19th Sunday after Pentecost
September 30, 2018

19th Sunday after Pentecost

Passage: Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29


Well, I can’t admit that when I read today’s gospel it filled me with enthusiasm to preach on it. The first bit is pleasant enough. The second part is miserable. And the third part – that part about the salt – well, that was just plain confusing. But the more I read it, the more I found it to be wisdom for our day.

It starts with the disciples who see some guy they don’t know who’s casting out demons and they get incensed. After all, it’s their guy, Jesus, who casts out demons. And they know Jesus. They trust Jesus. And they have the prestige and security of being Jesus’ disciples. So they try and stop the guy and they let Jesus know what they’ve done, certain he’d endorse their behavior. And to their surprise, he doesn’t. In fact he says, “Don’t stop him. He’s on the right track. It might look a little different, but if he’s not against us he’s for us. It’s all going to work out.”

And that’s a rather satisfying response, Jesus. It’s such a charitable posture towards those whose faith looks a little different than ours. Whoever this guy was, he wasn’t part of their crowd. And so when it came to casting out demons, it didn’t look the way Jesus did it. He might have used a different technique or different words; he might have even said derogatory things about Jesus and his exorcism method. And Jesus seems okay with that.

“Just chill out,” he tells his disciples. “You’re getting all riled up unnecessarily.”

But then, this story suddenly turns a corner, and Jesus gets riled up. But it’s not directed at this guy who – on the surface might come across as a rival to Jesus and his ministry. He gets riled up at his own disciples. “If you discourage this guy, who’s young in his faith but is out there actually trying to live it out, you’d be better off if a huge rock were hung from your neck and you were thrown into the sea.”

Ouch! What just happened?

Well it seems to me that Jesus doesn’t have a problem with an immature believer acting like an immature believer. That’s all par for the course. It’s like with a child: when a two year old throws a tantrum it might be vexing but everyone understands that it’s just part of growing up (Terrible Twos and all). It’s alright for someone young in the faith to make mistakes or to be naïve. It’s just growing up.

Where Jesus does have a problem is when people consider themselves to be “insiders” in the faith or the church, to be part of the in-crowd, who are rude or dismissive or judgmental to whomever they perceive as being less.

And when that becomes our posture Jesus says, “You’d be better off dead than getting in this person’s way.” Now that’s some pretty severe language. It might be a bit of hyperbole on Jesus’ part. But the whole point of hyperbole is to say, “Wake up and listen. This really matters here.”

And so for us, who are part of this institutional church, one of the oldest denominations in the country, who have been worshiping at St. John’s for any amount of time, if Jesus is saying, “Wake up and listen; this really matters,” then we probably ought to wake up and listen.

And here’s what makes this whole thing difficult: Most of us – in our heart-of-hearts, buried deep in our subconscious sense of self-worth – believe that we’re the outsiders. We’re weak in our faith, not certain of who God is and how God regards us. We feel unknown in the church, perhaps even unknown in our families, in our marriages. Each of us, in our own way, is that unnamed man in the story, vulnerable to being left out, misunderstood, rejected. And in that regard, each of us truly is the one to whom Jesus shows such gracious charity. “O blessed child, each little work of faith you do, each cup of water you give in my name, will have its reward. Let there be nothing that stands between you and me.” It’s such welcome news, and it’s so true.

But there’s also a dark side to this. When we believe ourselves to be insignificant, or to be the outsider, we often behave badly in order to get attention or to secure our rank. We can be cranky, manipulative, judgmental, without any real belief in just how much power we yield.

Because here’s the thing, while we may all perceive ourselves as the outsider, there is someone else looking towards us as the insider. You may only have been at St. John’s for a little while; you may feel like the most insignificant person at the church, or in your family, but when you behave badly – even if it’s a little thing like not noticing a visitor at coffee – there is certain to be someone else who believes the authority of your message, “You are unwelcome. You are undesirable. You are unworthy.”

And in this posture, Jesus’ warning becomes all of our warning, “Do nothing to discourage and dishearten any of these little ones who believe in me.”

All of us are the little ones who are so easily discouraged.

And all of us are the disciples who do the discouraging.

So we must all receive Jesus’ gracious welcome. And we must all hear his stern rebuke.

I have a Facebook friend (we’ll call her Diane) who I’ve known since I was a kid at church. She’s my parent’s generation and – let me tell you – the things she posts on Facebook get me thoroughly riled up. Her political opinions, her smug Christianity, it puts my teeth on edge. “Well why don’t you unfriend her?” you may well ask. And the truth of the matter is, because I want to love her. And I want to understand where’s she’s coming from, because her voice represents for me a whole swath of our society which is feeling increasingly alienated. So I keep her as a Facebook friend and I try to read her posts with as much charity as I can.

Well, there was one day a while back when Diane posted something that sent me over the edge. I left the computer and went out to work in my garden. I was digging holes with a pick ax, which was terribly satisfying. And the whole time I was crafting a rebuttal in my mind. It was scathing. It was penetrating. It was articulate and pithy. But, interspersed with my vehemence, I was also trying to pray, “God, help me here. This is not the place where I want to remain.” And something interesting began to happen. I began to recall Diane’s other posts. She posts a lot of pictures of her grandson and the absolute delight she has in him. And I thought, “This child will surely be raised knowing he is loved by his grandmother. There will be no question about that. And as much as I disagree with her politics and her religion, her love for that boy is real and generous.” And with that insight, Diane ceased to be my enemy.

And I share this story because it reflects for me the complexity of this issue in our age. When Diane posts on Facebook she does so with the tone of an insider. She has the “right religion” and the “right beliefs.” I find them to be offensive, heretical and contrary to the gospel. Every impulse within me wants to join with the disciples, “We tried to stop him, Jesus, because he was not following us.” But you know, inasmuch as Diane is an insider in the church, she, too, will need to heed Jesus’ warning. But I am in no position to preach it to her. That’s between her and Jesus.

But my responsibility, as an insider in my own right (a long-time follower of Jesus, a priest in the Episcopal Church), is to move away from seeing her as the enemy, and instead to perceive her as a child of God, the “little one who believes in Jesus” before whom I place no stumbling blocks. I must hear Jesus’ reply, “Whoever is not against us is for us.”

And though I have no living relationship with Diane now, she is my icon of what is broadly perceived as “Christianity in America” and I must learn how to live out my faith with a kind of integrity that pursues justice and holiness while putting no stumbling blocks before others whose form of faith disturbs me.

Why? Well keep on reading this gospel passage. Jesus’ warning to his disciples continues in its severity: Whatever causes you to sin – cut if off! It’s better to be maimed than to enter hell wholly formed. And what Jesus is talking about here is the kind of sins that cause other people to stumble, that cause these “little ones” to feel excluded from, or disinterested in, the family and faith of God. Are you a gossiper? You’d better cut off that tongue. Are you a slanderer or a complainer? You’d better get a muzzle. Because the little ones are listening and believing that filth you spew. The “little ones” might not be the people you’re complaining about; they might be your neighbors and co-workers who know you claim to be a Christian. And in your ugliness you’re telling them, “Christianity is a joke.”

And Jesus has precious little patience for anything that discourages these little ones who are learning to follow him.

And just to be clear: Everyone around us is that little child. Everyone is reaching in the dark to grasp hold of the divine. Everyone is hoping that the love of God just might be true. Which means, wherever we see the least hint of goodness, the least hint of love, of charity, of kindness, of faith – do nothing to discourage it, and everything to bless and affirm what is holy and true, in everyone.

And also to be clear, we’re all going to screw this up. Often. I know I do. Someone came to speak with me recently about something I’d done that was hurtful – something that was absolutely causing this “little one to stumble.” It was true. But you know what? Her rebuke hit the mark and I was grateful.

“For everyone will be salted with fire,” says Jesus. In my sin I was treading on the boundaries of hell; its flames licking against me. But by her bravely choosing to talk with me, those flames became as salt, salt that is good, for it became a warning that led to my repentance, which led to her forgiveness, and peace was restored between us.

But if the salt has lost its saltiness – if the hellish flames of our sinning against each other cease to alarm or concern us – if we surge on in our belligerent dismissal and disregard of our neighbors, then Christ’s warning is alive as it ever was. These are no trifling matters. For how we treat the vulnerable, the young, the weak, the powerless, means everything in the Kingdom of God.