A Way Open to Everyone
September 26, 2021 Rev. Dr. Darlis Swan
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.” 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. Whoever is not against us is for us. 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. “If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these 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. 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 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. 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, where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched. “For everyone will be salted with fire. 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.”
Grace and peace to you from God our father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
There is a building at 475 Riverside Drive in New York City that has been lovingly referred to as
the “God box.” Why? Because it contains the offices of many Christian groups and denominations. In some ways it seems to hold a kind of authority, and, partly because of its location, – a visible Christian witness.
In reality, this “box” does not claim that Christ is present in that space (it is not a church) – only that Christians together can make a difference in this world. For example, Church World Service has an office there. That’s an organization that works with partners in the U.S.A. and around the world to build interfaith and intercultural coalitions to eradicate hunger and poverty and promote peace and justice. Last week I looked up this interchurch center just to see what was new, and I discovered that they have added an art gallery, library, book club, free concerts (virtual for now) and other programs to involve the surrounding community. They have expanded, and there is something for everyone…
Today’s gospel addresses who has the authority to heal and exorcise (cast out) those demons. Let’s take it back to those disciples of Jesus. Once again – they just don’t have a clue – or maybe they are confused or just plain resistant to what Jesus is telling them. He predicts his suffering, death, and resurrection, and they fail to understand. But in this passage, he gets a bit more specific and graphic. The disciples have a rival. Someone is out and about doing what the disciples thought only they were supposed to do – teach and preach and heal. While this rival is not named, he plays a significant role in what Jesus has to say. Those disciples complain to Jesus and tell Jesus what is going on, and he immediately puts the spotlight back on them. He says, “Whoever is not against us, is for us.” The disciples are ready to judge an “outsider,” acting in Jesus’ name. Jesus himself tells them to pay attention to their own behavior instead. Basically, he tells them that they are in danger of doing harm. He says, “the problem is not those people out there – outside our group. You can’t worry about those other people. You need to look to yourselves. How are you getting in the way of the gospel? It’s almost as if those disciples were not allowing themselves to think “outside the box.” That’s an expression of a few years ago which suggests that there is more than one way to get something done – to help others – to save the world.
If we move from the time that Jesus walked on this earth with those first disciples, to the first people who received this gospel of Mark, there are even more challenges. Those early Christian communities also struggled with who can use Jesus’ name and who has authority. They were already struggling with persecution and conflict over Jewish – Gentile relations. Those faithful Christians were struggling with their identity as a young church. They were disagreeing with each other and judging each other. By their infighting, they were interfering with spreading the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Jesus points out that Christians can be stumbling blocks. He points out that those who are closest to him have a responsibility. Others look to them and follow their examples. We sometimes fall victim to our own inability to think “outside the box.” We as individual Christians, as congregations, and as the church. Quite often we do this unknowingly.
Our stumbling blocks may be certain practices or traditions that keep us from seeing new ideas on the horizon or recognizing a new way of Christian witness. Jesus is very clear in telling us that we need to look within ourselves or the Christian community. If this sounds a little like the law but not the gospel, let me suggest to you that I think that in these rather challenging times, we may have a unique opportunity – to be part of a witness that goes beyond Christian.
As I was writing this sermon I was thinking about our ELCA policy statement on inter-religious relations. It’s called “a declaration of our inter-religious commitment: a policy statement of the ELCA”. It took many years and discussion throughout the church to create this document that was overwhelmingly approved at the churchwide assembly in Milwaukee in 2019. What a powerful way to say that we will work with others for the sake of the world!
The good news in this gospel lesson for today is that God has broken into the world and is on the loose! God is working inside and outside the church for the blessing and healing of the world. Now I would like to return to the image of the “god box” - that building in New York City. The national council of churches had offices there in 2001. Isn’t it ironic that on 9/11 many of the people who worked in that interchurch center were there to help the victims of that horrific disaster? Their names aren’t on any plaques or public lists, but they helped in any way they could to ease the pain of others. That day brought various faith traditions together.
On the anniversary of September 11, Brian McLaren, an evangelical, wrote the following: “to love your neighbor of another faith means to seek to understand her, to learn to see the world from her perspective, to stand with her, as it were, so that you can feel what she feels and maybe even come to understand why she loves what she loves.” I also find it ironic, and somehow a blessing, that the 9/11 anniversary is the one time that we of various faith traditions gather together to pray.
Several years ago Pope Francis was at one of those anniversaries and almost had the audience spellbound in his message and prayers. He was saying “there is a way open to everyone.” And isn’t this exactly what Jesus is saying in our gospel for today? The theme of mercy that pervades the words and actions of Pope Francis is certainly what Jesus is promoting in our lesson for today.
Along these same lines, a professor from Wartburg seminary in Iowa that I met years ago is supposed to have said this; “Every time you draw a line between who’s in and who’s out, you’ll find Jesus on the other side.” What is our Christian responsibility to those who believe differently? By the gifts that you offer this morning, you are demonstrating that love of neighbor is about feeding the hungry – even if they are of a different faith or perhaps no faith. Here at Christ Lutheran you take love of neighbor seriously through your health ministries and all the ways you offer help
wherever it is needed.
We believe and confess that Jesus Christ is the way, the truth, and the life. Part of that confession is to love our neighbors. The religious outrage and violence of recent times makes us take another look at Jesus’ command to “be at peace with one another.” At a recent Ground Zero anniversary they prayed: “Bring peace to our violent world and among nations and in the hearts of all.”
Does that just mean us Christians? If we could do just that, what a victory! But as I read the scriptures – especially this particular lesson, I believe Jesus is telling us to look beyond the church – even beyond our own faith tradition and offer love and understanding. God’s activity is certainly not limited to what we do in the church. We are called to let go of our fears and attitudes so that we are free! Free to give ourselves and our congregation to the mission of God for the sake of the world! Thanks be to God!