Pastor Annabelle P. Markey
Year B – Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Community Lutheran Church, Sterling, VA – September 30, 2018
Before we become overwhelmed by this morning’s Gospel, let’s try to understand it in the context of Jesus’ ministry and the authority he’s given the disciples. In the beginning of Mark’s Gospel, Jesus proclaims, “‘the time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’” In other words, the reign of God is here, so turn toward God and put your trust in this good news! Really live like God’s reign is here before you.
Then, two short chapters later, Jesus sends out these handpicked disciples with the authority to preach and cast out demons. But apparently, they didn’t have a 100% success rate because in chapter 9, the disciples can’t exorcise a demon from a boy struggling with what sounds like epilepsy. In a moment of biblical frustration, Jesus says, “‘You faithless generation, how much longer must I be among you? How much longer must I put up with you? Bring him to me.’” When the disciples ask why they couldn’t do it, Jesus says, “this kind can come out only through prayer.” So it must have been super frustrating to hear about this other exorcist having success casting out demons in Jesus’ name. Someone who is not one of the group. “Why can he do it Jesus? What about us?”
It sounds to me like jealousy and envy, like wounded pride. The disciples are upset about what another person is doing in the name of Jesus. In their jealousy and desire to be in charge, they miss that the healing and wholeness the reign of God ushers in is coming to others even if they’re not a part of it! They’re so worried about what other people are doing or not doing that Jesus has to tell them in very dramatic words that it’s better to be a part of this new life – this new reign of God – missing body parts rather than missing what it’s all about! It’s better to remove those things that separate us from God, or worse, cause us to throw off others from following God, than to completely miss the point. It’s better to enter life in the kingdom of God with a few dings, missteps, and course-corrections than to completely disregard what kingdom life is all about. And so we enter new life battered and bruised, having learned and struggled.
Jesus makes it clear to the disciples that our sins don’t just affect us – they affect others. Just as someone giving a simple cup of water to another in Jesus’ name will receive their reward, those who lead others astray must be mindful of the consequences of their actions. The things we do and fail to do have the potential to trip others up as they try to follow God. Even with all the power and authority they were given, Jesus wants to remind the disciples that, “with great power comes great responsibility.” That their lives are connected to others’. He wants to remind them that God’s reign is breaking in outside of the expected channels. No one can put God in a box.
To live into this reality is hard, but there’s one last piece of this context that makes this passage one of promise. There’s one thing all of these texts for today speak about that is essential to our life of faith. Community. The messiness, imperfection, and closeness of life together is also where God breaks through in surprising and life-giving ways.
It might not jump out at us because in our society there’s so much emphasis on individual successes and failures – on being independent. But this would have been completely foreign to Jesus’ listeners who were a part of a tightly interconnected society revolving around complex relationships. So we hear Jesus’ words in this highly communal context. Basically, he says, “don’t worry so much about what others are doing in my name. Focus on how you are prone to stumble and how you impact the faith of others.”
The truth is that we kind of have a love/hate thing going on when it comes to people, relationships, and community. Sure, it’s fine when everything is going well, but we can often drive each other crazy. We, too, may feel like Moses dealing with complaints about manna and people trying to get back to the treats of Egypt. “‘[God], why [did] you lay the burden of all this people on me? If this is the way you are going to treat me, put me to death at once.’” When we are in conflict with others, we may find ourselves voicing similar complaints about those with whom we are in relationship.
But as much as we may be occasionally annoyed or frustrated by navigating relationships, we were made for connection. It’s right there in Genesis. God creates man from the dust of the earth and says, “‘it is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner.’” When no animals quite fit the bill, God gets creative again and creates woman as a partner and a helpmate. If God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – exists as community, it makes sense that we, too, have the desire for connection woven into our bones.
Life in community is a gift. In James, the community of the faithful is the place where people pray, sing songs of praise, confess, and lovingly instruct one another in God’s ways. Life together means prayer – as individuals, together, and for others. It’s sharing joys and burdens, uncertainties and doubts, strengthening each other through mutual compassion and affection. That could mean checking in with a friend or praying silently for the person you notice who seems sad or discouraged in the pew near you. The fact is we are given the opportunity and the privilege of caring for one another. We see this in Stephen Ministry or when people visit the homebound. But it’s also in the informal connections formed in small groups. I experienced it this past week as you were flexible and compassionate as Jeff and I headed up to Massachusetts last minute to visit his sick grandfather. Thank you.
We will butt heads as we learn to live together, but can we take that risk for the chance to be supported, loved, cared for, and sustained by others in community? We risk occasional conflict in order to experience the grace of God coming from other imperfect people who accept us with all our flaws and imperfections. We can risk awkwardness and misunderstandings for the opportunity to learn from others and be challenged to expand our hearts in love and forgiveness as we follow Christ. In community we find others who are imperfectly stumbling through life. But we also find that when we stumble, there are others to pick us up and help us heal.
Like many of you, I watched the proceedings for Judge Kavanaugh as they unfolded Thursday and Friday. Regardless of where you stand, it was clear that things were deadlocked between two opposing sides. But in this polarized and divisive time in our life together as a nation, I was astounded when a third option was presented on Friday. It reminded me that relationships, whether friendship, marriage, with family or neighbors, at work, or in politics are always a matter of talking, active listening, negotiating, compromising, sacrificing, renegotiating, confessing, forgiving, and working toward something – together. We won’t always do it well. In fact, we may really, really mess it up. But we owe it to each other to respect one another enough to work at it and to expect God to do a new and probably unexpected thing in our midst.
Our lives are all interwoven. We may only be a small part of the grand scheme – a pinch of salt in a big melting pot – but without that all-important flavoring, something is lacking. It is tempting to look at others or to judge. But how do we instead pay attention to what causes us to stumble? How do we divert our energy from jealously worrying about others and instead focus on what it means to be in relationship with them? God has brought us into loving relationship with Godself and God has no plans of abandoning us. But you have also been brought into relationship with others – how might you see God in those sacred bonds? Thanks be to God for the beautiful messiness of the community we share. Amen.