Asbury First United
Text: Mark 9:38-41
Amid all the versions of our life pinned to us like unrequested name tags, day by day, it is heartening to pause in the Presence of Christ and the hearing of his word. Friends help us see ourselves in a truer light. Families help us see ourselves in a fuller light. Pastors help us see ourselves in a broader perspective. The gathered church does the same and more for each of us. Finally, though, it is Christ who powerfully casts away the false demons of our supposed identities, and places us, like a ripe apple in an autumn sun, in a better light. We feel, Sunday, that what is right and good and happy about us has come home to us or we to Him.
We are at home upstate, as Jesus was raised north of the big city. His teaching in the first half of the Gospel occurs along the lakeshore, to the North in Galilee of the Finger Lakes, Galilee of the country and the many nations, Galilee of natural beauty. You can take the boy out of the country but it is harder to take the country out of the boy. It is in the pastoral setting of the lake country that Jesus teaches lessons for living. Lessons for dying come later, downtown. Half of the Gospel is an upstate Gospel! Here, along the brilliant shining big sea water, you are not far from the kingdom of heaven!
You will recall the old saw about a Kansan who traveled across country, in this mythical tale, and found golden telephones in various churches. In Seattle, Austin, Michigan, Chicago, Milwaukee, Saskatoon, and Portland he located these fine phones, which were adorned with the sign, “$10,000 a minute”. Every preacher explained: “that is the cost of a personal long distance call to heaven.” Then he came to Auburn, NY, in the middle Finger Lakes, and saw the same phone, with a different sign, “25 cents”. “Why not $10,000?” he asked. The reply, “Son you’re in the Finger Lakes now. This is God’s country. It is a local call here.”
Not to put too fine a point on it. But. I have redundant purpose for my redundant reference, this autumn, to our lake side home, upstate. Everything north of Yonkers is one great sacred, secret garden! Have we truly appreciated what we have been given? Jesus hallowed his upstate home with teachings for living. Can we sense his Presence here? ‘Did those feet in ancient time…’ We spend so much ink and bile on rust around us that we miss the main gift of rest around us. We live in a great, grand, lake filled, forest covered, river beaded, mountain viewed, glacier cut, divine park. Let us tend our garden. Let us celebrate what God has given us: meteorology, geography, history, community, spirituality. We can lead a progressive life together up here in Galilee. We may care for toddler and geezer, woman and gay, Latino and Asian. We can mow and shovel. It is a gift to be simple. It may take an existential shift. From creation to recreation. From employment to enjoyment. From manufacture to manumission. From achievement to appreciation. From speaking to listening. From building to believing. From the empire state to the state of grace. Jesus leads us once more to the lake today.
First. The Scripture today announces again for us the glad tidings that Jesus brings us home. What a feeling that can be to come home! Do you remember your first real homecoming? Stepping off the train in uniform. Debarking the ship at port. Swinging a duffle bag from the bus after the first semester. The open hearted love of Christ continuously calls us home to his way, truth and life.
In this passage, Jesus answers a question about who can come home with the disciples. For whom is the good news? We receive teaching we want to receive, and usually only when we truly ask for something. Most preaching and teaching is lost because the hearer has back turned and face set in another direction. It is useless to holler people home. People will only hear you when they are coming toward you. As the disciples do this morning. Something has happened that is new and unplanned. The Gospel has taken off without them and they are worried. Others—others—are doing powerful deeds of good. Like Jonah under the castor oil plant, the disciples are disappointed to discover the uncanny, novel, expansive nature of God’s invasion. They had rules set and a plan and a way forward. Now something has happened that is not in the manual. Others have heard. Others. Notice that John is concerned that others are not following “us”, the disciples, though they clearly take the name of Christ, and do good in His spirit. There is a danger to breadth and there is a danger to narrowness. Here Jesus spanks out a clear word of inclusion. One papyri adds: “He that is not against you is for you. He that is far off today will be close tomorrow”.
Two Methodists, earnest and eager, met at dawn to kneel and pray: “Holy God, before you we are nothing. Nothing are we before you. You are great and we are nothing.” A Presbyterian came by, and knelt too. “Holy God, before you I am nothing, nothing.” Said one Methodist to the other, “Bob, hey, will you get this, look who thinks he’s nothing!” Religion carries an inevitable curse of exclusivism unless it is regularly nourished by expansive grace. There is a wideness in God’s mercy. More than one denomination will have a room in heaven. It is unshakable bedrock history that Jesus brought home, welcomed those outside: the poor, foreigners, children, women, the unclean, the sick. He is the Christ of the Open Heart!
Memorize his proverb: “He who is not against us is for us.”
You will lose the Gospel trail if you dwell too long on small differences. The first 200 years of the church’s life saw a wide, wild range of heterodox expression, able to include both Matthew and John, which lived and let live in non-essential things. The assumption in Mark 9:40 is one great fellowship of love throughout the whole wide earth. Neither East nor West, neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female. One.
It is in this light that the sad exposure of ongoing rhetorical racism in our fair county can best be seen. It is underneath saying that public utterances of the kind we have heard by radio have no place in our home. We have not fully forgotten F. Douglass, S. Truth, H. Tubman, G. Smith or the 600,000 who died to preserve the Union. We remember ML King carefully calling Indianapolis “up south”. Another generation is coming along that needs to hear the Gospel of the open heart! One poll showed 60% of this county largely untroubled by the virulent racism on our airwaves. The demon of racism needs still those who will cast it out, in the name of Christ. That is a job for you, disciples, as parents, employers, citizens. It is not only for those heroic leaders who expand boundaries by their presence: Bill Johnson and Violet Fischer and others. This is your job too.
My job today is to repeat that cultural prejudice and theological narrowness have no root in the Gospel. Jesus includes. Wesley had it right: “If thine heart be as mine, give me thy hand”. There is a lot of space on a spiritual village green. Matthew in fear reversed the saying (“he who is not for us is against us”). Luke in kindness whitewashed the disciples (“they did not follow you”). Mark honestly both names our penchant for exclusivity, and reliably records Jesus word. Remember it this fall: “he who is not against us is for us.” He is the Christ of the open heart.
Second. An open heart produces an open mind. In worship we regularly rehearse what we have heard before. Creed, hymn, text, prayer. In this practice, Christ settles us again so that we have that “at home” feeling about life.
Of all the losses in our time, it is this loss of feeling at home in life that is most crippling. Before 9/11 we knew we were east of Eden. Culturally now we are Far East of Eden. But Christ –those not against me are for me—settles us to the sense of being at home.
I know there is a hard side to feeling homesick. Yet Frederick Beuchner once used that sensibility as a description of faith. We long for home. When we settle in, when we feel a little confident, when we enter the presence of the Master, and sup at his table, then we can do all things through Him who welcomes us!
When we feel “at home”, in Christ, then we gain the freedom of the open mind.
I love the story of Hiawatha. 500 years ago this Onondogan taught 5 warring tribes a lesson: “he who is not against us is for us.” The Iroquois confederacy was born and lasted to the Revolution, along these same lakes. Longfellow had some of the history wrong, and his language is archaic, but even now you feel he had his pulse on the truth of Hiawatha’s song:
By the shores of Gitchie Gumee
By the shining Big Sea Water
Stood the wigwam of Nokomis
Daughter of the Moon, Nokomis
All your strength is in your union
All your danger is in discord
Therefore be at peace henceforward
And as brothers live together
Sat the little Hiawatha;
Heard the whispering of the pine-trees,
Heard the lapping of the waters,
Sounds of music, words of wonder;
'Minne-wawa!" said the Pine-trees,
Mudway-aushka!" said the water.
Saw the fire-fly, Wah-wah-taysee,
Flitting through the dusk of evening,
With the twinkle of its candle
Lighting up the brakes and bushes,
And he sang the song of children,
Sang the song Nokomis taught him:
"Wah-wah-taysee, little fire-fly,
Little, flitting, white-fire insect,
Little, dancing, white-fire creature,
Light me with your little candle,
Ere upon my bed I lay me,
Ere in sleep I close my eyelids!"
It takes a sense of confidence, of being at home, to think and live in a new way. Especially if that open mind leads to a serious change. I agree too with Peter Marshall that if you don’t stand for something you will fall for anything. There is also a danger to breadth. Still, the burden of the Christian Gospel leans more against the danger of the narrow and the divisive and the exclusive than against the danger of the open and the broad.
To change and grow we need the confidence of a stable home. Our Bishop told once of children liberated from the concentration camps who even when they were fed could not sleep, fearing that tomorrow hunger would return. Some GI had the happy thought of putting a loaf of bread in every child’s hands at nightfall. They slept. They slept holding tomorrow’s bread today. That is being at home, holding tomorrow’s bread today.
It is fascinating that the only mention of John in the Gospel of Mark is here. The Gospel named for John is the most open minded of the four. In the teeth of trouble, John upheld the open mind of Christ. John faced two problems. He faced the theological problem of the delay of the parousia (the brute fact that contrary to the teaching of Jesus and Paul the end of the world was not at hand). He faced the religious problem of the challenge of Gnosticism.
It is astoundingly encouraging to recall that in the terrific disappointment of the loss of eschatological urgency in the second century, John discovered the courage to keep an open mind, and so he found the inspiration to celebrate not Apocalypse but Spirit. No other New Testament voice found the courage to do so. Matthew and Luke hid the delay of the end behind the missionary triumph of the church. The Montanists and Docetists took extreme side doors out. 2 Peter, an early creative accountant, introduced a new eschatological math, “one day for the Lord is 1000 years”. But John kept an open mind. He let go of one of three of four most cherished teachings of his inheritance: the nearness of the end of time. Oh, he kept the form and words here and there. One day, one day. But he celebrated Spirit and gave Apocalypse benign neglect.
And he found a completely new expression, a new language, for the Gospel. In the beginning was the Word. Would today he have written, “In the beginning was the Web”?
In our day, we need to keep an open mind, too. Some forms of Christian faith are no longer fit for a global village, and a spiritual village green. A narrowly exclusive expression of Christ, a cherished teaching from our inheritance, we must let go. Our faith in Christ, who settles us into our home, may be particular without being exclusive. Again, for all of his unfair enslavement to the opposing cause, it is John who best expresses Gospel breadth. Is it unfair to wonder whether some of that breadth goes back in Johannine memory to this moment along the lake: “who is not against us is for us”? We need to hear the real John of the open mind: “The true light that enlightens everyone, everyone, was coming into the world.” But did John’s Christ not say, “I am the way and the truth and the life?” Yes and by it he meant: wherever there is a way, there is Christ. Wherever you find truth, there is Christ. Wherever there is breath of healthy life, there is Christ. All who come home do so with these.
Third. The very Christ who brings us home and settles us at home is lastingly, finally our home. Our passage ends with a staggeringly universalistic promise of reward for any and all who have even slightly, even to the measure of a cup of water given, come alongside the mission of Christ. “They will not lose the reward.” This is a reference to heaven. He is the door to heaven. He is the Christ of the Open Heart, the Open Mind and the Open Door. “I am the door. If anyone enters by me, he will come in and go out and find pasture.”
In baptism we put on Christ. Already, by promise, water and spirit, we are home, beginning at baptism. Already, at baptism, we have drowned the Old Adam. Already, at baptism, we have faced our mortality and our selfishness. Already, at baptism, we have begun to reside in a house not made with hands, one in which there are many rooms. Lord, we may tarry here awhile, but we are going home.
One Monday, entering ministry, I remember a trusted mentor saying he had never in the ministry of faith ever seen anyone fear death. That gave me hope.
A Tuesday, years later, he said he did not fear death himself. He had some worry about getting there, but not the river itself. That gave me hope.
Then on a Wednesday, Henri Nouwen, now across the river, said he dreamed that at heaven he was greeted with an embrace, a question about his travels, and the phrase, “let’s see your slides”. That gave me hope.
Thursday a phrase caught up to me, “I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever”. And S Jackson: “Let us cross over the river and rest in the shade of the trees.” That gave me hope.
Friday morning, one birthday, I learned a man of my own age had died the night before. I thought how impossible it is for us to imagine the world without us, or to imagine ourselves apart from our world. We live, daily, in an imaginative bubble of temporary immortality. But I also remembered the phrase, “love is stronger than death.” That gave me hope.
Saturday there was the memory of two boys playing trumpets, at evening, across the southern end of a Finger Lake. Call and response, Day is dying in the west…That gave me hope.
Come Sunday, that’s the day. Now to stand under the gaze of another One, who brings home, who settles us at home, who is our lasting home, the Christ of the open heart, the open mind, the open door. Today in his presence—Christ is with us, lift up your hearts—He gives me hope.
It was an early feminist theologian, Dorothy Gale, another Kansan, who rightly said, “There’s no place like home”. So true. He is our home. Are you heading home? Jesus said, “Who is not against me is for me.” Are you against him? To announce a Gospel of freedom and grace we need preachers and laity who embody an existential capacity for grace and freedom. Who is not against me is for me. Are you for him? Faith is an act of personal commitment to an unverifiable truth. Will you live on his behalf? Will you live with an open heart and mind and door?