Gospel: Mark 9:38-50
On the way to Jerusalem, Jesus teaches his disciples about ministry that involves service and sacrifice. His disciples are slow to realize that these words apply to them as well as to others.
38John said to [Jesus,] “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” 39But Jesus said, “Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. 40Whoever is not against us is for us. 41For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.
42“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. 43If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. 45And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell. 47And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell, 48where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched.
49“For everyone will be salted with fire. 50Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.”
On a Wednesday morning, September 16 of this year, a man with jingling keys was getting out of his car into the Louisville heat. I’m sure, as he got out of his car, he was checking his phone, thinking about all the things that would need to get done before worship that day. What he saw when he looked up, though, stopped him in his tracks. What Muhammad Babar saw spray painted on his mosque appalled him. Insults and anti-Islamic slurs were painted along the side of the Louisville Islamic Center.
A few months earlier, on July 1st, 3 historically black churches were burned to the ground, with at least two of them being linked to arson. African American churches have historically been a place of racist threats and violence, especially in the American South, and it appears that is hasn’t stopped.
It’s easy to see that this reality exists in the world. It’s a common adage especially in global diplomacy, that those who are not for us are against us. It often means that if you are not in favor of everything I do, if you don’t agree with everything I say, and if you don’t back me up 100%, then you are not on my side. At least, that’s how we feel sometimes. This mindset is what makes people stereotype an entire culture or religion and deem it as bad, as wrong, as something to be against. It’s the kind of mindset that people use to justify the vilification and the victimization, of people who vote differently, think differently, look differently, talk differently, and learn differently.
So this might be a difficult reading to stomach. As the Pope has been in the United States the last few days, I’ve heard a number of debates arise of the legitimacy of one form of Christianity over another or one faith identity over another. And this is nothing new – Christians have always been debating amongst themselves and against other religions. Read through the book of Acts, and you can’t help but notice that most of the time, the Christians are coming up against road blocks, either from other Christians, or those who follow other religions.
We get concerned, sometimes, about how other people worship. Maybe the other church in question is too contemporary, too traditional, too progressive, too conservative, too wealthy, too poor, or maybe just plain too weird. It’s easy to think that we have the answers and the right way, and we must make sure that people are doing it our way, the right way. John sure seemed to think so. John starts to pick fights with others who are healing in Jesus name, but are not following them. Notice what he says, though, “we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” He says nothing about Jesus. So he’s looking for some backup from Jesus, all the while that child is still sitting on Jesus lap that we read of last week. Jesus, in verse 37, the verse right before our reading today, explains that welcoming a child (or anyone else in need, I imagine) means welcoming God. And yet immediately, John starts excluding others who are doing ministry in the name of Jesus because they aren’t doing it right. And Jesus, instead of debating John about the prayer that this other man uses to cast out demons, flips the world on its head.
John thought that whoever isn’t with us is against us. But Jesus takes his mindset, his exclusive, my-way-not-your-way mindset, and says that there may be many ways to do this whole Christian life thing. Instead of making sure that everybody practices their faith in a uniform way, Jesus seems to be giving us permission to find a unique identity as a Christian and as communities of faith that leads to unique service.
What a blessing! What a blessing to know that Jesus, God incarnate, the Word of God made flesh, isn’t some micromanager who wants to make sure that you’re doing everything like everybody else. What a beautiful word comes from the mouth that would later proclaim “It is finished” on the cross and seem to be saying here, “It’s okay.” Whoever is not against us is for us! What a beautiful, graceful permission we have from God today!
Perhaps the best part about these 8 little words is that it means that, even when our lives are askew, even when we don’t understand everything about Jesus, we can still serve and show the love of Jesus with confidence. Jesus doesn’t argue liturgy or piety. Jesus doesn’t scold this other, nameless man who somehow figured out how to do incredible things in the name of Jesus or his disciple John for not understanding everything about Jesus. Instead, he proclaims that works, done in the name of Jesus, even by imperfect people with imperfect means, still have a place in the kingdom of God.
You remember the mosque in Louisville I talked about at the beginning? The one that was left desecrated by graffiti spouting hate and exclusion by scared, fearful people? That was September 16th of this year. On September 18th, over a hundred people gathered at that same mosque to paint over the graffiti. Christians, Jews, Muslims, Atheists gathered together with the intent of saying that my God and my values don’t allow for this. Although all these groups understand Jesus and God differently, the aim that day was the same – to practice love. Whoever is not against us is for us.
And those Black churches in the south that were burned? Remember those? Well, a group of young Muslims raised $48,000 to help those congregations rebuild their churches. Spearheaded by a 23-year old theology student, this group of Muslims surpassed their $10,000 goal in 12 hours. Even though they have a very different idea of who Jesus is, they were certainly showing Christ’s love in that act. Whoever is not against us is for us.
Why do I bring up these examples? We live in a world that loves to exclude and prioritize some people over others. The world will tell us that unless you agree with everything somebody says, then they’re wrong. We live in a world that wants to verify that everybody is doing things the right way, however that is. But the kingdom of God is different. In the kingdom of God, love is not exclusive, but inclusive. In the kingdom of God, peace is greater than war, serving is nobler than being served, dying to ourselves and our desires grants life, and, though we may have all the power in the world, the death of a poor migrant grants us what we could never achieve or buy. Christ has died and Christ has risen and Christ has proclaimed that it is finished. Whoever is not against us is for us.