“What’s Stopping You?;” James 5:13-20 & Mark 9:38-50; September 30, 2012; FPC Jesup

“What’s Stopping You?”
James 5:13-20 and Mark 9:38-50
September 30, 2012, First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

There’s this great home video my family has of my sister and I dancing together when we were little. She’s around three and a half years old or so and I’m just about two. This picture is from a few years later, but gives you a bit of an idea about how my sister and I enjoyed dancing. In the video we were probably dancing to the Bangles’ “Walk Like an Egyptian,” a favorite of ours at the time. I’m sort of moving every which way and she is running around in circles. She stops me and says, “you’re not doing it right… like this!” And I happily follow her, running around in the same direction that she’s been running in.

This is the image that comes to mind for me when I read our passage in Mark. The disciples had a great idea of how to follow Christ. My sister had a great idea of how we should be dancing. And then here comes someone else that’s just not doing it right.

The disciples have been walking with Jesus since the beginning of His ministry. If anyone knows the right way to do things, it would be them, right?

When the new believers of this time began following Christ they were most often responding to an experience they had with Him. A healing they had witnessed, a transformation they had encountered, a sermon that spoke truth to their very soul. Many of the gospel stories end with people believing and going off to share with others. Many of these conversions do not come with a lot of instructions on how to be a Christian, because that word didn’t exist yet. These people simply knew that this man named Jesus had come for the sake of each person. He preached an upside down, backwards is forwards revolutionary message of loving others that society would deem unlovable. And that was enough for many. They decided to follow Jesus, often giving up their own way of life, their families, and their possessions.

The disciples have been with Jesus from the start. They’re the veterans. Anyone who’s ever had a younger sibling or become an upperclassman has a bit of an idea of how these disciples felt. Sure they wanted to bring in new believers, expand the Kingdom of God, but did that have to be at the expense of losing the closeness of the original community surrounding Jesus? These people didn’t really get it in the same way. These people weren’t doing it right!

Our Mark passage today talks about stumbling blocks in faith. The word often translated as “put a stumbling block” in front of people or “cause to stumble,” is from the Greek verb skandalizein. This word and its English cognate, “scandalize,” carry a meaning closer to “causing one to be so horrified that they are no longer able to continue in the same direction they’ve been traveling.” This is much more severe than a simple stumble. This is a fall flat on your face and never come back sort of fall.
I know people who have had this sort of experience with church. When they needed a community of believers most in their lives they were called sinful, deemed unworthy, or even just ignored. To them, church is just a place where people will tell them that whatever they are doing, they’re doing it wrong. Being told you are dancing the wrong way when you are two is something that you can get past. Being told that you are an unworthy sinner by the very people you seek out for love can create wounds for a lifetime.

It is a genuine concern to desire for the church to speak not an easy truth, but an authentic witness. It is important for the church to acknowledge the history of those who have gone before. But when our desire for the way things have always been gets in the way of someone experiencing the love of Christ, we are that stumbling block, we are the scandalizing ones.

Sometimes we get so frustrated in the way that others present Christianity that we’d like to tell them, “you’re not doing it right,” and direct them in the way that they should go. I do believe that God calls us to cry out against injustice and anyone speaking a word of hate claiming it is in the name of God.

But, aside from acts of injustice or hatred, those who simply worship Jesus in a different way, are still our brothers and sisters in Christ and we should stand beside them. The image of the church in our community and our world needs to be one of love, not of division. As Christ says in our passage “anyone who is not against us is with us.”

This is a prophetic word for a world of political, social, and religious polarizing. We are told that there’s “them” and there’s “us.” And if you’re not an “us,” then you’re a “them.”

The disciples, too, felt this desire for categories. These new followers were the “them,” the disciples were the “us.” How could the disciples sit idly by while they professed to be driving out demons in the name of Christ?

Listen carefully to the words again: “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” They weren’t stopping this man who was doing work in the name of Jesus because he wasn’t doing good work or because he wasn’t doing the work of God, they came because he was not following “us.” He was not one of the in-crowd of disciples. There also may have been a bit of jealousy involved in the disciples’ disapproval of this man.

Earlier in Mark chapter nine we read of another incident, where scribes were arguing with the disciples.  Here’s how Mark tells the story: [Jesus] asked them, “What are you arguing about with them?”  Someone from the crowd answered him, “Teacher, I brought you my son; he has a spirit that makes him unable to speak;  and whenever it seizes him, it dashes him down; and he foams and grinds his teeth and becomes rigid; and I asked your disciples to cast it out, but they could not do so.” [Mk. 9:16-18]

A few verses later, when the crowd is gone and the disciples are alone with Jesus, they ask him about their failure and Jesus gives them an answer. When he had entered the house, his disciples asked him privately, “Why could we not cast it out?”  He said to them, “This kind can come out only through prayer.” [Mk. 9:28-29]

So when they are angry with this nameless disciple for casting out demons in the name of Christ they’re not just angry because it might’ve been “unauthorized.” They’re angry because this had been done by a man who wasn’t even a part of the original disciples. Their complaint is based solely on their desire to have exclusive rights to bringing the good news of Jesus Christ to the world.  And even more frustrating, the disciples were not even successful in stopping this man!  “We tried to stop him,” they say to Jesus.  The work of God went on in spite of the disciple’s interference.

“Jesus said, ‘Do not stop [them]; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward 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.’”

Jesus wants to work through this nameless follower, as misguided as the disciples thinks he may be. This is important to keep in mind on several levels. If we seek to do the will of Christ in this world, Christ will work through our efforts. If we invoke the name of Christ in blessing, Christ will indeed bless. When I endeavor to speak Christ’s truth from this pulpit, Christ will be the One to impart truth.

Jesus continues on in his lesson to the disciples, almost in the same way I can imagine a parent talking to a child when a new sibling is introduced to the family or the way upperclassmen may need to be lectured against bullying new students. This is a “don’t mess with the little guy,” type of talk.

Jesus says, “If any of you [scandalize] 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.”

Wow. That seems quite threatening coming from the “Prince of Peace.” Surely as Christ desires peace, Christ desires the strength of the Kingdom even more so. Though the text of this passage seems like a call for physical violence and self harm, we can think of this more in the context of the church as the body of Christ. Separating from those causing harm to the church is like separating out a body part, painful, but necessary if it will allow you to survive. And so, even these very essential, very involved disciples may need to be separated out of the body of Christ if they are causing harm to other believers.

When I first began working on this sermon, I gave it the title, “what’s stopping you?” but these verses also point to perhaps a better question, “who are you stopping?” We are called to be the body of Christ in this world. God’s own hands and feet in this community. We are called to speak the love of Christ louder than we speak of division and politics. We are called to affirm Christ’s claim on each and every life. We are called to empower others to do Christ’s work in this world.

Our passage in James today gives us instructions on how we are to care for one another it says, “Are any among you suffering? They should pray. Are any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise. Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord.”

In all occasions we are called to pray for one another, for as James tells us, “The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective.”

So who are those that you are called to pray for today? Who are the “suffering?” Who are the “sick?” What is stopping you from praying for them? I would say the first step in knowing who to pray for, is acknowledging those around you. Like in the book we read in the children’s message today, the important time do to things is now, the most important ones are the ones around us, and the more important thing to do is good for those around us. God has called you into this life you are living and desires to work in and through you. This is a work that can only be done when we live lives steeped in prayer. The Kingdom can only be built when we open our doors and our lives to those who we might not recognize as the in-crowd. For Christ came not only for “us,” but for “them” as well. Amen.

“Out of Order,” Mark 9:30-37, September 23, 2012, FPC Jesup

“Out of Order”
Mark 9:30-37
September 23, 2012, First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

Have you ever been waiting in line for something, and then someone cuts in front of you? What is your reaction? It likely depends on what you’re waiting for, where you are in the line, and how long you’ve been waiting. On a good day, perhaps you’ll just assume they must have some important reason they need to get ahead, maybe you’ll make a comment to those around you, but it really doesn’t bother you too much. But on a bad day, this seems like a great injustice and you might decide to confront the person cutting in line by saying something about fairness and manners and explaining how long you’ve been in line.

Friday was an international day of line waiting: it was the day the new iPhone 5 came out. There are websites dedicated to telling people how best to wait in line for an Apple product. They talk about strategies of finding delis that will deliver to you in line, figuring out the weather reports, deciding how long your particular location will require you to wait.  At the Apple flagship store in New York City, people camped out for four days, waiting to get the new iPhone.

In our culture there is a shared understanding of how a line works. Those who get there first, are first in line. Those who arrive last are last in line. Anyone who disturbs this pattern incurs the wrath of all the fellow line dwellers, and in the case of such an intense line like those awaiting Apple products, they might also be dealt with by Apple employees or security officers. Can you imagine the chaos that would take place if someone walked up, moments before those Apple store doors opened in New York City, and cut in front of someone who had been waiting for several days. Surely it would not be tolerated. What if the person managing the line had just read our New Testament passage today and decided, “the first should be last, and the last should be first.” Can you imagine what sort of reaction that would receive? I would be afraid for that person’s life.

This desire for fairness and order is familiar to the disciples in our New Testament passage today. These are the people who have been beside Jesus throughout his ministry. They’ve been in charge of crowd management, loaves and fish distribution, and likely figuring out the logistics of where this band of travelers would stay each night they were out on the road. In the line of proximity to Jesus, they were the very first. So surely they would be considered the greatest of Jesus’ followers. Right?

Jesus has no patience for queues, no desire for hierarchy. Our New Testament passage today shows a conversation between Jesus and his disciples. Right before this conversation Jesus had been teaching his disciples that he would die and then rise again after three days. The disciples didn’t understand what that meant and were afraid to ask. They travel on and as they are traveling they break into an argument. When they arrive in Capernaum, Jesus asks what their argument was about. They don’t respond. I imagine them standing there sheepishly, perhaps shrugging and kicking the ground at their feet. Our text tells us on the way they had argued with one another about who was the greatest. Jesus knows this already and sets about showing the pointlessness of this argument.

 I can imagine Jesus shaking his head in frustration because we are told that Jesus was about to die for our sins. Jesus was about to make all equal, turn the world upside down, and the very people who were supposed to be the ones helping to build this new Kingdom, were busy arguing about who among them was greater. They were arguing about who was the best. Jesus didn’t care about the best. In fact, he gathers the disciples together and tells 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.”

I think I have an idea of why in the midst of this argumentative group, Jesus would bring a child into the conversation. Children have a way of shifting the focus. A few months ago I went to the zoo with some family, including my cousin’s son, Anders, who was two and a half at the time. While we adults were walking relatively methodically from one exhibit to the next, Anders would look at one exhibit, see what he wanted to see, and then see something somewhere else point excitedly and run towards it. We kept trying to ask him what his favorite animal was, but his mom, my cousin’s wife told us, “he doesn’t really understand ‘favorite’ yet.”

When we were experiencing the zoo through adult eyes, we thought in terms of order and preference. Anders thought in terms of delight. He didn’t have a favorite, and actually, seemed as equally content to check out the construction equipment working on an animal habitat as the animals themselves. I think Anders has a pretty good idea of what the Kingdom of God looks like.

When our passage tells us to welcome children into the church, we are also welcoming this sort of energy and even this sort of disregard for the order we would like to place on things.

Jesus’ command to welcome children is not a purely literal statement. We are also to consider the metaphorical implications in our time. Children in the first century world were regarded as not having any status. With low life expectancy for infants and no marketable skills, children were not considered full people until they could somehow profit that community. While these days we make special effort for Sunday school classes, W.O.W., and conformation, the kids of Jesus’ time were not given the same consideration. They simply didn’t count. This is why in some familiar narratives such as the feeding of the five thousand, we are told how many men were present, but then we are told “not including women and children.” That phrase has always bothered me.  “Not including women and children.”  But it also makes me think of those stories hiding just under the surface in those texts. Of those people who are working their way into a community that doesn’t even count them in their numbers. Who are the people in our world that are simply “not included”? Who are the people who are determined “unprofitable,” by worldly standards? These are the people that Christ calls us to welcome.

When we’ve been lined up in the queue of people who show up each Sunday, engage in daily prayer, and seek God’s truth in scripture, it might be easy to feel like we deserve more of God, more of a personal relationship, more of salvation. The reality is there is nothing we can do to be more of a Christian or to earn more proximity to Christ. This is a lesson that Jesus’ disciples had to learn over and over again.

Matthew 20:20-28 gives us another account of the disciple’s desire for preferential treatment:

“The mother of the sons of Zebedee came up to [Jesus] with her sons, and kneeling before him she asked him for something. And he said to her, “What do you want?” She said to him, “Say that these two sons of mine are to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom.” Jesus answered, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I am to drink?” They said to him, “We are able.” He said to them, “You will drink my cup, but to sit at my right hand and at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared by my Father.” And when the ten heard it, they were indignant at the two brothers. But Jesus called them to him and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

Jesus will not grant passes to the front of the line, not even for his disciples who were arguably most faithful. While the Gentiles use their sense of hierarchy to manipulate the people into obedience, Jesus refuses to work that way. He tells them that only God grants greatness, and greatness only comes through humility and service. The very act of asking for a space beside Jesus in the Kingdom is an act of arrogance that displaces them from God given greatness.

Everyone who was lined up on Friday to buy an iPhone will get one. Surely some farther back in the line missed those that were in stock and had to order one for another day, but eventually, they will get one. And it will be the same product that that very first person in line received. It’s all the same product.

Though a personal relationship with God is infinitely more important than an iPhone (even if some in our culture might think otherwise), it is true that a personal relationship with God is accessible to all. Unlike an iPhone, this personal relationship cannot be sought by waiting in line, or by paying someone else to wait for you. Whether you have been a Christian your entire life or just for a few days, you are still privy to the same grace.

This Friday not all people were in line just to get themselves an iPhone, some were using the iPhone lines as an opportunity for profit. It’s estimated that at least 200 people in line in New York City were paid to hold a spot in line for someone else.[1] In Sydney, Australia the first twenty people in line were actually people paid to wear t-shirts advertising for various businesses.

Others used these lines as an opportunity to raise support and awareness. In London, a man had one of the front seats for sale in order to raise money for cancer research. In Sydney another line formed next to that of the Apple store, calling themselves a “mock queue.” This line was a “food line,” to draw awareness to how many people in the world are waiting not for technology, but for food. Here we can see a man with a sign that reads, “What does desperation really look like? Show your support and join the mock food queue.”[2]

Being close to Jesus Christ, won’t make you receive more grace, but it does open up opportunities for you to bring others to Christ. Jesus tells us, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all… Whoever welcomes [a] child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

How do you use your place to welcome others to Christ? Who will you place in front of yourself in this “line”? May we not be so concerned with our own order or place, but concern ourselves with the uplifting of all people. Amen.