A sermon for the Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost, September 30, 2018. The scripture readings are Numbers 11:4-6,10-16,24-29, Psalm 19:7-14, James 5:13-20, and Mark 9:38-50.
Last Sunday’s sermon had to do with distractions and the kinds of things that get in the way of our doing what we most want to do, being who we most want to be, or following God the way we most might desire. Between last Sunday and this, there have been even more distractions, haven’t there?
In the midst of divisive politics and an anxious and angry country, a candidate is put forward for the Supreme Court. To some, he’s the golden boy with gobs of credentials. To others, he’s the epitome of mediocre white male privilege. And then there are the claims of drunken abuse when he was younger.
On Thursday, it was hard to focus on much else. Everywhere one went, the hearing was on, people were talking, crying, arguing. Regardless of whether this judge is eventually approved, or another one in his place, the dynamics and the issues are not going to go away any time soon. And so, where does it all leave us, this beautiful Sunday morning?
Well first, I don’t for a second suggest we ignore the news or the world outside these walls.
Ask me what I think about boring white boys who are always promoted in life and get the best jobs simply because they went to the right schools, played football, and got drunk with the right crowd– I can preach on that for a while.
Ask me what I think about people who bully and exploit others through force, through suggestion, or through sexual innuendo—I can tell you how most of my work in the church has had to follow such men and clean up their messes, and I can preach.
And ask me what I think of people who call themselves “Pro-life” and invoke the name of Jesus and yet seem ruled by hatred, fear, greed, and any means whatsoever justifying their narrow ends? I can preach. On, and on, and on, I can preach.
But should I preach those sermons? While voting, protesting, working for change, advocating, and doing my best to remain awake to the world, how do I also resist being contaminated by the nastiness? How do we name evil and resist evil while at the same time refusing to be changed into it?
The answer is that we cling to Christ and listening to him this morning, I hear the Gospel saying, “Slow down a minute, John. Fine to notice the evil all around, but you’re no good to those you love, to yourself, or to me if you’re consumed by anger and hatred.” What is it in YOUR life that causes you to sin? Take care of business at home, before trying to solve all your neighbor’s problems.
At the beginning of today’s Gospel from Mark, the disciples are all in an uproar—about other disciples. It seems that there are other disciples who are casting out demons in the name of Jesus, and yet, they’re not close followers of the present group. (This is not the same as Christians in our day supporting causes we think are at odds with the love of Jesus, but we can learn something from what happens in Jesus’s interaction with the disciples.) His friends and followers, the disciples, want Jesus to criticize the others, to condemn them, and to share in the outrage.
But Jesus doesn’t go for it. Instead, he basically says that if someone is not against him, don’t worry so much about them.
Pay attention to YOUR life, Jesus says. The anger at your neighbor is killing you. Don’t worry so much about their side of the street. Take care of your side of the street.
A similar problem happens to that early community of belief around Moses. Moses gets help from 70 elders who agree to serve as leaders among the people. But then the squabbles break out. “Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp,” a young man reports. Joshua buys into the anxiety and agrees that this is a problem. “My lord Moses, stop them!” But Moses says “Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit upon them!”
This problem of losing focus on one’s own doings and starting to worry about others is not confined to the times of Moses or of Jesus. We continue to do this sort of thing both in our own church, among other churches, and outside of church.
In every church, one group every once in a while begins to feel that another group is getting all the attention, or getting all the money, or getting all the volunteers, or getting the attention of the rector. More often than not, if the group that feels ignored would simply focus a little more on its own tasks, its visibility would rise, it would get a budget request in on time, and volunteers would be attracted to the group’s energy and fun.
As a Christian, it’s very easy for me to worry about what others are doing—the Roman Catholics, the Redeemer Presbyterians, or even what other Episcopalians are doing (and often the ones on the far left unnerve me every bit as the much as the ones on the far right.) But when I’m at my most healthy, I worry less about what everybody else is doing, and I begin to focus on what we’re doing here at Holy Trinity.
Are we reaching out as we should? Are we including everyone? Are we paying attention to our neighbors? Are we giving our time, our money, our talent to God sacrificially? Are we doing what we can to help this place be a place of welcome, refuge, joy, health, and new life?
Today’s Gospel ends by encouraging the disciples to be salty, to be distinctive, to stand out, and not to be stale, or just to fit in blandly. Too much salt can (of course) make everything taste the same, can sting, and can hurt. But with careful salting, all the other flavors are enhanced and brought to new life.
As we move towards St. Francis Day and our celebrations next Sunday, it’s good to recall the words attributed to St. Francis: That we should “preach the Gospel always, and when necessary use words.”
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.