Sun, Sep 30, 2018

Death Cleaning

Mark 9:38-50 by Doug Gunkelman

When a house is put on the market, many real estate agents bring in stagers. These stagers begin their work by clearing the stage.

And how do they do this? They walk around your house and point at things — end tables, rugs and vases — and they say, “Edit. Edit. Edit.”

What they mean is, “Delete.” Get rid of it.

At the beginning of every October, our Divinity youth ministry offers you the opportunity to go through your house or your parent’s house and do some deleting. Then you bring that stuff in on Tuesday or Wednesday and put it in the fellowship hall. Twice a year our fellowship hall is filled and spilling into the hallway.

A lot of that “stuff” comes from homes of people who have died or have moved into a nursing home. Most people do not want to die and leave a ton of stuff that their children must then dispose of. The Swedish have a name for this purging: “dost?dning”, which means “death cleaning”.

“Do” is “death” and “st?dning” is “cleaning”, so if you put the two together you get “death cleaning”. It means that you remove unnecessary things to make your house nice and orderly, especially when you think the end of your life is getting close.

“For me,” writes Margareta Magnusson in Time magazine (January 3, 2018), death cleaning “means going through all my belongings and deciding how to get rid of the things I do not want anymore.” She knows that many things have been around for so long that we do not even see or value them anymore.

Others are packed away so tightly that we can hardly close our drawers or shut our closet doors. “When that happens,” she says, “it is definitely time to do something, even if you are only in your thirties. You could call that kind of cleaning döstädning, too, even if you may be many, many years away from dying.”

In the gospel of Mark, Jesus challenges us to do a kind of “death cleaning” by removing from our lives the sinful actions and attitudes that cause us to stumble.

In the town of Capernaum, John, one of the disciples, says to Jesus, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” John is concerned that this unknown exorcist is not properly trained or authorized to use the name of Jesus in his healing work. But 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” (vv. 38-40).

Delete your concern for purity, says Jesus. Get rid of it. Whoever is not against the way of Jesus is for the way of Jesus. We need this kind of death cleaning today, at a time in which so many people are obsessed with purity in religion or politics. Condoleezza Rice, the secretary of state in the George W. Bush administration, has hosted a documentary called American Creed, which explores the divisions that exist in our country. We are purists about so many things today, whether it is gay rights or gun rights, and unfortunately we are attacking each other in a variety of ways.

“We all have to start listening to each other,” says Condoleezza Rice. “And right now, we’re shouting at each other instead. Right now, we’re saying my grievance, my narrative, is superior to yours. I have suffered more. I have been discriminated against more.”

But fortunately, Rice has found a few Americans who are taking the opposite tack, and are putting aside purity in order to unify their communities. Jesus would approve of this, because he is always looking to unite instead of divide. “Whoever is not against us,” he says, “is for us” (v. 40).

The call to döstädning continues when Jesus says, “If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell” (vv. 43, 45). In these verses, the phrase “causes you to stumble” is a translation of the Greek verb skandalizô, which carries over into English as “scandalize.” Jesus is saying that if your hands or feet scandalize you — causing you to sin or trip or fall away — stop using your hands and feet in this way.

So what kind of scandalizing might this include? Most of us use our hands to do our jobs — from computer work to construction projects — but some kinds of work are more harmful than helpful. Maybe our work puts a burden on the poor, harms the environment, scandalizes our families or destroys our well-being. If so, says Jesus, delete it! Get rid of it, and replace it with work that is healthier and more productive.

At the same time, most of us use our feet to take us to a variety of places, but there are some places to which we really shouldn’t go, because they are places that do damage to our bodies, our souls and our relationships. Alcoholics are scandalized by bars, gambling addicts are scandalized by casinos and married people can be scandalized by places and situations that tempt them to be unfaithful. If so, says Jesus, delete them! Use your feet to take you to places that are good for you and for the people you love.

Then Jesus calls for an additional form of death cleaning when he says, “And 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,where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched” (vv. 47-48). We live in a visual culture today, with tantalizing images all around us. Temptations appear on our computer screens, smartphones, televisions and in the pages of glossy magazines. Perhaps our eyes are drawn to designer fashions, luxury cars, social media postings or pornography. If these images scandalize you, delete them! Get rid of them. Don’t let the things you see cause you to stumble.

In all of these ways, Jesus wants us to do the hard work of death cleaning. He is not really asking us to destroy our hands, feet and eyes, but instead to get rid of the destructive things we do with our hands, feet and eyes. The point here is that we are supposed to cut off certain behaviors, not body parts!

Although this is exactly what Aron Ralston did.

Perhaps you remember the film 127 Hours, in which the 27-year-old Ralston finds himself trapped in a canyon, with his right arm pinned by a boulder against a rock wall. He has only a little bit of water, two burritos and a few chunks of chocolate. Knowing that he will surely die in the canyon, he uses his small knife to cut off his arm and escape.

The movie is based on a true story, and it begins by depicting Ralston as an overconfident loner who believes that he is invincible. But the experience in the canyon changes him — for the better. Although he loses his arm, he gains the knowledge that he was kept alive by the love of others, by his relationships with family and friends and by his dependence on them.

He gives us these five positive points

  • Never give up. Your chance will come.
  • There is no force more powerful in this world than the will to live.
  • Sometimes in life you have to bear small problems in order to avoid big problems (cut arm to save life).
  • You can’t always do everything so eat your pride and ask for help from others.
  • Rational thinking and calculating your risks and resources helps you in your life.

Looking back, he says that he went through the experience and realized, “Well, God is love, and love is what kept me alive and that love is what got me out of there.”

Death cleaning is important, because otherwise we hang on to sinful attitudes and actions that scandalize us and cause us to stumble. Unless we delete these aspects of our lives, we might never discover that God is love, and love is what keeps us alive. Sometimes we have to go through trauma to be changed for the better, as Ralston discovered, and sometimes we have to make difficult changes in what we do, where we go and what we see. Jesus knows that these changes are not easy; in fact, he says that “everyone will be salted with fire,” which sounds like a terribly painful experience (v. 49).

But know this: In the ancient world, both salt and fire were used as preservatives for food, and they were essential to keeping people alive and healthy. So, to be salted with fire is to be preserved as a faithful disciple, which leads Jesus to say to his followers: “Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another” (v. 50).

In a world of abundant distractions and temptations, we need to do the kind of death cleaning that Jesus recommends. It keeps us alive, at peace with one another and in touch with the God who loves us and saves us from every kind of trouble. May the peace of God . . .