Sermon: "Being in Community" - September 27, 2015

by Ms. Sun Sppriggs
Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Mark 9:38-50

Today’s  Gospel reading is about being in community. As Jesus spread his message of radical love, he was followed by groups of people who bore the name of Jesus – his followers. But, as it turned out, this Gospel story tells us, Jesus had at least one non-follower who was healing people in his name.

This upset some of the disciples: John came to Jesus and reported that he and some disciples put a stop to a man who was casting out demons in the name of Jesus. As we read this passage, we can just imagine John telling Jesus about it with a concerned look on his face, and with pride. The pride of “we did something right by you!  We stopped an imitator. We are keeping your name safe.”

Jesus told him “Do not stop him!” His response must have surprised John.

John and the other disciples, their concern was their group’s identity and prestige. They saw the unknown exorcist as encroaching on their territory and diluting their power when healing in the name of Jesus.  

Whereas, Jesus’ response was all about his love and compassion for the suffering people -- they needed to be healed and liberated from Demons. Jesus wasn’t concerned about what group this exorcist belonged to. As far as Jesus was concerned, this exorcist was his ALLY by doing the work of God – freeing people from their sufferings and restoring them to their humanity. Anybody who did the work of God, serving others to bring the kingdom of God was part of Jesus’ community, whether he was a follower or not. His community is inclusive and has no boundary.

Jesus might have been concerned for John’s myopic and tribal attitudes. He gave a stern warning that no one should put a stumbling block before little ones who were following Jesus. The “little ones” were people with the low social status -- the people who were easily overlooked, who were marginalized, shunned and who became invisible to the society. They were NOT the type of people John would naturally be drawn to to build a community with; however, Jesus had a special place in his heart for his little ones.

Jesus was saying if you hinder their journey with me, it is worse than committing a crime that deserves capital punishment by drowning in the sea with millstone around your neck. So, if you can’t stop judging them as insignificant, and you treat them insensitively and degrade their inherent human dignity --  Take DECISIVE Action!

Jesus’ words were:  “If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out….”

This is a difficult saying for us to digest.  It sounds very harsh and terribly punitive.  But, in the first century Mediterranean culture, the “hand and foot” represented one’s practice and activity, and the “eye” represented one’s thinking and judgment. Jesus preferred to not have people who were thinking and behaving without love and compassion in his community. He told John to get rid of those people DECISIVELY—the people who can cause a spiritual illness in his community, and the people who were hindering the progress of bringing the kingdom of God. 

It is like when we have appendicitis, we remove the appendix without any hesitation. When we find a tumor in our body, we hurriedly remove the growth to save the person’s life.

This was NOT about a moral judgment; it was not about a punishment for wrongdoing. It was to protect the purpose and integrity of his community from becoming a false one because of spiritual illness.

In our time, some of our churches are false communities. There are churches that still discriminate against people of different race, different ethnic groups, different sexual orientations, or different socio-economic groups. These are visible divisions, but there are also invisible divisions. People who are creating divisions are often deluded in their actions. I once belonged to a church where many parishioners were very proud of how well they took care of each other. And, they were – they went all out to help each other, and built a strong community. They were good people, but they were so caught up in their own good work that they were not even aware that there was a division of insiders and outsiders. Of course, the parishioners who didn’t belong to that group knew they were outsiders.

How about your community – the Church of the Holy Spirit? Do you have invisible divisions that create “insiders” and “outsiders”? I pray not! In the kingdom of God, there is no division.

Jesus told us NOT to be a stumbling block for others. In our church community, we often put a stumbling block before other members knowingly or unknowingly.

We need an earnest discernment in God in everything we do.  In 1 John (4:1), it says “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God…..  ” To discern is to sort out, to determine. Discernment is a spiritual tool to listen to and comprehend God’s will in an individual as well as in a community. When we discern God’s will, our myopic view of life falls off of our eyes, and our hearts and minds are open to God. Without discernment, we are often misguided and self-serving. As Thomas Merton wrote: ““the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so.

In one church I attended, they were losing Altar Guild members and having trouble getting people to join.   We found out it was because of the chairperson.  She really believed it was her calling to lead the Altar Guild, and as a committed servant, she had been the chair of that ministry well over ten years.  The members felt they needed change in leadership but couldn’t tell the good lady out of respect for her.

Living in a community is difficult, even in church, or especially in church. There are many voices. To bring all the voices to live in harmony, Jesus called us to be like salt. I pray that all of you who are here are like salt in your community. Salt is an agent that brings out the flavors of ingredient and makes food taste good. It enhances the taste not by dividing ingredients but by bringing them together. It doesn’t change the characteristics of the ingredients, but it enhances them.

Like salt, we need to bring people together. There is no God in division or seperate-ness. We live in harmony, not by changing each other, but by allowing and encouraging each other to be who we are and recognizing our gifts. When we bring our gifts to the community to work together, the end result is greater than the sum of each gift.  This is the mirroring of the Divine Trinity, since God in essence is community: the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.

Being made in the image and likeness of God, we are all called to live in some form of community. Even though living in community has its own challenges and difficulties, we can’t be fully human without community. The early church father St. Ireneus said: “The Glory of God is a human being fully alive.”

May this community, the Church of the Holy Spirit, be a place where people come to be fully alive and give glory to God!