Many of you know that brother is a missionary in China. He and his wife are committed to the work of spreading the gospel in a country that is quite resistant to the faith. When I tell people what my brother does, most people respond, “Oh, your parents must be so proud! A priest and missionary in the family!” And my parents are quite proud of my brother and the call that he is fulfilling. But in the darkest, most judgmental and ego-centric places of my heart, I sometimes cringe when I hear the comparison between my brother and me. I cringe because my brother and I have very different experiences of and ideas about Christianity and theology. We disagree about many issues – gender roles, human sexuality, and Biblical interpretation. We have had heated debates over the years and times of silence. Ultimately we have agreed to disagree and we try to respect each other despite these differences. But when I tell people that my brother is a missionary, I have secretly wanted to explain, “…but not our kind of missionary. Not the kind of mission work that we do.”
We all do this kind of boundary drawing. For those of us who are opposed to the “Religious Right,” we often find ourselves explaining at parties how we are Christian, “but not that kind of Christian.” For those of us worried about the liberal bent of the Episcopal Church, we find ourselves wondering how we can save the Church from the presumptuous progressives. Neither side is wrong. As adults, we have been on a faith journey, and along the way, we have developed a relationship with God and an understanding of who Jesus is to us. Our relationship with God is vital to our lives. So when someone else claims to also have a vital relationship with God, but that relationship is based on things that we disagree with or cannot understand, our oppositional reactions are only natural. When we claim to believe in something, there are natural and reasonable boundaries around what we do not believe. We have staked our faith in an experience of God – in our case – in the Episcopal Church’s understanding of God. Boundaries about what is or is not an appropriate expression of faith are important.
Defining the boundaries is exactly what the disciples are trying to do in our gospel lesson today from Mark. Jesus has been teaching the people and the disciples, trying to illuminate the new revelation of God through Jesus Christ. Jesus has been especially schooling the disciples, since they will need to spread the faith after his death. There are a lot of false teachings around, and many people trying to claim the same healing powers that only Jesus has. So, when the disciples hear that a man is casting out demons in Jesus’ name – essentially claiming that his healing is endorsed by Jesus – the disciples shut him down. “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name and tried to stop him, because he was not following us,” they say. You hear the boundaries forming. He was not following us. We are the true disciples, and we are the ones mentoring under Jesus. Only we can heal in Jesus’ name. We are in. He is out.
But Jesus sees this situation very differently. “Do not stop him…Whoever is not against us is for us.” As one bishop explains, what Jesus knows that the disciples do not is that, “Jesus, the very incarnation of God’s power and presence, refuse[s] to live by the divisions and barriers of his time. He challenge[s] the practice of confining God’s redemptive and transforming action to one’s own race, one’s own religious institution, one’s own political party. When the disciples want exclusive claim to God’s reign, he challenge[s] them to see God’s presence and power manifested in those who [are] not members of their group.”[i] Jesus is unwilling to draw the boundaries that the disciples want.
But, before they can even understand why Jesus is eliminating boundaries, Jesus turns the tables and tells them not to worry about others, but worry about themselves. Jesus says, “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.” In other words, if the disciples get in the way of others’ faith – even if that faith does not follow the rules, does not look like what faith in Jesus should, or seems to be uninformed – if the disciples get in the way, they would be better off dead. Yes, that is how serious this is. Jesus basically explains that he is more worried about the disciples messing up someone else’s faith than he is worried about someone who may be healing in his name without actually understanding everything about Jesus. Quite bluntly, Jesus tells the disciples to get out of the way. Worry about yourselves. Worry about your behavior as a disciple, not everyone else around you. The disciples’ faith will define how others believe, and if the disciples are in the way with all this who-is-in-and-who-is-out business, they would be better off dead.
The words are harsh from Jesus, but there is a nugget of grace for the disciples. Jesus says, “…no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me.” In other words, invoking the name of Jesus – whether one knows the same Jesus the disciples know, whether one understands Jesus fully, whether one is inside or outside of whatever boundaries have been drawn – the name of Jesus has power.[ii] Jesus explains that when his name is invoked, a person changes. Jesus’ name does something in the person that we cannot understand or control. Jesus’ name has a power that is bigger than the disciples and bigger than any rules, fences, or boundaries the disciples try to construct.
This invitation into the openness of God’s grace is for us to realize today. Many of you know that I love gospel music. When I used to commute to church on Sundays, I would turn on the local gospel station and blare the music loudly – partially because that was some of the most spirited music I would hear because my parish played mostly traditional Anglican choral music. The tricky thing about gospel music is that gospel music can do two contrasting things: the theology of gospel music is sometimes not at all in line with Anglican theology, especially as that theology relates to money, sin, or suffering. However, gospel music has a way of reaching into your gut and pulling at those very deep and dark things that we struggle with, and shining Christ’s light into those dark places. There was many a Sunday when I would find myself crying on the way to church because a song spoke such deep truth to me.
This is what Jesus is trying to show all of us today. If I draw a box around acceptable theology, I could never enjoy about half of the gospel music that I like. But Jesus reminds me today, that anyone who invokes his name can be used for good. That includes my brother and the hundreds of people with whom he is spreading the Good News, and that includes my own ministry, despite my ego-centric, judgmental, presumptuous self. God is using both of us for good. Our invitation today is to see others with this same lens of God’s grace. When we stop drawing boxes around acceptable uses of Christ’s name, we may find ourselves in heated, but illuminating discussions about the way God is moving in our lives. When we stop creating boundaries around acceptable experiences of Jesus, we may find that others teach us something about the Jesus of whom we thought we had full knowledge and mastery. When we stop drawing lines around proper invocations of Christ’s name, we may find that the people who walk through St. Margaret’s doors are different from us but make our lives much richer. As one professor explained, “every time you draw a line between who’s in and who’s out, you’ll find Jesus on the other side.”[iii] Jesus invites us today to loosen those boundaries and let the power of his name not only work through others, but also work through us. We may be surprised at the ways in which our open minds allow our hearts to be open to the movement of the Holy Spirit here at St. Margaret’s. Amen.
[i] Kenneth L. Carder, “Unexclusive Gospel,” Christian Century, vol. 114, no. 25, Sept. 10-17, 1997, 787. Quote changed to present tense for the purpose of this sermon.
[ii] Sharon H. Ringe, “Exegetical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. B, vol. 4 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 117.
[iii] David Lose, http://www.workingpreacher.org/dear_wp.aspx?article_id=620 as found on September 28, 2012.