This sermon marks my first time preaching in class. Meaning it was the first time I preached in the Chapel of the Good Shepherd, the first time I preached from an elevated pulpit, the first time I preached on tape, and the first time I preached with the understanding that my peers and professor would be evaluating what I proclaimed.
Proper 21 (September 30, 2012)–James 5:13-20 & Mark 9:38-50
Prayer—May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be pleasing to you, oh God, my rock and my redeemer. Amen.
As I compared various translations of the Gospel text for today, I was struck by the subject heading for the passage in Mark as the Common English Bible presents it. I typically ignore such headings, but the words “Recognize Your Allies” jumped out. Really? Is that what this passage is about? The disciples are clearly intent on setting themselves apart from this unknown person casting out demons, not joining up with him: “Can you believe the nerve? Casting out demons in Jesus’ name even though he doesn’t follow US??”
Wait a second—back up—do the disciples have the corner on the Jesus market? Even though this man is casting out demons in Jesus’ name, the disciples are upset because the man is not following them. Remember this exchange happens soon after their conversation wondering who of them would be considered the greatest. Their pride is as stifling as it is familiar. How often do we think we know the way? Even as open-minded, welcoming Episcopalians—are we not all a bit like the disciples, a little arrogant and maybe disgruntled too that someone isn’t doing things the way we do? Professor Malloy often reminds us that teaching liturgics at an Episcopal seminary is extremely difficult because everyone believes their way is the way.
And yet the Common English Bible suggests this is not about being exclusive, but about recognizing our allies. Hmm. Could it be that our allies don’t always look like us, worship like us, talk, study, eat and learn in the same place as us? Could it be that Jesus’ vision extends far beyond—just—us?
Jesus turns the tables on the disciples. He says stop being a tattletale and take a look at yourselves. Here we are (seminarians) preparing for ministry, presumably up on some sort of perceived or real pedestal, what an enormous amount of responsibility! Don’t waste your time checking others out, trying to see if they are in or out; we need to spend more time checking ourselves. It’s pretty easy to be a stumbling block (or as the Greek says, a “scandal”) from the position we are in.
I think Jesus gives us a big clue as to what this stumbling block or scandal might be in the sentences that follow:
“If your hand causes you to “scandal,” cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and go to hell…If your foot causes you to “scandal,” cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown in hell. And if your eye causes you to “scandal,” tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown in hell.”
It is better to enter life, to enter the kingdom of God maimed, lame, and one-eyed. It is better for us to realize our shortcomings, to be self-aware and true, and to live, than it is for us to act like we’ve got it all together and miss out on life. It is better for us to know our growing edges, to admit that we do not have all the answers, and to be closer to God—than to keep up appearances and be distant from the God we proclaim.
How do we do this. How do we discern and allow ourselves to be shaped and formed, perhaps maimed, and thus closer to God?
Our reading from James suggests we pray. And pray, and pray, and pray, and pray. Pray when you’re happy, pray when you’re sick. Pray for forgiveness, pray for the strength to help others.
I love this next part of James: “My brothers and sisters, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and is brought back by another, you should know that whoever brings back a sinner from wandering will save the sinner’s soul from death and cover a multitude of sins.” While the passage lifts up the idea of saving a wandering soul, look at who that wanderer is? You! “If anyone among you wanders…” Skimming over this passage it could easily sound empowering and self-righteous. Let’s go save some sinners’ souls from death! And yes, we should be looking out for one another, we should proclaim the truth in love, we should remind each other what path we are on lest we find ourselves in the brambles. But we must do so humbly. We must do so in the full knowledge that we too are prone to wander. We must do so as our maimed, lame, one-eyed selves, who just want to be closer to God
There’s one more thing we need to talk about: salt. Jesus says, “Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.” What does salt have to do with peace? In Jesus’ time, salt had two very important functions: to flavor and to preserve. When I lived in Benin, West Africa, I visited the home of my student, Alexis. His home was one room. And on the wall of his room was a huge poster of colorful fruits and vegetables. Written across the top of the poster was the English phrase: “Variety is the spice of life.” Alexis was so proud of his poster with its English words, he was so proud of himself for understanding what the words meant. And he showed that he understood the meaning of the words when he befriended me, an awkward missionary who stuck out like a sore thumb.
Being who we are, in all of our glorious differences, worshiping God and proclaiming God in a myriad of words and practices—that is the spice of life. And it is that same spice that preserves us. To “have salt in us” is to season and to preserve. And this salt is what Jesus equates to peace. He says, “Have salt in yourselves and be at peace with one another.” Recognize that your allies may not look like you. Know that peace is not built on conformity. But when we are unique selves, and when we embrace the diversity that represents, and when we recognize an ally in the person who also points to God, even without following our way—ooooh, that is living! That is what preserves, and that is what brings peace!