Gospel lesson and Pastor Richard Pokora’s sermon from Sunday, September 26, 2021
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and His Son our Lord Jesus Christ.
In his Spiritual Autobiography, William Barclay – the great British theologian and Bible teacher – tells of a great personal tragedy. His twenty-one-year-old daughter and her fiancé were both drowned in a boating accident. Many months later he received an anonymous letter that said: Dear Dr. Barclay, I know now why God killed your daughter; it was to save her from corruption by your heresies. Barclay tells us that, if he had an address, he would have written to that individual, not in anger, but in pity, telling his mean-spirited correspondent … your god is the god I don’t believe in!
In our Gospel lesson for today is a reading that never appears on anyone’s list of favorite Scripture lessons. Jesus’ words about millstones around the neck, plucking out an eye, and other forms of self-mutilation are not the summary of the Gospel that we would share with someone who was expressing a first interest in Christianity.
As we read these extreme words from Jesus, we need to remember that Our Lord was running out of time. These were, in effect, Jesus’ last words to his disciples in their native territory around the Galilean Sea. Very soon he will begin his journey south toward Jerusalem and all that would await him there. Jesus is trying to impress upon his disciples – and upon us – that the way we live our lives does matter. We do not need to earn our salvation, that is a gift from God, but we need to live as the blessed of God, and we need to point people toward Jesus through our words and our deeds.
I do not believe that Jesus wants us to take him literally when he talks about gouging out an eye or cutting off a hand, but I think he wants us to take him seriously. We certainly are obsessed with physical appearance – maintaining good health, eating the right things, and getting exercise. Jesus wants us to remember that the spiritual dimension of our life is just as important as the physical.
What is more, our uniqueness as Jesus’ disciples is rooted neither in the grandeur of our confession of faith, nor in our understanding of his teaching, nor in the glory of our worship, but rather in our identity as disciples of Jesus Christ, who have been called to serve and to welcome others … particularly the least of Jesus’ brothers and sisters.
Again and again, Jesus is clear that, as members of the Church on earth, we need to see our role as the congenial host or hostess at a great dinner party. Jesus wants no bouncers at the door of this party .. no strict adherence to someone else’s guest list .. but rather he wants all people welcomed and enfolded into the society. He has harsh words for those who would seek to create limits or barriers, separating those he calls .. these little ones who believe in me [Mark 9: 42].
Think of that the next time you hear someone with a churchly voice condemn a particular group or category of people because of their lifestyle, their race, their religion, or anything that makes them different from us. Beware of those who claim to know the mind of God and feel justified in discriminatory attitudes.
Our Gospel lesson is a powerful call for tolerance and the reservation of judgment. You’ll remember some of the disciples were upset that they found a person casting out demons [Mark 9: 38] in Jesus name. They wanted a restraining order against this unlicensed exorcist, but Jesus demonstrated a delightful forbearance toward this stranger who was doing good in Jesus’ name. Whoever is not against us, our Lord stated, is for us.
How much we need to reflect on this wisdom at a time when so many in the name of Christianity would set up standards that exclude people. That is why I have a personal passion to see the Church be about the work of mission … calling people into a life-transforming relationship with Jesus Christ. My greatest fear is that we will somehow disregard our purpose, forget the Great Commission, and slowly be transformed into an ecclesial social club with member privileges!
This is a danger for any congregation but I think it is particularly a challenge for All Saints Lutheran Church/ Peace. We have a glorious tradition and we worship in a beautiful place. But we are more than an historical society or a preservation trust. We address these issues, but we are first and foremost a Christian congregation. If we ever lose sight of that we will be dreadfully lost and confused unto death.
Your god is the god I don’t believe in! These wonderful words from William Barclay are a challenge to us as we deal with the powerful teachings in our Gospel lesson where ..Jesus extols an irregular healer who is accomplishing wonderful things, even if the disciples begrudge him any praise or recognition, Jesus sees great merit in the simple act of offering water to a thirsty person, something that has nothing to do with church member-ship or orthodox doctrine, but everything to do with kindness and compassion.
Jesus stresses the holy obligation of protecting the vulnerable by once again using the example of a child, reminding us that there is nothing more terrible than the abuse or neglect of a child, and finally, Our Lord concludes his teaching with those extreme statements that insist participation in the Kingdom of God is worth any sacrifice or discipline we might assume. But at the end of the day we must understand that only in obedience to God’s will can we truly know that joy and peace, which passes all human understanding.
So who is on the Lord’s side? Hopefully, we are all on the Lord’s side .. but we are not alone. The Christian church encompasses a world of Christian communities.
To put it most simply in our baptisms we have been called to begin a sacred journey. We have not arrived, nor are we expected to earn our salvation through our mighty deeds and accomplishments. But we are on the Lord’s side and the Spirit of the Living God is leading us. So let us press on in faith and confidence … not knowing everything .. but knowing Jesus, who has promised to lead us in the path we are going, will be with us. Amen
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.