September 26, 2021
18th Sunday after Pentecost, Pastor Lois Pallmeyer
Dear Friends in Christ, God’s grace and peace be with you. Amen
Is it okay to cancel someone? Could we cancel that gospel[i] reading? You’ve heard about this, of course. A friend clicks a little icon to stop receiving crazy posts from an ex-colleague. Someone else tells their unvaccinated uncle he’s not welcome for Thanksgiving. We no longer answer the calls offering us one last chance to renew our car’s warranty. We’ve learned how easy it is to cancel things that get in our way. Too many emails? Unsubscribe. Too much anger? Delete. Too much ugliness? Cancel. Move on.
There are times when it’s essential. People who have been abused must block contact from their abuser. People who need to make decisions for their own safety have the right to keep distance from others who are careless. And nobody needs need another call from the car warranty people.
Of course, we’re selective about it. If you press me, I have to admit I’m not all that consistent. I find it all too easy to 100% boycott a fast-food restaurant that pushes some agenda I disagree with, but to be perfectly honest with you, I never ate there before I heard about their opinions. I am quite righteous about not shopping at a store whose CEO supports candidates I abhor, but I can look the other way when ordering online through a company owned by a gazillionaire who doesn’t even pay taxes. I’m all for removing statues of generals from enemy forces, who are remembered for their ongoing opposition to liberation and citizenship, and who no longer have a prominent place in American History.
But just how far am I willing to take it? Do we no longer enjoy the work of authors or artists who engaged in some ugly personal practices? Am I prepared to remove anything named for anyone who profited from the work of enslaved persons? Can we honestly say we will never buy products that have been manufactured with child labor, misuse of resources, waste, or pollution– those products which wind up in the production chain of our cars, our electronic devices, our shoes? Even if we could, would our doing so actually restore honor or power to those who still are hurt by racism and abuses of power? Or would it just serve to make us feel more righteous somehow?
The disciples seem to want to practice Cancel Culture against anyone who’s not part of their inner circle. They post their righteous action on their social media accounts so Jesus and everyone else knows of their indignation. “We saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.”
Jesus isn’t impressed. Anyone working to stop the forces of destruction in his name is welcome to do so. If they’re not against us, Jesus seems to say, they’re for us. In fact, anything as simple as a cup of water is a gesture in the right direction. We need all the help we can get.
But then Jesus starts describing a different kind of cancel culture, which sounds downright drastic. “If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; If your eye causes you to stumble…” yikes! Things get extreme pretty fast. Can we honestly follow a Christ who encourages this kind of self-harm and mutilation?
First of all, and please hear this. Every scholar I’ve read on this passage says Jesus is using hyperbole here. We should not look at any mistake we’ve made in our lives as permission to drown ourselves with a millstone around our necks. Jesus’ entire ministry is aimed at freeing us from despair, freeing the whole world from the power of death and destruction, from the forces of hatred and oppression.
Throughout his life, Jesus teaches and practices forgiveness, healing, and reconciliation, hope and restoration. Even though his own disciples remain confused, though they vie for power and recognition, argue with him when he describes suffering, even betray and deny and abandon Jesus at the end, he continues to include them, to accept them, to offer healing and life. His entire ministry is focused on exorcising us from the power of evil. He’s not going to encourage us toward violence and self-hatred now.
Jesus uses dramatic speech to tell us to stop criticizing those around us, and look at ourselves instead. Stop worrying about whether others have the right to offer healing in my name, and instead ask yourselves where you are throwing obstacles in the way of life. Those who have done 12-step work will immediately understand what Jesus is emphasizing here. We can’t control the rotten things people do around us, even if they anger us or cause us to slip up. We can only control our own actions.
My mission, Jesus reminds us, is not to help you fix other people. It’s aimed directly at you. I’m here to free you to experience life in fullness. To do so, you have to look at your own behavior, before obsessing about others. Yes, I know that the reading from James[ii] told us we should help bring back sinners from wandering. But focus that work on returning them from a sense of being unforgivable, bring them back from despair by embodying the never-ending love of God.
This is what Christ longs for us to cancel: obstacles to love, impediments to life, stumbling blocks that trip us up from feeling free, feelings of superiority or unhealthy feelings of inferiority, practices that discriminate, or feeling worthy of discrimination, refusing to offer even a cup of cold water to someone who is thirsty, or allowing salt itself, the spice of life, to grow tasteless and worthless in you.
Jesus uses dramatic language to convince us: Now is the time. Cancel any obstacle which keeps you or others from knowing life in its fullness, and follow me. Make straight the path to life and love, to forgiveness and freedom. Move aside any roadblock, and trust the good news.
Today’s emphasis at Gloria Dei is Now is the Time to Grow. It might feel like a funny time of year to talk about growing, when the leaves are beginning to change, and our gardens are about to be emptied. Not too many of us are noticing growth right now.
But perhaps true growth always requires us to first clear the barriers which cause us to become stagnant in the first place. What stumbling blocks have prohibited you to real growth lately? What may need to be cleared from your garden to help your spirit thrive?
Certainly this pandemic has changed access to our normal channels of development and discovery. We’ve been kept from regular gatherings where we would get new ideas, or where we could be challenged by new perspectives. We’ve been barred from classrooms, small group meetings and book talks; we’ve given up some of our normal spiritual formation practices.
So Gloria Dei is making an effort to say, now is the time to begin again. Yes, there may be awkward, improvised ways to make it work. We’re trying some hybrid “in-person and on-line” means to share ideas and move forward, and they won’t be ideal. But we’re not waiting. We’ve relaunched small groups and Sunday forum, confirmation, and new forms of Sunday School, We’re working to remove the stumbling blocks that interfere with our normal formation ministries.
You may have to remove the obstacle of waiting for the church to offer a program that works perfectly for you. Perhaps now is the time for you to consider reading scripture at home, restarting a devotion practice, recommitting yourself to reading a book with others, finding new ways to connect with a ministry here, becoming a mentor to one of our youth, seeing how you might safely support our Sunday School classes, if not in person, than as an online support.
Now is the time to remove the stumbling blocks which prevent you from discovering the gifts of the present time. Jesus doesn’t tell the disciples to wait until the Roman Empire is overthrown, or until he is resurrected, or until the situation was a little easier. Now is the time to be at peace with one another, and to do the work of God.
Is it okay to cancel things? Absolutely. Cancel anything that causes you to judge others, rather than seeing them in the light of grace. Cancel negativity. Certainly cancel racism, or any other profits from systemic oppression and division. Cancel the fear of losing anything that may need to go in order for God to be revealed in your life or the lives of others. Cancel the need for things to be back to normal, whatever that was, to decide to grow in faith. Cancel your reluctance to see what God is doing even now. Cancel your stubborn resistance to recognize that the love of God is freeing you and the whole world to live in the grace and compassion of a new day.
Might something need to be lost in order for us to move forward? Yes, but as the poets remind us, the trees of autumn show us how beautiful it can be to let things go. Cancel the fear of growing, and step into the goodness God offers us. Now is the time.
[i] Mark 9:38-50
[ii] James 5:13-20