First, read the scripture text (Mark 9:38-50). Here’s the sermon:
First, a sidebar – if you get a pit of your stomach feeling from these verses about hell, and would like to read a bit about how the concept of hell evolved and how to understand it, here’s a helpful essay (“Evolution of Hell” from the Rev. Dr. Wilda Gafney). And my heart also goes to those who struggle with depression and thoughts of self-mutilation for whom these verses may be triggering. Here, Jesus is using hyperbole to make a point – hear this clearly: God never wants us to hate or hurt a part of our bodies. Ironically, this passage is about protecting people, and Jesus used these fierce words to underscore how important it is to not cause harm.
Yes, Jesus is a little frustrated – because he’s been misunderstood. Like so many other times. Like if Jesus were to ask the disciples – and us sitting here today, what’s the first thing you think of, when I say the word “church?”
How many of us, if we’re honest, immediately picture a building. Maybe this one, or a kind of caricature of a church, steeple, cross? I admit I do! Part of the problem is that we use the word to mean the building when some of you who have been around for a while have heard countless sermons about how the church is the body of Christ, the people, not the building.
Of course Jesus’ disciples didn’t have the word “church” yet. But that same instinct is behind what’s going on in the gospel story, just like in the first reading. Jesus hears their complaint – “we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” and Jesus said: “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.”
I picture Jesus whipping around, that Jesus felt like: “what do you think we’re doing here?”
And if the disciples are honest, if they could really be self-aware about their intentions, they might admit – “uh, we’re making a club?”
Jesus’ harsh words that follow are meant to shake them out of this insular thinking – that they’d better excise that part of themselves that wants to keep others out.
Jesus was there, and is here, to make a movement, not a club.
Remember, Jesus didn’t stop to sit down with disciples to write a constitution and bylaws, or draw up membership requirements. He was always on the move. And yes, it was because there were more people to heal, see, and reach, but also this method is the lesson.
God’s work is always a step ahead of us – not static but always with a new way to grow, expand, and be opened. Have you noticed this in your life? If you find yourself changed for the good, a prayer answered, it’s not like you’re done. God introduces you to a new person that will be hard to love. I notice this with how I have been trying to examine my own biases – I get over one, and notice another.
Jesus is always a couple steps ahead of us. Just like the Transfiguration story and so many others, the human instinct is to – stop here. We’re done, right? We’ll build a wall around Jesus, keep him nice and safe, put down some rules about how to be in the club. But as the Rev. Dr. Yvette Flunder has preached, Jesus has already left the building – Easter reminds us “he’s up now” – and will not be confined. In fact, even before we’ve said “go in peace, serve the Lord,” Jesus is out ahead of even the most eager introvert – out finding people to love, rescue, and change to make in the world.
For Joshua in our first reading, for these disciples in the gospel story, and for us today, God re-directs our knee-jerk judgment of – “they’re not doing it right” to think – could God be working through them? As one of my seminary professors was known for saying, “turn your judgment into curiosity.” To wonder – how could God be working outside of the tent, outside of the 12 disciples with titles.
Before “Christianity” was a term, the early church called their faith “the way.” It’s a reminder that like Jesus, we are called to keep going. To worry less about who’s in and who’s out, as much as to notice where God has gone ahead of us, keeps expanding and opening our borders.
Where do you notice where God is moving out ahead of us? Consider just this year, or right now – where has God opened our eyes and been a step ahead of us – with people we least expected? What has God taught us – as a congregation – as a nation – as a family – or you individually?
Those lessons – that shake us up, remind us that God is bigger than our boxes, they redirect us on the path, reconnect us with the Way. These things might even be hard or harsh at times, realizing we were wrong – they are like an axe to cut off the things that distract us, that make us obsessed with fairness instead of the feast ahead of us, and that instinct to make it a club again.
Lillian Daniel said, “I don’t go to church to have my needs met. I got to church to have my needs changed.” (as cited here: https://sojo.net/articles/sermon-hacking-our-own-limbs-jesus) That is what I need, though I can never see it clearly for myself. In worship each week, we are re-ordered: forgiven, fed, reminded of our calling, and sent out with purpose. The other stuff – the love of labels, the obsession with fairness, the divisions and self-interest – cut off.
Now it doesn’t last – out in the world during the week, just like the disciples and the Isrealites in the wilderness, we bump into others and think – “hey! They’re doing it wrong.” But our gracious God always invites us back in, takes us lovingly and sharply enough that we hear it – to say – “don’t worry about them. Everyone will be salted with fire. Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.”
May it be so with us. Amen.