Good morning Christians, seekers, and friends!
Good to see you this morning! And thanks so much for joining us in worship whether you are here in the Church or watching us online! Now I know it is rather early to talk about this – especially on a Sunday before brunch, but I am going to talk about sandwiches. Because sandwiches are a thing all around the globe– the thing you may have grown up eating for lunch, a quick snack, or meal. While the ingredients may vary and their monikers too, they are similar in construction – essentially some kind of filling (meat, cheese, peanut butter and jelly) placed in between two pieces of bread, roll, bun, or baguette. The English word is traced back to the British statesman John Montague (1718-92), 4th Earl of Sandwich. From the 18th century on, sandwiches have become a normal part of folks’ meals pretty much everywhere. There is something so simple and comforting about sandwiches. A grilled cheese, a PB & J, a BLT reminds us of our childhood, our school – home! Sandwiches are great because they are the perfect eating-on-the-go meal something we all know too much about. Here at Epiphany, we have been making sandwiches each week for over a year and a half for to-go meals for our Operation Nightwatch neighbors experiencing homelessness. And at our service site, Community Lunch on Capital Hill, volunteers make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches each day to be included as a snack in addition to the hot to-go meals they make for those in need.
While I am glad to talk about different sandwiches all day long – you know how I get, I am bringing them up this morning because our gospel reading today, is really best understood in terms of its original construction as a sandwich – a technique officially called intercalcation, that Mark uses in his gospel. Mark’s sandwiches are made by his insertion of a different story in between the first and second parts of a narrative so that both stories can be understood and interpreted together. So, today’s gospel is better understood if we include the last portion of last week’s gospel because verse 42 returns to the topic under discussion in Mark 33-36 about who is the greatest and Jesus’ placement of a small child amongst them. In between the slices of this story, we find another story about an unknown exorcist healing in Jesus’ name with both stories providing context for one another. So, again, today’s gospel story is divided in this way:
- Story 1, also known as slice of bread #1, (Mark 9:33-37) — Argument over who is the greatest results in Jesus’ declaration that greatness in God’s kingdom will be defined by who is last and servant of all, represented in a small child.
- Story 2, the insides, the pb and j, the meat (Mark 9:38-41) — The disciples are uptight over an unknown exorcist healing in the name of Jesus.
- Story 1, the other slice of bread, continued (Mark 9:42-50) — Warnings about those who put a stumbling block before any little one who would believe in Jesus.[i]
While we are mainly considering this little sandwich of text today, I would recommend when reading Mark to pay attention to how he carefully places his stories together in this way. What we often see is that these sandwiches are often part of a larger, let’s say a double or triple decker sandwich. For example, our story we’ve just referred to as number one comes on the heels of Jesus exorcising the demons from a young man that the disciples had been unable to do on their own and directly after Jesus’ second foretelling of his death and resurrection.
What we’ve referred to as story 2 in today’s little sandwich text is in fact a return to topic of exorcism and John’s concern about an unknown person healing in Jesus’ name. Each of these story ‘layers’ combines to help us better understand the whole. So, just as we learn more about how Jesus understands discipleship by looking at how Jesus explains it in these two sections of Mark, we also learn more about exorcism from these two very different exorcism stories.
Mark’s little sandwiches of text provide the context for Jesus’ teachings—the who, what, where, when, why, and how of what happens; what caused it to happen; and what it means. This is important for us, the reader, to know. For example, today’s gospel sounds super harsh right? While Jesus is most certainly talking in hyperbole, we are talking about drastic consequences for those who put a stumbling block in front of the ‘little ones.’ It makes more sense when we remember that last week (and in terms of our story just moments ago) Jesus told his disciples: “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” So, in this slice of story, Jesus is explaining that disciples welcoming the least among them was tantamount to welcoming God and welcoming him. This is a very positive example of why we welcome all! We are also assured that if we give of what we have – even if it is just a cup of water—we will receive our reward.
In this week’s gospel Jesus, responds to John’s statement, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us” by saying, “Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. Whoever is not against us is for us.” In other words, anyone who exorcises an unwelcome spirit in Jesus’ name is doing good because healing was not only part of Jesus’ ministry but was proof of God Kingdom right here and now.
After being interrupted by John with a total non sequitur, however, Jesus realizes that he and the others still don’t understand what he is trying to tell them – to forewarn them– about discipleship or exorcism. So, Jesus doubles down on these points and tries to make them more strongly. In his exasperation Jesus seems to be thinking “Don’t you get it? – Anyone who believes in me can be a disciple and can do great things in my name—AND, as you experienced just a little while ago exorcisms and healings aren’t magic tricks that you can conjure up at will—they come through prayer.”
In Mark’s gospel, Jesus is portrayed as a prolific exorcist. In fact, we know of no other historical figure for whom exorcism was so prevalent.[ii] To understand the significance of Jesus’ exorcisms, we have to look both at Mark’s story layers concerning exorcism and at ancient practices. During Jesus’ time exorcism – or the calling or forcing of an unwanted spiritual entity to leave its host, was a mainstream practice. That is to say that Jesus’ exorcisms probably didn’t look like Linda Blair in the 1973 film The Exorcist (although, to be truthful I am not certain of this as I have yet to see it even as an adult— let’s just say this is a sandwich for which I have no appetite). In Jesus’ time, however, exorcism was thought to depend on three things:
“… the innate power of the exorcist, the perceived authority of the exorcist, and the specific words or activities used by the exorcists to remove a demon.” There were different kinds of exorcisms depending on which of the three factors or combination of these factors were employed. Jesus’ exorcisms would have been understood within the context of these three different kinds.[iii]
At one end of the spectrum were magical exorcisms. A spiritual power was called up to evict a spirit. The first century Jewish Roman historian, Josephus, tells of a Jew performing exorcisms by putting a finger ring to the nose of a sufferer and, as the person smelt the pungent roots in it, drawing out the demon. When the person fell down after the demon left, the exorcist used poems or songs and Solomon’s name to order the demon never to return.
Next, were exorcisms performed by charismatic magicians. In his work, Josephus retells the story of King Saul, beset with evil spirits, cured by David standing over the king, playing his harp and chanting his songs (Ant. 6.168-69). Success in this narrative depended not only on personal force, but also on what the exorcist said and did.
Finally were exorcisms by charismatics. Simon ben Yose is said to have cast out a demon by calling out, “Ben Temalion, get out!” (b. Me’ilah 17b). In this story from the second century CE, success was thought to depend not on what was said or done, but only on the personal force of the exorcist.[iv]
So, while some ancient exorcists used incantations or invoked a higher spirit and some Jewish exorcists used magic associated with Solomon or smelly roots to gag spirits out, Jesus by simply expelling demons by his command, demonstrates his special authority and his rightful position as the Messiah – the Son of God. That his disciples and others would begin to use his name to rid someone of an unwelcome spirit or demon made perfect sense—and, again, just because they called on his name, didn’t mean their attempts would be successful – that came only from belief and prayer.
Jesus then turns their attention back to their previous conversation about the little child and lays out the consequences of barring any who wish to believe in and follow Jesus. “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.” And he goes through the importance of ridding ourselves of ANY thing that keeps us from doing our work as disciples.
Now I know this sermon might be trying to bite off more than it can chew. [We have a lot of information about intercalcation and about exorcisms encompassing a whole lot of different layers of stories] But I would also argue we have a lot more context in which to place the difficult conversations Jesus is having with his disciples as they make their way to Jerusalem. He has some pretty heavy things to tell them, right? But he is trying to make them understand at least a little bit about what they will face in the days ahead – like that old saying goes forewarned is forearmed. Last week, we talked about the fact that discipleship isn’t necessarily easy. And we might all feel a little sad when we hear that, right? If we do are very, very best and if we work as hard as we can, we still will suffer and we still will die. But here’s the jam in this sandwich— when we do our best and when we give it our all it matters. And at the end of the day, if all we do is live together in peace and welcome one another in the name of God there is a reward whether we can see it or not. The Holy Spirit alights on us and remains with us as we walk in the sunshine of God’s glorious Kingdom that exists right here and now. Take this to go with you friends, a little sandwich of love from the Gospel of Mark, with Jesus in the middle. Maybe we could call it a peanut butter and Jesus.
[i] Micah D. Kiel, Commentary on Mark, September 27, 2015, Working Preacher.org
[iii] Note on Matthew 8:16 , NRSV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible; Craig S. Keener, et al. editors,
Zondervan, Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible, March 12, 2019
[iv] Graham H. Twelftree (see above)