that, unfortunately, the nature of Church councils is to be concerned for the temporal matters of the Church. The Council is the body that is responsible for the running of the Church and ensuring that all the bills are paid so we can continue to have a place to worship.
John said he understood but did not like coming home after meetings frustrated and having ill feelings toward others on the Council. So, again, I sat and listened and tried to offer wise counsel on the matter, but in the end, we determined it would be best for John to resign from the Council. I recall saying that serving in Church leadership was not for everyone, and no one likes to see the sausage made.
The problem was, serving on the Council had become a stumbling block for John. He would get frustrated at a meeting and develop feelings about others that were not charitable. In today’s scripture lesson from Mark, Jesus tells us what we need to do when something is a stumbling block in our spiritual lives.
I believe that Mark’s Gospel is underappreciated. It is widely believed that the Gospel was written by John Mark, who traveled with Paul and Barnabas and later with Peter. It is understood that what John Mark is writing is based on the teaching of Peter and that Peter is the primary source for what is written.
John Mark does not leave many clues about when the Gospel was written in the text. However, there is a connection to Rome, and there is no reference to the destruction of Jerusalem, so it is believed that these words were written before the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70, which would make this the first of the four Gospels to be written. It is understood by many that John Mark was writing this Gospel for the Christian community in Rome.
The Gospel clearly shows that Jesus is the Messiah but also points out that Jesus has come to serve and give up his life for all. There is no ambiguity in Mark that Jesus is the Son of God and has power over demons, heals the sick, and forgives sins. But Mark also points to the fact that Jesus is fully human, expressed through his agony the night he is arrested and the pain he felt on the cross. Marl also points out the secret nature of what Jesus is doing. Jesus speaks in parables and often tells those he has done something for not to tell anyone.
Parables are a helpful tool in teaching, although I sometimes wish Jesus would get to it and say what he was thinking. Parables require the listener to listen, really listen, and look for the clues being given. Parables also require those listening to think for themselves. Jesus is not going to spoon-feed his disciples; he wants them and us to develop our spiritual minds and the ability to discern what is right and what is wrong.
The other interesting thing about parables is they sometimes leave the teachings open to interpretation. I have said before that I believe it is the job of the Church to take these 2,000-year-old lessons and make them new for the present age. This parable talks about lopping bits off that bother us, but that is not precisely what Jesus was getting at. So, the challenge becomes, how do we make this relevant to those listening today?
We need to begin with a question. What keeps you from truly following Jesus?
I started with the story of my friend John and how his service on the Church Council was becoming a hindrance to him and his spiritual life. He tried all sorts of ways to deal with it but decided that he needed to “cut off” that part of his life.
Jesus uses some radical examples if your hand is the issue, cut it off; if it’s your eye, gouge it out. I would not recommend that for spiritual purposes, and I think there are other ways of dealing with what keeps us from truly following. But that is what parables do; they make us think. It is not always what is right on the surface that we are supposed to understand.
Most actions have a cause; something caused them to happen. Sometimes those causes are out of our control, but we can often control them. For example, I slipped on the ice because I did not put sand down or wore the wrong shoes. The action was falling; the cause was negligence. What this parable to trying to get us to do is to dig deep and find the answers.
How often do we say that person makes me mad? Okay, we might get angry, but it is not the other person that makes us mad; it is not even their actions that make us mad; we let ourselves get mad and then blame the other person. It is much easier to point away from ourselves than point towards ourselves.
Don’t get me wrong; some people make us mad; it sure might be us, and it might be them. The point is that we need to find the root cause, which is not easy. Getting to the heart of the matter is the focus of our spiritual life. Asking hard questions about ourselves and our environment is essential.
I often speak of how Jesus commanded us to love one another, and I add that it’s love and not like. We have to love each other, but we do not have to like each other. This is an integral part of our spiritual life and one that Jesus is getting at here. This idea of loving everyone does not require us to be a doormat; for our preservation, we sometimes have to cut people off. We do not have to keep toxic people in our lives. If that person constantly makes you mad, cut them off. If that person frequently drives you to have uncharitable thoughts about them or others, cut them off. If that job is unfulfilling or brings you to do things you don’t want to do, cut it off. Sometimes it’s not the hand or the eye that needs to go but rather the other person. Yes, there might be an underlying issue in you, but for the time being, it is okay to establish boundaries while we figure it all out.
When I was training as a spiritual director, one of my mentors described the spiritual journey as making a slow descent through all of the stuff in our lives that we do not want to deal with. I like to think of it as that place in our homes where we jam all the stuff when people come over. We all have that place. Maybe it’s a drawer, or perhaps it is a room. We jam it full of stuff because we don’t want to deal with it.
Our spiritual life is about opening that door and dealing with what is on the other side one thing at a time. If we look at the project as a whole, it can be overwhelming, but if we take it one small piece at a time, it becomes easier. We open the door; we take out one item and deal with it no matter how long it takes. Then we go back and repeat the process. We may never get the room empty, but we need to try.
So, what is that thing, or what are those things that keep us from following? What do we have in that room that we need to deal with? Do you need help dealing with some of the stuff there? If so, there are people who can help you do not have to do it alone. The spiritual life is a marathon, not a sprint, so take your time.