Sunday, September 27, 2009

One of Us--a sermon for Ordinary 26B

Rev. Teri Peterson
One of Us
Mark 9.38-50
27 September 2009, Ordinary 26B

John said to him, ‘Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.’ But Jesus said, ‘Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterwards to speak evil of me. Whoever is not against us is for us. For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.
‘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. 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. 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.
‘For everyone will be salted with fire. Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.’

I love the disciples, don’t you?—so human, they make it a little easier to be a follower of Jesus even when I don’t understand. Can’t you just imagine their internal monologues?

Really, Jesus? Are you sure?
Do you really want to say these things so close together—they’ll create an incomprehensible reading for Sunday mornings. Couldn’t you be a little more coherent, a little more obvious, a little more helpful? We’re having trouble following your train of thought, and we’ve been hanging out with you for almost a year now. For all the scholars’ talk about keywords—water and fire—that link these three sayings together, we don’t get it. We don’t understand the salt thing—can salt lose its flavor? Is that even possible, does it happen? And cutting? really? you want to encourage cutting? I just don’t think that’s a good idea. Then there’s this whole business of copyright infringement—there’s another guy out there using your brand without permission and without paying any royalties, and you’re just going to let it go on? Worse, you’re going to let it go on AND mess up the phrase we all like so much, which we all know is supposed to say “whoever isn’t with us is against us.” What is this “whoever isn’t against us is with us” nonsense? You know you can’t just let those people talk about you without the right credentials—it’s important to have the framed seminary diploma on the wall before leading a Bible study or teaching a class or praying or preaching or helping people!

We tried to stop him, because he wasn’t one of us.

I mean, he’s a “them.” He’s not one of US…and no way is he qualified. He looks different, comes from outside Galilee, speaks with a funny accent, hasn’t finished school, and is taking our job! We tried to heal that boy yesterday…it didn’t really work out, of course…but then here’s this guy doing it with no problem? That doesn’t seem fair! Plus he’s not wearing the patented disciple sandals, and he’s using our logo without permission!

Whoever isn’t against us is with us.

Wait…does that mean you’re not going to stop him? Does that mean you’re going to allow the watering-down of the power we had in the brand name, the power of our name recognition, the power of our tight-knit group, the power of our elite education, the power of our status as your followers? You’re just going to let it spread like that, opening the boundaries and letting in anybody with gifts for ministry?

We tried to stop him, because he wasn’t one of us.

But you widened the circle and grace crept in, when we weren’t even looking. We were busy trying to preserve our power, our status, our prestige, while you were busy proclaiming the gospel.
We drew a circle that shut him out,
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But you and Love had the wit to win,
You drew a circle that took us all in.*

Well, that wasn’t what we were expecting. We thought we’d be commended for tightening the rules, for keeping the riff-raff out, for saving leadership for the ones we think are ready. We thought this was an exclusive club of followers, complete with matching t-shirts! And now you’re saying that’s not how it is? That anyone can get in, that those who are gifted by the Spirit can teach classes, give testimony, pray for healing, visit the sick, that people who look and act and talk different can still be a part of the body of Christ?

Well, Jesus, we may have to have a talk about this.

And then comes the most incomprehensible part of all—anyone who puts a stumbling block before a little one might as well drown, and any part of your body that causes stumbling should be cut off.

Umm, Jesus? This isn’t quite what we had in mind when we said we needed to talk. We were hoping you would be more clear and less, well, bloody. We just wanted to talk about the problem with the outsiders being let in, the clearly unfit and untested being given leadership roles, the “them” contaminating “us.”

Instead, we got a conversation about the body…it turns out we might not need any help contaminating “us." We know, we know, it’s part of our job as The Best Disciples Ever to help other along on their faith journeys, but we really do like to keep the outsiders out and the insiders in. We like for only the properly educated to teach us and we like the things we’ve always done to continue to be so—after all, we’ve been walking these dusty roads with you for months now! We like the feel, the ethos, the culture of our body, but it could be that sometimes parts of our body lead us down a wrong path, becoming barriers to our experience of grace and boundaries we won’t let grace cross.

When that happens—when negativity, exclusion, and pride are the defining characteristics—it’s time to cut them off. These things come from within, they are part of us, one of US…and these body parts hold us back from what God is calling us to be—salt.

Well, obviously. Salt.

Wait…what? Jesus…couldn’t we just have one thing go like we expect? Just one saying that makes sense, one teaching we can understand, one miracle we can explain?

Okay, we’ll work with you…this time. Salt—a wonderful flavoring and a good preservative. Too little and everything is bland—a little like a group of people who all look, talk, think, and act exactly the same. Too much and everything is bitter—a little like a group of people overcome with negativity, exclusivity, and pride. The right balance—peace within and without—is hard to find, but worth the effort.

And so the circle widens, encompassing ever more people with ever different gifts, bringing new flavors and new ideas and new energy to the body of Christ, until there is no “them”—only us.

May it be so.

*apologies to Edward Markam for some artistic license taken with his excellent poem.