Transforming Hearts, Feeding Souls

by Genevieve Zetlan, Licensed Lay Preacher

Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29
Psalm 124
James 5:13-20
Mark 9:38-50

It’s really tough for us to get on board with the idea of plucking out an eye. Mark is the earliest of our four Gospels, the one most concerned that the end time is near, Jesus’ return is imminent, and the message of repentence is urgent.

Frankly, after 2,000 years, we’ve lost a bit of that urgency. Sure, we say in our creed that we look for the kingdom of heaven, but mostly we mean we’d like to visit it after we die, and we’d really prefer that the world keep right on turning pretty much as it is—with maybe a slightly better job or slightly more mindful children or slightly better health than we currently have.

But what Jesus is saying here is vitally, urgently important – woven through the exhortations to take this as seriously as the loss of a limb is the real point of this morning’s Gospel: Jesus’ insistance this morning that God is not about following our idea of proper procedure.

God is about transforming hearts and feeding souls.

When Jesus’ followers try to stop others from casting out demons in his name, Jesus says “whoever is not against us is for us”. Note that this is the counter-cultural opposite of the oft-heard saying “if you’re not for us, you’re against us”. Jesus is urging his disciples — that’s us, by the way — to start with the assumption that we are all on the same side—all working towards the same Good, regardless of how we do the work we’ve been given to do.

We humans aren’t very good at that. We like order. We get caught up in all the whos and hows and whys, in all the details of proper procedure and authority and the “right” way to do a thing.

The church I attended in in Virginia Beach was a very old, very historic place with long traditions. Every year for decades the church held an Oyster Roast and bazaar on a Saturday in November—the kind of event that lasts all day and draws people from miles around to enjoy the food and shop the various rooms. One of the most popular and lucrative rooms was the “pickle room”, where a thousand homemade pickles made great Christmas gifts. And one year some new folks volunteered to help the ECW make pickles under the direction of, as she was known, the “pickle lady”. Well, as they began cutting hundreds of cucumbers into spears the pickle lady came by, tsking and shaking her head. “No, no. They really need to be one and three quarters by five eighths inches.” she said. “I like to make a mark on my cutting board.”

Now as many of you know I’m a type A personality and I am all about having things done well, and right. I get it. Without proper channels and procedures and process, there’d be chaos, I say! And we’re human. We’re going to disagree with each other from time to time about how to best go about doing the work we’ve been given to do.

But there’s nothing that kills the Spirit faster than having your freely given gifts rejected. To try to stop other people from doing God’s work simply because they are not doing it “our” way, Jesus says, is a great evil. It is not just thwarting the work of God—although it is that—it is thwarting another’s faith, the work of their soul. And that is a terribly serious thing.

The Good News is, the Gospel is: God will not be constrained by our ideas of proper procedure. God is bigger than our institutions, and God’s transforming work will be accomplished anyway, often because of us—but sometimes, in spite of us.

The warning this morning is that all too often we want things done our own way, and that can starve our spirits. Like the pickle lady, we are oh-so-good at finding fault with others when things aren’t to our exact specifications. Like the Israelites in our first lesson things morning, who after having been redeemed from slavery, given water from a rock, given manna in the wilderness, are now complaining that they are starving for meat and melons!

It is astounding, our ability to one-up each other with our complaints about work and spouses, parents and children, in-laws and exes, illness and inconvenience, traffic and weather, hectic schedules and church committees and Congress.*

And when we focus on how the world isn’t conforming to our exact specifications, we utterly fail to appreciate the ways in which God is feeding us every day. We fail to see the miracles God pours out on the world. God poured out the Spirit on Eldad and Medad, and all Joshua saw was another problem to be solved. God poured out the Spirit on some random person in Judea to cast out demons, and all the discliples saw was a process foul.

Because even more important than doing God’s work, Jesus and Moses tell us today, is living in a community that is accepting of all kinds of ways to do God’s work. If you can’t do that, well, you might as well cut off a hand, because it is less important for any of us to have two hands than it is for us to have many hands working together.

And it is urgent that we do this. Urgent that we catch the seriousness of Mark’s gospel not necessarily because we want to avoid the fires of hell, but because we must avoid quenching the fire of each other’s souls.

This is risky. Saying “yes” to the Spirit when it doesn’t fit within our notions of what is proper, efficient or orderly. But God will not be constrained by our notions of proper procedure, so we must not let those notions constrain our vision for this community, either. Eldad and Medad didn’t follow proper procedure. That guy healing people in Jesus’s name didn’t get official permission to do so. But God’s spirit came upon them anyway. Because God’s not really about following our procedures.

God is about transforming hearts and feeding souls.

And doing God’s work is transformative. Jesus tells his disciples that no one who does God’s work can afterwards speak evil of Him. And the transformative power of doing God’s work doesn’t even need to begin with something as showy as casting out demons—work as simple as offering a cup of water will do.

I know a deacon who, long before becoming a deacon, was just looking for a place to volunteer, wondering what work God wanted her to do. She signed up one day to go to a nursing home, and after being there a couple hours was headed out the door fully convinced that volunteering in nursing homes was definitely not for her. On her way out, she passed an open door and glimpsed a resident in her bed, straining for a glass of water on the nightstand that was just out of reach. So, she went in and held the glass of water while the woman drank. Then the woman leaned back into her pillow, sighed, and said “I was SO thirsty.” And in that moment she saw Jesus asking for a drink of water. She was transformed. Both she and the women were fed, and she eventually became a deacon and spent the next 20 years ministering in nursing homes.

In the smallest of ways, doing God’s work leads to more doing God’s work, more faith, more hope, more love in the world. It is food for our souls, to be engaged in the work of the Spirit, and it is work that feeds the world, one person, one glass of water at a time. And that is our job: to create a community where everyone can use their gifts of the Spirit—a place that feeds everyone’s soul.

As our letter from James this morning reminds us, building a community is really what God’s work is all about—pray together! He says. Call together the elders of the church, he says, because where any two or three are gathered together, that’s where Jesus is to be found. The church, and St. Tim’s, isn’t about the person who is the past, present, or future rector—it’s not about when our services are held or how they are structured—it’s not about the Vestry’s decisions or each Ministry’s charter—it’s about who we are. It’s about how we feed each other’s souls—how we recognize the Spirit in each other and build that up. That’s the kind of community that feeds and transforms the world.

We will certainly starve—ourselves and each other—if we think that our way is the only way. Because God’s not about following our procedures.

God is about transforming hearts and feeding souls.

And so are we.




*Adapted from the prayer by Maren Tirabassi and Joan Jordan Grant