Complete Colorblindness, Flaming Trash, and the Kingdom of God

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Mark 9:38-50

Fun facts: according to the Internet around 4.25% of the population is colorblind. For almost all of those people, that means having trouble distinguishing between reds and greens and the like, and while it causes difficulty with lots of things, most people can adapt. A tiny sliver of this population, though, cannot see color at all through a variety of conditions in the eye. Now.

With that in mind, I give you this vignette published by Tumblr user @ed-nygma-variations: 

“I have a friend who is [completely] colorblind.
I have another friend with synesthesia where she sees colors when she listens to music. 

My colorblind friend always wanted to see color and because my friend with synesthesia and my colorblind friend have the same taste in music, she describes color to my colorblind friend by relating it back to music. 

Like, ‘The sky is Duke Ellington’s “Satin Doll.”’

And this is what pure friendship is.” 

Today’s Gospel reading is full of judgement that might immediately set of some existential dread in you. 

“It would be better for you if a giant millstone was hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea” (Mark 9:42). 

And the whole thing about cutting off hands and plucking out eyes is reminiscent of The Handmaid’s Tale where a fundamentalist Christian government actually takes these words literally and does regularly amputate body parts as punishment for sin. 

There are many ways of looking at this. Given the allegations of child abuse in the Roman Catholic Church recently, and given that Protestants are not blameless in the area of protecting children from abuse either, we might even be tempted to give this text an imprecatory reading, telling ourselves that we’re reading all about the harsh judgements awaiting those who abuse children in any way. 

However tempting that might be, I want to turn us instead to reading this text not for our own enjoyment of imagining the torture of others, but instead, imagining how it might be helpful to us. 

Here’s the thing: we get really hung up on hell when we talk about the New Testament. I got so hung up on it in college that I wrote my entire college thesis about hell, and not just so that I could tell all my classmates and professors that I was writing “one hell of a paper” or that “writing was hell these days.” 

Here’s what I learned: hell didn’t immediately appear in anyone’s religious literature, but was a concept that developed over time, usually in communities that were being abused by a more powerful group. It’s been a thing for us for a long time to imagine our abusive enemies being tortured for eternity. It makes us feel better to know that justice is coming. 

When Jesus talks about hell, it takes on a different character. The word he uses isn’t Hell, or Hades, or anything of the like. The word he uses is Gehenna, which is an actual place just outside Jerusalem where it is said that some kings used to sacrifice their children — and which is said to be cursed, so Jerusalem started using it as a place to burn its trash. 

“Kingdom of God” is also a weird term: it doesn’t exactly mean “heaven.” “Kingdom” is a deceptive translation, because the Greek word is active. A better translation is “reign of God,” an order of things where God’s way goes, where everyone loves their neighbor as themselves and where peace reigns. 

So in short, we’re talking less here about “heaven” and “hell” and more about loving your neighbor vs. living a flaming trash life — mostly in this life.

One of the best things I ever heard Gail R. O’Day, my beloved professor who just passed last week, say was that, while everyone is obsessed with final destinations, “The New Testament is far more concerned with how we treat one another here than where we ‘end up.’” What’s more, a lot of what we see as descriptive of “where we end up” is actually describing what happens here on earth. Because let’s face it: there’s plenty of heaven and hell here on earth to occupy us for the time being, and final destinations have for far too long been simply a technique that religious authorities use for control and eternal bribery. 

So what does all of that have to do with colorblindness? I’m getting there. 

We’re easily distracted by the afterlife talk, and the hyperbole. No, Jesus does not actually want you to cut off your hand. Please don’t cut off a limb. Instead, try growing a sense of metaphor.

But once you get past the distractions and the imagery, Jesus is describing causing others to “stumble.” For most of my life, I believed that this was about causing other people to sin: you know, encouraging them to engage in poor behavior of all interesting types. The problem with that interpretation is that it limits God. Sin doesn’t get between someone and God — God reaches out to sinful people all the time. That’s what this whole Jesus thing is about, after all. 

No, to cause someone to stumble, like a stray lego in a dark room, is to get in their way. To block their path. To try to keep them out, to keep them from getting to God. To close the doors of the church in their faces. To attempt to get a person to believe that God doesn’t really love or accept them. It is the worst thing that you can do to your very self to make someone else believe that they cannot get to God.

Don’t even let your own hand or your own two feet or your own eyes get in your way, and don’t you dare get in anyone else’s, for we are Christians, and whoever is not against us is for us. And for those who are against us? “Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44).

The table is open. Dangerously open. Offensively open. 

But being open certainly has its perks. 

When describing the church she founded, House for All Sinners and Saints in Denver, Lutheran pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber said that when you walk inside, you might see all types of people: gay, straight, and in between, tattooed folks in tank tops, folks in pleated khakis and polo shirts, black, brown, white, retired grandparents and working professionals and teenagers and children, poor, middle class, rich. She says that you’re likely to walk in and go, “I am unclear what all these people have in common.” 

The thing is, we lose something when we’re all the same. One of the reasons we are deeply divided politically is that we stopped talking to our neighbors and stopped engaging in institutions where we hopefully meet people who aren’t like us at all.

And that is what all this has to do with colorblindness. 

Because there are colors that I can’t see that you can. I can only see things as myself, with all of my limitations, and you can only see things as you. Having limited vision for a long time can lead to some pretty hellish results — for all of us. 

Jesus is pretty clear, after all: keeping someone else, or ourselves, from God’s love is the worst thing we can do to ourselves. That’s what he’s trying to say. We just get distracted with our hellish obsessions.

But I can describe what life is like through my eyes, and you can tell me what it’s like through yours. And maybe, just maybe, we’ll all be able to see more clearly: “The sky is Duke Ellington’s ‘Satin Doll.’” 

That is what pure friendship and discipleship is: rather than blocking the door and getting in the way, to welcome someone else to the table, valuing that their presence among us will change us profoundly, and that through each other, we’ll all become a little more able to see the world as it really is. 

Because not only does the world need a little more love these days, it needs a lot more vision.

We keep asking ourselves: can American democracy survive its current division? I don’t know. But can we improve our little corner of the world? Can we live together despite our differences? I think so. 

So together, let’s see. Amen.

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