“Have Salt and Be At Peace” Mark 9:38-50

“Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him because he was not following us.”

How crazy is that?

I mean, really!   Before we go any further I just want you to let that opening line sink in for a bit.   Someone is doing the work that Jesus makes possible, casting out demons.

Hey, he is even doing it in Jesus’ name and the disciples want to stop him because he’s not part of their entourage?

That’s like hearing, “Doctor, we saw people curing cancer with the treatment you developed and we tried to stop them because they were not in our medical group.”

That’s like hearing “Farmer, we saw people growing crops and feeding the hungry using your cultivation practices, and we tried to stop them because they aren’t a part of our Co-Op.”

That’s like hearing “Teacher, we saw people educating with your curriculum, and we tried to stop them because they were not a part of our School District.”

How crazy is that???

You’d rather have demons running around possessing folks?

You’d rather have cancer taking lives?

You’d rather have hungry people and fallow, weed infested fields?

You’d rather have uneducated masses? – just because they are not “following you?”   Doing things your way?

Crazy!

And yet, it is oh so human.  It is a part and parcel of who we are, and always have been.  We are a people that become easily fixated on “winners” and “losers” and we draw lines all the time.  We’ve been doing that since… well, since Cain and Abel near as I can tell.   My sacrifice is acceptable, yours must not be… sucks to be you, great to be me!

We humans are habitual dividers and comparers.

We divide ourselves up along sports teams and alliances, and throw our identity into them.  We do so a great deal of energy, and occasionally anger, resentment and jealousy of the “other”   It ends up penetrating what was meant for “fun” and tainting it with a kind of poison.

We divide ourselves up along ideologies, and we are quick to label -Conservative, Liberal, Libertarian, Communist, Socialist, etc.   We do so as if any one political ideology had a lock on all the positive or redeeming qualities and that they did not all have a few drawbacks.  We hurl accusations at the “other” rather than listen for what might be a corrective, or a valid point.

We divide ourselves up along political lines, Republican, Democrat, Independent, and then struggle with how to govern when rigidity or fanaticism enters the ranks.

We are natural born dividers and comparers, this is true!

We are even that in the church.  We are as guilty of this as anyone else.  “Our denomination has the truth.” – we boldly proclaim with our dogma and our theology, touting it above someone else’s.

We tell jokes about the “other” as we compare ourselves to them.  Sometimes it is self-deprecating, but more often demeaning or belittling.   Jokes are told about Baptists, Lutherans, Catholics, Jews, Muslims…. Well maybe not about Muslims as they are on the current “enemy” list.  Still and all we make sweeping statements about what “they” are like.

No, it is only “our” tribe that is doing good work.  Others should be deterred.  The assessment is made, the distinction is drawn, no matter what kind of “good” you might be doing it isn’t right because you are not “one of us.”

This is the point raised by the Gospel today, and we feel its indictment upon us, for we recognize all too well our own duplicity with the disciples.

We’ve done this.

I’ve done this.

I’ve made pronouncements about who is doing things “right.”

I’ve made judgments that someone is not doing something “right” and so therefore can’t possibly be doing what God had in mind.

I’m pretty sure I’ve even used a phrase like, “you know they do good work BUT…..” and then gone on to discredit or dismiss the efforts made.

I’ve done that of denominations.  I’ve done that of individuals.  I’ll bet you have too.

It is hard to have the kind of “generous orthodoxy” (a phrase coined by Brian McClaren) that Jesus seems to have here.

Jesus seems to understanding that those who are not against him are for the Kingdom, and their efforts made no matter how poor they may seem to us,– even “cup of cold water” poor, are the kinds of things that God blesses and multiplies.    They are signs of a Kingdom breaking in that knows no boundaries and that defies all efforts to control and direct.

That is what we miss most, I think.

There is a lot of angst in the church these days, about how we are doing, and much of that has to do with our propensity to divide and to compare.

We’re declining… compared to where we were 20 years ago, 40 years ago.

We’re not able to do what we once did, and we wring our hands about how to “change” that.

We look with jealous envy at churches that seem to be doing “better”, ones that have more members, more money, nicer buildings, more vibrant ministries, etc.   Our consumer oriented culture causes us to either be attracted to “shop around” for something that is working or be inclined to “buy into” whatever it is they are doing that looks so successful.  We are always tempted to be looking for that “cure-all” that will restore our ranks, our position, our benevolence, our building, our coffers…

And there it is again, that word “our” that is the mark of how we are habitual dividers and comparers!

Jesus has all kinds of things to say about that, you can read about causing others to stumble, and millstones, and cutting things off if they rear their ugly head.   We could be righteously distracted into trying to figure out what to cut off, or to cut out, as well, but that road just leads us back into our natural inclination to once again divide and compare.

So, I’m not wandering into that part of the Gospel today.  It’s just too fraught with temptations to abuse.

Instead, I’m captivated by the phrase that seems to be the one that allows Jesus to have this kind of “generous orthodoxy” to let the man doing things in his name carry on.

Jesus’ parting words to the anxious disciples, “Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.”

Which, I am going to interpret as this.

You already know what is distinctive about yourself.   You already know what kind of “flavor” you have –enhance it!  That’s what salt does.  It doesn’t give flavor so much as it enhances it, brings it out.

So then, stop worrying so much about what other people, other churches are doing!

Stop trying to put a cap on the Kingdom, or to shoe-horn the work of God into your particular understanding of it.

Just do what you do, do it well, and do it with all the zest you can; and don’t worry about what other folks are doing!

We are our own worst enemy sometimes, we and the disciples before us.  We can expend so much energy trying to get people to do things our way, or the way we think things ought to be done that we miss what God is already up to in this world!

God is empowering people to cast out demons in Jesus’ name… and the work is happening quite apart from us.

Can we be at peace with that?

This is the great question that the Missional Church movement asks all the time.  It is rooted in a firm conviction that We don’t really have a mission in this world —God has a mission here, and God’s mission is going to be fulfilled whether or not we are involved.   God is not dependent upon our actions in redeeming this world.

God is going to redeem this world.

God is going to bring in God’s Kingdom.

God is going to bring healing, hope and a future.   No question about it, for that is the promise.

The question is, will we be a part of it, or will we end up being a hindrance to it?

            Will we recognize God at work around us, and find a way to join that, embrace it, celebrate it, let it happen or will we get into the “stumbling block” mode of operation?

This is no small task, this “being at peace” stuff, because it means that we have to let go of our natural tendencies to divide and to compare.

But there is freedom in it!

Earlier in Mark’s Gospel you know, the disciples tried to cast out a demon and couldn’t, and they were all dejected about that.  Jesus was unconcerned really, he just did it and then told the disciples that this one could not be cast out except with prayer.

At first, that sounds like a dis to the disciples.   “Dummies!  Why didn’t you pray?”

But that’s not what Jesus says.   He simply tells them that prayer was necessary.   And now later on in the Gospel we see someone casting out demons in Jesus’ name.   Evidently this person, though not hanging with the disciples, got the prayer thing down!  And Jesus is completely o.k. with that!

The question is, can we be at peace with that?

Can we, as a congregation, as a church, as a denomination affirm that we have some salt within ourselves and celebrate it.  We know what we do well, and we can do it.  We don’t have to do everything, and not everyone has to do everything the same way.

Can we be at peace with that?

We don’t have to compare ourselves to others.

Is it o.k. if some Pastors are lousy preachers but really good at listening and leading?

Is it all right if some lay folks feel like a fish out of water when it comes to leading a committee meeting but will wash dishes and bake a cake or visit and talk with ease?

Are we o.k. with different styles of leadership, worship, different ways of doing the work of the Kingdom, and put legalism aside to let those good works shine?

That’s the question this Gospel lesson begs us to ask ourselves.  God is perfectly content to let the Spirit work in a variety of way in and through others.  Can we be at peace with that?

“Afraid to Ask” Mark 9:30-37

Maybe it’s a bit too much creative license, but the more I read and looked at this Gospel lesson for today, the more my mind kept snapping back and forth between two moments in it.

The first moment that caught my attention was this detail that Jesus is going through Galilee, and he doesn’t really want to attract a lot of attention to himself or what he’s doing because we are told he is “teaching his disciples.”

What is it that he’s teaching them?   Well it’s the second Passion prediction in Mark’s Gospel.   “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.”

            And are the disciples attentive students at this point?

No.

In fact, while Jesus is dispensing this seminal point around which everything he has done and will do hinges, the folks in class are behaving like a lot of folks I’ve, seen, been, and had to teach in any classroom.  They are whispering amongst themselves about something entirely different that seems important to them at the time.  More important than what the teacher has to say anyway.

If Jesus had thrown a pop quiz here, the disciples surely would have failed.

In fact, even when they catch a moment of the import here, (you know, as will sometimes happen, when you suddenly sense that a teacher has said something really important that you just missed because you weren’t paying attention!)   When they sense that moment of importance, of something that they just don’t understand but have a feeling that it’s really important that they understand, we are told that they are afraid to ask.

That’s one image floating in my mind, the image of that moment.  This picture of the disciples as unruly classmates missing the one thing that will be on the quiz, that they know is really important, but that they are afraid to ask about.   Tuck that away for a second.

The other moment in this Gospel comes toward the end of this reading when Jesus scoops up a child in his arms and puts “it” the nameless, genderless child amongst the disciples and begins to laud it.   “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

Again, it is somewhat of a mental image that I have here, Jesus holding the unnamed child right in the middle of his disciples for them to look at in his arms, to see, and to pay attention to. It is a physical and visual image presented to them which screams out “Be Like This!”

Now this is where I may be just a bit too creative, but what is it that a child is just really never afraid to do?

They are never afraid to ask!

Kids will ask you anything, everything, somethings you don’t really want to think about, some things that are profound, and some that are silly, and some that you had never really even thought about before until the question popped out of their mouth.

“Why is water wet?  Why is the sky blue?  How come you have hair on your face but not on your head anymore?”  etc.

I’m holding these two moments in this Gospel in tension today, the disciples who sense that Jesus has just said something really important, but who are afraid to ask him about it; and the image of the child held in their midst ready to ask about any and everything.

And it makes me wonder, what is it that we are afraid to ask Jesus, and why?

See, I ask that question because I think this Gospel lesson pretty much encapsulates who we are.

We self-identify as followers of Jesus.  We are disciples!   We follow Jesus, and isn’t it cool, look at what we do in Jesus’ name!  We feed the hungry, we care for one another, we help when someone is sick, we have this nifty book club, we gather for Coffee and Brews and we pick up things from stores, we repackage meat and rice and distribute it to those in need, we feed the homeless at Restart, we walk for CROP, we are followers of Jesus!

This is what we do, what Jesus has shown us to do, and we do so much more, we meet in committees and we serve on church council, and on boards here and in our community, and we prepare sermons and we take care of the building and we plan for the future and……you get the picture.

This is who we are, and it’s marvelous, don’t get me wrong.  It is exactly what we should be doing, but every once in a while it kind of feels like we are the disciples in the back of the classroom talking amongst ourselves while Jesus is trying to teach us something really important.

And we sense then that as we’re having this conversation with each other over what we think is this really important thing, like whether the pew cushions are too short, or whether the sign out front should be 3 mil or 6 mil material, or whether it will match what MLM will put up when they build, or….. while we are busily engaged in that conversation, that maybe, just maybe we just missed something Jesus was trying to teach us, but now we’re afraid to ask.

We’re afraid Jesus might just tell us what he said.

We’re afraid that Jesus might launch into this whole “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all..” thing, and then we’d have to re-examine what we thought was important a moment ago, or what we’ve been talking about amongst ourselves for so long.

            Or, maybe we’re afraid to ask Jesus because we know full well what he said, he’s said it before, over and over, and we’ve heard this before, — we just don’t want to think about it.    

“The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him,…

Yes Jesus, sad reality that such a thing happened to you so long ago, of course if we had been there we wouldn’t have goofed up like those first disciples did.   No, no, we’re way more mature than that!

We’d never betray you.

We’d never go behind anyone’s back to get what we want.

We’d never pretend that you were not able to overhear what we had to say about others.

We’d never be so petty as to ignore your direct commands, your teachings.

Yes, we will always pray for our persecutor, for the person who opens fire in the church or elementary school, for the leaders of Isis that, for Vladamir Putin, Kim Jong Un.

No, we will never jump on the bandwagon of name calling, or being disparaging of others.

No, we’re absolutely firmly with you on this love of the neighbor thing Jesus, even with those with whom we disagree politically, socially, about gun control wise, or the death penalty, or minimum wage, etc. etc.

No, we would never engage in hateful or disparaging words about others.

No, we would never pass memes along on Facebook, or via e-mail that flaunt one point of view in the face of others, that demean or disparage our elected officials.

Yes Jesus, we always “speak well of our neighbor and explain their actions in the kindest of ways,” whether we agree with them or not.

You see what I mean?

We’re afraid to ask Jesus what he was teaching, because we pretty much know what it was, and we just really don’t want to hear it, or be reminded of it.  It would convict us, cramp our style to be reminded that the Son of Man is still betrayed into human hand, and sometimes everything he stood for is still killed because we can’t stand what he has to say.

I think this Gospel lesson encapsulates all of who we are.

We do self-identify as disciples of Jesus and we do awesome things in his name.

But at that same time, we are also children of God, in every sense of that word “Children.”

We recognize that there is an awful lot of pettiness in us, games being played, not paying attention when we should and grudge holding.   Yes we can often be like the worst part of being children!  Tantrums, pouts, and all.

But you know what, Jesus picks up on that.

Jesus knows what those disciples were talking about back there.  He knows how petty and childish it was to be arguing over who was “the greatest.”  He knows they, we can sometimes be so childish.

But Jesus also knows the wonder of being a child.

He lifts up that nameless child and puts it in his arms, right there in the midst of them to remind those bickering, inattentive disciples that he holds them as well, and can see what can be found in them is also the best qualities of being a child.

It was such childlike wonder that made them drop nets, and leave counting tables, and walk away from their old lives that made them come with him in the first place.

This is what God sees.

God sees that we can be like the worst class of mis-behavers in school that you can remember, afraid to ask anything because you’re afraid of what you did, and being found out.

God sees that we can be inquisitive, trusting, and open to the wideness of God’s love, that we can rest in his arms and feel the love and safety of them.

This is who we are, children of God.

And this is the grace extended to us. It is that God puts up with our tantrums, and our pettiness, and our unwillingness to listen, and even when he knows all that about us still scoops us up in his arms and urges us on.  “Be like this!”

This is the Gospel, the good news I see in this lesson as one of those “children of God.”

Maybe I’ve taken too much creative license with this Gospel today.

Or maybe, most of us never take enough with it to see the truth to which Jesus wants to point.

Indeed, God always stands ready to open for us the Kingdom, if only we aren’t afraid to ask.

“Beggars All” Mark 7:24-37

What are we going to do with the beggars?

It is a subject much upon our minds these days as the world seems to lurch from one humanitarian crisis to another.

Potent images come our way via the news media.

It is convenient to de-humanize the “other” because that helps us deal with them a bit more objectively, so in the rhetoric of politics, we often hear talk about “illegals,” which is really just code or mask for calling them beggars, for we see them as a nuisance, someone dependent or mooching off our own prosperity.

We talk about “those people” crossing “our borders” don’t we, as if they had no boundary from their perspective?

We hear people make vast generalizations, “some of them murderers, and rapists, and some of them probably ‘good’ people BUT…..”  And, with that qualifier in place all mention of what could be positive you know is swept away as an afterthought.    The word “but” has the effect of negating anything and everything that comes before it.

We talk about “them” in terms of a drain upon our resources. “Those people” getting our hard earned tax dollars.  “

I get those things across the internet too.  The Enviable place it is to be on welfare, or how even those who have it toughest in the U.S. are really “rich” compared to the third world countries they came from.

We can work up a great deal of righteous indignation, and make sweeping comments about deporting them all, sending them home to wait until they can enter legally.

We can do all of that, until an image like this shows up and then we stand aghast at what the human cost is of policies and deterrents to the flow of refugees and people seeking safety and a better life truly is.

What are we to do with the beggars when we encounter them?  Those who make demands of us that we feel have no right to make any demands at all?

The Gospel today lets us see Jesus himself struggle with that a bit, and he does so with all of the ugliness that sometimes accompanies such struggles.

Jesus is at first dismissive of this Syro-Phonecian woman.

He’s a foreigner himself in these two stories, having gone up out of Israel into the Gentile territories of Tyre and Sidon.  This is the woman’s home, and he is stepping off into it like we might step off a cruise ship in Ensenada, or Punta Canta, or San Juan, and if you’ve done that, then you know what you are confronted with as the rich foreigner.

Women there with their hands outstretched.

Women with their ailing children in their arms and a cup held out.

Beggars.

And you know the feeling that wells up inside you, the indigation.   “I didn’t pay all this money to have my vacation interrupted by this kind of thing, why doesn’t the cruise line, the local government, the area chamber of commerce, etc clean this up?”

What are we to do with the beggars who show up?

I think if this Gospel lesson has anything to say to us, it is that what we are going to do with the Beggars is to feel their challenge.

We are going to be challenged by them, as Jesus was, and it is what happens after the challenge that proves who and whose we are.

The woman comes seeking Jesus out because of what she has seen and heard, how Jesus’ own reputation has spread even into the region of Tyre and Sidon.  Her daughter is ill, and here at last nearby is someone who can do something about it, and so she goes and we are told “she begged him.”

Jesus response:

“It’s not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs…..”

And we are aghast!

Yes, we have every freedom and right to put our hand up, along with Jesus, and draw the line somewhere.  We have every right to prioritize, and to justify, and to set parameters, and to say “not my circus, not my monkeys”   Of course we do!

But, as soon as we do, we recognize, like Jesus himself did, that it absolves us of absolutely nothing.

The child is still in the power of the demon.

The woman is still in need.

We are only trying to get ourselves out of the picture, so we don’t have to deal with it.  Which is what makes the woman’s response to Jesus insult to her, and the way he tries to put her off, all the more remarkable.

“Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs”
All she’s asking for is crumbs!

In his refusal of her, it is as if we don’t even recognize Jesus anymore.   Who is this who refuses this woman in her hour of need?

Who is this?  He is a foreigner himself here, and who acts like the “ugly American,” if ever there was one, anachronistic as that may seem.  He acts as if he has some measure of privilege, and shouldn’t be bothered while he’s on vacation in this foreign land.

We don’t even recognize this Jesus.

His actions trouble us, and it really it is the woman’s persistence that saves him in our eyes.  Her unwillingness to be dismissed, and her chutzpah to point out that all she’s looking for is crumbs is what  snaps Jesus back into what we would hope and expect of him.

“For saying that,”  Jesus say to her, “you may go, the demon has left your daughter.”

“For saying that…”  Whatever the “that” is… the reminder that all she needed were crumbs?  or her push back?   or her insistence?   Whatever the “that” refers to, it’s what was needed by Jesus.

And that is the end of the story, her story anyway.

Then Jesus is on to the next stop on his foreign tour, the Decapolis, which is a fair distance from Tyre and Sidon, and again Gentile territory.   Once again Jesus is sought upon by beggars who have heard about what he can do, but this time instead of putting up a protest at their needs, Jesus takes the man brought to him off to the side and does the spitting, touching, speaking of the word and opening – and the man is healed.

Although Jesus plainly warns them not to tell anyone, once you’ve given speech and hearing to a man deaf and dumb, do you really expect him to remain quiet???

This story has a tag line and ending.

After the healing, the word about what Jesus had done spreads throughout the “they” of the Decapolis, presumably the Gentiles living there, and they were astounded beyond measure we are told, saying “He has done everything well; he makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.”

Which, by the way is the last thing really that you want beggars to do, advertise and broadcast where they got their help, because you know what that will mean!

There will be more beggars showing up!

Which, in a strange way gets us back to where we started, because the crux of all of this still has to do with what to do with the beggars, for there are so many of them!

There are some that beg for our attention, others that beg for our vote, our support, or our finances.

There are those who beg for their very lives, and some that beg as a way of life.

We see those who beg for a place at the table of this world for justice, and others who are beggars of publicity, seekers of attention.

Some beg with their antics, public displays, and outrageous behavior.

Still others have learned how to beg with the abundance of their resources, buying the influence they need to effect change in their favor.

We see those who beg for change with protest and threatened violence, and others with peaceful demonstrations, but persistence who are then met with resistance and violence.

What are we to do with all these beggars?

Maybe the place to start is with what Jesus learns, and ends up teaching us this day.

You cannot avoid the beggars or put them off, nor can you ignore them

You must listen to them, and discern with them what it is they ask of you, and what it is they have to teach you.

In the end, it will be in how you respond to those who have no right to ask of you, but who need the help that you will discover what it is what you have to offer this world, and who you are meant to be.

It is said that Martin Luther’s last words to us were found scribbled on a note in his pocket,  It simply read,  “We are all beggars before God, this is true.”

It was the Reverend D.T. Niles, an African American United Methodist pastor who  later took those words and put them to a phase  to make a statement about how we live out that deathbed realization.

“Christianity, “ Niles said, “is one beggar, telling another beggar, where he found the bread.”   And by extension then, he said,

“Evangelism”, the act of telling people about Jesus, “is just one beggar telling another beggar where to find the bread.”

We are all beggars before God, and we all are in danger of forgetting that from time to time.  That is what this Gospel reminds us – even it appears Jesus.

The Jesus who could turn away a woman in need, we don’t even recognize.

If the world is sometimes confused about who we are as Jesus’ followers, it may just be because we’ve forgotten this lesson that even Jesus had to learn.   Time to repent, to listen, and to act in the way toward the beggar that we would hope God would act toward us, beggars all.