Text: Mark 9:38-50
Rev. Julie Emery
A sermon preached at the Larchmont Avenue Church
September 27, 2009
John said to him, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” But Jesus said, “Do not stop him; 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.”
“If any of you put a stumbling block before 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 you 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, were their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched.”
“For everyone will be salted with fire. Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.”
These past few Saturdays have been just spectacular, haven’t they? I can’t think of a better start to a football season. It has been a few years since I have felt confident enough to bring up football in a sermon, since my alma mater has been struggling through what my husband has assured me was one or two “transition years.” And in our house there is no football like college football. Now, I recognize that I have moved into territory where Professional football attracts the main attention and affection, but as a mid-westerner, Big Ten Football is the main attraction.
It was not coincidence that I landed at the University of Michigan, as both my parents matriculated there both as undergraduates as well as for nursing and medical school, as did my two brothers. As I looked at different options for my college career, but Michigan seemed to be inevitable.
I will point out that with my family history there were certain schools that were not within the realm of possibility: Ohio State, of course, and Michigan State as a close second. As I look back I realize the thought of attending either of those two schools did not even occur to me. While I know people who have rebelled against a family affiliation with a team, I find it rare. Such is the way of Big Ten football.
We call marriages between Ohio State and University of Michigan “interfaith marriages.” One woman I know who graduated from Michigan and was the mother of three boys, two of whom attended U of M liked to say: if her sons met a girl who went to Michigan State, we could deal – Ohio State: we’d have a problem.
In football, hockey or baseball – it is fun to choose sides. Part of the game is to root for our team, to wear our hats and sweatshirts, some of which say things like: “I’m for whoever is playing against Ohio State…or the Red Sox” for that matter. It is part of the game. It is in our nature to affiliate, to band together with one another against a common opponent. It is who we are as human beings.
“Whoever is not against us is for us.”
It isn’t surprising, then, when those rivalries carry over into the other spheres of our lives – into politics and entertainment. Why would it surprise us that when Joe Wilson called out “You Lie” during Obama’s address to congress he would start a snowball that continues to gather weight as folks accumulate against their common opponent? Perhaps the great desire for a middle ground, bipartisan effort in Washington was mere fairy tale. We move to rivalries like a moth to flame, after all.
Was it really that surprising that Kanye West would stand up at the MTV video awards, grabbing the microphone from Taylor Swift who won, and announce to everyone present and watching that he thought Beyonce was the rightful winner? Isn’t that what all those TV shows teach us – don’t rely on other people to judge… you can decide who is the best, whose side you want to be on, who gets to win.
In church life, we are not at all immune to rivalries. When new visitors come upon our church we find ourselves compelled by anxiety – wanting to make sure they choose LAC over St. John’s or some other church nearby. Sometimes membership can seem like building a team roster, trying to make sure our bench has the depth and breadth we need to cover our field of committees and boards. We look for the young and enduring, hoping to add them to our ranks and enlist them quickly to service. Do they have kids? Even better – add them to the Sunday school roster…
The disciples in our text today are a little like that. The irony is that just before today’s text the disciples have tried and failed to cast out a spirit from a young boy with convulsions. But today they come to Jesus saying, “we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.”
The disciples are used to an “us” and “them” world – so in that way their world is not much different than ours today. They were accustomed to being Jews in a Gentile country – aware always of the differences in how they eat, where they worship, how they bless their babies. And now that they have begun to follow Jesus, the person they believe is the Messiah, they are quick to affiliate, to band together, to draw the line between those in and those outside the circle.
We do this too, in the church, even if we try not to. We understand that there are many options for churches and we want ours to be the best. We want to make sure people know about our outreach or our great Sunday school programs. We want them to about our great youth programs and mission opportunities. We want to be more welcoming than the other churches, so we know they’ll come back. These aren’t bad reasons. We hope that our church is accessible and welcoming for all who come here.
But I wonder about what Jesus means when he says we must be salted with fire. What it means to be a salty Christian…? Jesus, to be sure, admonishes the disciples for being stumbling blocks – he advises them that if they put up walls that prevent themselves or others from faith – they are in for a terrible fate. What if it is the in-fighting, the ‘us’ and ‘them’ delineations, the ways in which we make our faith about clubs and affiliations – what if these are the stumbling blocks that Jesus is pointing to? What if we find ourselves distracted so much by membership growth and club affiliation that we have lost our saltiness?
In her book, Unbinding the Gospel, Martha Grace Reese talks about how so often churches slip into thinking so much about the church first: the building, the activities, the friends, the important life we’ve found there, the ministries we do. All this is good, she assures us. We know that these ministries can lead to faith in God. But too often we wait too long for the church part of the Christian life to lead up to the God part of faith. She asks this question: What difference does it make to your life that you are a Christian?
In asking that question for myself I realize it’s not so easy to come up with a quick answer. I believe that my faith has saved me, many times over, but it’s sometimes painful or complicated to say how. Answering that question would force me to say aloud things that I don’t necessarily want to admit. If I were to be truly honest about what difference it makes that I am a Christian I would have to admit that I have battled the hells of depression, or felt my marriage teetering on the brink of destruction. It would force me to say that I have had to remove myself from the presence of my children so I didn’t hit them, or that I know what it’s like to drink too much and too often.
I say all this now because in the past week I have had some terribly difficult conversations with friends and loved ones – and it seems like the world is falling apart around them. Divorces and addictions – lost pregnancies and lost careers. And for many I have heard in their voices and stories a fear of being loved and accepted for what they have done, especially by the church. And I wonder about how we the church have continued to keep up age old stumbling blocks because we have been afraid to talk about our faith.
It is our faith that flavors our lives, our faith in Christ that has brought us hope in the darkest times, our faith that has saved us from the depths. And each of us has been to the depths at some point or another. But if we go through them, and then never talk about them again, we fail each one of those who is going through them now – each one who needs to hear that there is a way through, each one who needs to hear that perhaps, just maybe your faith was that blaze that led you through the night.
It’s a wondrous thing to imagine: What would it be like if we didn’t choose sides, but instead had “salt in ourselves and were at peace with one another”? What would it be like if we didn’t compete with other churches but instead blessed and rejoiced for their ministries? What would it be like if everyone started doing good deeds in Jesus’ name, without fear of judgment or prevention? What would it be like if we all knew what difference it made that we were Christians, knew how to share our stories with each other? What would it be like for those who need our stories of hope and salvation? What would it be like for us – if we were salted with fire?