Sermon – September 27, 2015 – Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Mark 9:38-50, James 5:13-19
Pastor Maggie Falenschek

While I was serving my pastoral internship my supervisor and I would meet months in advance to assign which weekends we would each be preaching. This process was pretty random or at least was based mostly on our schedules and I thought the assignment was fair but it ended up that, without fail, the readings assigned for the weeks I was preaching were always most awkward, difficult, offensive, and just generally skin-crawling texts that no one would ever want to be asked to say something coherent and grace-filled about.
And this all started on my very first Sunday there when I had to preach on the text where Jesus says to his followers, “I did not come to bring peace but destruction”— a great reading for your first Sunday in a new place!  Each week I would get a text on death and destruction, and the following week my supervisor would get a story on peace, love, and happiness. This happened so many times that it became a running joke in the congregation and every time I would finish reading the gospel story for that day, I would look out into the congregation and they would all be in their seats chuckling.  Now this is only my third weekend preaching here at St. Matthew, but you understand why I was a little nervous when I cracked open my bible and saw the gospel reading for this week.  Where, oh where is peace, love, and happiness Jesus?!
This is a hard reading to swallow.  All of this talk about unquenchable fire, and maiming body parts—and I’m pretty sure this reading might hold the record for most mentions of hell in one lectionary passage.  This Jesus isn’t very fun.  I like the stories about Jesus that calm my soul, make me feel good, and give me peace a lot better.  Perhaps what is most difficult in this gospel story is not the offensive language or mentions of hell fire but the way in which it calls me to temporarily set aside my need to focus only on myself and my relationship with Jesus, and shifts the focus to the needs and betterment of my neighbor.
A switch happens in these last few chapters of Mark.  The first half of the Gospel details Jesus among the people— he heals, he challenges the religious system of the time, he crosses boundaries and in doing this it becomes increasingly clear that Jesus’ life is at risk.  In the second half of Mark there is this shift that focuses on Jesus as a teacher.   As Jesus makes his way to the cross, there is an intentional turning towards the future.   Who will be the one to continue this new thing God is doing after Jesus is gone?  Naturally, all eyes fall to Jesus’ disciples, perhaps begrudgingly because these disciples don’t seem to ever get it right.
If you can think all of the way back to last week’s gospel reading, you’ll remember that it began with the disciples arguing about who is the greatest among them.  Jesus teaches his disciples by placing a child among them and instructs them that greatness is found in serving the least around them.   Fast-forward a few weeks from now and we will hear again, another instance where the disciples are arguing about who is the greatest—they are obviously not really picking up what Jesus is trying to teach them.  And so, our gospel reading for today, when we look at the big picture, is nestled between two arguments about who is the greatest.   It’s a story about the Kingdom of God and who is invited to partake in this new thing God is doing.
The disciples’ arguing about who is the greatest is the kind of stumbling block that Jesus is speaking of in this passage.  It is something that is contrary to the kind of community that we should find in Christ.  The disciples’ argument about who is the greatest becomes just an extension of the argument about who is in and who is out, about drawing lines and creating boxes in which to place God and those who have deemed themselves as worthy.
The disciples had been following Jesus for some time now and they had a stake in this.  They didn’t like that someone who was “late to the party” was casting out demons in Jesus’ name… something they hadn’t even been able to do yet.  It was a blow to their ego and they wanted to put an end to it.  They were “in” and this man had to be “out.”  Jesus rebukes his disciples.  Preventing this man from doing this work was damaging the very kingdom of God to which they were called.  Ultimately, their concern about who was in or who was out had stopped someone from being healed.  They had made following Jesus all about themselves.  Jesus cordially invites his disciples to get out of the way.
Unfortunately we don’t have to look far to see the ways in which we get in the way of others participating in this new Kingdom of God, the way in which we make following Jesus all about ourselves and our own ideas of who is in and who is out.  Read the comments on any religious blog or article online and 99% of what you read will be arguments about who is right and who is wrong— hateful words will be spit in the name of Christ.  Turn on your television and you can find political opponents, on opposite sides of the political spectrum who both use the name of Christ as justification for their latest policy proposal.   All perhaps adamantly claim that their own position or opinion is in defense of Christ and all of Christendom.  It seems like we live in a world that is more concerned about fragmentation in the face of difference instead of unity.
This new thing that Jesus is doing is not about who is in or who is out… it’s not about who is following all of the right rules, or who washes their hands before dinner. It is a breaking open of barriers and hindrances that keep us from seeing ourselves and others the way in which God sees us.  It is a counter-cultural movement towards inclusive welcome where the only entity that decides who is in or who is out is the cross.
This kingdom is given life when we care for the least of these, welcome everyone in Jesus’ name, and advocate for justice and peace and it is so not about us and our own egos.  It is about what God can do through and within us—breathing life into new places, reconciling and building relationships, and mending broken things in our lives that seem beyond repair.  We are not defending the Kingdom of God when we disagree with someone on politics; we’re just disagreeing on politics.  We are not defending the Kingdom of God when we debate gender roles, we are just debating gender roles.  We are not defending the Kingdom of God when we take to social media and call other Christians, who may disagree with us, false teachers, heretics, or Jesus-deniers—we are just being trolls and jerks.  In the words of theologian Rachel Held Evans, the Kingdom of God “doesn’t need a coalition devoted to keeping the wrong people out.  It needs a family of sinners-saved-by-grace, committed to tearing down the walls, throwing open the doors and saying, ‘Welcome!’”
If we want to see what this new Kingdom looks like in action, we need only to look at this reading from James.

13 Are any among you suffering? They should pray. Are any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise. 14 Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. 15 The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven. 16 Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective.”

This is what community in Christ looks like, this is the Kingdom of God. It is not about keeping people in or out but about praying for each other when one is hurting, rejoicing when another is rejoicing.  Holding one another in peace and in light.  Using these blessed gifts from God to build one another up and care for one another.  And the good news is that we don’t need to know everything or be anyone special in this work of the Kingdom because it is so not about us, as individuals.  You don’t have to know everything or be anyone special to do this work of Christ, just show up and God will work through you.  Who in your life needs prayer?  Who could use a call of encouragement?  Who is in the midst of darkness and could use someone hold them in light?  Call them, reach out.  These small acts of love and kindness will change our world.
At St. Matthew we strive to be a community that reflects the Good News of Christ in the way we welcome, pray for, cheer with, and care for one another.  We do not decide who is in or who is out, who is worthy or who is not.  We are a community of sinners, saved only by grace, who do not exclude, only invite.  This is the work of God, this is community in Christ, this is God’s kingdom on earth.  Come, you are welcome here; grow into this community, and be church.  Amen.