Pentecost 18 Proper 26 Year B – (September 26, 2021)

Numbers 11.4-6,10-16, 24-29; Psalm 19.7-14; James 5.13-20; Mark 9.38-50

From whom would you accept a cup of cold water?

I ask that question because I think this week’s reading contains some of the more heart-breaking lines in Scripture: “And we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.

Just pause and think about that for a moment. The disciples come across someone who, as they report to Jesus, was “casting out demons in your name.” That is, they came across someone who was relieving intense misery, following Jesus’ example, and doing so in Jesus’ name.

But none of that was apparently enough for the disciples. Why? “Because he was not following us.” Notice the shift in pronouns. This other exorcist is doing works of power in “your name,” but “not following us.” Apparently, it’s not enough to be a follower of Jesus; you have to be a certain kind of follower. One that toes the line, that shares their theological commitments, that conforms to the disciples’ expectations.

It’s interesting that John, the disciple making the report, seems to expect Jesus’ approval. He’s not asking a question, “should we have stopped him?” But rather offers an almost matter-of-fact account: “And we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.

Far from giving his stamp of approval, however, Jesus corrects John and the others: “Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterwards to speak evil of me. Whoever is not against us is for us.” It’s almost as if the disciples don’t realise how significant or challenging their mission is, and Jesus admonishes them to find and accept help wherever they can.

But then he goes further, saying: “For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.” Notice what a small, even paltry example Jesus uses. In just a sentence or two, Jesus has gone from talking about “deeds of power” to “giving someone a cup of water.” That small gesture alone, according to Jesus, is enough to secure the reward.

Jesus made it clear that he and his disciples were not a little clique, working in a corner of life, fenced off from others. His world view, his God’s-eye view, made him well aware that God’s actions were not limited only to the forms with which his disciples were familiar.

What is the lesson in this for us? Don’t Jesus’ words ring true as a rebuke for us of our often blind and unbending exclusiveness, our arrogant assumptions that God’s action among us is limited to forms with which we are most comfortable and most familiar?

What Jesus taught his disciples is equally a lesson for us. Christians can’t fence themselves off from others who have different ways of following Jesus and of finding God. The one who is not against us is for us. The one who is not against Jesus is on the side of Jesus.

In this, Jesus gives us a model for a broader view. There is an issue of tolerance. Doesn’t Jesus’ message to the disciples help us stop short when we fall into the all too common trap of thinking in terms of “us” and “them” – seeing life only from the perspective of our own groups?

Intolerance of ‘the other’ is certainly an attitude that Jesus rejected in today’s gospel reading. Possibly he realised that the disciples considered the man casting out demons as a threat to their inner-circle status. He was an outsider, so they tried to stop him.

What was true for the disciples has been true throughout history. The world and the church have fought for centuries in such fence-building, even wall-building. The stories of the past schisms and divisions are many. And, living out of the tendencies of the same human nature, we still act this way in our time, don’t we?

Standing against this, Jesus’ words remind us that Christianity is not the preserve of a privileged few. He reminds us that no one seeking to do the Lord’s work is an outsider. He reminds us to welcome all people who are willing to join the journey, following the Lord. Over and over again, Jesus’ words remind us to be including – not excluding. Over and over again, Jesus’ words rebuke us when we turn against others because they are different. Over and over again, the life Jesus lived and the way he taught his first disciples remind us of the scandal of our divisions.

There is another side to this, of course. Sometimes conscience and / or practicality dictate that we separate ourselves from others, but the message here, at the very least, is not to do so lightly – not to draw a line in the sand except as a last resort. Jesus helps us work against the subtle temptation to think that “for me to be right, anyone who disagrees with me must be wrong.”

Jesus seems to be telling the disciples something like this: “Look for the commonality. Recognise that there are many among you who might work or think differently, but don’t jump to the conclusion that that makes them wrong – or against you – or against me.” Different doesn’t mean wrong.

He helps us to see that truth is always bigger than any one person’s, or any one group’s grasp of it. Jesus cautions us against inflexibility of thought or deed. He helps us embrace tolerance of a variety of actions and viewpoints. He helps us re-learn what is so easy to forget: that diversity is not only good; it’s absolutely essential for the health of the Body of Christ.

Today’s gospel reinforces a belief that what we need in the church today is less “either / or” and more “both / and.

Where do we find commonality? Why not begin by looking to our earliest roots? Those who can declare that “Jesus is Lord” are not against us, and therefore are for us, and for Christ. Those who can follow the steps of Jesus, taking up their crosses and denying themselves for the sake of God and God’s children are not against us, and therefore are for us, and for Christ.

The story of today’s gospel is about the disciples’ attempt to draw a circle around Jesus and themselves – shutting out the one who was casting out demons in Jesus’ name but wasn’t one of them. Perhaps a concise, powerful poem by the American poet, Edwin Markham, can help us remember that Jesus ordered the disciples not to exclude that man and to recall that those who are not against us are for us.

In his poem “Outwitted,” Edwin Markham writes:

He drew a circle that shut me out –
 Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
 But Love and I had the wit to win:
 We drew a circle that took him in.

Rev Lizzie Campbell

Sermon for Creation 3B – 19th September 2021

Jeremiah 11:18-20; Psalm 54; James 3:13 – 4:3,7,8; Mark 9:30-37

I don’t know about you, but the bits of the Bible that tend to give me most difficulty, especially in writing sermons, are the passages that seem very familiar. The problem is, I think, actually hearing what such passages are saying, in their time and also in our time. It’s just so easy to simply say

Ah yes that bit where the disciples are arguing about who is the greatest and Jesus gives them a ticking off”.

It’s in such passages that we need to be most attentive, most aware and really listen to what’s going on. Marcus Borg wrote a book with the intriguing title “Reading the Bible again for the First Time” and if you think about it, that’s what we need to do every time. It’s, for this reason that I prefer to listen to, rather than read the Bible passages, especially the Gospel, and by doing so, perhaps hear them again for the first time.

Taken together, today’s readings are about spirit-centred relationships. They challenge us to see beyond our own or our nation’s self-interest.  In them, if we are brutally honest, we might catch a glimpse of ourselves. Of course we don’t rate possessions or status above people or success before our relationships with those around us, do we?

So what’s going on in our Gospel this morning? Earlier in the chapter, Peter, James and John have accompanied Jesus up a high mountain, where He was transfigured in dazzling white and Elijah and Moses appeared with him. This event mystified the three disciples and when, on the way down the mountain, Jesus talked about rising from the dead, they didn’t understand what he was talking about. Now this morning, Jesus is trying to teach a larger group of His disciples some pretty difficult ideas –

The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.

Mark 9:31

Unsurprisingly, they don’t understand and after the public ticking off that Peter received when he effectively told Jesus not to be so silly, in last week’s Gospel, none of them has the courage to admit that they didn’t have a clue what He’s talking about and ask for explanations.

They don’t understand what Jesus is talking about, so what do they do? Well they start arguing about who’s the greatest, who’s the best. Now of course none of us do that sort of thing do we? We don’t do it at home, we don’t do it at work, we don’t do it is our recreational activities, and such a thing would never ever take place anywhere near here would it?

This Gospel is the second of three attempts by Jesus to get the disciples to engage with his coming death and resurrection. The disciples don’t understand and are just a little bit upset that He’s speaking like this.  So instead of listening to Jesus they’re arguing about their role in the kingdom and what will happen to them.  Will each of them have a high status, a special position and a designated role?

As Jesus explores the anger and denial of his disciples He also addresses us – What concerns are closest to our hearts? Do we, too, worry about our status, our authority or the perks we think we deserve?  Do we engaged in the disciples’ game of comparison and oneupmanship?

The summer’s a time of competition – Wimbledon, the Olympics and Para-Olympics and of course the US Open tennis and that amazing achievement by Emma Raducanu. Does our Gospel today frown on such things?  

No, it isn’t that we shouldn’t strive to be good at things, even when we might well fail to be the best. It’s how we react to our successes and failures, how we deal with them and how we treat others who’ve been more or less successful than us. Without doubt, Jesus was a great deal better at many many things than you or I could aspire to be. At prayer for instance. It’s not in trying hard, in failing or in being good at something where the devil lurks. It’s in how we treat others in their success and failure and especially their success and failure relative to our own.

Jesus is frustrated by the fact that whilst He’s nearing the end of His time on earth and trying to prepare the disciples for coping with what is about to happen and for life without Him, they’re just arguing about who’s the best, and quite frankly none of them is doing particularly well. It’s, as James reminds us in our Epistle this morning:

“For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind. Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you?

James 3:16 and 4:1

Envy and jealousy are powerful motivators – just look at some of the spats between nations that we’ve seen in the last week or two. There’s a serious crisis looming for our planet and instead of all pulling together, we’re engaged in trying to be the greatest, in envying what others have, in competing for scare resources and in not giving sanctuary or support to refugees, migrants and those displaced by disease, war, famine, flood and drought or sharing our vaccines with them.

Jesus is asking His disciples and us to see things afresh, to become more fully aware and attentive to the everyday, the ordinary and the things that really matter even though the world thinks are unimportant – the socially and culturally invisible, the marginalised and everything that’s happening to God’s Creation. Jesus is saying to us and our leaders:

“‘What were you arguing about?’ But they’re silent, for they are arguing with one another about whois the greatest. He sits down and says to them, ‘Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.’ Then he takes a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he saysto them, ‘Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.’

Mark 9:33-37

In November World leaders and many others will be gathering to discuss how to address Climate Change.  Into their midst, young people are converging on the COP26 conference in Glasgow. And those in power may well think, even if they don’t actually say,

What would they know about it? Who invited them, they’re just children?

Well maybe it’s Jesus who invited them and maybe these young people do have something important to say. Young people with, no learned degrees, no office staff and no special expertise, haveeverything.  And they’re going to be there to ask the politicians the question:

What sort of planet are you lot going to leave for us to inherit and for us to bring up our children on?

God, grant me heavenly wisdom which is pure, peaceable, gentle and willing to yield…” 

Prayer from James 3:17