Literalism, Certainty & Belonging
The Rev. Sara Cosca-Warfield
Scripture: Mark 9:38-50
I think most of you know that I wasn’t a Christian when I went to seminary. I was on track for ordination in Unitarian Universalism—which is a whole other story. When I first got to seminary, I still harbored a lot of anger towards Christianity—well, the Christianity of my childhood. Conservative. Evangelical. Fundamentalist.
So I did this really ironic thing when I read the Bible: I’d work really hard to prove the biblical literalists I grew up with right. I’d read the scriptures like they did, just assumed that that was the only way to read them. Except instead of accepting that literal interpretation as truth, I rejected it as judgmental or cruel.
So basically I was volunteering to agree with them on their interpretation, but I came to a different conclusion about that interpretation.
I didn’t know there were other ways to read and interpret the Bible. Didn’t know I could use a different lens. So I kept giving the fundamentalist approach all the power over my faith by letting it define my terms of engagement with particularly the Bible but also with words like evangelism and mission.
I didn’t realize I could reclaim all of it, define it all in different terms, see it all from a different perspective.
And I think today’s gospel is one of those passages I would have been very angry about before. I was taught to read this gospel as a lesson on sexual purity. And there’s a reason for this. If you want to get a bit of a different perspective on some of your Bible stories, Google “feet and the Old Testament.” It’ll change some things for you.
So yes, we could read Jesus literally, believe he’s telling us to stay sexually pure and literally cut parts of our body off when we can’t, or we could change our lens. Recognize that Jesus said that the two greatest commandments were to love God and love our neighbors as ourselves, and we can read our scriptures through that lens. The lens of love. The lens of grace.
Through that lens, Jesus is not asking that we cut off our hand or foot off or tear out our eye or drown ourselves at the bottom of the sea when we stumble. Through that lens, Jesus is asking us to consider how we live our lives. How we let our faith guide our decisions.
Sure, he uses a bit of hyperbole to make that point, but that’s what we all do when we want to make a point. We say pretty extreme things all the time. My mom often says “I’m going to kill him” when my dad does something particularly irritating to her. But Dad’s still alive, thank God. When my soccer coaches told me to kick the other team’s butt, I didn’t literally go out and well, do that.
It’s strange how we’re so flexible with our own speech and its variety of meanings but are often so eager to make our scriptures so inflexible—as if Jesus didn’t have an imagination capable of metaphor or symbolism.
There’s a reason biblical literalism is so appealing: it simplifies things. It creates a sense of certainty that makes us feel safe. Nuance is scary. It leaves too much room for uncertainty, for different interpretations. For the potential that we might be...wrong?
And I don’t want to throw our conservative evangelical siblings under the bus here. Because we all do this in some way or another. We all want to create certainty in our lives. We all want a world where we clearly know what’s right and what’s wrong. Who’s in and who’s out. The disciples did it. In our gospel. Today.
John said to Jesus, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.”
And Jesus is basically like, “Seriously? They’re doing good work, and you want to stop them because they’re not part of the in crowd?” And this is when he gets a little dramatic, as I said, “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.”
Basically what he’s saying is, believing in me doesn’t have the boundaries you think it has. Stop trying to create false certainty to make yourselves feel right about your place in the world, about your place with me.
Just like the disciples, we want to be certain. We want to be right. But at the very heart of all of this is that we just want to belong. And sometimes it’s much easier to create artificial structures of belonging than to create authentic belonging.
So many artificial structures:
You weren’t born here.
(Yes, I’m thinking about Haitians being cruelly wrangled like cattle by our border patrol on horseback.)
You don’t speak English.
You don’t worship correctly.
Even in our Episcopal tradition. Maybe even especially in our Episcopal tradition. I remember one of my first visits to an Episcopal parish. I didn’t know what books to pick up, what pages to turn to. And nobody helped me. I didn’t know when to cross myself, but I really wanted to fit in, so I ended up crossing myself maybe 40 times during the service. The people sitting next to me just kept side-eying me like, what the heck are you doing? I guess I was just supposed to know.
But I didn’t. I felt so out of place.
That’s why we have a worship booklet here at St. Luke’s instead of using the Book of Common Prayer—even though most of the time our liturgy in the booklet comes from the Book of Common Prayer. It’s why there are a lot of little explanations in that booklet—including when to cross oneself. It’s why I bring your attention to the booklet before worship every Sunday. So that people feel like they know what they’re doing, so that they can feel like they belong, even if they’re new.
It’s also why when something goes wrong during worship, when I screw up during worship, I do my best to roll with it, laugh about it, and show that it’s okay to make mistakes. Even during worship. So if someone’s cell phone goes off. Or a reader accidentally reads the wrong scripture. Or an usher misses their cue.
We know it’s okay. Because as a community we’re doing our best to remove the stumbling blocks to belonging.
At the end of our gospel today, Jesus says, “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.”
We can read salt in a lot of ways, but I think he’s talking about having confidence in him, in our faith, without needing to measure it against someone else. Without needing someone else to be wrong. Without needing someone else to be on the outside.
I think he’s talking about the salt of our faith, which is love. Which is grace. Grace means we already belong. And it’s our call as followers of Jesus not only to remove any stumbling blocks to belonging, but to help others know that they already belong, too.