Sunday, September 27, 2015

Sermon: Not Our Kind

Grace Presbyterian Church
September 27, 2015, Ordinary 26B
James 5:13-16; Mark 9:37-42

Not Our Kind

The Epistle of James is an odd fit in the New Testament canon for many. Particularly when contrasted with Paul’s works, with their constant emphasis on salvation by grace through faith, James comes off for some as being awfully works-obsessed. Probably the most well-known verses from the letter demonstrate this: 1:22, “But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves,” and 2:14, “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you?
What people often miss about James, though, is that—despite how 2:14 sometimes sounds in the ear—James is not trying to convince his readers that they “get saved” by doing good works or by particular rituals of holiness. Rather, as 2:18 goes on to say, it is by the works we do that we show our faith. All the platitudes and flowery God-talk we can muster is not and will never be sufficient to demonstrate that genuine faith is at work in our lives, when our deeds and behavior do not match those words.
Another point often missed, one demonstrated in today’s reading from this epistle, is that his instruction is directed not at the individual, but the community, a trait that he does share with Paul. Note how the pronouns in this brief passage are so plural – “they,” not “he” or “she.” The community prays for one another, confesses to one another, in the time of illness and need. To a great degree, this falls into line with such famous passages as the Sermon on the Mount from Matthew, or chapter 12 in Paul’s own epistle to the Romans, in which the way the body of Christ lives in and with one another.
Sadly, the disciples, at least as portrayed in Mark 9, don’t seem to have gotten this particular memo.
We are picking up from where we left off last week, when the disciples had been caught arguing among themselves who was the greatest only to have Jesus challenge them to welcome “the least of these,” in this case in the form of a child. Somehow John, and probably some of the others, seemed to think that the best way to respond to this challenge was to tattle on someone else. Really, that’s about the best way to describe it.
Apparently some of the disciples had seen someone else casting out demons, and doing so in the name of Jesus—evidently successfully. Perhaps their reaction masked some jealousy, since the disciples had been unable to cast a demon out of a small child earlier in this same chapter. Perhaps there was a certain protectiveness of their status as “the twelve.” Maybe there was even some fear involved. Maybe this person was, as the phrase might go today, not our kind.
For whatever reason, the disciples’ reaction to this unaffiliated exorcist was to try and stop that person from casting out demons. Somehow the disciples could not see the good being done, or if they did it was less important to them than the fact that they didn’t know who the exorcist was.
So, once again, Jesus has to talk his disciples down from the cliff. One almost imagines Jesus letting out a fairly depressed sigh just before doing so. *SIGH*
First, Jesus has to point out that a person who does a “deed of power” in the name of Jesus is not going to be able to turn around and curse Jesus in his or her next breath. A person who is casting out demons, something that anyone in Jesus’s audience would have recognized as a deed of power, is not the enemy here. It’s as if the disciples had forgotten about Jesus’s reply to the religious leaders who had charged Jesus with being in league with Beelzebub – “by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons” back in 3:22. As Jesus replied then – “how can Satan cast out Satan?” so might he have replied to his disciples in this case. The man (we assume it was a man; we honestly can’t say for absolutely certain) was doing no evil; he was doing good. Why, Jesus would like to ask his disciples, would you want to prevent that?
Verse 40 is familiar to us, probably – “Whoever is not against us is for us” – but we’ve probably become accustomed to hearing it in reverse – “whoever is not for us is against us.” Whether in old movie westerns or modern diplomacy, we’re accustomed to that “drawing the line” demanding allegiance to … what, exactly? To us, and to “the boss” and to the way we’re going to do things? It’s an ugly expression, and the person who utters it never means well towards those to whom it is directed.
But that’s not Jesus’s way. We never find out who this anonymous exorcist is, but Jesus is not at all threatened by this unknown person, even though this person is invoking Jesus’s name in performing these deeds of power. The power of Jesus, the healing of Jesus, the good of Jesus is not a thing to be hoarded, or kept hidden or locked away for a select few. Jesus is not exclusive, folks. He really does love everybody, and want to heal everybody and make everybody whole and bring good to everybody.
We Christians don’t like this, when you get right down to it. You know the hymn “Standing on the Promises,” that we’ll sing at the end of this service? Well, we stand on them, all right, nice and firm so that no one else can get to them. The behavior of the disciples makes it clear to us that this kind of closed-ness has been the case since well before anybody was using the word “Christian” as a way of drawing some in and others out.
I am always amused by those contemporary types who bemoan the existence of denominations or the splitting of churches or any other modern evidence of the division and disunity of the church, while pining for some time in the church’s history when the church was one, whole, unified. Folks, if the disciples themselves were trying to draw some in and some out before Jesus had even made it to Calvary, who are we kidding? The early church disagreed, and sometimes fought, and sometimes even divided over whether new converts should have to go through circumcision to be Christians (Paul tells us a lot about that). The church in later years disagreed and fought and divided over what day of the week they should gather for worship – the Sabbath day or the Lord’s Day. The church disagreed over the nature of the Trinity, over what it meant for Christ to be “fully human and fully divine” at the same time, over when Easter should be observed, over the nature and number of the sacraments, and ultimately over more subjects – some very serious, some quite mundane – than I have time to describe right now.  That mythical time when all were in harmony? Well, “mythical” is a good word for it.
What Jesus says next, though, is a warning against making an excuse out of that frequent division. Seriously, verse 42 ought to send a chill down the spine of any Christian:
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 giant millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea.

Read that again. Hear those words. Remember that a millstone is huge, the kind of thing that required several beasts of burden to rotate in order to grind the grain. The millstone would weigh more than you, much more. To have your head jammed through the center of that huge millstone, and to be tossed into the sea…that is a point of no hope.
You. Would. Die.
And yet, in Jesus’s words, you’d be better off to have that done to you than to be a stumbling block for, or to cause to stumble, any of these “little ones who believe in me.”
It does not matter if they are white or black.
It does not matter if they are gay or straight.
It does not matter if they are liberal or conservative.
It does not matter if they are female or male.
It does not matter what way they differ from you or disagree with you.
This does not mean we do not speak out against injustice or abuse or hatred done in the name of God. Don’t be confused here; that is not serving God; that is not following Jesus.
But those who do seek to follow, no matter how imperfectly, Jesus claims as his own. And the one – no matter how Christian you think of yourself as being – who causes such a one to stumble … you’d be better off pinned to the bottom of the sea.
Many of you know I’m not a cradle Presbyterian. I was raised in another denomination, and went so far as to get a Master’s of Church Music degree at a seminary in that denomination. But that happened at about the time that denomination was undergoing its own division, and my best professors, pastors, role models were the ones getting punished. So I couldn’t stay. This was one of those sermons, like many are, that the pastor need as much as anybody else in the congregation, if not more. Even when we’re the ones getting punished or vilified or being called “not Christian” by other parts of the church, we don’t get to be stumbling blocks for anybody else out there who is doing good in the name of Jesus. Never.
And yes, even for that, Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns: “Sing Praise to God, Who Reigns Above” (PH 483), “Help Us Accept Each Other” (PH 358),  “There’s a Wideness in God’s Mercy” (PH 298), “Standing on the Promises” (GtG 838)

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