Sermon for September 26, 2021

Pentecost 18/Lectionary 26B, Mark 9:38-50

One of the gifts of the Bible is its realism, that its stories reveal so much honest truth about the human condition. Today’s readings are no exception.

In the first reading for today from the book of Numbers, Moses is burned-out by the burden of trying to manage an unwieldy rabble of a flock, the Israelites. Just when Moses is ready to throw in the towel and quit, the Lord instructs Moses to gather seventy of the elders of Israel to share with Moses the burden of leadership.

There were criteria for identifying these leaders and proper credentialing was needed. But Eldad and Medad did not exactly obey these instructions about who was eligible to gather and where, and they went about prophesying on their own apart from the tent of meeting. Joshua, son of Nun, an assistant of Moses, caught wind of this and reported to Moses, “My lord Moses, stop them!”

Thus, we see the honest truth about the all too typical and painfully human dynamic of the in group and out group. Who is included? Who should be excluded? Who has the authority to speak and who doesn’t? There are all kinds of permutations of this very human dynamic.

We see the in-group vs. out-group reality in today’s gospel reading as well. The disciple, John, said to Jesus, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.”

Once again, it’s the us vs. them thing. During my years as an undergraduate major in anthropology, I was taught about the evolutionary importance for survival of a clearly identified in-group, a tribe, with clearly delineated rules for who procreates with whom, who can safely live in the confines of the village, and who would be excluded and considered the out-group, the other.

This ancient dynamic continues to this day. And while it has healthy functions, the in-group/out-group dynamic is also corrupted by human sin and brokenness.

Honoring the importance of tribe can easily devolve into tribalism. We see this manifest in the blowback reactions in many nations to the recent realities of globalism – especially populist movements of nationalism in many countries.

Tribalism easily becomes xenophobia, fear of the outsider, the other, and racism, and is a major locus of human sin, and the ills of society.
I marvel at how much of my current suffering revolves around the divisiveness of our age. We see the us vs. them energies on TV and social media and read about it in the papers. We experience divisiveness at school, at work, and even in our churches. These realities make for daily burdens that I carry. I feel their weight. You also undoubtedly know of such burdens.

Jesus, of course, breaks open all of this. Jesus says in Mark in response to John’s desire to stop the other casting out demons in Jesus’ name, “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.” And then Mark reports that Jesus offers that quotable quote that has found its way into popular discourse: “Whoever is not against us is for us.”

In last Sunday’s gospel, we saw how Jesus welcomed the child in the midst of the disciples, children being at the bottom of the totem pole. This week we see in Mark that Jesus welcomes one perceived by John to be an outsider, the other, the stranger. Jesus makes a witness against xenophobia, fear of the other, the outsider, the one not among the twelve and others explicitly following Jesus. Jesus sees the perceived outsider as an insider. It’s all quite radical from a more typically human point of view.

But here’s the thing. Jesus is not the only one doing this. Moses offers welcome, too, in today’s story in Numbers. Concerning Eldad and Medad whom Joshua wanted Moses to stop from prophesying, Moses retorted, “Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit on them!”

Reading the scriptures from a Christian viewpoint, from the vantage point of Jesus Christ’s teaching and ministry, the vision of the dominion of God is inclusive. It is multinational, multicultural, multiracial. It is ecumenical. It is unity in diversity.

The cross of Jesus Christ is the intersection where all of the world and its troubled peoples meet. In our human brokenness, the outstretched arms of Christ on the cross draw the whole world to himself and ultimately to God with focus on the pronouncement by Jesus, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

Then the empty tomb three days later inaugurates a new reality in which the xenophobic us vs. them dynamic does not have the final word. Then on the Day of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit enables Jesus’ followers to proclaim God’s deeds of power in the languages of all the nations, and this proclamation births a new order that is the church, a universal church that has come to include folk from all people across the globe.

In the waters of baptism, we share unity in Christ with all the baptized, a life-giving torrent that breaks down walls that divide. This is a unity that persists and insists foundationally, objectively, even as the gospel is proclaimed in a wide and wild diversity of languages and cultures and nations. Again, it’s unity in diversity.

[As an aside, I have this ecumenical fantasy that somehow all the churches of a particular city would share one, single place of baptism to signify this unity that we have in Christ. What a lovely witness that would be to our divided world!]

Indeed, us vs. them, the in-group/out-group dynamic is short-circuited by the unifying waters of baptism. But we also share unity at the holy sacramental table – one bread, one cup – which is why we Lutherans practice a generously open invitation to Communion.

But this side of the consummated reign of God, our communion is imperfect, our unity is not complete in our practice. There does indeed persist the problem of false prophets doing their thing in Jesus’ name, a reality which Jesus himself names. In final words of warning in Matthew’s gospel, it is reported that Jesus said, “Beware that no one leads you astray. For many will come in my name, saying ‘I am the Messiah!’ and they will lead many astray.” (Matthew 24:4-5)

So how do we tell the difference between those genuinely acting in Jesus’ name and those disingenuously? Elsewhere in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus says, “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits.” (Matthew 7:15-16a) You will know them by their fruits.

We get a good glimpse of the genuine fruit that comes from Jesus Christ in the marks of Christian community described in today’s second reading from James. There we read that the fruit of genuine Christian community includes: cheerful songs of praise; intercessory prayer for those who suffer; elders of the church who pray for the sick and anoint them with oil; confession of sins to each other with the assurance of forgiveness; reconciliation with those who wander from the truth. When we see these things happening in Jesus’ name, we can be assured of the authenticity of Christian witness.

But here’s another mark, another fruit of genuine Christian community: our wounds, our bodies, our selves, that are maimed in one way or another. Because of the ongoing struggle between tribalistic ways of the old Adam, and the radically inclusive ways of our being new creations in Christ, we suffer, we end up wounding each other and ourselves, and thus, we enter into life in the dominion of God wounded and maimed. At least that is what Mark suggests when he records Jesus’ admonitions that are central to today’s gospel passage: “If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire.” And so, too, with our feet and our eyes (cf. Mark 9:43-48).

Because of the ongoing claims of human sin and brokenness, we inevitably perpetuate the age old us vs. them problems and we get maimed. But the good news is that we enter into the life of God’s dominion even with our wounds, even as Jesus still displayed his own wounded hands and side on the other side of the resurrection.

Thus, in Christ, he who died and he who was raised, despite our trials and tribulations, our faith is awakened, quickened, renewed and strengthened such that we can seek to fulfill Jesus’ exhortation that concludes today’s reading from Mark: “Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.” In our mission and ministry as a church, we get to be salty, seasoning and preserving the life of the world even as we seek peace with one another and pursue it.

In Jesus’ name, and by the power of the Holy Spirit, we are salty and seek to do the things that make for peace, for Christ’s sake. Amen.