A Lesson Learned
Text: Mark 9:38-50
Jesus says some really harsh words in this text from Mark’s Gospel. I have never seen these words slapped on a bumper sticker or sewn on a T-Shirt. They are troubling, deeply troubling words, and by far, they are the most troubling to those who insist that the Bible always be read literally: “The Bible says it. I believe it. That’s that!”
In her book, Bread of Angels, Episcopal priest Barbara Brown Taylor is very convincing when she writes: “Walk into the most Bible-believing church you can find – where the women do not wear trousers or speak in church, where the men do not swear oaths or mow their lawns on Sunday – go into a place as strict as that and I bet you won’t find many people with eye patches and wrapped stumps, because even the most literal Christians balk at this passage” [Barbara Brown Taylor, Bread of Angels, p. 115]. For, you see, the words of Jesus today are intended to be taken seriously; they are not intended to be taken literally.
As harsh and troubling as these words of Jesus are, I cannot say that they shock me. For, those of us who grew up in the South, regardless of our denomination, cannot possibly be shocked by these words of Jesus. Christians raised in the South, have been promised heaven and threatened with hell ever since birth. Chuck Poole writes: “the word hell appears only thirteen times in the entire Bible, and three of them happen in today’s reading from Mark.” He goes on to say, “If you grew up as I did, in the Bible Belt, you already know plenty of facts about hell, the most important of which is that the one and only reason people go there is that they refuse to accept Jesus as their personal Lord and Savior. ‘Accept Jesus and you go to heaven. Don’t accept Jesus and you go to hell’. Simple as that, unless you read this morning’s gospel lesson, where Jesus says that people go to hell not because of what they did or did not accept or believe, but because of how they lived and what they did [or did not do], which is also what the rest of the Bible says about who goes to hell, and why . . . [In] Matthew 25:46 Jesus says that those who do not care for the poor, the sick and the outcast will be sent to eternal punishment on judgment day.”
Now, I seriously doubt that Jesus speaks in such a harsh and threatening tone here because he wants to instill in his disciples the fear of a tormented future afterlife. No, I think his harsh and threatening words are spoken far more out a real and present frustration. But I am getting ahead of myself.
These harsh and frightening words of Jesus follow a maddening story. The story begins when a disciple named John comes running up to Jesus like a seven-year-old tattletale on the playground and says, “Rabbi, we saw someone driving out demons in your name, and he was not one of us; we tried to stop him” (9:38). The disciples encounter someone who is taking on the demonic in the world, bringing wholeness where there is only broken devastation, bringing hope where it is harder to find than water in the desert. And, the man is doing so in the spirit of Jesus. What do the disciples do when they meet this amazingly faithful man? Do they come running to Jesus and shout, “Hallelujah! The lame can walk. The blind can see. The mentally damaged can think straight again”? No, they say, “Rabbi, we saw someone casting out demons in your name and we tried to stop him, because he was not one of us.”
Those are four of the most soul-killing, discipleship-wounding words that I know. I hear them said far too frequently. I hear them said on the floor of Congress, on airwaves broadcasting views from every political persuasion, and worst of all, from far too many pulpits. In the story from Mark last week, Jesus holds a child before his disciples, a child who in Jesus’ day was a living, breathing symbol of not one of us. Jesus tells his disciples that their job, their calling, their privilege is to welcome all who are mistakenly identified as not one of us.
I have to give it to Jesus for not getting in John’s face as soon as he says those four ugly words – not one of us. I have to give it to Jesus for not asking John: “Excuse me, you did what?!!!” No, Jesus quietly counts to three and says, “Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me.”
Note how Jesus changes the pronouns from us to me. Following Jesus, in Mark’s Gospel, is not about people following us; it about following the One who calls us and sends us into the world to tear down walls that divide, not to build upon old walls and not to construct new ones. Anyone who claims to follow Jesus has no use for a two-column scoreboard, with the header divided between “Them” and “Us.” Anyone who claims to follow Jesus lives a life of mercy, works for justice, and loves with God’s unrestrained love, whether they do it in accord with our particular religious dance step or not.
The first denomination ever established was founded in the 9th chapter of Mark’s Gospel. It is rightly named: The Church of One of Us. Earlier, the disciples argue about who’s the greatest charter member of this new denomination, they revise bylaws and determine eligibility requirements. And, ever since, churches have followed their lead, pointing out that they worship God but do not worship “like us,” they sing, but do not sing choral music “like us,” they sit down to the Lord’s Supper, but do not celebrate communion “like us.” They do not do this and they do not say that “like us.”
Finally, Jesus can keep his cool no longer and he lets loose with one hell of a sermon, or, more accurately, one sermon about hell. It is harsher than his sermon about separating sheep from goats, more graphic than any other sermon he preaches, and it is more forceful than when he kicks over the money changers’ tables in the Temple. Here Jesus warns of drowning at the bottom of the sea and burning in unquenchable fire all those promote the nonsense of not one of us and by so doing, obstruct the most fragile, the most vulnerable from trusting in him.
Martin Niemoller was a German naval officer in World War One. A few years after that horrific war, which was an especially devastating war for Germany, he became a follower of a charismatic young German political figure, Adolf Hitler. Initially, Niemoller was drawn to Hitler’s passionate slogan to “make Germany great again.” Martin’s enthusiasm for the Nazi movement waned as he studied for the ministry in the Lutheran church. Increasingly, he saw that “making Germany great again” for the Nazis meant saying that Jews are not one of us and gays, lesbians, and transgender folk are not one of us and gypsies and immigrants are not one of us.
After his early support of the Nazis, Niemoller’s deepening Christian faith led him to resist Hitler. He was imprisoned in the concentration camp in Dachau, from which he barely escaped execution. Soon after he was set free, he said, “It took me a long time to learn that God is not the enemy of my enemies. He [God] is not even the enemy of his [God’s] enemies.”
I do not know how anyone could emerge from Dachau and say that, but Niemoller did. Somehow, living in the depths of a very real hell on earth, he learned that the biblical promise is true: “God is love” and if that promise is true, then God has little use for our hate and hatefulness. God has little use for our carefully crafted divisions. God has little use for anything but lives of selfless love, devoted to the One who calls us by name and who has not one lick of patience when we use God’s name, in whatever its form, to distance ourselves from those we deem not one of us.
As Mark tells the story of Jesus, the disciples never fully learn that lesson. They never fully learn that God’s love is not only for us. God’s love is for people not like us. It is for friends who drop a paralytic through the roof of a house in Capernaum to get to Jesus and for a woman with years of bleeding who refuses to be denied access to Jesus and for an insane man roaming the Gentile hills whose life will be forever changed by Jesus and for a Jewish leader who sets aside his power aside to plead with Jesus to heal his daughter. The disciples never learn that God’s love is also for all those people. God’s love is even for those who will betray Jesus, like Judas; those who will deny Jesus three times in three seconds, like Peter; even for those who will mock Jesus when he is gasping for his last breath, like the picnicking crowd around the cross. God’s love is for us all. The disciples, in Mark, never do fully learn that lesson.
So, I pray that for the love of God and for the love of even those we find the hardest to love and cannot understand how God can possibly love, may we learn the lesson that the first disciples of Jesus never did.