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Being Together

Listen to the recording of this sermon:

Mark 9:38-50

September 27, 2009

Sermon preached by Rev. Donald Ng at the First Chinese Baptist Church in San Francisco.

There was this important football game between two teams. One team was much larger than the other. The larger team was dominating the game and beating the smaller team. The coach of the smaller team saw that his team was not able to contain or block the larger team. So his only hope was to call the plays that went to Calhoun, the fastest back in the area, who could easily outrun the larger players once he broke free.

The coach talked with his quarterback about giving the ball to Calhoun and letting him run with it. The first play the coach was excited, but Calhoun did not get the ball. The second play was again signaled for Calhoun, but once again Calhoun did not get the ball. Now the game was in the final seconds with the smaller team’s only hope being for Calhoun to break free and score the winning touchdown. The third play and again Calhoun did not get the ball. The coach was very upset so he sent in the play again for the fourth and final play. The ball was snapped and the quarterback was sacked, ending the game. The coach was furious as he confronted the quarterback: “I told you four times to give the ball to Calhoun and now we’ve lost the game.”

The quarterback stood tall and told the coach, “Four times I called the play to give the ball to Calhoun. The problem was that Calhoun didn’t want the ball.” Being together on the field is one thing, but working together like wanting the football is a whole different matter. Calhoun didn’t want the ball.

Another Miracle Worker

In the lesson we read from Mark 9, we see that the disciples have become somewhat of a team. Earlier in the chapter, they tried to cast out a demon from a boy, but were unable to do so because they forgot one little detail—they forgot to pray first. They may have forgotten to pray because they were trying to outdo each other in demonstrating their skills as exorcists and praying just slipped their minds. We can’t be sure.

After this incident, the disciples quickly became embroiled in an argument over who is the greatest among them. This makes me wonder if they were unable to do a good thing for someone else like casting out demons because they were preoccupied with their own power and forgot to call upon the power of God.

It has never occurred to me in previous readings of this text just how bad John’s comment to Jesus is in 9:38 makes the disciples sound. “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not with us.” It is as if he was saying, “Well, if we couldn’t do it, we’re not going to stand by and let somebody else who isn’t even a disciple do it! That can only make us look bad. Never mind the peace and new lease on life the formerly tormented person may now enjoy. That’s not the point.”

The disciples are acting as if they not only know what is proper and allowable, but also as if they, themselves, have the authority to speak in Jesus’ name on these matters.

Ironically, Jesus tells them to leave the man alone. Ironically, he tells them that the exorcist who is not a follower may continue to use his name—while they, the disciples, his closest followers may not presume to do so.

Jesus said to John: “Don’t stop him. If he’s doing powerful works in my name, he’s much less likely to turn against me later on.”  It’s as if Jesus is saying, “Don’t you be worrying about the other person’s motivation, just worry about your own.” The power of God’s Son will work as it needs to work in each person.

Jesus’ name is powerful and influences those who speak it. It is transformative. Even speaking the name of Jesus, one might say, is a means of grace. Even magicians or rogue charlatans might be saved as they speak this powerful name and witness its real power to heal and deliver others. Jesus’ name is effective and carries virtue of new life.

Someone may do a deed of power, saying that it is “in the name of Jesus,” without really knowing what that means. But at some time in the future she may find out. Someone may give a disciple a cup of water to drink out of respect for the name of Jesus, without understanding how rewarding such an act may turn out to be. But at some time in the future, he may find out. When he does, when she does, be standing by to encourage and not to impede the work of Christ in the life of someone else.

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Black and White

Like members of the smaller size football team or Jesus’ disciples or members of this church, we are called to be together as a community. If Calhoun is to be a member of that football team, some time, he has to want the ball. Jesus told his disciples that they are not the only ones who can do God’s work; there may be others who also can work miracles.

This lesson from Mark tells us that it’s not as “black and white” as we would like things to be. There’s a New York City cookie that’s called a “black and white” because this fairly large sugar cookie is frosted one-half with chocolate frosting and the other half with vanilla frosting. It’s a “black and white.” The frostings don’t mix together.

Counselors who work with people and families with addictions, abuse, or other kinds of chaos in their lives often encounter this kind of thinking. For “black and white” thinkers—something is either one way or another—there’s little grey—or any other color in the spectrum. A minister is either wonderful or terrible. A teacher is good or bad. They, themselves, are perfect or disgraced.

Why would people retreat to this kind of thinking? Usually, it is a response to the chaos in the environment. Often, it is a way to try to control a situation that seems out of control. It’s a way to bring a sense of order and sanity. In “crazy” situations it’s much easier, and probably seems much safer, to throw a quick label on a person or make a quick “simple” decision, than to try to deal with the nuance of the fluid and changing realities of people and communities.

This seems to be what John was attempting. He obviously was anxious—and didn’t understand what was happening around Jesus—the crowds, the criticism, the miracles, the danger. He wanted to define something. And, a rogue exorcist probably seemed like an easy mark. “This guy is not one of us! Not good. Needs to be stopped!”

The situation probably seemed chaotic to Jesus also—over and over again in Mark, Jesus tells the disciples to stop talking about him—and he tries to escape from the crowds. But, Jesus didn’t regress to simple “black and white” thinking in this situation—he didn’t draw a tight circle around himself and his followers, and label others as enemies. Instead, Jesus says, “Whoever is not against us is for us.” If the world must be split into two—those for us and those against us—Jesus presumes that the circle of insiders is larger than strictly those who are his “followers.”

How can we tell if someone is for us? Someone who is for us does kindness to us in Christ’s name. How can you tell if someone is against us? Someone who is against us injures the innocent.

Stumbling Block

The second set of verses begins with picking up on the earlier teaching to welcome all who are like a little child in Mark 9:36. Jesus warns his disciples that no one should place a stumbling block, that is an obstacle, before “these little ones who believe” in Jesus. Jesus is emphasizing the importance of welcoming outsiders and the least powerful among humankind to follow him. It would be better to have a millstone flung around one’s neck and thrown in the sea to drown than to cause one of God’s children to stumble and fall in their search for salvation through Jesus Christ.

In other words, Jesus’ disciples ought not to think so highly of themselves that they get in the way of God’s ministry in Jesus Christ. Jesus wants the disciples to humble themselves and to get rid of their bad habits.

We today, like the earliest followers of Jesus, live in an us-and-them world. We are tempted to think that we are holier than others. Sometimes our attention span is short, and we forget the purpose of God’s ministry—grace toward all and welcoming others to live in God through Christ. We sometimes think of God’s ministry as our possession and resist sharing it with others.

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God, however, calls us to listen to Jesus’ teachings to stop being self-serving and start serving others. God in Christ calls us to enter God’s ministry by welcoming the least powerful of the powerless—children—outsiders.

If we still don’t understand, then Jesus puts it this way: If our primary distraction is grasping after material wealth, then we need to exercise spiritual discipline over our hands.

If our primary distraction is to walk only with the ‘in-crowd”, then we must exercise spiritual discipline over our feet, going wherever God sends us.

If our primary distraction is coveting every desirable thing we see then we need spiritual discipline over our eyes so we can focus on the things of God.

Jesus is not asking his followers to literally cut off a hand or a foot and pluck out an eye. The disciples knew that. The point is that to be followers of Jesus, we must exercise self-discipline required for ministry so that we do not interfere with God’s grace and purpose for anyone who loves God in Jesus Christ.

Being with Others

When I look outside our church building and honestly see the problems and challenges facing us, I am overwhelmed. We may have helped some newly arrived immigrants to learn enough English to get better jobs, but every month hundreds more are coming into Chinatown seeking a new life. We may have tried to feed the homeless or assist those who are out of luck, but more are without jobs and the city is offering less services.

I look beyond our beautiful city and think about the millions of people around the world with no health care at all or are starving because of famine and drought or those who are constantly taking cover from missiles and bullets and I feel hopeless. While I pray for peace and reconciliation, I can’t force world leaders to come to the peace table. While I try to recycle and stop using plastic bags that clog up our waterways, the world is still getting warmer.

All of these local and global challenges are systemic and long-termed problems that require sustained and life-long focus to even see an ounce of improvement. And for us to think that we can solve these problems by ourselves as Christians is naive and shortsighted. We need to work and cooperate and collaborate with all people who do kindness to others regardless of what their political, racial, cultural or religious persuasions might be.

Jesus told his disciples to don’t stop this person who was casting out demons and using his name. Even when this person was not one of his own disciples, Jesus believed that when this outsider does these mighty deeds and speaks out his name is not against them but is for them. This person is salty because salt is good to bring healing and peace among God’s people.

There’s a story of a spiritual leader who gathered a large group of people in a circle and told them to picture God at the center of the circle. The leader gave the instruction to move forward to God. The group complied but at one point they came shoulder to shoulder with each other and stopped. The leader then said, “You can’t get closer to God without at the same time getting closer to one another.”

There are surely others in this world who God is using to bring healing and peace and reconciliation beyond our own circle of friends. Rather than trying to stop them, let us join them and be together in the name of Jesus Christ and “be at peace with one another.”

Let us pray.

Lord Jesus, lead us to go beyond the little spiritual family that we know and to become open to the way you call others to accomplish your will. Grant us the vision to not only be together with people we are familiar with but to make friends with all people in our communities, around this country and in the four corners of the world. Teach us to truly become a team, a community of faithful disciples committed in participating in your kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven. Help us to be salt in the world and be at peace with one another. Amen.

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