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Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost - September 30, 2012

One of the communities I belong to is the Nova Lights Chorale. It is a non-auditioned group that sings two major concerts a year. Because it is non-auditioned, the only requirement is that you like to sing. Some of us are better singers than others. Some read music, and some do not. Some practice their music and some do not. There are sopranos, altos, tenors (including women) and basses. There are men and women. I like being in the group because I don’t have the pressure of preparing for an audition or risking potential rejection if the audition fails.

John and the other disciples are having problems because an exorcist who is not one of them is casting out demons using Jesus’ name. We don’t know anything about him. We don’t know if he believes or not. We don’t know if he even wants to believe. All we know is that he is using the power of Jesus’ name, and his exorcisms are working. It is ironic that the disciples are concerned about a rogue exorcist – perhaps they are jealous because they have failed to cast a demon out of a boy just recently and Jesus rebuked them severely.

John is concerned with the identity of the community. He and the other eleven disciples were called to be part of Jesus’ intimate circle. There are other followers by now too, even though Jesus has given some hard lessons on discipleship, but this man is not “one of us”. He is out of their control and he does not follow. They tried to stop him but they could not. What are they going to do to preserve the integrity of the community?

Jesus is not concerned about the exorcist. The disciples tend to want to be exclusive, while Jesus’ go-to value is inclusiveness. He has a big box and the disciples have a much smaller one that they have trouble thinking outside of. To Jesus, this man is doing good deeds in his name. Only God could have made that possible, and God’s action is good enough for Jesus. He tells the disciples not to stop the man. The doing of the deeds is transformative, Jesus says. No one who does a deed of power in his name will be able to speak ill of him because the Holy Spirit will have entered and occupied the person. So the rogue exorcist is in the box after all. He needs no audition. He does not have to be personally called by Jesus. Because he is not against them, he is for them, and Jesus wants all the friends he can get because he wants to spread the word about the kingdom to as many as possible. The disciples are concerned with defining the community narrowly and Jesus tells them that the definition of his community is much broader than they think. Others who are part of the community that will earn the reward are people, not necessarily disciples either, that serve the disciples because they bear Christ’s name. Even a small act of giving a cup of cold water will not go unrewarded. 

The disciples have been looking outside at others to define the boundaries of their community, but Jesus advises them to look at their own roles in the community of faith. He is very concerned about the little ones. We don’t know if he means children, since he has talked about welcoming children as welcoming him and God, or if he means new converts to the faith, who are particularly vulnerable. The disciples have a responsibility to live up to because they have been the closest to Jesus and know his teachings the best. It is they who must provide leadership in the community after he has ascended. It is they who must protect and instruct the new converts. It is a very serious offense to put a stumbling block in front of one of these little ones, he says. The Greek word for this term stumbling block is where we get our word for scandal, and it means an offense so great that the person would have trouble following the way in which he was being led. It is better, Jesus says, to have a millstone hung about one’s neck and drown, than it would be to be responsible for putting an obstacle to the faith in someone’s way instead of showing them the way to faith in Jesus. 

Then Jesus makes dire statements about cutting off one’s hand or foot or plucking out one’s eye. If these body parts cause the disciples themselves to stumble (which would in turn make others stumble), it is important that they at once rid themselves of them so they will not end up in hell, where the worm never dies and the fire is never quenched. It is worth it to enter heaven maimed rather than be separated from God, the source of life. Jesus is using hyperbole to underline the seriousness with which the disciples must examine their own moral character and not focus on others. He is adamant that they follow his example. The disciples are also encouraged to look toward the saltiness within themselves. They are seasoned with the Holy Spirit and they should maintain their identity as Christian community and not lose their saltiness by fading into the dominant culture. If they are not counter-cultural, they cannot affect the world by preaching the kingdom and showing people how to act differently. Finally, they are to stop arguing about who is the greatest – and any other arguments they are having – and be at peace with one another. 

Jesus has discussed the proper way to look at boundaries in the Christian community and the great importance of self-examination to make sure one is acting as a disciple. Being at peace is important. Keeping one’s identity as Christian is important. James talks to us about the importance of prayer in the Christian community. Part of his lecture about the tongue and what is bad speech and good speech, he wants the community to know that prayer is good speech and not only good speech but necessary to keep the community together and following the paths of healing and forgiveness, both important Christian values.

Prayer for oneself is appropriate when suffering. When someone is ill, the elders of the church should be called and asked to pray over the person. The elders will anoint them with oil in God’s name, and the prayer of faith will save the sick. But James is aware that this does not always happen. Healing prayer is a gift of God, and the Lord will raise up those whom God chooses. It is really important here to know that healing is not about how hard you pray or how righteous you are. Often healing is not about cure, but about acceptance of the situation the way it is. Physical healings occurred more often in Jesus’ time, and there are many recorded instances of Christians healing people in Jesus’ name, but much less in our time. Our healing is often emotional and spiritual. Sometimes healing of the body is connected with sin, and sins are forgiven with prayer. The community is to confess to one another and pray for one another for forgiveness and healing as well. It is also very important to bring back sinners from wandering so that the person’s soul may be saved. A Christian community should make healing and forgiveness a priority. 

Christian communities today need to emulate the examples given us in the lessons this morning. First our boundaries must be wide. One adage in evangelism circles that churches frequently say about themselves that they are friendly people, but most often this means they are a community of friends. There is nothing wrong with being a community of friends, but we have to make sure we leave the door wide open for others to join us. We need to welcome those who are not like us with no audition required. It is also important that we welcome people of other faiths or of no faith into our hearts and lives. All of us are God’s children. Who knows what God is doing in someone’s life? Who knows what deeds of power they might be performing in God’s name or by God’s grace?

We must also be a community of self-examination. It is important that we provide an example to others of Christian values, rather than raising barriers to those who do not know Jesus by acting in a non-loving, non-accepting manner.

Finally, our communities must be places of prayer, where healing and forgiveness occur. Jesus came to show us that God is a loving and accepting God, and he calls us to emulate that behavior with our neighbors. We are not to be stumbling blocks to others, but issue invitations to others to come and join our community. Our lives must be centered in prayer, so that we can accomplish with God’s grace what God wants us to do and spread the kingdom of God in the world.

AMEN.

     - Rev. Ann Barker