17 Pentecost–September 27, 2009 (My first sermon)

This is the first sermon I ever gave, and I must say thank you to Fr. Mitch Smith, who was the rector at Trinity at the time, for giving me this opportunity. These are the readings from the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) for that Sunday, upon which I based it: Esther 7:1-6, 9-10; 9:20-22; Psalm 124; James 5:13-20; and Mark 9:38-50.

Imagine that you are that man at the beginning of today’s Gospel reading. You have been going around casting out demons in Jesus’ name. Perhaps you had been in the crowd when Jesus healed the boy who had been made mute by an unclean spirit, and his words touched you, starting you on this path. However, the disciples approach you, or even accost you, asking you or telling you to stop what you are doing because you are not “following us.” How do you feel? The disciples have made no invitation for you to join their community. How do you feel at being excluded, at having this stumbling block placed in front of you, which may keep you from approaching Christ?
Now imagine that you are one of the disciples, John perhaps. You have been following Jesus on this new journey and he has been teaching you many things, not all of which you understand yet. Recently, you have seen him healing a boy of an unclean spirit that neither you nor the disciples could cast out. Yet, here is a man, who is not one of you, doing the very thing that you could not. Why do you try to stop him? Why don’t you invite him into your community, why exclude him? Why did you put that stumbling block in his path?
One of Christ’s responses to his disciples’ actions are the words “Whoever is not against us is for us,” a very inclusive phrase, implying that the boundaries around this community should be flexible and easy to cross. He does not wish John and the others to stop the man, and admonishes them for trying to do so. The way to salvation, after all, leads through himself. Unfortunately, today, we are more likely to hear the words, “If you are not for us, you are against us,” which often provokes a combative reaction and creates very rigid boundaries. This phrase in and of itself is a big stumbling block for those seeking Christ. Think of those people you may know who believe in Jesus’ teachings and do good works, but will not accept an invitation to church because they have been made to feel like the enemy at some point in their lives. How do you make that person feel included again?
Jesus also says that it is better to cut off a hand or a foot or cut out an eye if any of those body parts causes a person to stumble. He wants his followers not only to prevent themselves from placing barriers in front of “these little ones who believe in me,” but to be aware that by hindering others in their approach to himself, they are putting stumbling blocks in front of themselves. Perhaps that is the question we should ask today: “Why do we put these blocks in front of ourselves, in our own paths to Christ?” Is it because of our own fears? Is it because we feel that only by being exclusive will we be of value? Is that what the disciples felt?
In today’s reading we are urged to “have salt in ourselves.” Salt in Jesus’ time was a precious commodity, used by the Romans as “salary” for their troops; without it, many foods could not be preserved, and of course, it also served as flavoring. Even now, we still read [I think I would add “our children”] stories about daughters who tell their fathers that they love them as much as they love salt. The father does not understand at first, and casts his daughter away, thinking his daughter does not love him; until he realizes how bland food, and life, is without it. Think about the phrase, “The salt of the earth.”
So with his words, Christ reminds us that we all have value. We have all been “salted with fire,” are all touched by God’s love through the Holy Spirit. Why are we afraid?
Being able to ask these questions of ourselves, and answer them, will help us to continue to act as the body of Christ in the world, for if we are aware of the stumbling blocks we may place in front of others and ourselves, maybe we can turn them into stepping stones instead. Amen.

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