Sermon Archives

Widen the Circle ~ Mark 9:38-50

Now I know that there are some of you out there who are Project Runway fans. Well, we in our family are huge fans of the show, Project Runway. And in Project Runway, pre-professional fashion designers compete in these extraordinary challenges to create beautiful clothing out of outrageous materials. And of course all within a really strict time limit. And each week, Heide Klum, the German supermodel who is the host of the show, repeats to the designers  that in the very volatile field of fashion:  “Either you’re in or you’re out.”

“Either you’re in or you’re out” would be an apt title for our story this morning. Mark illustrates again the dull-headedness of the disciples, these friends of Jesus, and the slowness of their hearts. In the previous scene, the disciples were arguing about who was the greatest among them. Later, it is John and his brother James who boldly ask Jesus to let them sit at his right and his left when in his kingdom. Clearly the disciples concerned themselves with who was to share power with Jesus – at least what they perceived as power, misunderstanding again what kind of authority and power Jesus was teaching and embodying.

John just heard Jesus say, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.” What we don’t hear clearly because of the way the passage has been broken up, is John’s response to Jesus with “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” John was bent out of shape because someone not from their group was using Jesus’ name to do the liberating work of God.

Now I know that many of us here have come from religious traditions that insisted a person must confess Jesus as Lord and Savior in order to be saved. And preferably one was able to articulate the exact date and time of the conversion. I was shaped by that understanding of salvation. I remember being taught that, being asked when my moment of conversion took place.  But I also remember the date and time when I began to question this theology.

It was the summer after college. I was working on staff at a large, evangelical Christian camp and conference center in southern California. I was one of the directors of the senior high girls’ camp. And it was assumed that I, like the other hired staff members, would be focused on bringing each girl to salvation – to securing their salvation. But over the course of the summer, the question gnawed at me: “So what if they’re saved?”  (As Pastor John says, and will be teaching about in his class which begins next Sunday- “Salvation: from what, for what, so what?”)  Was it just so that after they recited the sinner’s prayer they’d receive their “fire insurance” policy?

As my professor in college provoked, “Is salvation equivalent to asking Jesus into your heart, shedding a few tears, jumping over a broom stick, and BAM you’re in?!”

Now I knew it was not the “fire insurance” that made me want to share with those kids the love of Jesus. I loved Jesus. But I knew in my gut that there was more good news in the gospel than being saved from hell.

As I gained my courage to be honest about my doubts and share with others my theological struggles, I found that there were other sound ways to understand salvation than solely as one’s ticket out of hell. I read good Reformed theologians and others who taught that salvation was offered to all humankind through Jesus regardless of our response to it. Jesus opened up for us a way to an unburdened free relationship with God. God’s profound love is present in all things and God’s love is continually calling and inviting all beings, all of us, into relationship with him.

The wise Thomas Merton, a 20th century Trappist monk, wrote:

… the news of truth and love of Jesus is indeed the true good news, but in our time it speaks out in strange places. And perhaps it speaks out in you more than it does in me: perhaps Christ is nearer to you than He is to me: this I say without shame or guilt because I have learned to rejoice that Jesus is in the world in people who know Him not, that He is at work in them when they think themselves far from him…Hope not because you think you can be good, but because God loves us irrespective of our merits and whatever is good in us comes from His love, not from our own doing. A Book of Hours, 129

The love of Jesus, Merton said, speaks out in strange places. Jesus is in the world in people who know him not; he is at work in them when they think themselves far from him….Whatever is good in us comes from God’s love to begin with.

I fell head over heels in love with this good news–salvation was not up to me or anyone else. Jesus had already taken care of the cost of salvation. I was free to help others see their way to the good news; to the light of God already here, in and around us whether we are aware of it or not.

When Tim and I meet someone whose life exemplifies God’s love, but he or she is not a believer, we are fond of saying, “He has the love of Jesus in him – he just doesn’t know it.”

We all have at least one person in our lives who is a beautiful, giving soul who might not lay claim to any religion, yet bears a profound witness to God’s love. I know a woman like this–she is kind in heart, humble in spirit, eager to help others in need, generous with her time and resources, but does not consider herself a person of faith. The light of God shone through her. Sadly, I heard a well-meaning Christian say about her “She is such a good person; it’s too bad she hasn’t accepted Jesus as her Lord.” I assume implied in that statement was that the good woman wasn’t going to get to heaven.

What Jesus said to his disciples challenges this attitude: If someone is not against us, he is for us. God is at work in all people’s lives, whether the person or the religious institution wants to recognize that truth or not.

I read about a soldier who was raised in a very conservative Christian tradition – one that taught there were right ways and wrong ways to be a Christian. They held that just because a person said they believed in Jesus did not mean they were following Jesus. During the Vietnam War, that soldier was taken hostage and held with others in confinement. Among the soldiers was a Mormon, a Catholic, a Jehovah’s Witness, and one who called himself an atheist. The soldier said, “What I learned in that cell was that when we gathered to pray it mattered not at all what religions we were from – or not at all. All the things that usually separated us became irrelevant. What bound us together was our common need, our love, and our prayers.”

People all over the spectrum of religious beliefs have to be reminded that our personal beliefs about God are not who God really is. God is always more than we can imagine, bigger than we articulate, beyond what we can teach. Preachers must preach with humility, because we are just scratching the surface of who God is and what God requires of us. Nevertheless, we are called to continue teaching and learning, preaching and praying.

I am so encouraged when people of different religions come together to learn from each other. Buddhist teachings are helping Christians reclaim from our own tradition prayer practices. We offer yoga here in our church as a spiritual practice of honoring our bodies. Christians have a great deal to learn from Judaism in order to understand our selves better.

One of the most meaningful experiences I’ve had as a pastor took place this past year. I participated on an inter-religious panel of clergy with a Rabbi and a Muslim Imam. We taught about various religious practices from our own traditions. Sixty Muslim, Jewish and Christian people shared a meal once a month for six months. Not only were we educating each other about our religious practices, more importantly we built relationships that hopefully will benefit the whole Cleveland area.

Pretentious religion is what Jesus often railed against. Pretentious religious institutions that attempt to determine who is in and who is out; ones that succumb to the temptation to secure their theological borders.

But the scope of God’s grace reaches beyond the Christian community.  Try as we might, we can’t imprison God’s love.

There’s a great episode of The Simpsons in which Homer accidentally ends up in a far away country with a group of Christian missionaries who are building a church in the middle of the jungle. Homer gets swept up in helping them build this small, cinder-block building. And when they are finished, they all stand back to admire their work, and Homer says, “I don’t know much about God, but I think we built him a really nice cage.”

Thankfully, God slips out of the cages we construct. Salvation is about liberation. The Holy Spirit is liberated to live and move in all sorts of strange places. She gets to decide how large the circle will be.

I often think about all these mainline denominations year in and year out fighting about whether or not gays and lesbians should be allowed to do ministry in Jesus name. This battle has been a millstone around our collective necks for years. However, the United Church of Christ denomination settled this argument some years ago by opening up the way for all to serve freely. I know fellow clergy (both gay and straight) who have moved their ministerial memberships to the UCC because they had gotten so weary of not being able to do ministry in Jesus’ name.

It should come as no surprise that the UCC is doing some of the most creative and liberating ministry among the denominations. And they can because they are no longer dragging around the burden of who’s in and who’s out! They settled it, moved on, and now all are free to do God’s work in the world.

Despite the disciples’ human desire to have an us and them religion, Jesus loved them dearly. And still loves misguided well-intentioned disciples today.

In the popular novel, The Shack, the Trinity is personified as three distinct characters. The parental figure is called Papa. Papa says about each person created by God: “I am especially fond of that one. Tell her that I am especially fond of her…or him.”

Jesus IS especially fond of you. Jesus IS especially fond of me too. Jesus is especially fond of all creatures…Christians, Jews, Muslims, Seiks, Hindus, Buddhists, non- religious, gay, straight, poor, rich, brown, black, white. All the animals that sing in the choir.

Just like teachers say sometimes off the record, I can just hear Jesus saying, “I know I shouldn’t have favorites, but…”

The catch is … each one of us IS God’s favorite.

We have to chill (as my kids are fond of telling me) because God’s extravagant love and forgiveness is not like a pie that has only so many pieces. We can relax our shoulders and put down our weapons, because the love of Jesus is bigger than us, deeper and wider than we can even imagine. And try as we might, we are not going to keep it caged up. God’s love will keep showing up and speaking out in the strangest places.

That’s the mystery and the beauty of the liberating good news of the gospel.

Thanks be to God.

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