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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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