Year B, Proper 21; Mark 9.38-50; The Rev. Beth Turner.
From the beginning of the Christian movement, followers of Jesus have struggled to be generous in acknowledging the good that others do and not to be concerned when they “do not follow us.” In today’s gospel, John, who, with Peter and James, constitutes Jesus’ inner circle basically tattles on an outsider—someone “not following us”—who is doing ministry in Jesus’ name. No way can this happen, says John. I mean, we can’t just stand around willy-nilly letting people change the world for the better when they have not been authorized by you to do so? Seriously, who do these people think they are?
I wonder: How many times will Jesus have to tell us human beings to mind our own business?
Jesus: John, it’s not your place to call dibs on doling out God’s healing power, or to check papers to ensure the people who offer it are registered members of the Jesus Club. Oh, no, says Jesus. Whoever is not against us is for us.
Surprise. It appears that something important is going on here, and it’s bigger than the church. A welcoming spirit, attentiveness, generosity, and healing come from God and are not ours to manage and ration.
These teachings reveal a broad definition of a follower of Jesus—that being a follower is determined by what a person does and why she or he does it. It seems that Jesus is saying that people can follow him without necessarily belonging to the community of his disciples.
Us: John…boy did he tell you! I guess that does it for Jesus’ sermon on power grabbing is a no-no. Well, no…maybe not.
It’s pretty clear that John’s worry is indicative of his previously displayed need for power and prestige. Remember that audacious request to sit beside Jesus in Eternity? If that weren’t over the top, now he is asking, “Jesus, what would happen if everybody started doing things in your name?”
Us: And the problem is?
If John had truly been concerned about maintaining the integrity of the Jesus movement, we might not blame him for his question. But John’s concern was preserving his own power. The conversation Jesus wants to have is about the transforming potential of life in community. Preserving the power of his inner circle? Not a priority. If others are doing good deeds, their actions should to be affirmed.
But hold on a minute. We all know that community is a place of identity, a place where people have a sense of belonging because they are known and recognized. Communities shape values and provide cultural norms.
It’s a fair question: How do communities practice intimate fellowship with others without losing their defining distinctiveness?
A strong community is a good thing. It enhances the lives of its members. Communities provide protection and support. But there are risks in a strong community. A strong community may become so focused on itself that it loses the capacity to relate to those outside.
As an Episcopalian, I can be pretty smug about how self-aware, how PC, I imagine myself to be. I’m pretty darned sure I don’t participate in the kind of inwardly focused communities that knowingly or unknowingly exclude others. Our church has struggled mightily and with great intention and intelligence in order to become the remarkably inclusive body we now are. After all, we meet regularly at grand national conventions and pass elegantly worded resolutions. We have appropriate pride about our habits of welcome and inclusion.
Yet the church community is bound together not just by common interest or mutual enjoyment but by convictions about the fundamental issues of human existence: what we believe most deeply, what gives value and meaning to our existence, under what obligations we live, how we define and achieve the good life, who we are. Take for example, our Baptismal Covenant in which we affirm our commitments to peace, justice, and the dignity of every human being.
I have this theory about the church. As long as our primary gathering place is here (in a building) we are protected from some of the more nuanced tensions between being inclusive and being exclusive. Think of it. What would it mean to “take it to the streets,” actively affirming the journeys of people outside the walls of an institutional church as they, like us, seek God and a deeper knowledge of God? What would happen if we began to gather in 3rd Places, at least as often as we gather here?
Sociologists tell us we need three anchor points for our lives, the first being home and the second being work. The equally important third place is a public place of diverse community. When gathered in a “third place,” people of all walks of life are brought to the same level. If there is any hierarchy, it is based on quality of conversation and insight, not social position.
Most of you know about the opening of our new campus ministry setting. It’s called 3rd Place. It’s proving to be both a blessing and a challenge. Somewhat to our surprise, we’re grappling with questions like “What is essential? What is, who is, the body of Christ, really?”
We might ask whether we are tuning in to the spirit of Jesus in the world? And when we see it, hear it, taste it, smell it—do we actively join that spirit? Do we know deep, deep down that fully embracing others is gaining rather than losing the integrity of our own traditions? Do we know we all lose when we do not stretch to open our arms wide?
After pulling John up short for his unwillingness to welcome the outsider, Jesus has some harsh warnings for his more established followers who set up checkpoints for those seeking to find their way toward faith. In vivid language he warns that “it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea.”
Some scholars dismiss Jesus’ warnings as hyperbole and go so far as to tell us to lighten up and stop worrying about his dramatic, even frightening, admonitions against being a roadblock to the seekers in our world.
I do not think this is mere rhetorical emphasis. Not at all. I don’t think we can overstate Jesus’ urging us, pushing us to run the risk of vulnerability when relating to those who are not officially part of our community. There are very real consequences both for the community and for the person doing a good deed in God’s name. When we don’t trust and “Just do it!” the fact is everyone loses.
I remember the first week we opened the doors of 3rd Place.
A student walked in and rather bombastically announced that he was a business major and had connections to some pretty good bands. “I’m not really a Christian he said, but I can get them to play here, and we could give all the money from a cover charge to charity.”
A young woman, an artist, enters and boldly joins a planning meeting in our sitting area. We’d never seen her before. She tells us she is a metal worker, and that she could make us some candleholders, adding, “I like the idea of something I create having a special purpose.”
A group of friends (banjo, fiddle, guitar players) sing and hold a “worship jam” on Tuesday evenings, late after our regular program. We feel stretched by creating a space for a more traditional language of faith but welcome their voices anyway.
Once we opened the doors, we felt a whirlwind of energy and passion from so many. We felt “love,” really. And we’ve been practicing saying YES.
Yes, you may meditate here on Monday evenings. You and your drums are welcome here. Yes, please put your art supplies on these shelves; you are welcome to tape your pictures on this wall. Yes, we’ll have a Bible study on radical hospitality. Yes, we’ll reflect on the meaning of this song, your song, any song. Yes, we’ll travel as a group to the upcoming poverty simulation. Yes, a business class on the spirit of creativity and innovation may meet here on Wednesday. Yes, we’ll share bread and wine and remember Jesus each week. Yes, you may hang your peace flags here. Yes.
It continues to be a little overwhelming but we’re practicing saying yes—YES—to all that we recognize so clearly as the spirit of Jesus.
It feels as though we are on holy ground. There is even the sense that describing this to you is a bit disrespectful. The people I’ve mentioned are our friends, and we are experiencing these new friendships as inseparable from our own growth and transformation. We need each other. These connections are happening on mutual holy ground.
As 21st c. followers of Jesus, we are being called to a vocation of relationship. We often call this the vocation of servanthood. But I think Jesus would push us even further toward the more mutual vocations of relationship and, above all, of friendship.
Jesus neither needs nor wants bouncers guarding the door of our traditions and institutions. Rather, he invites us to notice, and to join in, what he’s about in the third places, in the whole wide world. The early followers of Jesus didn’t have a creed or a codified set of prayers. They did not all worship in the same way. They had some form of baptism and some forms of prayers over bread and wine, and that was about it. They didn’t have many of the religious traditions that today we call “Christianity.” Truth is, they were following Jesus by the seat of their pants. In some ways, so are we. Yes, we’re in uncharted territory. But, thankfully, Jesus is not.
You know, the days we feel most vulnerable may be the days we are doing something right.
Let’s say our prayers. Let us pray that we listen to Jesus, that we hear his urging to say YES.
Say YES. Jump right in. Come and see. Embrace every seeker as your own friend and a friend of God. Don’t worry about who gets credit for doing good. Don’t idolize your religion. Have mercy…
…for God’s sake.
…for your own sake.
…for the sake of the whole world.
About that plucking out the eye thing
One of them came in wet with a millstone and a rope
knotted around his throat gasping for air having dragged
the damn thing up from the bottom of the river
where he once was baptized a while back
because he had cursed at a child for high pitched screaming
Another came in with her right hand
hacked off—she was left-handed—
and she dripped crimson drops all the way
down the hall to Jesus’ living room
admitting she had used the missing appendage
to flip someone off in traffic for cutting in
One more limped in with a lopped off foot
in his hand and he dropped to the floor sobbing
because he had tripped someone in line
in front of him to get a better seat
at Bonnaroo this year to see [Mumford and Sons]
Then there was the disciple who had an eye patch
and fumbled her way through the door
having glared at her next door neighbor with
a bitchy stare because she looked so freaking good
in that new dress and those shoes with red soles
and wished she would trip and tear her ACL
They gathered around Jesus, each face
with a seriousness that puzzled the good Lord
except for the one with the plucked out eye—
it was hard to look puzzled with the patch and all.
He looked at them and said,
holding back an uncharacteristic chuckle:
For God’s sake, stop damaging yourselves.
You know I was kidding, right?
Have you heard of hyperbole, people?
Just don’t do those mean things anymore
and if you do, say you’re sorry, make amends, and move on.
Lift up the lowly and respect the helpless.
It’s just not that hard.
Come on, folks! Get over yourselves!
You’re not that bad, and you’re not that good.
And then they ate supper and he taught them
many more things that they misunderstood.
– Michael Coffey