Trinity XVII

Numbers 11.4-6, 10-16, 24-29
Psalm 19.7-14
James 5.13-20
Mark 9.38-50
“John said to him, ‘Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.’  But Jesus said, ‘Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterwards to speak evil of me.  Whoever is not against us is for us.  For 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.  ‘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.  If 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.  And 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.  And 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, where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched.  ‘For everyone will be salted with fire.  Salt 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.’”  
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.
The appointment of a new Archbishop of Canterbury is a nervous time for the Church of England, and for the Anglican Communion at large I would imagine too.  The liberals are worried a conservative will be appointed; the conservatives are worried a liberal will be appointed; those in favour of the consecration of women bishops are worried that the new archbishop will oppose women’s ordination and consecration; those opposed to the consecration of women bishops are worried that the new archbishop will support women in the house of bishops.  It is sad to say that we probably think about what we want to avoid in the next ABC more than thinking about what positive features we would like to see: prayerfulness, humility, a promoter of justice, and of course a deep love of Our Lord.  We fixate on what we are against, rather than what we are for.
Christians of different denominations, and Christians of different “flavours” within denominations have not traditionally been very good at getting along with one another.  I remember seeing very sad scenes from the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem last year when physical fights broke out between Greek and Armenian Orthodox clerics during their preparations for Christmas.  This is sadly a regular occurrence.  You don’t have to think too far back in history to find Roman Catholic Croats at war with Orthodox Serbs in the former Yugoslavia.  The Thirty Years War between Western European Catholics and Protestants in the 17th Century killed, in percentage terms, almost as many people as either the First or Second World Wars.  The history of Western Europe is stained with the blood of Christians shed at the hands of other Christians.
And you do not have to look as far as the battlefield to find antagonism between different groups of Christians.  Aggressive assertions by certain groups of Christians that they are the only “real” Christians are rife.  The position seems to be that if you don’t subscribe to certain groups’ particular doctrines then you are not one of them, not a real Christian, and you don’t really know God or Jesus.  I find this a cruel and dehumanising attitude to take.  Why Christians cannot see past their differences to the core of others’ beliefs – Jesus Christ – I don’t know.
The disciples in today’s passage from Mark’s gospel seem to have taken a similarly dismissive attitude to someone they didn’t know who was performing miracles in Jesus’s name.  It’s interesting what John says to Jesus.  He DOESN’T say  ‘Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following YOU.’  What he says is ‘Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following US.’  Their rejection of this other follower of Christ is not based on some defect in this person’s relationship with Jesus, it is based on a perceived defect in their relationship with the disciples.  This other healer is not with the disciples, he is not part of them.  Therefore in the eyes of the disciples he (or she) is a rival, a threat.  He is not with them, so he is against them.
No, Jesus says, do not stop him.  This person who is doing deeds of power in Jesus’s name is not someone doing or speaking evil against him.  They should let him alone.  This person is not against Jesus, so he is for him.  This is despite not following the disciples!  Despite not believing the same things as the disciples.  Perhaps despite not believing the same things as Jesus?!  We don’t know.
So why do we insist on applying a stricter standard to others than Jesus does here?  Why do we insist on excluding others who don’t believe exactly what we do, who don’t belong to our little group?
Well, for whatever reasons we do it, we do.  And for us, this week’s Gospel passage contains a warning.  If anyone puts a stumbling-block before any vulnerable person who believes in Christ, the consequences will be so grave that you’ll wish you’d been thrown into the sea with a great millstone around your neck.  A pretty barbaric punishment!  It sounds rather like an ancient version of the gangster punishment of embedding someone’s feet in concrete blocks and throwing them into a river or the sea.
Don’t try to trip up other followers of Christ says Christ himself!  Why question what they’re doing and how they’re doing it if they’re doing it for God, for Christ?  Why put them to the test?  Why try to make them conform to our own way of being a Christian?  Why ask why they’re not following us, if they’re trying to follow Christ?  That is all that matters.
We are all guilty.  Not one of us is innocent of this, whether conservative or liberal, progressive, traditional, evangelical, catholic, orthodox, reformed, whoever…
There may be behaviour we find challenging in other Christians, and there are some things which should be challenged.  But perhaps we can move to a different way of doing that?  A way that doesn’t say “you are against me”.  A way that doesn’t say “you are not a Christian”.  A way that isn’t cruel and doesn’t dehumanise.  But a way that operates by love, instead of just paying lip service to it.  A way that recognises that everyone, even those with whom we don’t agree, is a beloved child of God.  A way that sees our mutual love of Jesus as central, as THE most central thing, rather than putting Jesus second after our own beliefs and preferences.
As the new ABC is being chosen, we can only hope and pray that he shares Jesus’s view that whoever is not against us is for us.  Amen.

Trinity XVI

September 23—Trinity XVI
Jeremiah 11.18-20: A reminder of the lamb being led to the slaughter: justice secured through sacrifice.
Psalm 54: God stands beside us in times of trouble.
James 3.13-4.3 & 7-8a: Blessed are the peace-makers and those who live for others rather than for themselves.
Mark 9.30-37: As Jesus looks towards Calvary, his disciples jostle for status.
“They went on from there and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it; for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, ‘The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.’  But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.
Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, ‘What were you arguing about on the way?’  But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another about who was the greatest.  He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, ‘Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.’  Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, ‘Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.’”
Sometimes people just don’t understand what is right in front of them.
In last week’s gospel reading Jesus asked his disciples who they thought he was.  Who was this strange figure wandering about the Holy Land with a ragtag band of followers: performing miraculous healings, feeding multitudes, teaching with unexplained authority, standing up to the religious authorities.
Who was he?  A madman, a religious fanatic?  The disciple Peter guessed it right – he was God’s Chosen One (as they said, Messiah) who would come to save and rescue God’s people.  But then he went on to explain that being God’s Chosen One was not what they expected.  He was not who they wanted him to be.  They may have wanted a warrior who would lead a victory, but that was not who God was choosing.  Being God’s Chosen One was about dying in enemy hands.  Dying, not killing.
Jesus’s followers didn’t understand.  So he tells them again.  He tells them what must happen to him.  He must be betrayed and betrayed to his death.  But that death would not be the end – three days later he would be alive again.  Oh, what on earth does that mean?!  People don’t just die and then come back to life again!
You know, I feel for the disciples in this episode.  We all have people we look up to in life, and whose causes we look up to.  People do, for better or worse, like to play follow my leader.  Death is inevitable for all of use, but we don’t expect our leaders, those we look up to, to go on about their own deaths.  And saying they would be alive again after dying?  It’s not surprising Jesus’s disciples could not believe their ears.  They didn’t know who they were dealing with.  They didn’t understand what was right in front of them.
At the end of their journey when they arrive at the house where they were staying Jesus is aware that there’s been some disagreement on the journey.  So, he asks them, what they were arguing with one another about on their journey?  I wasn’t part of it, so let me in on the secret – perhaps you were arguing about how best to serve your God…how best to help the poor…how to serve your Father and Mother?
But they were silent.
Eventually one of the disciples may have come clean and explained red-faced to Jesus what had been going on.  Perhaps Jesus had overheard them on the road, or perhaps he just knew.  They had argued about which of Jesus’s followers was the greatest.  Jesus had just told his disciples for the second time that he must die, and all they could do was to argue about who had the highest reputation.  Perhaps who would succeed Jesus when he had died.  Because nobody comes back after death, right?
Who was the greatest?  The last time Jesus had told his disciples about his death he had said to them “‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”  Let them deny themselves – not in the sense of denying the world and those around you, shutting yourself away in a safe little bubble away from the dirty reality of the world.  Not in that sense.  But in the sense of forgetting about your own interests, thinking about others before yourself, in short not being selfish.
But they didn’t care about that.  They cared about which one of them was greatest of all!  Perhaps they really had learned nothing at all.  They hadn’t really listened to what Jesus had said.  They didn’t understand what was right in front of them.  They didn’t know who they were dealing with.
All they cared about was who the who the greatest was.  How on earth can Jesus get through to them now, when they have shown themselves so capable of ignoring what he has been saying?  He then tells them again “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”  Deny yourself.  Live without interest for yourself.  Be a servant: obedient, obedient to death, and even death on a cross.
But they’ve not done such a good job with listening to what Jesus has said.  So then he takes a small child and puts him or her amongst his followers.  OK they think, what’s going on now?  Is this child the greatest?  Now they really have no idea what’s going on!  Perhaps the idea is that Jesus sees this child as being as important as his chosen followers.  Children in the 1st century AD were not seen as being of any importance at all, and barely even human beings in their own right separate from their parents.
So now Jesus puts this small, insignificant child amongst his jumped up followers who had been arguing about which one of them was the greatest.  All humans, all significant to Jesus, all significant to God.  Whoever welcomes this insignificant child welcomes Jesus and welcomes God.Jesus, who was welcomed into the world himself as a new-born baby in the stable in Jerusalem.  Who, looking at that tiny baby could have known what significance He held?  Could they see past the child, to Jesus, to God?  Some could, or thought they could.  Would we have known if all we saw was a baby?  Would we have understood even if we had seen Him right in front of us?

Welcome everyone, says Jesus, no matter how insignificant.  It does not matter how great you are, you should be welcomed and treated just the same.  Child, adult, man, woman, straight, gay, black, white, rich, poor, priest, bishop, lord, lady, king or queen – all the same to Jesus and to God.
This is probably a fitting reading to have in the week that the Crown Nominations Committee draws up their short list for the next Archbishop of Canterbury.  Who should be the senior cleric in the church?  Who should be the “greatest”?  Whoever it is must be prepared to be last of all, and servant of all.  They should be in our prayers this week.