26th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Proper 21 – September 27, 2015

Esther 7:1-6, 9-10, 9:20-22; James 5:13-20; Mark 9:38-50

“My Jesus, My Savior” do you know the song?

It is nice, catchy. It goes on to say that there is none like my Jesus, my Savior. I have sung it at many a retreat and found it be a Spirit-filled experience. However, I have to say, the proprietary language gets my hackles up. The “my” of it feels a little too chummy, a little too much like I own the Lord of All. I hear echoes of toddlers snatching toys and screaming, “Mine!” “My Jesus!” It is in keeping with an observation of a ruling elder I know who wanted to speak a word of caution about using the word “our” before “God.” Our God is an awesome God, to be sure, but God is not ours, not really.

This is what’s at stake in Mark’s Gospel this week. To whom does Jesus belong? The disciples raise the issue of some rogue exorcist casting out demons in Jesus’s name but not following “us.” Did you catch that? The issue isn’t that this person isn’t following Jesus, the issue is that he or she isn’t following the disciples. Now that will preach! Right from the get-go, Christians questioned those who don’t worship, serve and follow Jesus in the same way they do. The examples of this are endless, truly endless.

Passing the peace, frequency of Communion, manner in which Communion is served, bread used in Communion, wine or juice, Welch’s or store brand, sprinkle, immerse, adult, infant, once, multiple times, kneel, clap, children in worship, children in children’s church, children in part of the service, adult beverages, who is allowed to preach, bishops, free standing congregations, robes, stoles, liturgical year, organ, guitar, screen… whatever the issue from exorcism to excommunication, disciples tend to want to stop those who don’t follow us.

Jesus doesn’t offer much debate on the matter, however. He says, “Do not stop him.” He adds, “Whoever is not against us is for us.” That could include a lot of people, couldn’t it? This is a pretty expansive Jesus in this instance. Jesus says that the proof is in the pudding. If the person is doing deeds of power and even so much as giving you a cup of water then they are for us.

I know this is seemingly contradicted in Matthew 12:30. Let’s just confront it. There Jesus says, “Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters.” Notice the different pronoun, though. It is “me” as in Jesus, not “us” as in the disciples. Loyalty to Jesus, his character, and his practices, matters tremendously; loyalty to his disciples is not so important. Jesus isn’t mine. God isn’t ours. Jesus is Lord of all. In life and death we belong to God. In his commentary, “Preaching the Gospel of John,” Lamar Williamson Jr. puts it like this: “The giving and receiving which characterizes disciples is not limited to some in-group, but should be common to all who bear the name of Jesus Christ.”

So much of what we decry and protest and claim needs to be stopped is just fine with Jesus so long as life-giving deeds of power are being done. Imagine if that was the criteria we used when we sized up those who don’t act, think or look like us?

What follows Jesus’s command to forbid this exorcist not is a list of warnings about sin and the radical means by which sin should be addressed. “Little ones” in this passage certainly includes children but more specifically refers to new believers. Jesus recognizes the vulnerability of recent converts and charges the established leaders to take extreme care not to cause them to sin or falter from their nascent faith. It seems to me the admonishment charges us, the established disciples, to focus less on the way our fellow believers, both new and old, follow Jesus and more on our own faithful following.

Rather than evaluating the authenticity of others, we need to be about doing the deeds of power we are called to do in Jesus’s name. We need to be salty and let Jesus judge the saltiness of others.

As James instructs, we are called to pray, sing, confess our sins and pray for one another. Like Esther, we need to use our sphere of influence, whatever it is – and we all have some influence somewhere, with some people, to advocate for the vulnerable and work for change. Like the rouge exorcist, wherever we are, we should call on the name of Jesus to cast out the demons that torment and alienate. As Jesus declares, we should be passing out cups of living water to the parched. These things will make of us the salt of the earth we are called to be and keep our focus on following Jesus, not on the faith or lake thereof of others.

All of these texts point us outward, in service to others. “My” and “us” and “our” aren’t the right pronouns for this Jesus life when we use them to make an exclusive claim on the Most High God. “You” and “we” might be better. As in, God, you are the one we worship and heed. “Us” and “them” get tricky in a hurry. Now as then, parsing out of who is us and who is them happens all too regularly in the church and outside of it. Perhaps replacing pronouns with nouns would help, nouns like “brother” and “sister.” Using titles like “child of God” and “little ones” could work, too. What might be best are proper nouns, learning people’s names, the ones perhaps spoken at their baptism, recognizing that despite all of our differences we are united in Christ and therefore should be at peace with one another.

Then we could get to work doing deeds of power in Jesus’s name, passing out cups of water, caring for little ones, praying, confessing, singing, bringing each other back when we wander away.

This week:

  1. Pay attention to language about God in your speech, prayers, liturgy, etc. What does that language convey about God and about how God relates to human beings?
  2. Consider all of the ways we divide ourselves up as Christians. What are the ways you are parsed out in your context? Why do this divides exist? Are these divides sometimes useful?
  3. Spend some time in the lesson from James. Note the power James ascribes to prayer. Gather a group of church leaders together to pray for the needs of the church, community and world.
  4. Who are the “little children” in your community? How can you nurture their faith?
  5. Imagine all the instances in which a cup of water makes a dramatic difference to someone. Think about those crossing the desert, running marathons, refugees and others. How can we figuratively and literally give out cups of water?
  6. How do we interpret Jesus’s call to cut off limbs if needed to keep us from sin? What can we do to help keep us faithfully following Jesus?

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