Saturday, September 26, 2015

Whose Side Are We On? Reflections on Mark 9.38-50

Saint Faith’s Anglican Church
Vancouver BC

27 September 2015

         From time to time as we travel through the lectionary, a reading will come that reminds us of some of the basic expectations of following Jesus of Nazareth.  Today’s reading from the Gospel according to Mark is one such reading.  Because it is really a collection of various sayings of Jesus, I want to remind you of its context. 
         Over the course of the last several weeks Jesus has been on the road to Jerusalem where, as we all know, he will be arrested, tried and executed by the Roman authorities with the collusion of some of the Temple leadership.  As he travels this road, Jesus has taken pains to use this time to instruct his followers, both the Twelve, the apostles, and the many others who follow him, the disciples.  What he has to say is not always easy to accept, but it is what Jesus means when he tells the apostles and disciples to carry the cross.  In today’s reading we hear four teachings crucial to being a disciple.
         The first teaching is counter-intuitive in today’s politicized climate where the mere mention of a possible coalition government can be used against one or another political leader.  It also runs counter to the way some media sources and others portray the world:  there are ‘good’ guys and ‘bad’ guys or there are ‘liberals’ and ‘conservatives’ or there are ‘progressives’ and there are ‘regressives’.  What Jesus says in the gospel today overthrows that kind of thinking:  not being a card-carrying follower of Jesus is not an adequate reason to consider another person as working against God’s purposes as revealed in Jesus of Nazareth. [i]
         Just think about this for a moment.  What Jesus is saying is this:  Look at what a person is doing.  If what he or she is doing is what I am doing, then that person is ‘one of us’.  Those of us who have chosen to follow the way of Jesus know what is expected of us, but the ‘anonymous’ Christian, the ‘unintentional’ Christian can be an even more effective agent than one Christian who quote the Scriptures copiously but who fails to live the good news of God in Christ. [ii]
         Creating coalitions of believers and non-believers, Christians and non-Christians, to work to bring about the common good of our communities is what we are about.  Saint Faith’s, for example, is a partner in the Westside Seniors Hub, an initiative based at Kitsilano Neighbourhood House, that brings together religious and non-religious organizations who are committed to serve the seniors of our neighbourhoods.  Our Community Pastoral Resource Centre, through the work of our Deacon, Christine Wilson, links people with particular needs with the agencies and programmes that will serve them, regardless of the faith orientation of those agencies and programmes.
         Jesus’ second teaching also challenges some commonly-held expectations.  You may remember the advertisement for a particular credit card that said, “Membership has its privileges.”  Well, in today’s gospel, Jesus says, “Membership has its obligations, and these include offering hospitality to others freely and with a low threshold as far as who is welcomed.” [iii]  One of the on-going debates about housing those with addictions is whether such housing should be made available only after a person has been sober or clean for a period of time.  Some cities have chosen to make housing available without such expectations.  They believe that the best way for someone to overcome an addiction is to be housed first and then, in safer surroundings, they can take the first steps to sobriety and a more stable life.
         We who have chosen the Christian path open the doors of our buildings to any and to all who would come in.  We welcome preschools and recitals, Twelve Step groups and Toastmasters, quilters and mourners.  We offer a roof to shelter those who want to come together, whether for mutual support or for mutual joy.
         When Jesus places a child in his lap, he offers us a third teaching:  those who are new to our community of faith are to be treated with special care and consideration. [iv]  I remember vividly how differently I was treated by two priests when I was younger.  In the first case I was in university and was serving as an acolyte for the first time.  I made several errors and, after the liturgy was over, the priest said to me, “Please tell the Chaplain that the next time I come, I want a competent acolyte.”  He turned his back and left.
         In the second case I was asked, while in seminary, to serve as the acolyte for a retired priest who was very traditional and still said ‘his’ mass every day.  Arrangements were made for him to use one of the smaller chapels at the seminary and I was deputized to be his acolyte and to be there at 6.00 a.m.  I was not a happy camper, but I went.  The retired priest celebrated the eucharist beautifully and meaningfully.  After the gospel he turned to me and asked, “What did you hear God say to you in the readings this morning?”  I was surprised, but I managed something coherent.  He then offered a brief reflection.  I cannot remember exactly what he said, but it built on my thoughts and it carried me spiritually for the rest of the week.
         Which of these two men, do you think, placed a stumbling block in the way of a young person seeking to follow God?  Which one, do you think, offered me a taste of the kingdom?
         All of today’s gospel can be brought together in one word:  integrity. [v]  God has placed you and me in this time and in this place to season our neighbourhood with the good news.  We are the right amount of salt that can make this place in this time a place of peace, a place of compassion and a place where everyone can become more fully alive.  But for that to happen we must put the words we pray into action.  This is not world-shattering news, I know, but it bears repeating every once and a while.  Our lives must proclaim just a little bit louder and a little bit clearer the generosity of God, the wide embrace of God and the welcome of God.  Why?  Because there are religious voices, many within our own community of faith, who proclaim a miserly God, a narrow God, an exclusive God who bears no resemblance to the God we know and the God made known to us in Jesus of Nazareth.
         So, my friends, welcome back to the school of the gospel.  We’ve just heard the refresher.  Now we set down to the hard work of training our hearts, minds and souls to be who we are:  disciples of Christ and agents of the kingdom.

[i] Craddock, Preaching Through the Christian Year:  Year B (1993), 426.

[ii] ‘Anonymous Christian’ is a concept of Karl Rahner, the Jesuit theologian.

[iii] Craddock, Preaching Through the Christian Year:  Year B (1993), 427.

[iv] Craddock, Preaching Through the Christian Year:  Year B (1993), 427.

[v] Craddock, Preaching Through the Christian Year:  Year B (1993), 427.

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