Sermon; 19 Pentecost/Proper 21B; Mark 9:38-50
There's a lot going on in today's gospel. There's the issue of ownership and jealousy, the issue of self-mutilation, the issue of leading people astray, and a comment about salt. I want to focus on the first part of today's gospel – that of ownership and jealously.
Last week I preached on John and pointed out that he had a bad temper (wanting to call down thunder and lightning to destroy a city) and was overly ambitious (asking Jesus for a seat of authority). Today we also find out that he can be possessive, jealous, and easily threatened. In short, he's a lot like us. How many of us have experienced these feelings when we perceive someone moving in on our territory? Or when we encounter someone who really does know more than we do about our particular area of expertise?
We all have those areas in which we excel. We all have a group, or groups, of friends with whom we feel comfortable. Oftentimes these parts of our lives make us feel special or give us a feeling of worth. When something happens to change the balance of power or the dynamic, we can feel threatened by that change. Especially when that change happens quickly.
When I was working on my BA in Spokane the question was posed, “How would you deal with a person who missed most of the project meetings and then, toward the end of the project, showed up and began to tell you what was wrong with your project and what you needed to do to fix it?”
One guy in the group said, “I'd inform them that they had no room to talk, so why don't you just sit down, shut up, and color.” Shut Up and Color, by the way, became our class motto.
This isn't exactly an apples to apples comparison, but the idea that we feel threatened when someone invades our turf still applies. And this is exactly what is happening here with John.
Calculating time in the gospels can be a difficult thing. But follow me here. This story takes place at the end of Chapter 9. Jesus has given two Passion predictions so far and his third will come in the next chapter. At this point, Jesus is closing in on Jerusalem and Holy Week. So let's say that Holy Week is about a month away. This means that John has been following Jesus in the neighborhood of three years. Three years of traveling with this group and developing close relationships. Three years of healings and miracles. Three years of having parables explained privately. Three years of thinking this group was special and/or privileged. And now some outsider is going around casting out demons in the name of Jesus. Someone who was not them, someone who was not part of the right group, was out there doing what John and his boys were supposed to be doing.
That privileged, possessive, jealous feeling kicks in and John tried to put an end to what the newcomer was doing. Whether or not he was successful we don't know, but we do know he tried. And here Jesus gives one of the greatest lessons of his ministry: Whoever is not against us is for us. This, coupled with Jesus' statement over in John's gospel, “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold,” is probably the most challenging statement Jesus makes.
Love God, love your neighbor; yeah, okay. Give to everyone who asks of you; I may not like it, but I can follow it within reason. Welcome the foreigner; again, problematic, but doable. But this one . . .
This one requires us to examine our own personal biases and jealousies. This one requires us to lay aside our feelings of ownership and privilege. This one requires us to accept the fact that the net Jesus is casting to draw all people to himself is much larger than we know or are willing to admit.
This has been on my mind lately because we still live in times when one group attacks another group for not being the right kind of Christians or the right kind of Americans, for that matter. I say “still” because it happened in today's gospel with John. It happened between Romans and Celts. It happened between Catholics and Protestants. It happened between Protestants and Protestants. It happens today between denominations and within denominations.
Today's Evangelicals are trying to force not only other denominations, but the entire country, to bow to their approved interpretation of both Scripture and patriotism. Last week I received a book from Answers in Genesis and a flier from Discover Prophecy telling us (basically) why they are right.
I belong to a couple of Facebook groups that regularly get into arguments over the proper interpretation of rubrics and vestments. And when I visit other churches, I can't help but take notes on what they did wrong.
We seem to have an innate need to be right, to possess special knowledge, and to lord that over those whom we think are not part of the right group.
Instead of focusing on the fact that they don't belong to us, instead of feeling threatened by outsiders, what if we focused on what they do well?
At the vestry meeting last week we were discussing rest. I asked if our worship was restful. The general consensus was yes, but drums and guitars are not. Rather than look down on that type of worship, or try to convince everyone that they need to do it our way, can we simply be glad that some people find God in that style? Rather than nitpick on theology, can we work to find common ground where God is present for all of us? That, for instance, is the basis of HARC – several different religious traditions working together for the benefit of the community and to be the face of God.
The Catechism states that the mission of the Church is to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ. Unity does not mean conformity. But we can't be unified when we focus on differences.
Granted, some differences are necessary and sometimes it's vital to know why we are different. For instance, the inclusive nature of TEC is different from, and incompatible with, the KKK or other racist and nativist organizations.
Today's passage asks us to do two things: 1) Evaluate the actions of others in light of Christ's message of love and inclusion; and, 2) remember that we are not alone or privileged in this mission. Instead of being threatened by how others proclaim Christ, be thankful that Christ is being proclaimed.