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Against Us?

Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29; Mark 9:38-50

The Rev. Mark DeVries

September 27, 2015

            Before we look at our New Testament text today, can we talk honestly, just between us? Do you sometimes hear things Christians say and just shake your head? Maybe you have seen some of these signs in front of churches:

  •  Wal-Mart is not the only saving place.
  • Reason is the greatest enemy that faith has.
  • Here’s one for the holidays: Jesus is the Rizzle for the Sizzle.
  • This last one maybe from the Project Runway Church: Get behind me Satin.

            I’m almost embarrassed to ask the question. Have you ever felt like there are some Christians you would just rather not be lumped together with?

Maybe it’s that midnight television evangelist (“Right now, there is a lady watching our program by television who needs healing. For just $19.95, I can send you our patented prayer hanky.”)

  •  Or maybe it’s that motivational speaker who promotes faith in God as the quickest route to happiness. (“I’m so happy to be with you today. Has life given you lemons? Like my granddaddy told me, make LEMONADE!”)
  • Or that person who treats every conversation as an epic spiritual event, as if what they are about to say is a deep revelation. They might have that look on their face like there is something stinking in the room. (“The Lord just told me to tell you that tomorrow, mmmm, tomorrow is Monday.”)

            I grew up around church people all my life. We had so many preachers in our gene pool that even the dogs in our family would preach. “Bowa Wowa.”

            If you are having trouble getting a discussion started in your Sunday School class, try this question: Want to have a nice opening question for your Sunday School class today? Ask, “What do other Christians do that drive you crazy?”

            If you have ever seen what other people are doing in the name of Jesus and have wanted to just say, “Stop it!,” you are not alone. The disciples felt the very same way. In our lectionary today from Mark 9:38-50, the disciples are concerned. There is this renegade exorcist casting out demons in Jesus’ name (and it’s working!). We don’t know if this is a person who really believes in Jesus or who has just discovered that using Jesus’ name just works like a charm. What we do know is that he was not one of the disciples. In the disciples’ mind, this renegade had not been authorized; he had not been approved decently and in order. The other part of the story playing in the background is that, just a few verses earlier, the disciples – the ones ordained to this work by Jesus himself – had tried to cast out a demon themselves and couldn’t do it.

                        38 John said to him, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” [Did you catch that? Not because they weren’t following Jesus but because they weren’t following us. They are not one of us.]  39 But Jesus said, “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.  40 Whoever is not against us is for us.  41 For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink [Whoever does something because of the name of Christ.] because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.”

            Now if you are following along in your Bible, you will probably have a new title here, maybe “Temptations to Sin.” (These section titles are not a part of the original text of the Bible, of course.) It’s as if the editors of the Bible want to make clear that we are moving on to a new topic here. As our friend Stuart Gordon would say in Children’s Time, “It’s a wrap!” But what if it’s just a continuation of the conversation? Listen to what Jesus says; listen closely to the personal pronouns here:

                         42 “If any of YOU put a stumbling block before one of these little ones [Which little ones?] who believe in me, it would be better for YOU if a great millstone were hung around YOUR neck and YOU were thrown into the sea. 43 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.  45 And if YOUR foot causes YOU to stumble, cut it off; it is better for YOU to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell. 47 And if YOUR eye causes YOU to stumble, tear it out; it is better for YOU to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell, 48 where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched.

                         49 “For everyone will be salted with fire. 50 Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it? Have salt in YOURselves, and be at peace with one another.”

Follow the flow of the text with me:

The disciples come to Jesus complaining about what someone else is doing in Jesus’ name. They tried to stop him, but he wouldn’t stop. They come to Jesus to get him to stop the unauthorized exorcist. 

  • Jesus surprises them (as he usually does all of us), saying that whenever someone does anything good in Jesus’ name, even a little thing, they will be rewarded.
  •  Jesus turns the conversation to what the disciples are doing. Fourteen times in nine verses Jesus uses the words “you” or “your.” It’s as if to say, “Stop worrying about the dead-end of other people getting it right. Focus first on your own hands, your own eyes, your own feet.”

            The disciples started making up rules. It’s so easy, isn’t it, to focus on the craziness of other believers and totally miss the craziness of our own perspective, to focus on the speck in our neighbor’s eye and ignore the log in our own.

            This morning I want to talk about the kinds of people we can easily see as against us. The first group is the doubters.

Against the Doubters

            It is easy to see the doubters, the questioners, as against us. I am guessing Steve’s pastor did.

            Thirteen-year-old Steve had grown up attending a Lutheran church with his parents. In brash 13-year-old style, Steve asked his pastor, “If I raise my finger, will God know which one I’m going to raise even before I do it?”

            The weary pastor answered, “Yes, Steve, we’ve talked about this. God knows everything.”

            But Steve wasn’t done. He pulled out a Life magazine cover depicting two children tormented by starvation and asked his pastor, “Does God know about this and what’s going to happen to those children?”

            The exasperated pastor answered, “Steve, I know you don’t understand, but yes, God knows about that.” With that answer, the discussion was over, the pastor was relieved, and Steve made the decision that day to never go back to church.[1]

            The good news is that Steve was drawn to his pastor to try to find answers. As an adult, Steve would write, “For most of my life, I’ve felt there must be more to our existence than meets the eye.” The tragic news is that, at 13, Steve got the clear message that the church was no place for his questions. Of course, Steve’s presenting question about the nature of suffering in Africa wasn’t the only question, or even the real question. His real questions – if he had had the words to verbalize them – were likely much more personal, like “Where is God when I’m being bullied at school?” and “Does my family even want me?” Sadly, the church never got to hear those questions, assuming that Steve was just “against” them. You have probably heard of Steve. His last name is Jobs. Steve Jobs, founder and CEO of Apple, Inc.

             As a recovering youth pastor, I am haunted by the question of what might have happened if 13-year-old Jobs had found in the church a place that took his questions seriously? How might the church have been blessed by the brilliant, creative ideas of this man with a calling to change the world? And how might his story have been different?  

 Against the Different

             When I was in high school, I was very active in the youth group at my little Presbyterian Church. Within two blocks of our Presbyterian Church was another Presbyterian Church (two blocks). The other church, as I recall, had the word “UNITED” in their name. During these years, I was also active in an organization called Young Life. In many ways, my faith came alive through my experience with Young Life.

            When I was a junior in high school, I discovered that the Presbyterian Church down the street (the United one) was having a series on cults. And the first one on the list was Young Life. By contrast, my pastor, George Holland, though from a completely different theological planet than Young Life, took me to lunch and asked delightfully curious questions about what was happening with my faith. He celebrated that God seemed to be at work in ways that may or may not have been George’s style.

            Like the disciples, it’s easy for us to see the different as against us, insisting on a level of uniformity to manage our anxiety.

            Eboo Patel is a Muslim who leads a ministry called Interfaith Youth Core, believing that religion can be a bridge of cooperation, rather than a barrier of division. The Institute for Youth Ministry at Princeton Seminary had Eboo come to speak several years back. As he spoke, he was not advocating that Christians and Muslims and those of other religions adopt a kind of bland, mush theology in which “we all basically believe the same thing anyway, right?” Eboo urges his students to know their faith, to embrace their distinctives, and from that foundation, find ways to work together. One story he told has rattled around my head ever since. He spoke of a group of Christians who, soon after 9/11, began to move, en mass, toward one of the more prominent mosques in the city. They surrounded the building, not to attack, but as a human shield, to protect the building from violence.

            This morning I found a haunting photograph from Cairo on the tenth anniversary of 9/11. Related to that story online this morning, among a collection called The Most Powerful Pictures of 2011. Muslims gathered to pray as normal in Cairo. There in what looks like the sunrise, you see a crowd of people kneeling in prayer, surrounding by a mass of Christians holding hands, surrounding them with protection and respect.

            I love the way H. Richard Niebuhr put it, “[We] are generally right in what they affirm and wrong in what they deny.” Or as one seminary professor put it, “Every time you draw a line between who’s in and who’s out, you’ll find Jesus on the other side” (Duane Priebe, Professor Emeritus at Wartburg Seminary).

            The Reformed preacher George Whitfield and the Arminian preacher John Wesley had been friends at Oxford University. As their ministries grew, they found themselves in sharp disagreement over the issue of predestination. The division was so strong that they would preach and write biting criticisms of each other’s views. One of Whitfield’s followers asked Whitfield, “We won’t see John Wesley in heaven, will we?” Whitfield’s response was exactly what his follower expected. Whitfield said, “You’re right. We won’t see Wesley in heaven.” But then he continued, “He will be so close to the Throne of God, and we will be so far away, that we won’t be able to see him.” When Whitfield died, it was John Wesley who preached his funeral services.

            Paul wrote from a prison cell, “Some preach Christ out of envy and rivalry, …out of selfish ambition, not sincerely…. But the important thing is that Christ is preached, and because of this I rejoice” (Philippians 1:15-18).

            If we are not careful, we may be known as those who sing, “They will know we are Christians ’cause we’re right, ’cause we’re right. Yes they’ll know we are Christians ’cause we’re right.”

Against the Dregs

            Maybe you have heard of Father Greg Boyle, a Jesuit priest who has served as the priest in the most gang-riddled neighborhood in Los Angeles. He is the founder of Homeboy Industries and countless other enterprises to help gang kids. One need he quickly discovered in his neighborhood was that so many of its kids were getting kicked out of school for bad behavior, and going right back into drugs, violence and gangs. So Father Greg started an alternative school. In 1990, Mike Wallace came with his 60 Minutes crew to the poorest parish in Los Angeles, in the stretchiest of white limousines, wearing a flak jacket. In a classroom filled with gang members, he asked, “You won’t turn them into the police? Why not?”

            Father Greg answers, “I didn’t take my vows to the L.A.P.D.”

            Then Mike turns to a gang member and grills him, asking again and again. “He won’t turn you into the police. He won’t turn you into the police. Why? Why won’t he turn you into the police?”

            The gang member shrugs and says, “God, I guess.”

            Mike later said in an unrecorded moment, “I came here expecting monsters. But that’s not what I found.” (from Greg Boyle, Tatoos on the Heart)

            Homeboy Industries makes no sense apart from a God bigger than our divisions. Our worship today makes no sense apart from a God bigger than our little-minded visions of God. All our efforts at impacting this world with the love and mission of Jesus Christ make no sense apart from the God who “so loved the world.” As Father Boyle says, “It’s all folly and bad business unless the core of the endeavor seeks to imitate the kind of God one ought to believe in.”

            “If God is for us, who can be against us?” (Romans 8:31b).

[1]   http://www.christianitytoday.com/women/2012/september/steve-jobs-back-to-school-and-why-doubt-belongs-in-your.html


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