The close but open circle of Jesus
SERMON PREACHED SEPTEMBER 26, 2021 AT CHRIST CHURCH NEW BERN
PROPER 21, YEAR B
THE REV. MARGARET POLLOCK
In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
John said to Jesus “Teacher, we saw a man casting out demons in your name, and we forbade him, because he was not following us.”
In the Markan text just before this one, some of which you may remember from last week, three things happen that shed light on today’s passage.
First, as they passed through Galilee, the disciples tried to heal a boy suffering from seizures. But they were unable -- according to Jesus because their prayer was not strong enough.
Second, Jesus told the disciples that he would be “delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill him; and when he is killed, after three days he will rise. But they did not understand the saying, and were afraid to ask him.”
Third, when the group arrived at the house in Capernaum, Jesus asked what the disciples had been arguing about. “But they were silent, for on the way they had discussed with one another who was the greatest.”
Overall, when we meet the disciples today, we see them shifting loyalty towards themselves, and being unwilling to talk with Jesus about important matters. They refuse to understand that their life with the great Teacher will come to an end, and their main concern becomes working out a power structure within their group. This attitude dilutes their ability to do the work Jesus has set before them – their ministry of healing is floundering.
Now they take umbrage because a stranger is successfully doing their ministry – casting out demons – and doing this without their permission, if you please. The disciples cared to protect their own status, you see. Though they were Jesus followers, it didn’t bother them that the man failed to follow Jesus. They were offended because the man wasn’t following them.
The disciples have been with Jesus long enough to build up a remarkable story. They have left home, family and livelihood to travel around the countryside, the towns and villages of Galilee with this unique man.
He possesses a strange charisma that binds the twelve to him like gleaming strands of silk. He teaches with authority, and opens their eyes to new understandings of the scriptures that brim with Godly love. Fundamentally, Jesus spends three years preaching and teaching the Kingdom of God in heaven and on earth – and this kingdom drives nothing less than a social revolution, in which the first shall be last, and the last shall be first.
The disciples understand this only vaguely, and strain to open their minds and spirits to the revolutionary notion. They envision, what? A school in which Jesus is the teacher and they are his favorites. They have the heady experience of helping to bring in the Kingdom by breaking the rules of nature and healing with the power of God. This story is their treasure. And wherever there is treasure, power -- and the quest for it -- lies not far off.
In their minds, this story sets them apart from the world outside the Jesus circle. Worse, the circle places them not just apart, but above anyone else.
This behavior, creating conflicting “us” and “them” groups, is only too human. American civic life just now is rife with competing stories of groups that vie for pride of place, power and influence. George Packer has an article in the July/August issue of The Atlantic, which is a trenchant analysis of just this phenomenon. From the confusing mash of our national life, he distills four stories that distinguish different civic identities – circles, if you will. He calls them the “four Americas.”
Significantly, each of the Americas possesses a story, identifiably different from the others yet linked by our common heritage. He says that all four of the narratives “emerged from America’s failure to sustain and enlarge the middle-class democracy of the postwar years. They all respond to real problems. Each offers a value that the others need and lacks ones that the others have.” Yet they “are also driven by a competition for status that generates fierce anxiety and resentment. They all anoint winners and losers.”
Can you hear in this echoes of the disciples’ competition for status, and boasting of their unique story as the twelve followers of Jesus, a closed circle ranking above all others? What was Jesus’ response to their holier-than-thou behavior? What would be his response to the constant tussling for status and power -- closed circles -- in America today?
First, Jesus breaks open the closed circle. “Do not forbid [the man from healing] ... for no one who does a mighty work in my name will be able soon after to speak evil of me.” That is, let anyone who feels drawn to minister in Jesus’ name do so – and don’t you dare get in the way of this holy work of mercy and justice and love!
Because: “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him if a great millstone were hung round his neck and he were thrown into the sea.” One of these little ones, one of these inconsequential guys tagging along with us, contrasts with the concern of the twelve as to which of them is greatest.
Not only that but “causes to sin” translates directly from the Greek as “scandalize.” And scandalize, in Mark, means to reject the Kingdom of God. Further, millstones were so large that it took a donkey to turn them. So what we have is Jesus telling the disciples that it would be better for them to die – be drowned -- than to interfere with an anonymous, “unauthorized” person doing the work of the Kingdom. The closed circle must be broken open.
Then, Jesus warns that conflict within the circle and arrogance toward those outside has caused them – once priceless salt for the Kingdom of God – to lose their savor.
Every Friday I drive down to Swansboro to join a circle of knitters. And, yes, the circle is open to outsiders. Not only that, but the name of the yarn shop is The Salty Sheep! That, of course, is because of Swansboro’s proximity to the salty ocean.
Here the nature of salt is worth pondering – both for The Salty Sheep and for the disciples. According to Wikipedia, “salt is essential for life in general, and saltiness is one of the basic human tastes. Salt is one of the oldest and most ubiquitous food seasonings, and salting is an important method of food preservation.”
Speaking to the twelve, Jesus says, “Salt is good; but if the salt has lost its saltiness, how will you season it? Have salt in yourselves and be at peace with one another.” He admonishes them to recover the peace that they had lost by jockeying for power, in order to regain their saltiness, their treasured role in the Kingdom.
At Christ Church, we have circles, and all are open. Think of the choir, the vestry, Growing in Grace, Bible study, the pumpkin patch. The language of faith, the language of the Kingdom of God is in use, and we can envision our work and relationships through that language.
Many of us are also placed in secular circles – civic or social – and, in the world, there is secular language. The words and concepts are often translated through social media and journalism. Some of this translation is clarifying, some is not. But overtly Christian language is foreign in worldly settings. How, then, can we carry out our desire to break open rigid circles – do the work of the Kingdom – when God-language is alien? There are ways. We can speak of good and bad, or even good and evil. We can speak of truth and untruth. We can speak of kindness, justice and mercy. These Godly notions need no translation. And we, ourselves, can be instruments of peace.
Above all, despite the disciples quarreling, we Christians have a powerful overarching story, which defines our fully open circle. It is the story of the Kingdom of God, which is already here, brought in by the loving power of Jesus Christ as he walked on the earth. Yet the fullness of the Kingdom is not completely realized: this will happen when Christ returns in glory. Even so, the Kingdom is available for us – and every person -- to live in now. When we love as God loves, we live in the Kingdom. And this happens when we relive the wonderful old story and step into the holy circle at each Eucharist, as we refresh our saltiness – and taste and see the goodness of the Lord.
THANKS BE TO GOD.