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Drawing In or Pushing Out ~ Mark 9:38-50

Drawing In or Pushing Out ~ Mark 9:38-50

Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 21],   September 29-30, 2012

 Washington Memorial Chapel, Valley Forge, PA – The Rev. Roy Almquist

Have you ever heard of St. Telemachus?  I must admit I had not until I was preparing to preach on our Gospel lesson.  Telemachus was a monk who lived in the 5th century.  He was a cloistered monk who received a vision from God to Go to Rome.  When he arrived in the great city he saw a huge crowd of people pushing through the streets toward a large arena.  When he asked what this was about, he was told that this was the day that the gladiators would be fighting in the Coliseum.

Telemachus was appalled by the fact that four centuries after Christ men were killing each other for the enjoyment of the crowds.  The courageous monk ran to the Coliseum, determined to try to stop this outrage.  He jumped over the railing and went out into the middle of the field, between two gladiators, and pleaded with them not to continue.  The crowd became enraged and Telemachus was stoned to death for trying to be a peacemaker.

The story would not be remembered were it not for the fact that when Emperor Honorius, a Christian, heard of the monk’s death, he put an end to the games.  Legend has it that the very last gladiator competition was the one in which Telemachus died.

This story of one Christian martyr, giving witness with his life, is a wonderful illustration for what Jesus is telling his disciples as they travel on the road to Jerusalem.  Mark bombards us with a variety of disturbing images.  No simple theme unites these Hard Words of Jesus.

  • We are warned about the danger of letting little ones stumble and of placing millstones around the necks of sinking people. 
  • Jesus suggests that it might be better to cut off a limb or gouge out an eye, if the alternative is to fall short of God’s Kingdom due to our inability to modify our behavior.  Clearly, Jesus is saying it should cost something to be his follower.

In no other passage of Scripture does Jesus employ such visual and visceral descriptions of the danger inherent in immoral or uncaring actions.  While I am not convinced that Jesus wants us to take his words literally and maim ourselves, I certainly believe Our Lord wants us to take him seriously.

Jesus sets before us today a simple but essential reality:  our identification as his disciples is rooted not in the grandeur of our confession of faith, nor in our understanding of his teachings, but in our call to serve and to welcome others … particularly the least of Jesus’ brothers and sisters.

What do we make of these strange pronouncements?  What do they say to us in 2012?  Well, at the very least I believe our Gospel lesson speaks to us about the prevailing human tendency to degrade and reject whatever or whoever seems different from us.  Like the disciples, we often yearn for conformity and we are easily disturbed when people act and believe in a fashion that offends us.  In our lesson the disciples want Jesus to neutralize a man who is casting out demons in Jesus’ name, even though the Lord had never given him authority to do this.   Make him stop, the disciples insist.

To his credit, Jesus will not buy into their desire for narrow parochialism.  Instead he insists that whoever does a good work or deed in my name will have difficulty doing anything against my name in the future.  I think there is wisdom in this thought.  There are many people who are not church members, perhaps have never been baptized, but have become enthralled with Jesus … they love him and are inspired by Him.  Yet in a world of narrow religious rules and prohibitions, Jesus’ statement was amazing.

And then Jesus goes one step farther to challenge the disciples’ narrow definition of who is inside and who is outside the household of faith.  He promises that anyone who does a good deed for a person, simply because that person is a Christian, will receive a blessing.

I find this teaching both challenging and comforting.  We are living at a time when so many are eager to draw lines that will isolate those who are not like us and push out of the Church whoever is considered to be a deviation from the narrow norm they have established.  In the secular world we see many examples of people being condemned for the position they take … particularly in this election year … money-wasting liberals ~ heartless conservatives, Tea Party zealots ~ tree-hugging simpletons, pro-life ~ pro-choice … on and on it seems to go, magnified by millions of dollars’ worth of vicious television commercials.  No wonder we feel so fractured and fragmented.

While my desire has always been to draw people into the Church, I know we have always been plagued by those who are driven to push people out.  For a long time people were relegated to second-class status in the Church by virtue of their gender,  as the Church banned women from the ordained office … a practice very much alive in many branches of Christianity today.  Women were blocked from ordination for the proclaimed reason that they could not represent Christ in the celebration of Holy Communion.  By that definition, no one should be ordained who is not of Semitic origin and raised a practicing Jew!

While most progressive Churches now ordain women, we still tend to place a special priority on intellect, training and education in a way that often overlooks the faith commitment and spiritual depth of those called to ordained ministry or priesthood, but not academically gifted.  Often age becomes a barrier to being a candidate for ordination.  Traditional denominations like the Episcopal Church maintain an absolute insistence that only a person properly ordained can preside at the Holy Communion.

In Mark’s Gospel I hear Jesus insisting once again that the coming of God’s kingdom is like the gathering of people for a wonderful dinner party.  As his followers, Jesus calls us to be gracious hosts and welcome all people.  Like a good host or hostess, we are to draw people out of themselves and enfold them into the special community that this party is forming.  Clearly we need to hear our Lord’s warnings against the creation of roadblocks or barriers that will hinder these little ones who believe in me.

Jesus makes it clear that we do not need bouncers at the door of his grand feast, insisting that we provide the most generous welcome possible to all those who desire a deeper connection with Him.

Think of this the next time you hear someone with a churchly voice condemn groups and categories of people because their lifestyle or orientation seems different from the way we might define ourselves.  To that end I have always loved the simple poetic statement of Edwin Markham:

He drew a circle that shut me out – rebel, heretic, thing to flout,

            But love and I had the wit to win – we drew a circle that took him in.

So what is the meaning of this strange lesson about the danger of leading children astray, placing milestones around necks, and being maimed and blinded?  When we cut through all of this extreme, hyperbolic language, I think we will discover that our Gospel lesson is a powerful call for tolerance.  Whoever is not against us is for us.  We are called to be instruments for peace and reconciliation in our troubled and distressed world.

Who is on the Lord’s side?  That’s the question the Gospel lesson seems to ask.  Jesus warns us that no group, no matter how sincere or good they may be at marketing themselves, has the sole franchise on the Gospel of salvation through faith in Jesus Christ.  Let us rejoice that we are a part of that great chorus of witnesses all around the world who name the Name of Jesus.

How much we need to reflect on this wisdom at a time when too many in the name of Christianity would set up standards and criteria that exclude people!  That is why I have a personal passion to see the Church be about the work of mission.

Let us continue the holy work of calling people into a life-transforming relationship with Jesus Christ.  May we never lose sight of the grand implication of Our Lord’s Great Commission.  May God bless us to that end.  Amen.