Sunday, October 01, 2006

Proper 21B

Esther 7:1-6, 9-10, 9:20-22; Psalm 19:7-14; James 5:13-20; 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. He’s not one of us
. Mark doesn’t say so, but I suspect Jesus’ reply to John was accompanied by one of those “are you out of your mind” looks. You tried to stop him? From healing people, from casting out the evils that ensnare human hearts? From trusting in my name? Do not stop him…Whoever is not against us is for us.

Us? The disciples could only see a “them”. It’s how the world teaches us to see, right? Us and Them. For the disciples that day, and for those to whom James wrote in the epistle, it was Us, the faithful followers and Them, not followers. Even as far back as Moses it was Us, prophets who went out to meet God and Them, prophets who stayed home. Today, it’s….well, the categories are infinite, aren’t they? Us, from this country; Them, from another. Us, with one skin color; Them, with another. Us, from this side of the tracks; Them, from the other side. Us, college graduates; Them, no high school diploma. Rich and poor, Democrat and Republican, immigrant and native born, conservative and liberal, labor and management, gay and straight, old and young, Baptist and Episcopalian and Methodist and Lutheran and Catholic, Ole Miss and State…We’re really good at knowing what makes us different. What makes us Us, and them Them. And we’re really good at knowing why it’s better to be Us than it is to be Them. And while this knowledge helps us feel strong and significant and secure, it is also what separates us from one another.

Our differences become dividing lines. Sometimes for the sake of convenience, to distinguish one person or group from another, like telling twins apart, or knowing who at the table is allergic to peanuts. Sometimes out of fear we draw a line between ourselves and people who are different than us, lines that keep us at a safe distance. And sometimes it’s just to make ourselves feel good, so that we can say at least we’re not like them.

Isn’t it strange that “division” and “diversity”, both deeply rooted in our differences, are nearly exact opposites, at least when it comes to the kingdom of God? In the world differences create division, as if differences were walls. The kingdom of God celebrates diversity, where profound and wonderful and difficult and beautiful differences make the whole far greater than the sum of its parts.

And yet even within the Christian community, charged with revealing God’s kingdom in the world, even within the church there is deep division. We are painfully aware of this in our own dear Episcopal Church, our Anglican Communion, where our profound and wonderful and difficult and beautiful differences are fast becoming dividing lines. Like John and the disciples, there are many who want run to Jesus and say, Teacher, we tried to stop them, because they were not following us….

But there are also some who hold fast to the hope that all our many differences are rooted in and nurtured by and sustained by something more profound and wonderful and difficult and beautiful still, something we all share. It is this: We are all created, loved, and longed for by a God who crosses the line. We are all created, loved, and longed for by a God who crosses the line. By God who, Isaiah wrote, dwells in the high and holy place, and also with those who are contrite and humble in spirit. By God who, in Jesus Christ, came down from heaven to earth to live and die as one of us, eyes and feet and hands and heartbeats and bones and dreams and differences and all. By God who, in Jesus Christ, would not let even death divide us from the love and longing that created us in the first place. Jesus lived and died and rose again for Us. Not for us, and them, and them, and maybe even them, but for Us.

There are no lines in the kingdom of God. In fact, when we try to draw lines at all we really just make ourselves the Them. Look at how Jesus lived among us, always crossing lines to be with those no one else in the world would love because they didn’t look right or speak right or act right or come from the right place. The “us” crowd, those who were so certain of their status and authority, their faithfulness and righteousness – the Pharisees, the rulers, the wealthy, the well, and even, much of the time, the disciples – the “us” crowd had a really hard time understanding Jesus. His definition of “us” included all those who had been told their whole lives they were a “them”. Jesus tried to teach his disciples and others over and over (we've been hearing about it the past few weeks) that following him meant embracing his definition of “Us”, embracing all people as if they were himself, showing mercy and pity, being last of all and servant of all. Those who would not were drawing a line between themselves and the community of Christ, between themselves and the kingdom. They would find themselves on the outside.

Perhaps that’s what John was afraid of when he ran to Jesus, We tried to stop him….he was not following us. The disciples had tried to cast out demons and failed. Perhaps John was afraid of finding himself on the outside, of becoming a “them”, as though discipleship were a competition, as though there would only ever be twelve.

Do not stop him…Whoever is not against us is for us. Did you hear? Jesus says “us”, not “me”. Whoever is not against us is for us. Jesus, himself fully God and fully human, is communion, he is community, always reaching out, always widening his embrace. Jesus is God’s love, God’s longing for Us – for all of Us – and following him means making that love known, spreading that good news. It means crossing the line.

Discipleship is not a competition, Jesus explains to John and the others (and to us), but it is costly, at least by the world’s standards. You will have to get rid of, to make a sacrifice of, the things that separate you from others, that keep you at a safe distance.

Get rid of your eyes that see others as “them” and not as “us”, that stay focused on what’s inside the walls around your own life. Eyes that are blind to the periphery, that look at differences but cannot see past them.

Get rid of your hands that grasp at power and status, at being the greatest, so that other people become threats. Hands that shield and protect what is walled up inside. Hands that close tightly around belief, so that nothing can get in or out.

Get rid of your feet that plant themselves proudly in the midst of all you have accumulated, that you prop up in self-satisfaction. Feet that walk you to the center of your world. Feet that run in fear of “them”.

Get rid of these. Cut them off! Tear them out! Jesus says, for it is a sin when we use our eyes or feet or hands or anything at all to separate ourselves, to draw lines, to create an “us” and a “them”. When we separate ourselves from others, we separate ourselves from Jesus Christ, for it is in him and through him that we are bound one another in the first place. Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote in a book entitled Life Together, “The exclusion of the weak and insignificant, the seemingly useless people” – the exclusion of anyone who doesn’t seem to “us” to belong – “may actually mean the exclusion of Christ; in [those sisters and brothers] Christ is knocking at the door.”

Who, because they are different than us, do we try to stop from speaking or enacting God’s word, by ignoring them, or discounting them, or silencing them? Who, because they are different than us, do we try to stop from revealing God’s power in their works of mercy and pity? God has long had a proclivity, it seems, for working through people we would least expect, because they weren’t following us….Our scriptures are full of stories about women and men who were outsiders, who were other, who were Them, who were windows into the kingdom of God. In his same book, Bonhoeffer reflects, “I can never know before hand how God’s image should appear in others.” Because of all our profound and wonderful and difficult and beautiful differences, God’s image won’t appear quite the same way in any of us. That’s why we need all of Us.

Despite – no, because of our differences, we are the Body of Christ. We are – by now we know the sweet refrain! – we are one church in mission. We are the feet and eyes and hands and heartbeats and bones and dreams that bring the inviting, transforming, and reconciling love of God to a world divided in so many ways. One of Mississippi’s own, the Reverend John Stone Jenkins said, or so the story goes, “We have an eternity to figure out theology, politics, personalities, whatever makes us different. We only have right now to be Christ to someone else, to let them be Christ to us.”

Let us, then, go forth in the name of Christ. Let us cross the line, or better yet, understand that there is no line at all, as our hymnal declares, In Christ there is no east or west, in him no south or north, but one great fellowship of love throughout the whole wide earth. Amen.

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