Tuesday, October 09, 2012

Sermon for Proper 21B, 30 September 2012

18th Sunday After Pentecost
Emmanuel Episcopal Church, Athens, Ga.
Old Testament: Esther 7:1-6, 9-10; 9:20-22
Psalm: 124
Epistle: James 5:13-20
Gospel: Mark 9:38-50 (“Whoever is not against us is for us;” and on not putting stumbling blocks before “these little ones who believe in me”)

        Today marks our third week of reading in Mark’s Gospel since Jesus’ first prediction of his Passion, and accordingly the third week since the focus switched from Jesus’ deeds of power to the character and the COST, of discipleship:  switching to a focus on what it looks like to be on the road with Jesus, to believe, to trust, to obey, even . . . on what it means to “take up your cross and follow me,” and inevitably, given human pride and vanity, to what it looks like to be “in” the group of disciples or “outside” of it. Remember last week the 12 arguing about who among them was the greatest, who was the “best disciple?” This week they seem more united, do they not, but perhaps only because they’ve found a common enemy: “someone [namely, not one of the 12] casting out demons in [Jesus’] name” who “was not following us.”
        But our Lord will have none of this bickering about the new guy, the new kid on the block who seems to be performing real and effective deeds of healing and restoration - by calling on the authority of Jesus - yet isn’t welcome in the club because … well, because he’s so new. He’s the suspect ‘new guy.’ But it’s almost shockingly clear in Jesus’ rebuke, isn’t it, (“Whoever is not against us is for us”) - clear that the new guy’s discipleship is mainly defined by WHAT HIS ACTIONS DO TO LIBERATE OTHERS from the oppressive forces that beset them. And don’t miss how Jesus draws a very clear line between acting in his name and believing in him: someone healing in his name “will not be able to speak ill of me for long,” he says. To DO - that is, to work for positive change in the lives of others, or in our own lives, for that matter - in the name of our Lord, is, in itself, to come to BELIEVE. Doing and believing cannot be separated. Disciples, those trying to follow the Way, those trying to stay on the sometimes narrow path, Jesus says to the apostles - and to us - are those who are coming to believe because they are coming to know the transformation of human lives made possible through the power of God’s unconditional love.
So how often, how consistently, at what commitment level - today’s text seems to challenge us - do WE ACT like we BELIEVE in this Jesus, as we claim we do? Like we really believe that calling on and imitating and enacting God’s love can heal? or reconcile? or lead to personal growth? or drive out demons? If we’re mainly focused on worrying about others’ credentials, on whether they are good enough to be called one of us, Jesus seems to say, then chances are we’re getting in the way...creating stumbling blocks to their health and wholeness, to their own encounter with the living God - and he’s shockingly clear - with this talk of hellfire and of millstones taking one to the bottom - about how bad that is, is he not?
        Oddly enough, we just heard from the Book of Esther the bulk of the origin story for the Jewish holy day of Purim. This past Mon. sundown to Tu. sundown was Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement (at-one-ment), for our Jewish brothers and sisters:
1. Conclusion to Jewish high holy days, most holy & solemn day of year
2. Day marking reconciliation, reunification - if you will - with God; the human reconciling with the divine; the temporal reconciling with the eternal; the mortal reconciling with the immortal:  the day of returning our most important relationship - the one with our creator - to the way it was meant to be
3. Day of atoning for sins against God, not for sins against other people: to observe Yom Kippur one must first seek reconciliation with anyone you have wronged over the previous year, and if at all possible, put things right with them in material, concrete way
4. When this has happened, Jews understand, then on Yom Kippur God actually comes OUT...to US; God comes out to meet us and removes our stumbling blocks, wipes away those things that have accumulated between us and God over the past year . . . crowding the space, fogging up the windows, blocking the pathway.

        Rabbi in Wash. Post:  “Most people want to do the right thing.  But sometimes life gets in the way.  On a daily basis, stumbling blocks disturb our path.  As the year moves along, we begin to see more and more stumbling blocks.”  Ah, yes, we know how this goes, don’t we? We know as well as anybody how our own selfishness, pride, envy, sloth, or just plain fear of the unknown, gets in between us and others, and between us and our lives of intentional discipleship. How it snowballs, even, and before long we feel powerless to recover, to bless anything about our busy lives, much less to bless the lives of others.

        Rabbi: “On Yom Kippur, Jews believe that [G-d] removes our stumbling blocks. Normally when someone makes a commitment it comes from a person deciding on their own that they want to commit.  But on Yom Kippur, it is different.  On Yom Kippur, God comes out to meet us and helps us take that extra step of commitment to Him.”
Isn’t that a great image, God rising up, as if from a chair or a couch, walking out the front door of the mansion, with hand outstretched, to meet us - as we stagger and stumble up the path, vaguely in God’s direction - steadying us by grabbing us by the arm, and leading us into the house?
        For us Christians, then, it is IN CHRIST that God has done this very thing - both once and for all 2000 years ago, and continually in the sacraments, and in our life together in the Spirit - to emerge into the midst of our human pain and suffering and greed and pride - into our simple, sheer exasperation with everyday life - to take the initiative to come to us and to remove the stumbling blocks. And if Christ’s sacrifice and vindication has removed the final stumbling blocks between the human and the divine, in a way that we here in the Church claim to recognize uniquely - that is, if GOD has come out to us FIRST - then how much more weight is on our shoulders - as Jesus suggests today - not to put barriers and hardships and doubts and curses between ourselves, or in front of those “little ones,” those just beginning to wonder about this Jesus . . . those who through OUR witness might yet come to believe?
“Therefore confess your sins to one another,” says the writer in the letter of James to the Church, describing how we are to live together, “and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective.” For us it’s almost the reverse of how the rabbi described Yom Kippur, isn’t it:  God has come to us FIRST, while we were yet sinners, as Paul says, and BECAUSE OF THAT ACTION we are called to respond, with a discipleship of upholding one another, of looking not only to avoid or break down the everyday barriers that prevent US from experiencing the presence of God, but being careful not to unwittingly put UP the same barriers for our families, our friends, and our neighbors. Let us continually act, even when it seems hard or even impossible, like we believe. Let us be that salt that does not lose its saltiness. Amen.

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Sermon for Proper 21B, 30 September 2012 by M. Edwin Beckham is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

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