Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Sunday's Sermon - Those who aren't against us

Esther 7:1-6, 9-10, 9:20-22
Mark 9:38-50

So she ran over and said "Stop! Don't do it!"
"Why shouldn't I?" he said.
"Well, there's so much to live for!"
"Like what?"
"Well... are you religious?" He said yes.
She said, "Me too! Are you Christian or Buddhist?"
"Me too! Are you Catholic or Protestant?
"Me too! Are you Presbyterian or Baptist or…?"
"Wow! That’s amazing.  Me too!  Are you Presbyterian USA or Presbyterian Church of America?”
“Presbyterian Church of America”
To which she responded, "Die, heretic scum", and pushed him off the bridge.

Drawing lines in the sand.  I think all of us are pretty good at that.  It seems to be a natural part of being human to divide our world into us and them.  In sports there is my team, their team; the San Francisco Giants or the Oakland A’s. You can’t support both. In terms of colleges where I came from there was Cal or Stanford. In products there’s Coke or Pepsi. Among our churches, there are Catholics and Protestants. And among Protestants there are divisions and divisions. But even more, there is a growing divide between the evangelical/fundamentalist Christians and the Progressive Christians. The divide is becoming so wide that I sometimes wonder if we actually worship the same God at all. Similarly, politically we are becoming so much more polarized in terms of conservatives and liberals, democrats and republicans.  And there, too, it would almost seem we have two (or more) different understandings of what our country should be, could be and is.
Once we have identified ourselves with a particular group, we can become very rigid and careful guardians of what we feel is “ours.”  We can become very protective of keeping what we know “pure” or “the best.” People side with “their own” even when they actually wouldn’t if left on their own. Even the most open of us fear change and can act that out with rigid boundaries between ourselves in the groups of which we are a part and those outside the group.  We can become possessive of our size “we want to keep this small,” our projects “our committee is taking care of that,” our out-looks, and the credit we get for certain activities.  Once we’ve formed our loyalties, we can limit others joining us, but then find ourselves jealous when those others do similar things to what we do, even if they are good things.  As children, “cliques” form that are often rigid and exclusive and if one of those cliques decides to join a particular sport or compete in a particular activity, any other group who does the same might be called “copy cat” and the strictest social pressures can be put on the second group to stop “copying.”
As adults our possessiveness and our jealousies may be more subtle, but they can be even more harmful.  In the church especially, the Us vs Them mentality can be destructive. 
In one area where I lived, the Presbyterian church in town began a soup kitchen to help the hungry.  As part of their program, each person who was being fed was required to sit through a half hour sermon before they could eat. The Methodists from the church down the street took issue with the way the Presbyterians were handling the situation. They felt that as Christians they were called to feed people without pushing faith and that the best way they could serve Christ was by giving without expecting anything in return, showing God’s love through example. So they opened their own soup kitchen. In addition, a third soup kitchen was set up about the same time by the Lutherans. The Lutherans didn’t preach to their hungry, but they did ask each “guest” to contribute a token quarter per meal. They believed that this gave back to each person a piece of their dignity because they were “paying” for their meal and it was an exchange; not just charity.  Well the Presbyterians were outraged because the Methodists “took” all of their hungry away, without giving them the “opportunity” to hear about God.  The Lutherans were angry because they felt giving someone something for nothing took away a hungry person’s dignity.  Everyone was serving in the name of Christ, but it became a large and divisive problem between the churches; each church competing for the ability to serve the community by feeding the hungry.
There is a popular story about a church that was in an area where there were an abundance of homeless people. The members of the church were uncomfortable around these people, and so using the excuse of “safety” did not allow any of the homeless people in to worship.  One of these homeless women, Sally, thought the church was beautiful, and she wanted so desperately to worship there one morning that she tried to sneak in a window.  When she was found, she was carefully escorted out the back.  She approached the pastor during the week and begged to be allowed to come and worship in the church.  After meeting sometime with the session, the pastor finally decided on a plan.  The pastor found Sally and said to her, “Sally, I’ll tell you what.  You go and pray to God and if God wants you here, he’ll find a way to make you look clean enough that the members of our church won’t be afraid of you, and you can come worship here as long as you like.”  While Sally prayed and prayed, she was never made “presentable” enough for the church members.  But one of those times during prayer, Sally experienced a vision in which God said to her, “Don’t worry, my child, about that church.  They won’t let me in either.”
There is something very comforting about drawing lines in the sand.  I believe it helps us define who we are. We define ourselves in part against others, we know ourselves as much by what we are not as by what we are. It can therefore be helpful to have a clear sense of who is on our side and who is not, what we do and believe that is different from what others do and believe.  It is for this reason that as a denomination we struggled for awhile against joining other denominations in the Council of Churches United, otherwise known as COCU, which later became CUIC – Churches Uniting in Christ.  The purpose of CUIC was that we can, as a larger body, do more to help serve the world and each other than we can as individual churches.  But many in our denominations feared that we would lose our distinction and our identity in joining CUIC, they also fought over things like bishop succession and laying on of hands. There were hard and difficult fights against uniting with other Christian churches, all proclaiming Jesus as their Lord and Savior.
As a denomination we also struggle to determine what view points and behaviors are
“acceptable” as we continue to define who we are as Presbyterians.  One of the ways we do this is by drawing lines around our leadership. You know that we’ve fought passionately over whether or not gay and lesbian persons could be included in ordained ministry.  We’ve also fought over what is required in terms of studying. In our church certain tasks have been reserved for people who have gone through the arduous required process proceeding ordination as minister of Word and Sacrament. Those who have studied for three to four years beyond college in a seminary, who have learned both Hebrew and Greek, who have passed both oral and written ordination exams and who have had a committee interrogating them for several years as well, these people have the opportunity of becoming ministers of the Word and Sacrament. But as you may know there has been a movement in the last fifteen to twenty years to allow lay folk; people who have not gone through all of this process, to do more and more of what pastors alone have been doing.  This movement towards allowing more non-clergy more power has moved very slowly.  I can understand why.  Perhaps these lay folk would not teach correct Presbyterian theology.  Perhaps they would not interpret or understand scripture in an educated, helpful way.  Perhaps they would lead people astray. Isn’t it important that they be educated in the way we want them to be educated? But underneath the perhapses I believe, is the investment of the clergy and the fear of what it would mean to “include” others.  We had to learn Hebrew and Greek, we had to take the exams.  We spent four plus years in school and sweated through difficult and challenging classes.  It doesn’t seem fair if someone else gets to serve and be recognized as a pastor without having to go through all the hoops that the rest of us went through. 
It is a similar situation that we see presented in today’s gospel reading.  The disciples had discovered that through their relationship to Jesus they had been given the ability to heal, or cast out demons.  It was an extraordinary gift, and it drew many people into Jesus’ following.  But on this particular occasion the disciples came across someone else who also had the healing power and who also was given the gift, the ability to cast out demons.  The disciples were upset.  While this other exorcist was helping people in the name of God, even in the name of Jesus, he was not “with” them.  He was not one of Jesus’ disciples.  Perhaps he would gain his own following.  Perhaps he would lead people to believe or do things differently than Jesus was teaching.  Perhaps...But it was not just the perhaps.  He was not one of them.  The disciples were a team, a family.  As individuals each of the disciples had given up everything they had to follow Jesus.  They had left their work, their homes and their families.  I’m sure they felt it was unfair for this other man to get credit for healing and helping when he was not having to also give up everything to follow Jesus.  But at the same time, the disciples also didn’t invite him to join their group.  Instead they felt this other exorcist had to be stopped.
But Jesus did not uphold their line in the sand.  Jesus was constantly about widening circles of inclusion rather than limiting them.  His inclusion of people deemed totally unacceptable to his society was very hard for the people around him to understand and accept.  He was discredited by the pharisees and scribes for including sinners and outcasts of all kinds in his following; prostitutes, tax collectors, Samaritans.  He accepted them, loved them and included them.  Each time Jesus widened the circle of inclusion, the disciples too, not just the pharisees and scribes, but the disciples, were troubled, challenged.  Who were they as disciples when the lines were so unclear?  What was most difficult for the disciples was that Jesus’ love and acceptance was not conditional upon a person’s changing.  Sometimes his love then allowed others to change, but his caring was not dependent on that change.  How were the disciples to keep Jesus’ following pure and distinct if Jesus loved and accepted even those who were sinners?  Who were they as disciples and why did they give up all they had to follow Jesus if Jesus loved and included even outcasts? 
Still, Jesus gently challenged them.  “Let him be,” Jesus said.  “Let him heal, let him cast out demons.  Let him do what we do and be part of who we are, even as he is separate.  I ask you to accept that since he is not against us, he is FOR us.  This other exorcist whom you do not know and who has not joined me in the way that you have is still part of my body, the church.  Draw your circles wider; let those who are different but who are doing my work of healing and loving, let them in. Through serving in this way, they too will grow in God’s way.”
We continue to struggle with the dividing lines, we continue to want to decide for God who is in and out.  Yet it is in our unity, in our inclusion that we are able to most fully do God’s work.  The Church that refused to let the homeless worship missed an incredible opportunity to serve, to learn, to grow with their homeless brothers and sisters.  The three churches competing over the soup kitchens could have worked together rather than against each other in order to do more than just feeding.  Their lines of division limited their vision and resources.  But together they might have been able to provide shelter, showers, maybe even jobs.  So too with CUIC.  In joining with other churches in mission, we could do so much more to serve God’s world than we can as individual denominations. And so too in the case of lay persons who seek to do more pastoral work. The ordination process we have does not allow for many Native American churches, rural churches and smaller churches to have pastors, it does not allow people who are not good test takers, or who cannot financially afford years of schooling to become leaders in the church.  Also, in our rigidity, we are setting stumbling blocks for people who are striving to come closer to God. These lines in the sand hurt us as a church, and they limit our ability to serve God.

Once again I hear Jesus’ words, spoken to Christians, spoken to the Presbyterian Church, spoken to me and to you, “Those who are not against us are FOR us.  Let the other exorcists be and do their work.  In doing my work, they can only grow in their faithfulness.”  We are all God’s children.  Together we are the body of Christ, empowered to change the world, empowered to exorcise every demon.  Draw your circles wider, for God’s kingdom has no limit, no end, and God’s love is for everyone.