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Sermon for 19th Sunday after Pentecost 2018

Kit Brinson – Grace

Esther 7:1-6, 9-10; 9:20-22 Psalms 124

James 5:13-20 Mark 9:38-50

“Poor old fool,” thought the well-dressed gentleman as he watched the old man fish in a puddle outside a pub. So he invited the old man inside for a drink. As they sipped their whiskeys, the gentleman thought he’d humor the old man and asked, “So how many have you caught today?” The old man replied, “You’re my eighth.”

John proudly announces to Jesus that they saw someone casting out demons in his name and they stopped him. Their reason for intervening? “Because he was not one of us.” The complaint drips with irony. The disciples recently bungled an exorcism, yet they do not hesitate to stop someone who is successful but who is not a member of their team. Jesus catches them by surprise when he does not commend them for their vigilance but instead reproves them: “Do not stop him.”

This response recalls Moses’ reply to Joshua. Joshua wanted Israel’s leader, to do something about unauthorized prophets, “Moses, my lord, stop them!” Moses answered, “Are you jealous for my sake” I wish that all the Lord’s people were prophets and that the Lord would put his Spirit on them.” Are the disciples jealous for Jesus or for themselves? Do they want to corner the exorcism market, which would make them indispensable and revered, whereas Jesus wishes that all were exorcists, casting out Satan in his name?

In the ancient world, exorcists used whatever name of deities they thought might work. Jesus’ explanation for condoning the exorcist’s success in Mark’s account is practical, not theological. He argues that they cannot use his name to do mighty works and speak ill of him later. Anyone who recognizes the power of Jesus’ name will not accuse him of working for Beelzebub, as the teachers of the law from Jerusalem had done.

Jesus then opens the doors wide to include on his side all those who are not against him. He knows that both he and his disciples are locked in a life-and-death struggle against evil, and he is prepared to accept any ally willing to join in the fight. Jesus concedes the possibility that good can come from circles outside his own. The forces who call on Jesus’ name in the battle against evil can only be weakened by cutthroat competition among themselves. This openness to others will trouble anyone who wants to set parameters as to who is in and who is out. The enemy becomes anyone who is “not one of us”, instead of Satan.

While John worries about the competition’s work of power, Jesus shifts to the humblest act of compassion. He says that those who give his followers even a cup of cold water in his name will be rewarded. The reward is more than the satisfaction of doing someone a kindness but is a heavenly reward. The cup of cold water image suggests that those who bear Christ’s will find themselves needing refreshment and compassion when dealing with persecution. Cups of water will be hard to come by, and then they will appreciate more the neutrality of those who do not join the persecution, but extend only the most basic kindness.

When they told Jesus about the person, Jesus did not seem concerned about it. He said to them, “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.” Preserving the power of his own group was not a priority for Jesus. If good were being done by others, their actions needed to be affirmed. Jesus went on to say to the disciples that as they ministered to outsiders, they would be blessed as well as blessing those they helped: “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.”

After dealing with the disciples’ unwillingness to welcome the outsider, Jesus pointed to some other concerns his disciples would face as leaders - concerns that all of us who seek to minister in Christ’s name will face. First, he warned them against putting stumbling blocks in the way of others who are seeking to find their way toward faith in him. In vivid language he warned that “it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea.” The risks are real for us if our failures of love, our distortions of the way of Christ, our too narrow understandings of the truth, our quickness to pronounce judgment cause others to stumble as they are trying to find the way of faithful living.

These stones are not intended to be millstones around our necks. They represent those obstacles or those things we are seeking in our lives. Hold on to them…get to know the feel of them.

Second, Jesus warned his disciples and us about the risk that we may stumble ourselves. Again, in vivid language, he declared that if our hand or foot or eye causes us to stumble, it is better to get rid of it than to miss the way of God. The gross language draws on the common use of a body metaphor to refer to a social group. These words, are not a recommendation for self-mutilation, but were spoken not to outsiders but to those seeking to follow Jesus. Members in various roles in the community could be removed if their actions threaten the integrity of the whole community. His vivid words alerted them and us that the righteousness of God, being in right relationship with God, should be seriously sought.

Finally, Jesus talked about the salt of the disciples, the qualities that would preserve and enhance their community. From all that Jesus said as he journeyed the way to Jerusalem with his disciples, it becomes clear that their saltiness involves being humble in their relationships with each other, giving of themselves to others, reaching out and accepting all people around them. They are to “be at peace with one another.”

How do we maintain that peace in a community of faith? How do we live out our gifts in a community of faith when we feel wronged or have wronged others? The rocks you have selected are like the burdens, the distractions in our life in the community of faith, which we carry with us. The stones can also be something that you are seeking, praying about, wanting answers, wanting direction about a job or a relationship or what God wants of you. The burdens, the obstacles, the distractions can be a number of things like indifference, impatience, pride, unforgiveness, bitterness, hatred, gossip, control issues, envy, jealousy….the list is endless. Feel the weight of the stone in your hand…is it equal to the burden on your heart?

In living in relationship with others, there are times that you have offended somebody and you know it, but we don’t know what to do about it. People do the same thing with God, when we think we’ve offended beyond repair. We stop praying when we know we’ve done something wrong. We no longer feel worthy to approach the goodness of God. And so we don’t try: God knows what I’ve done, we think, and I won’t be accepted. But of course the reverse is true; God does know what we’ve done and we are accepted anyway. God has a plan for all of our lives and we must be open to finding out what that plan entails. It is for this reason that Christ is among us: because we continually make a mess of things, whether through mistake or negligence or being strong-willed or just plain stubborn, and we need help. God does not demand our perfection as a condition to be in relationship with us. God engages us first, and perfects us in time. We are all works in progress.

What is stopping us from calling out to God? It is painful to remember that he already knows it all. What we did, and also why we did it. Or what we failed to do. However foolish, it is not beyond the power of God to forgive and heal. But you can’t regain the relationship with God or with anyone else, if we won’t talk, if we won’t open up, if we turn a deaf ear, if we harden our hearts.

Continue to cradle the stone in your hand. It is a solid presence, just like what is troubling you. What does it represent in your life? Jesus said if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off. What is the obstacle, the distraction, the burden that is weighing you down, that is preventing you from being all that you can be at Grace? Is it indifference, apathy, fear of rejection, pain, hurt? I’ve heard it said that there is no hurt like church hurt. Is there unforgiveness that has locked up your heart. God’s desire for all of us is healing and wholeness. Here is your opportunity to lay your burden down. To lay down that troubling question that doesn’t yet have an answer. As you come to the altar for communion, bring your burden to give it to God. The Lay Eucharist Ministers will collect them and place them on the altar. After receiving communion, you may return to your seats burden free. After all have had communion, we will prayerfully lay all of our burdens on God’s altar, and say a prayer for God to receive our stones and all that they represent to us. Let the releasing of our obstacles, the unanswered questions, that cause us to doubt and to stumble make us better…not bitter. What do you want to do with your burdens? It can be a fresh start, a discovering, and uncovering of God’s hand in our lives and our hearts. God’s desire for all of us is that we use our God-given gifts in the community of faith and for the glory of God. When we come to God’s altar with willing hands and open hearts, God honors our efforts. Jesus said, “Come to me all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28). Amen.

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