What an interesting and disturbing text we have for today!
In some ways it reminds me of the Christmas Carol. You remember the Christmas Carol? Charles Dickens story about how Ebenezer Scrooge, a selfish, tight-fisted miser, oblivious to the plight of the poor around him, was transformed into a big-hearted, generous, and kind man. And a big part of his dramatic transformation was the fact that he’d been visited by the ghost of Jacob Marley, his former partner who had been dead seven years.
In the story, the ghost of Jacob wore a long and heavy chain that he literally had to drag along with him. When Scrooge asked Marley about it, he said that he “wore the chain he forged in life—a chain forged by all his merciless, unjust, ruthless, and oppressive deeds.” And he warned Scrooge that his own chain was just as long and just as heavy, and that it had continued to grow even longer and heavier over the seven years since Marley’s death![I]
Now, this is an interesting, and perhaps horrifying, concept, isn’t it? The idea that in death we wear chains forged from our misdeeds in life. But in our Gospel lesson for today, Jesus uses a similar type of metaphor to warn us about the consequences of a life lived at the expense of others. He says you would be better off to wear a huge stone around your neck and throw yourself into the sea rather than cause someone else to sin! And as a matter of fact, he doubles-down and says that it would behoove you to cut off you hand, or your foot, and even to “tear out” your eye if they cause you to sin. Wow!
But before we move on, I think we need to stop here and unpack a few things. First, it’s hard to miss the violent nature of Jesus’ language, …ya think? Especially considering the image of Jesus we saw last week when he gently took a child into his arms and used her to illustrate his teaching. But the interesting thing here is that the core of the message in today’s text is the same as last week; and that core understanding is justice. Or, maybe more accurately, the injustice being practiced by the disciples.
You see, the disciples had formed their own special, little group; let’s call it the “Jesus Tribe.” And I’m sure there were rules, both spoken and unspoken, around who could be in the tribe. And, knowing human nature, I’m sure there was some sort of “litmus test” as well. Maybe even a secret handshake. In short, this was, in the minds of the disciples anyway, a closed community. And when some guy from outside the Jesus Tribe tried to “horn-in” well, let’s just say that the disciples would have none of it.
Now, John must have been the communications officer of the tribe because he’s the one that took their complaint to Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “we saw someone throwing demons out in your name, and we tried to stop him because he wasn’t following us.” Notice John didn’t say because he wasn’t following you but us. This outsider could have been following Jesus, but he wasn’t an official member of the Jesus Tribe; he didn’t know the secret handshake. And Jesus considered this type of exclusion by the disciples as unjust.
Now, let’s bring this into our time. I think this same kind of thinking still plagues the church today. Far too often we define what it means to BE the church, to be a community of faith, by what it means to be a member of our tribe and by who knows the secret handshake. And when we to that, we too are being unjust.
Now, lest I be too critical, let me acknowledge that we have come a long way in recent years. With the help and guidance of the United Church of Christ, we’ve adopted an attitude of extravagant welcome to those who may be unlike ourselves. We’ve come to view Scripture in a far more inclusive way, inviting all kinds of people from all walks of life to journey with us. We’ve come to understand that our calling as Christians is one of action; to love and serve and share by doing and being out there, beyond the walls of this building. We have also recognized the gifts and graces of women, people of color, and LGBTQ people to preach and serve as ordained ministers of word and sacrament. As a matter of fact, just this year, we became the first mainline denomination to have more women pastors then men. And finally, we have come to understand that Jesus welcomes all people to the Lord’s table; young and old, baptized or not, faithful or questioning; all are welcome, as I say every month, with no exceptions. And these are but a few of the wonderful examples of how we’ve progressed as a Church and as a people.
But, even with all these awesome things going on, we can still do more. We can expand our definition of what it means to be in community with all humanity and all creation; here in the Northwoods, throughout the nation and across the globe.
So, how do we do that? How do we expand our definition of community? Well, the answer to that question is found right here in in this passage. Jesus, amid all his harsh words to the disciples, gives them an example of expanded community. “Whoever isn’t against us,” he said, “is for us.” Perhaps that’s something we can meditate on as well: “Whoever isn’t against us is for us.”
You know, a young man named Drake is a perfect example of this. Drake is a singer, and this past winter he created a video for a song titled: “God’s Plan” in which he took the $996,000, the budget for the production of the video, and gave it away. That’s right, he gave it all away. Drake took stacks of cash to his hometown of Miami and gave it all away. How? Well, he provided several struggling college students with scholarships, so they could continue their education; he gave other students cars, so they could better balance family, school, and work. Drake also went to an after-school program in the inner city, where he donated $50,000 and gave Christmas presents to all the kids. He also donated money to struggling individuals he encountered on the street; a mother of a disabled girl, a homeless family, and a single mother. Drake went on to gift the local first responders and a public high school. In one scene, he actually went into a grocery store with a mega-phone and announced to the customers that could fill their carts for free. But beyond all the generosity demonstrated in this video, one line in the song really caught my attention: Drake says, “There’s a lot of bad things, but I can’t do this on my own… this is God’s plan.”
Now, I don’t know what religion Drake practices, if any, or his lifestyle or his politics; and I won’t pretend to know his motivation or what was in his heart when he made this video. But what I do know that Drake is onto something here. He could have made another flashy video; he could have used his fame to become a stumbling block to the youth who watch his videos and listen to his songs; but instead he chose to “lived-out” his understanding of God’s plan; a plan that includes expanding the definition of community.
My friends, what plan does God have for you? I know, that’s a tough question because the answers aren’t back and white; their shrouded by many shades of grey. But, it’s been my experience, both personally and from the lips of others, that if we allow God to speak to us, if we allow ourselves to be still and sit in the presence of the Divine, a plan will begin to form. And I’m willing to bet that if you do, if you allow the plan to begin to form, God’s subtle guidance will move you in the direction of expanding your boundries, expanding your understanding of justice, expanding, my friends, your definition of community.
May it be so. Amen.