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Sermon, September 26, 2021 – Pentecost 18

Whose Gospel? or Who’s In and Who’s Out?

Today’s readings offer a rich variety of topics.  The first reading from the Book of Esther is the only time in appears in our lectionary.  It’s set during the late exile after Persia has conquered Babylon.  This is the only book in the entire Bible that does not mention God in its text.  Yet, reading the Book of Esther is the central act of the Jewish feast of Purim.  While Esther does not mention God, it is clear that God is at work through human beings to preserve and protect God’s people from destruction.

In the Gospel passage, the disciples are challenged to accept a wider understanding of what it means to serve in Jesus’ name.  In the opening verses of the reading, the Apostle John raises the question of how the disciples are to relate to outsiders who cast out demons in the name of Jesus. Jesus’ success in setting people free from demonic control had been such that the very invocation of his name was determined to have healing properties. But the inner circle of disciples viewed any outsiders’ use of the name as an unauthorized infringement.

Previously, John had been involved with some of the other disciples in a dispute over who was the greatest among them (Mk. 9:33-34). The disciples’ exclusivist attitude could reflect conflicts in Mark’s community church over who was to be included in the faith community.

Jesus’ reply reveals his lack of concern over the incident and reflects his earlier view that those who are not explicitly disciples can still do God’s work (Mk. 3:31-35). What matters is that God’s purposes are being fulfilled, as demons are “expelled” and people set free.

Furthermore, the person who uses Jesus’ name to obtain such results shows some sort of respect, regardless of personal commitment to Jesus. No one can claim to own the name of Jesus; instead, Jesus owns those who call upon his name. Ultimately, “Whoever is not against us is for us” (v. 40; cf Num. 11:24- 30). Jesus directs the disciples to reflect on their own life and ministry rather than worrying about the ministries of outsiders. Ironically, the disciples were previously unable to exorcise a demon from a young boy (Mk. 9:17-18).

Thus, the community of Jesus’ followers is to include everyone. Unless there is reason to believe that someone poses a negative threat, we must be willing to accept those who seek to do good in Jesus’ name. In fact, whoever does the smallest service for a follower of Jesus shall surely be rewarded; for such care for one another is what true discipleship is all about (v. 41).

In verses 42-48, Jesus calls on the disciples, to examine their own behavior; for those who might cause believers — “these little ones” (v. 42) — to turn away from following Jesus will bring destruction upon themselves. It would be better to die than to be the cause of another person’s ruin — even, in Jesus’ illustration, to be thrown into the sea with a heavy millstone around one’s neck.

Any actions preventing others from following God’s will must be renounced (vv. 43-47). These graphic directives to cut off a hand or foot, or to tear out an eye, are not meant to be taken literally. Such exaggerated metaphors illustrate the necessity of ridding ourselves of the things in our lives that hold us back from wholehearted devotion to God.  After all, if we were to follow this directive literally, we would be inundated with half-blind people who have changed their name to “Lefty.”

The word translated as “stumble” in these verses is used in the sense of “to take offense” or “to scandalize.” To put an obstacle in the way of another person’s faith is a very serious matter indeed.  Here is where the Gospel comes down hardest on those who wish to claim it as a personal possession that is available only to a select few.  Sooner or later, there will be a sorting that culminates with pronouncements of who’s worthy to be a part of the faith community, and those who for whatever artificial reason are excluded and become outcasts.  The result is eventually those who perceive themselves as outsiders turn away in disgust.  This is why so many younger people are turning their backs on the Christian religion, becoming what many theologians and church leaders are calling the “NONES,” although “DONES” would probably be a more accurate description.  Ultimately, we will find ourselves being judged by the standards we held up against our brothers and sisters.

One of our strengths as the Church of the Mediator is that we remind ourselves of our mission and ministry in our community.  We do this by repeating our congregation’s mission statement every Sunday morning.  Repeating our mission statement together gives us an opportunity to ask ourselves how we as individuals and collectively are trying to live into our mission.

The Good News for us on this Eighteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time is that it’s not up to us to decide who’s in or who’s out – that’s God’s job not ours.  That gives us the freedom to risk inviting everyone – friend or stranger – into our midst, welcome them, and invite them to join us at our Lord’s Table. Amen.

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Sermon, September 19, 2021 – Pentecost 17

True Greatness

In today’s Gospel Jesus again announces his approaching Passion, and by example begins to teach his disciples the meaning of greatness. On his way to Jerusalem, he reminds them a second time that he is going there to suffer, to die, and to rise on the third day. How can they possibly understand or accept this?

To avoid being detained, he travels incognito, not wanting anyone to know of his passage through the territory.

At this point the disciples are perplexed and even afraid to ask him the meaning of his message. When they reach Capernaum, Jesus asks them what they were discussing during the walk. Now they are embarrassed to answer him, since apparently they have been arguing about who will be number one in the coming Kingdom.

They have much to learn about the importance of others, their own lack of “getting it” — and what is ahead for the Body of Christ who will carry on in his absence.

In order to address the issue, Jesus begins to explain to the disciples the difficult truth, and to demonstrate how to be great. He proclaims, “If anyone wants to be first, he must make himself last of all and a servant of all.”

And if these words are not enough, he takes a little child and lovingly sets the child in their midst. The way you treat those who can’t “lord it over” you is the way your true greatness is measured.

It’s not all about you. If those who still struggle or cannot speak for themselves are central to the Kingdom, then the Christ is surely closer than we thought — in our very midst.

Leo Tolstoy’s story of Martin the Cobbler is about a lonely shoemaker who is promised in a dream that Christ will come to visit his shop. The next day Martin rises early, gets his shop ready, prepares a meal, and waits.

The only one who shows up in the morning is an old beggar who comes by and asks for rest. Martin gives him the room that he had prepared for his Divine guest.

The only one to show up in the afternoon is an old lady with a heavy load of wood. She is hungry and asks for food. Martin gives her the meal he had prepared for his Divine guest.

As evening comes, a lost boy wanders by. Martin takes him home, afraid all the while he will miss the Christ. That night in his prayers he asks the Lord, “Where were You? I waited all day for You.”

The Lord says to Martin:

  • Three times I came to your friendly door,
  • Three times my shadow was on your floor.
  • I was a beggar with bruised feet.
  • I was the woman you gave to eat.
  • I was the homeless child on the street.

He is here among us in the “little ones” — those who cannot offer us status or wealth or acclaim. Watch out! the story warns us. Christ may be closer than you can imagine.

Amen.

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Sermon, September 12, 2021

Remember

There are events that are forever etched into our memories.  Events that simply recalling the event, or the date, takes us back to the moment when we first heard the news.  For many of our elders it was the attack on Pearl Harbor, for my generation it was President Kennedy’s assassination, or Neil Armstrong’s first steps on the moon.  We can instantly recall where we were and/or what we were doing.  September 11, 2001 is another such event.  I was serving as the Vicar of St. Alban’s Church in Chiefland.  I remember vividly watching in stunned silence as the airliners flew into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York, and the equally frightening news of American Airlines Flight 77 crashing into the Pentagon.  The day was a blur between planning a prayer service at St. Alban’s for that evening to numerous phone calls from my Army Reserve unit informing us that we were on alert and be ready to report within twenty-four hours.  My daughter, Lora, was a freshman at Florida Southern – that created another set of concerns for Lynn and me.  The list goes on.

Here we are twenty years later, and the memory of that day is still painfully seared into our consciousness.  I found watching the programs recalling that day on the History Channel overwhelming and difficult.  So, here we are on the morning after wondering what does it mean? 

One of the greatest gifts God has given to us is the gift of memory.  It sustains our relationships and reminds us that ultimately, we are never truly alone.  It has the ability to keep us alive and out of harm’s way.  Our memory is at the core of our education and learning.  In other words, memory is necessary for our survival and wellbeing.  Our collective memory has become distorted.  The pervasive overwhelming unity that marked the days and weeks after the attacks is gone.  The common sentiment was, “We are Americans!”  Now we are more divided that ever – hate has become the driving force in our communal life and our politics.  This is NOT the Gospel of Jesus that we are called to live out and live into.  The call to love is stronger than ever, if we are willing to listen.

It’s important that we remember the events of September 11, 2001, and even more important that we learn from those events.  It’s important that we remember those who died, not only those who died on that horrible day, but also those who lost their lives in the twenty-year conflict that followed.  Most importantly, we need to remember in order to work toward preventing future tragedies like this from happening again.  We need to remember who we are, and more importantly whose we are, and live accordingly.  We are being called to once again proclaim the Good News of God in Christ.

So, on this morning after, let us be about the work of reconciliation and peace, which is at the heart of the Gospel.

Amen.

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Sermon, September 5, 2021 – Pentecost 15

Just a Crumb

This morning’s Gospel brings us two different healing stories they occur outside of Jesus’ home territory, one of them will affect the course of the Church’s history. 

Today’s Gospel passage includes two healing stories in Tyre and Decapolis — Gentile territories historically hostile to Jews — illustrating that the reign of God cannot be contained by cultural and social biases and boundaries.

When Jesus arrived in Tyre, he sought privacy; but reports of Jesus’ fame had spread, and “he could not escape notice” (7:24). Thus, when a local woman, a Syrophoenician Gentile, bowed down at Jesus’ feet and begged him to heal her daughter of an “unclean spirit” (v. 25; cf Mt. 15:21-28), Jesus initially harshly denied her request. He had come to feed the children (Jews) and not the dogs (Gentiles). Dogs were unclean animals, and to be called a dog was an insult. But the woman continued to press her case, replying that even the dogs are allowed leftovers. She did not challenge the priority of the Jews but pointed also to the claims of the Gentiles.

Jesus gives in to the woman’s argument, declaring that her daughter had been healed “for saying that” (v. 29). The deliverance took place instantaneously and from a distance. When the woman returned home, her child was healed and lying in bed. This is the only time in Mark’s Gospel that Jesus was “bested” in an argument. In her persistence and expectant hope, this unnamed woman stood her ground and used Jesus’ own words to her advantage. The dogs under the table were already sharing the children’s bread. Soon they would cease to be dogs and become children alongside the others.

The focus here is not so much on exorcism itself as on the establishment of a basis for the mission to the Gentiles. Jesus’ actions had broken down boundaries of geography, gender, ethnicity, and religious purity in order to extend the Kingdom of God to all who would receive it.

It’s not fashionable to cower before the Divine Presence. That’s good in one way. For generations, cowering I’m not worthy became an excuse for not taking risks on behalf of the Gospel and acting on behalf of justice and peace in the world.

On the other hand, there’s a kind of arrogance in current cultural Christianity that postures, “I’m forgiven once and for all, so my exploitation of others in search of my abundance and personal salvation doesn’t count.” … Both Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross suggest that the closer you come to mystical union, the more is at stake with sin and temptation. The closer you come to mystical union, the wider the sphere of love of God and neighbor. And, while Divine Presence may be more profoundly intimate, the concept of God may be more profoundly remote and incomprehensible.

I grew up with the “Prayer of Humble Access” from the Methodist Hymnal and comes from the 1928 Book of Common Prayer which imprinted on my soul an allusion to the Canaanite woman. “We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under Thy table.” I loved this prayer as a child, an adolescent, a young adult. And while I deeply appreciate the liturgical reform that erased it from the communion service, I hope I still approach the table once in a while with awe and fear of God.

The Canaanite woman shatters Jesus exclusionary mindset. But she also appreciates what she was asking for. “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs” (Mk. 7:27-28).

She did not cower before Jesus. Nevertheless, I know that from time to time I am not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs from beneath the table. I hope I am continuing to learn when to repent quietly alone and when to act boldly in the world. —Suzanne Guthrie in Soulwork Toward Sunday (9/2/2012).

The founder of Hasidism, the Baal Shem Tov (the “possessor of the good name”), was a hero of the poor and oppressed. His flock consisted of Eastern European Jewish peasants in the early eighteenth century during the pogrom years. The Baal Shem Tov and his later Hasidic disciples rejected elitism and the intellectual squabbles of rabbinical schools, teaching that the simplest people and prayers were God’s favorites. The Baal Shem Tov claimed that “The lowest of the low you can think of, is dearer to me than your only son is to you.”

Our Gospel today also rejects elitism and opens the door to healing to those who come with the most basic needs and prayers. It begins with Jesus coming face to face with a Gentile woman pleading for the healing of her sick daughter. The woman, perhaps despite identifying with the “lowest of the low,” has heard about Jesus and musters the courage to come to him and beg him to cast a demon out of her daughter. Jesus seems to “put her in her place” by speaking of it not being right to give children’s food to “dogs.”

But Gordon McMullan comments in Reflections on Mark’s Gospel (Enniskillen, N. Ireland: Clogher Diocesan Publ., 1983) that although “these words sound harsh and unresponsive,” it may help to know that “the word translated dogs is one that Jews frequently used in reference to Gentiles and reflected the normal state of racial and religious division between Jews and non-Jews.”

He continues: “Possibly, in employing this well-known language of Jew about Gentile, Jesus was purposely using terms that the woman would understand as refusal to help. There was also explanation in the words of Jesus, for He was saying that God’s salvation was through His chosen people and until that mission to the Jews had been completed it must remain His chief involvement.”

Or, it might also have been a testing of the woman’s character and spiritual strength. If so, she excelled in her response. She gave back in kind, demonstrating assertiveness and persistence on behalf of the child she loved and wanted to see made whole.

Whatever the slant of our reading of it, this passage makes us uncomfortable. We are challenged to consider how often we ourselves disregard the “simplest” and the “plainest” prayers — petitions that reach all the way down to the disenfranchised and desperate people that populate our own world. And we are perhaps wondering which prayers we simply neglect to hear.

This lays the foundation for the Church’s position of inclusiveness because it gives us our place at the table, along with ALL of our brothers and sisters – no matter what differences may appear. Therefore, instead of scrounging for crumbs, we feast together as one great human family.

Amen.