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Knoxville, TN, United States
Interim Pastor of Evergreen Presbyterian Church (USA), Dothan, AL.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Muy Caliente!

Mark 9:38-50
“Muy Caliente”
James McTyre
Lake Hills Presbyterian Church
Sunday, October 1, 2006

Today is World Communion Sunday. It makes me think of foreign countries, foreign languages. The foreign country with which I have the most familiarity is Mexico, not just because I’ve been there; I’ve spent a lot of time in Mexican restaurants. I know. It’s like thinking you know about Italy because you like pizza. I’ve learned to accept my limitations. Thanks to these restaurants, I’ve been able to learn a second language, sort of. I learned most of what little Spanish I know by reading menus. “Mas queso, por favor,” (more cheese, please). “Grande.” And if you’re ordering salsa or getting peppers on your meal, you have to know, “caliente,” the word for hot. Order “Muy caliente,” (very hot) and you’re going to need Rolaids.

Jesus talks about seasonings today. He uses some very hot language. “For everyone will be salted with fire.” “If your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell.” When you try to swallow such fiery words, you can almost feel the sweat on your forehead. Jesus’ words are very, very heated in any language.

Being an expert in menu-based Spanish, I applied my extensive knowledge to come up with today’s sermon title, “Muy Caliente.” Last week, I was hanging with my amigos y amigas from Maryville College, when I heard one of them speaking Spanish as if she had actually spent money on a language class. I know there are these other, more time-consuming ways to learn Spanish, which are probably more reliable, so I thought this would be an opportunity to make sure I had my sermon title correct. “Caliente?” she said, glancing sideways at her compadre. “Well, yeah. That’s the way it gets used in restaurants,” she said. “But you sure wouldn’t want to say that in Mexico.”
“Oh?” I said, gulping, knowing that the title had already gone to print in both the bulletin and the newsletter.
“Yeah,” she said. “If I said, muy caliente in Mexico, they’d think I was describing my boyfriend. “In Mexico, if you’re describing food, you’d say, muy calor.”

Just when you think you’ve become fluent, a country goes and changes the language on you. Who would have guessed Taco Bell would be so inaccurate? I am going to write that company a letter.

Reflecting on my language mistakes, and because it was too late to change the sermon title, I realized this is a very good example of taking what you read too literally. Not only do words mean different things in different places – Mexico, Chi Chi’s – words can also be used to accommodate readers’ limited understanding. Because I’m used to seeing caliente salsa, I’d be more likely to order that than salsa calor. Salsa calor sounds to gringo Americans as if it would have more calor-ies. So, make ours caliente.

How is Jesus using words in today’s lesson? Does he mean them the way we might expect, because that’s what we’re used to hearing? Or is he choosing his words to make a different kind of point? This is a very serious issue for people who read not just these words, but anything in the Bible. We have to distinguish how the words are used, even if they’re the words of Jesus and written in red. Is Jesus speaking literally? Is Jesus speaking figuratively? When does the Bible say what it means and mean what it says? And when is it meaning something else? This has always been a hot topic for Christians. Is the Bible the literal word of God? Is it the inspired word of God? Is it the word of human beings trying to be faithful to God? You can almost feel the temperature rising when people start asking, discussing, arguing over questions like these. Muy calor.

“If your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell.” Surely, Jesus doesn’t mean this literally. To you or to me that might be self-evident. I was talking last week with a friend who’s a chaplain at a hospital for people with mental illnesses. He told me of people he has personally worked with who have latched on to this particular passage, and carried it out upon themselves with disastrous results. There are to this day people who have serious illnesses, who tragically have taken these words at their literal meaning. I think these people are among the first for whom Jesus weeps. Ironically, this passage begins with the disciples asking Jesus about a man who’s casting out demons, demons we would call mental illness. They ask if they should stop this man, since he’s not one of them. Jesus tells them absolutely not. And I think Jesus meant that literally. “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.” God bless the doctors, nurses, volunteers and family members – of any faith – who care for people with demons. God bless people with mental illness and the saints who care for them. Does Jesus literally say this in this passage? No. The world of his time didn’t have the language. But put the Bible into our world, and it’s a very small interpretive step to read that blessing from this scripture.

While I was in seminary, the question was put to me, “Why do we even need preachers? “Why do you have to preach sermons? “Why can’t we just open up the Bible and read the scripture and be done with it?” Preachers ask themselves that same question all the time. Usually on Saturday night when the sermon’s just not writing itself. People also ask, “Why do I need to go to church? “Why can’t I get close to God on the golf course?” (Well, listen to the language of people who slice one off into God’s beautiful woodlands. That’s why.) People say, “I’m worried about my children. They’re good people, but I just can’t get them to come to church.” Does Jesus answer these questions literally in this passage? Of course not. But the disciples do ask, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” And Jesus says, “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.”

Here was a problem person, an exorcist, who wasn’t a part of the organized church. Whoever he was, he knew about Jesus and did good deeds in Jesus’ name. But he wasn’t one of the officially sanctioned disciples. He wasn’t Presbyterian, bless his heart. He wasn’t mainline Protestant, or Roman Catholic, or even non-denominational-independent-primitive-no-singing-dancing-cussing-or-women-wearing-pants-allowed. He was just a guy, doing good deeds, because somewhere along the way, he learned that was what God wants him to do. Should he be stopped? Of course not.

No one can pick up the Bible and read it without making interpretations. Heck, no one can read the phone book without making some kind of interpretive judgment. This plumber looks more reliable than that plumber. We don’t know why, it’s just a judgment call. The basement’s filling up with water and we need answers, quick. It would be hard for a document to be more literal than the phone book, and yet it gives different people different solutions at different times. Some people want preachers to tell them what the Bible literally says. But then, you have to wonder, does the preacher literally know what he’s talking about? Is he or she possessed by demons? We hope not. Whatever other teaching or service preachers provide, I think the main reason I’m here – and we’re all here in church – is to reassure each other that it’s OK, even right, to be interpreters of the Word of God. Whether we think of the Bible as literal, or inspired, or good advice doesn’t really matter. Arguments like those are just distractions. What matters is that we encourage each other to be interpreters of what God’s word means right now, to you and to me, to our world. What matters is that we take this understanding and use it to do powerful deeds, in Jesus’ name, whether or not we fully understand what we’re talking about. For, as Jesus literally says, no one who does so, will be able soon afterward to speak evil. In any language.

If, this morning, we were sitting in a church in Mexico, most of us wouldn’t have a clue what the preacher was saying. If we opened up the Spanish language Bible, we might catch a word here and there, but for the most part, we’d be lost. But. We’d hear people singing hymns. We’d see the minister breaking the bread. We’d hear the pouring of the cup. We’d see the people sharing Communion. And we’d know we had landed in a place where deeds of Christ’s power were being done. Through the literal words we’d understand nothing. Everything would be foreign. But by the spiritual Word of God, we’d be at home.

So, how do you take your food? Cool and mild? Or hot and spicy? t’s really a matter of taste. Some of us like our food to relieve our stress. And some of us want food that begs for a cup of cold water. How do you take your spiritual food? Do you interpret the Bible so it calms your life? Or do you read it in a way that heats things up? Even this is a matter of taste. The surroundings where we grew up, our mental wellness, what we’ve learned from our menus of family, school, and TV have more influence over our reading of scripture than we’ll ever know. Faith, like food, hits us in the gut. And it’s usually our gut that tells us whether we’re on the right track spiritually. That’s why whoever we are, wherever we are, its so important to remember we’re all interpreters. We’re all trying our best to interpret the words of the Bible and the words of the people around us. We’re all trying our best to interpret our world and get a taste of the richer meaning God kneaded into it. Here at church, when we really want to get close to Jesus, to understand him in our gut, we have a meal. The Communion meal of Christ might relieve our stress or it might cause us more. Jesus says we’re all to be salted with fire, and that we’re never supposed to lose our sense of taste. How did he mean that? Figuratively? Or literally? We won’t know until we partake of that peace of Christ that passes all understanding.