Sermon text: Mark 9: 38-50
One of my favorite professors in seminary was famous for asking a clarifying question whenever we read the word “all” in scripture. How much of all is all? Simple. Brilliant even. The answer of course, should be, all.
There’s a lot of churches in Blair County, which means there are a lot of church signs. Signs of all shapes and sizes. Some are electronic, some are wooden, some have moveable letters. Some have hokey phrases. Some are falling apart. I’m a church nerd, so I generally read these signs to see what’s listed. I’m curious about what churches share about themselves.
I’ve noticed that there’s a common phrase; it shows up on signs far and wide. “All are welcome!” It’s intended to convey a polite sense of hospitality. We don’t care who you are, all are welcome in this place. Without a shadow of a doubt, we’ve all seen this phrase on a sign somewhere.
Maybe it’s the cynic in me. Perhaps I’ve heard too many horror stories from colleagues and magazine articles about unwelcoming congregations. But how much of all is all? Who is really invited? Who exactly is welcomed by this sentiment? Everyone? Regardless of label, identity, background, and dress code? How much of all is all?
I ask, because we know better than to suggest that every church offers radical hospitality where every person is truly welcome. Heck, I probably take can’t take communion at a percentage of these churches…that’s a small detail, but how welcoming is that?
The Gospel lesson today contains a story absent of welcome. The church isn’t even established yet, Jesus has yet to be crucified and raised on Easter, and already the disciples are making judgment calls about who is the right type of follower.
The disciple John says to Jesus, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.”
Oof. In other words, “Hey! Jesus! I spotted someone healing, relieving a person from misery, following your example, expanding the Kingdom of God, unbinding a captive in your name. But, I didn’t like it. It didn’t matter. It wasn’t enough and I tried to stop it because he wasn’t following us. He wasn’t part of our group.”
Notice, John isn’t asking a question. He is seeking approval. He wants a pat on the head for his actions. Apparently, it is not enough to be a follower of Jesus, to do ministry in his name, you have to be a certain kind of follower. All are welcome, but only if you do exactly what I say and think exactly what I think.
I get the sense that Jesus can’t believe his ears, that the whole idea is ludicrous. Here he is working his tail off to spread his gospel message, this enormous undertaking, and John is eliminating allies because they don’t follow exactly in the group’s footsteps. If this keeps up they’ll be all by themselves.
Jesus responds and says, “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.”
It’s almost as if the disciples don’t realize how significant or challenging their mission is. Maybe they don’t understand the objective. But Jesus admonishes them to find and accept help whenever they can, even if it is something as small and paltry as a cup of water.
It makes me wonder…as broken and polarized as our world has become, as people scream at school boards and as people dismiss others for one issue or another, as people brazenly fly profanity laced flags from their homes and trucks, and as we exist in our own echo chambers that only play back the viewpoints we wish to hear—in this broken world, would you even accept a cup of water from a person who differs from you? Furthermore, can the church escape the divisiveness that characterizes the rest of our world?
There’s an interaction from the last National Youth Gathering that is planted in my memory bank. Crammed like sardines on the light rail transit system I struck up a conversation with a pastor from Pittsburgh. We were on our way to the mass gathering that evening at the football stadium, excited for what was to come and reflecting on our experiences. At one point we were talking about our groups and how the youth were doing.
He said to me, “See that kind right there? He’s a member of an independent, nondenominational Bible church in our community. Big church. But all of his friends come to my church, and he wanted to go to the Youth Gathering because his friends were all attending. He asked his home pastor if the church could help him pay for the trip. He refused. Wouldn’t give him a dime. Not only that, he warned him not to go on the trip at all, saying ‘They’re not a real type of Christian. They will try to convert you to Lutheranism.”
The pastor then said to me, “Look at him. He’s having the time of his life. My church paid his way. Best money we ever spent.”
The church has not escaped the discord that shackles our country. Across denominations, and in individual congregations, we have mimicked the disunion that surrounds us. Sure, this has to do with Covid, but it goes beyond that too. Covid just exacerbated other divisions that already existed around politics, and race, and stewardship, and sexism, and personal interests, and who we’re permitted to love.
The reality is that we split ourselves over an issue, holy or profane. We must realize that when we create dichotomies, when we draw a line and put people on the other side and say there is no way that they can bear the name of Christ, then we are like the disciple John, trying to cancel a person because they aren’t doing something like we do.
Can we imagine that God is at work in and through someone who bears the name of Christ but disagrees with us, profoundly, on an issue of importance? Is there space in our pews for people we disagree with, without first labeling them? Can we stop—if but for a moment—trying to convince people why they are wrong or bad because they believe differently? Can we listen and understand differing perspectives?
How much of all is all? Are all welcome? Can we accept a cup of cold water from someone who doesn’t follow us? Most importantly, can we see the mark of Christ that they bear? Can we see the mark of Christ that we all bear?
Yes, we will differ. Some will follow, others will not. We will have strong disagreements. But in the name of Christ we are united as one. In the name of Christ we are bound together with a bond that cannot be broken. In the name of Christ we are all together one. AMEN