An Unexclusive Gospel

An Unexclusive Gospel

Mark 9:38-50

John said to him, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” But Jesus said, “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.

“If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea. If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell, where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched.

“For everyone will be salted with fire. Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.”

“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.”

Out on Cuba Road, out in Baltimore County, just beyond Oregon Ridge Park, up and over the hill a bit is an old Methodist church with a sign out front. The sign has read the same thing for the past, well, at least six years. I’ve noticed it every time I pass by. (I have a habit of reading church billboards.) It reads: “The battle is not yours, but God’s….” (2 Chronicles 20:15)

There was an experience I had in high school that has kept coming to me as I’ve been working on this passage for some time now. I hope it makes some sense to you…

I was a pretty good discus thrower in high school. I didn’t win the state title, but I had the farthest throw in the state a few times, Class AA, that is. (My farthest throw was 169 feet, better than most, but not Olympic ready.)

It was at the District 11 Championships, in 1974, I’m pretty sure, when I threw against Morris Pagni, from Penn Argyl High. I think he was a sophomore at the time, an OK thrower, but nothing special, he hadn’t broken 140 feet, I think.

So as we got ready for the competition, in our warm up throws, I took on the role of coach, tossing off the mantle of competitor for the sake of having a good throwing session, because this guy looked like he had potential.

It was a beautiful spring day. We started off our warm up throws, and I gave him some tips, (drive harder off the back leg, don’t jump into the throw, turn the right ankle outward into your delivery, right through the hip)… some ‘fine tuning’ coaching points that I had learned along the way, not from my coach (he really didn’t know much about the discus; I was pretty much self-taught, through books I had mail-ordered and research that I did at East Stroudsburg State College.)

Anyway, the warm up throws went really well, Morris was getting better! When it came to our first throws in the competition, Morris let one loose! 172 feet! (Where did that come from?)

I was challenged! Ok, here goes! (I’ve created a monster!!) I let off a few good throws myself, 163’, 164’, 162’. Morris’ other throws were something like 150’, then 140’. He had ‘popped one’- as they say… I coached him to a win.

I congratulated him- really great throw… see you at States in a week!

(I was still a little flabbergasted at his throw, and maybe a little at my coaching ability, too.)

As for my own coach’s response; I’ll never forget it. “Don’t ever do that again. He is your enemy! He is dirt. He is to be beaten! Never forget that.”

My coach could have called me aside during the warmups to say that, but he didn’t. I thought the enemy thing was uncalled for…and, dirt??

Even right after the competition, I considered the whole thing sort of a win-win. He had a tremendous throw, I had some really good ones… and we would have at it again the next week. My coach didn’t see it that way. It was his loss, really.

With all due respect to Vince Lombardi; winning, really, isn’t the only thing.

This little story of mine relates to the Bible passage more than it appears on the surface. Rivalry, competition, jealously are more deeply rooted in who we are than we’d often like to admit.

Prior to the brief passage that we read this morning, and before Jesus took up a little child in his arms and blessed that child, which was last’s weeks’ passage, Jesus had healed a boy who suffered from epilepsy, in very dramatic fashion.

Word had gotten around about this healing, and on top of that, there was a copycat loose out there too; someone else who was healing, for real, and not Jesus. (The problem for the disciples about this may well have been that this ‘exorcist’/healer was following Jesus, but he wasn’t following the Twelve.) I like that reading of the text, and there are plenty of similar examples in the book of Acts like this, and in the history of the early, early church, where rivaly took the lead, in front of service.

The disciples’ reaction in response to all this had been pretty unsurprising.

Not long before, they had been debating on the road as to which of them was the greatest. Their self-aggrandizing conversations showed that even for Jesus’ disciples it was possible to miss the point by a very wide margin.

Not only that, but they had failed in an attempt to cast a demon out of a boy. Is it any wonder that they were put off by the fact that some independent contractor was out there successfully exorcising demons in Jesus’ name when they, his own disciples, couldn’t do it?

Jesus had a clear answer to those who protested a healing from a ‘rival’. “Do not stop them’, he says, “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.”

I don’t know about you, but had I never read the gospel of Mark before, this is not the answer I would have expected.

To me, I would have thought that Jesus might have commanded his disciples to close ranks and get in line; to knock the dust off their feet from whoever this ‘pretender’ was, and go out and perform miracles in Jesus’ name, fast and furious.

But that’s not what happens. There is some scolding going on here, and not of the unnamed healer, but rather, the disciples. And then there’s something ancient and even mildly ‘magical’ going on… That somehow, in doing something ‘Christlike’, even in sharing a cup of water with another who is needy, that person will automatically be taken into the greater fold of Jesus’ flock… to be counted as a follower, just like that. This other, unnamed healer is not, in Jesus’ estimation, a charlatan, an ‘enemy’, or ‘dirt’. The rivalry that the disciples felt is not in any way reflected in Jesus’ response. Interesting….

Now, as I was taught in seminary, there is a special trick to reading the Gospel of Mark. There is a reason that so often Jesus just seems to be speaking into the wind, as they say; that people who admire him and keep close to him still miss his meaning and resist his way. There is a reason why it the occasional outsider would respond to Jesus’ message with unexpected faith and unpredictably deep understanding.

The ‘lens’ through which we are to read the Gospel of Mark, where the disciples never quite get it, that Jesus is Messiah, not even after the resurrection, is that the disciples are in our place: we are these same disciples, who claim faith, but stumble along. These stories are all about us, who now live in the shoes of the disciples…. trying to be faithful, but at the same time pulled by demands of house and home, work and the world.

 

Jesus’ first disciples fell into the trap that has snared many religious groups though the centuries… they wanted to restrict the goodness of God to their group alone, and they found themselves corrected by Christ.

They had belonged to a religion and a culture whose main identity was that they were “God’s chosen people,” and re-tooling that mindset has taken millennia… if it has taken place, at all.

Opening up their eyes to see that others can call on God to help and heal, to support and save, can be unsettling for disciples, then and now.

Mark doesn’t really tell us how the disciples reacted to this uncredited healer, if they continued their objections, or if they begrudgingly allowed him to continue, or if they considered him part of the team.

We read these stories of Jesus to be pressed to realize that the kingdom of God is always bigger and more inclusive than we thought.

So, back to the discus story, right?

I wish I could tell you something dramatic… that I went on to win States; I didn’t- or that Morris Pagni did (he didn’t throw all that well, and though I encouraged him, I didn’t spend my warm up time coaching him, either…)

But I learned something about going out of my way to be of help to someone when the time and circumstances are right, even when someone may well object. And you have done it too. You have had a Morris Pagni in your life; someone who appreciated your help in math class, or accounting, or who was new on the job; who you really had no reason or right to go and help, but you did. And both of you benefitted from it. Think about that person… H.S., college, career, neighbor? (just one person, for now.)

Jesus smiled when that happened, don’t you know?

By the way, Morris Pagni never thanked me for my coaching tips, but that’s a story for another day. Amen.