A sermon for the Eighteenth Sunday After Pentecost, Sunday September 26
I come to you in the name of one God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Jesus continues to teach us today about stripping away the things that are unnecessary to faith.
We have this interesting interaction between the disciples and Jesus, sharing an incident that they have encountered along the way:
John said to Jesus, “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.”
“Whoever is not against us is for us.”
This is a radical shaking of the hierarchical understanding of authority within the received tradition of faith that the disciples know as faithful Jews, that Jesus deeply knows as a respected, followed teacher within this Jewish tradition.
It still shakes the foundations of our own hierarchical understanding of authority within the received Christian tradition of faith that we practice to this day.
It challenges what it actually means to be a follower of Jesus, and does one need to be a direct follower, a part of the inner circle if you will, in order to heal, in order to give a cup of water.
Jesus seems to be saying here: no.
No, because doing my work, in my name, changes a person from within. It changes the fabric of their being. It connects them to their neighbor. It connects them to God. It connects them to me, in such a way that they will not be able to speak evil of me.
So, do not stop him.
What he is doing is not harmful because it is about love through following the path of Jesus.
One need not be a member of the closest inner circle to reach out to their neighbor, to love their neighbor, to heal their neighbor.
This is further expanded upon through the teachings of Christ that make it clear that the work that is before us as followers of Christ is not reserved for a hierarchical elite that are the keepers of the faith. Instead, we all gain access to a relationship with God through Christ, and in that access, we all receive the same call to follow Christ, to seek and serve Christ in each and every person, to love our neighbor as ourself, to do everything in our power to heal our neighbor, casting out demons, in the name of Christ.
The blending of the Christian faith with American Nationalism that has created the heresy of Christian Nationalism has certainly muddled this understanding of “Whoever is not against us is for us.”
Evangelical, fundamental, charismatic churches have historically had a tenuous relationship at best with Mainline Protestantism, which has been continually strained through the emergence of a progressive understanding of theology on one side, most radically seen in the ordination of Women, LGBTQ+ peoples, and the right to marry for LGBTQ+ peoples, and the embrace of an identity that is very closely tied with a sense of American, specifically White American, elitism and patriotism on the other side.
This pulling apart within Christian denominations finds us against us.
And this is hard to reconcile, because even though we do not follow Christ in the same way, we should be able to live into this pretty clear understanding that “Whoever is not against us is for us.” We should by definition be for us, because we theoretically are working towards the same goal: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.”
So, we ask the hard question: what has led us to be against us and not for us?
The root of what keeps us separated from the wider Christian family is not our theological differences. They may keep us separated on Sunday mornings, but they, in and of themselves, should not be enough to pit us against us.
What separates us, what pits us against us, is the inability to see that we are clinging to those things that cause us to stumble.
We are clinging to our pride.
We are clinging to our understanding of the “right way.”
We are clinging to our understanding of how a follower of Christ “should” act.
We are stumbling because we fail to see our sibling in Christ.
We are stumbling because we carry deep wounds from the harm caused against us, against our siblings in Christ who would now never again darken the doorways of a church, legitimately terrified of the horrors that may be within because of the horrors they have experienced.
How do we come back from this?
How do we heal?
How do we come back to knowing that “Whoever is not against us is for us”?
“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 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.”
“It would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea.”
“Cut it off”
“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.”
This is a radical line drawn in the sand, and yet, it is so simple.
Does it cause you to stumble, then cut it off, remove it, let it go, separate it from your personhood, because it is better to lose that piece of you and enter into the kingdom of God, then to be “whole” and thrown into hell.
I’ve said to a number of folks, especially people in this church, that I firmly believe that the Episcopal Church is really the expression of Christianity that is needed, right now, in this world. Not because we have everything figured out. Not because our theology is perfect. Not because we agree and have all of the answers on everything.
The Episcopal Church is the expression of Christianity that is needed, right now, in this world, because we are the church of triage, the church of healing, the church of cutting off or tearing out, knowing and owning that we come to this place broken and seeking the wholeness that can only come from Jesus Christ, that can only come from entry into the kingdom of God.
We come to this place in the company of our neighbor, who we love, our neighbor who we disagree with, our neighbor who we will never see eye-to-eye with, our neighbor who will challenge us to see a different side of the world, our neighbor who will bring to light the reality of other neighbors we would prefer to ignore, our neighbor who is a radical lefitst communist, our neighbor who is a staunch deplorable conservative, our neighbor who needs no label because we try our best to ignore their very presence, we all come together in this place, at this table, to drop all of that pretense and acknowledge that as followers of Christ, “Whoever is not against us is for us,” and it is in THAT reality that we meet Jesus on the way today, that we embrace one another as followers of the way of Christ, that we strip away everything that causes us to stumble, and simply be in this space to seek healing, to seek solace, to seek relationship, to seek love.
As, I conclude today, I want to leave all of us with a question to ponder: if this is true today, if the Episcopal Church, if St. Stephen’s in Longview, can be this place for me, then why wouldn’t I share that radical love with every. single. person. I meet in our community? Why wouldn’t I invite them to join me in finding that radical love next Sunday? What does my life, our community, look like, if I extend that invitation?