26 September 2009

Proper 26 B - Stumbling into God's Kingdom

Mark 9: 38-50

St. Luke's, Burlington

27 September 2009

By Stuart Pike

Today’s readings, especially the Gospel, present a difficult text for the preacher. It is full of dramatic images. Jesus speaks about mill stones being hung around necks and people being thrown into the sea. He speaks about cutting off body parts or plucking out eyes. Jesus often used hyperbole to get people’s attention.

This is one of the Gospel stories which is happening while Jesus and his disciples are “on the way” which is a code meaning that Jesus is on the way to Jerusalem and the cross. John complains to Jesus that they have found someone who has been healing (or casting out demons) in Jesus’ name, but yet he wasn’t one of the twelve. So they tried to stop this unknown healer.

Perhaps we can imagine what may have caused John and the other disciples to try to stop the man. The twelve disciples have been with Jesus since the beginning of his public ministry. They have been through thick and thin with him. Though up until this time it has mostly been thick: they have been successful and the crowds are following them. The thin stuff will happen later in Jerusalem.

Jesus disciples are already feeling a bit defeated. Earlier in this chapter, a man comes to Jesus asking him to cast out a spirit of dumbness in his son saying, “I asked your disciples to cast it out, but they could not do so.”[Mk. 9:16-18]

A few verses later, they ask Jesus why they failed. When he had entered the house, his disciples asked him privately, "Why could we not cast it out?" He said to them, "This kind can come out only through prayer." [Mk. 9:28-29]

And our Gospel lesson is a few verses further on. They know they have failed and yet, here is this interloper who isn’t part of the “in” group. And he is casting out demons! He doesn’t have the authority, he doesn’t have the history that they have. Just who does he think he is anyway?

I can only imagine Jesus facial expression at the time. Perhaps he crossed his eyes! In an often hostile environment, here is a man who is healing in Jesus’ name, and his own disciples are trying to stop him!

I imagine that Jesus today would use words like, “Oi vey! Come on guys, get with the program!!! This guy is helping out here!”

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.”

In other words, Jesus is saying that even though this person is not part of their group, if he is still doing the good work of Christ, and in Christ’s name, then he belongs.

The disciples were trying to draw a circle to include themselves, and to exclude all the rest. “Only we belong.” Jesus redraws the circle wider to include all who are doing God’s will. “All are welcome.”

This is indeed Good News for us and for all people. This unknown man was not a member of the 12 disciples. It appears that he was not even a member of the 70 who Jesus had sent out to heal and teach. We don’t know his connection with Jesus. But we do know that he did what he did in Jesus’ name. We don’t know him, but he knew Jesus.

We know that this stranger was using his time and abilities to be a conduit of God’s grace. He was being salt, as Jesus tells his disciples to be. Salt makes a difference. It changes things. Being salt, means doing your part in a world which doesn’t necessarily follow Jesus’ way. It means being a healing presence in what might be a sea of sickness all around us. Being salt might mean going against the flow, especially in a society which views religions with suspicion. Sometimes being salt might even mean being a leader within your own religion which leads us to a new place. Being salt means being an agent of change.

The very basis of our call to be salt is in our baptism. We as baptised people are called to be builders of God’s kingdom in the here and now – our baptism is supposed to make a difference to us, and we are supposed to make a difference in our world. That is why, right in our baptismal covenant which we renew at every baptism we attend, we promise: 1) to proclaim by word and example the good news of God in Christ; 2) to seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbour as ourselves; and 3) to strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being.

The best way that we can do this is working together with other followers of Christ wherever they are, even if they don’t belong to our Church or our group.

If we think that we could never be so shallow as John was when he wanted to exclude the unknown healer, then we need to think again. The fact that we can be so shallow shows itself again and again throughout the Church’s history. Perhaps one of the biggest examples of this is denominationalism. It seems that most Christians, even those who get along with other denominations, feel that somehow, their denomination is just a little bit better. It is easy to be welcoming and friendly, yet it feels good to think that we are just a little bit more in sync.

When I was fifteen we moved from England to Quebec City for one year. We were told by an acquaintance than we must go to St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church to hear Dr, Bragg preach. And so, soon after we moved, we drove to this historic church in the Old City and found a small congregation with a very welcoming manner. Everyone was friendly and we just kept on going back, even though we were Anglicans. My family became five ninths of the tiny choir.

I remember Dr. Bragg describing the difference between Anglicans and Presbyterians. Their words to the Lord’s prayer are slightly different: they say “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” Dr. Bragg says that when Anglicans visit the Presbyterian Church, the Anglicans are considered in their debt: they must return the welcome. But when Presbyterians visit the Anglicans, they are considered trespassers!

I have found Christians of other denominations to be different but faithful. They might stress different things than we stress, but they are trying to follow Jesus’ way, just as we try to do. I might prefer our worship, but theirs is just as rich in other ways. Although we define ourselves into groups and seem to know who’s in and who’s out, Jesus doesn’t seem to. In today’s Gospel story Jesus teaches his disciples to look outside of their group to see God working.

This story means that we too can do Christ’s work in the world. We don’t have to be part of the “in” group. We don’t have to be just a certain denomination. We don’t have to be ordained. We simply need to do God’s will in the name of Jesus. And in doing it, we will draw ever more closely to him.

Jesus warns against putting a stumbling block in the way of those whose faith is young. And here, despite the efforts of the disciples, this man comes stumbling into Jesus’ circle.

The disciples want to limit God’s grace. Sometimes we can try to do the same. But our God is a God who is free, and who will not be contained in the concepts which we create.

Sometimes I remember that God’s grace is surprising and fresh and new and can be found in the unexpected. And I realize that God works not only in ways which are comfortable to me and through people who are known to me, but God works out there too. And, incredibly enough, God can even work through me! And just in the same way, God works through you. Amen.

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