Sunday, September 26, 2021

18th Pentecost, 2021-B: Unity not uniformity

 Lectionary: Lectionary: Esther 7:1-6, 9-10, 9:20-22; Psalm 124: James 5:13-20; Mark 9:38-50 

After 25 years of being a spiritual director, I’ve learned how to listen deeply which enables me to discern gifts that the speaker may not even recognize in themselves yet. Reflecting that discernment back often opens up new ways for them to live and serve. In corporate settings, this grace enables me to envision a parish like a great puzzle, with lots of individual pieces that fit together creating a whole that is unified and beautiful.

Spiritual gifts often don’t follow the paths of logic or reason. God gifts who God wants to in the ways God wants to, and those gifts will change over time, as God responds to the changing circumstances in the world, bringing forth the gifts that are needed to accomplish the plan of love.
This is such an important lesson for the church. We like being in a group. There’s a security in being with “like-minded” people. As the Christian church evolved, it self-segregated into groups: Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Protestant… then into smaller groups within each larger one: Episcopalian, Baptist, Presbyterian, Lutheran, etc.

Each smaller group was built upon certain beliefs or doctrines that were distinct from the other groups. Over time, and by the grace of God these groups began to reconnect with one another, for example, the AME (African-Methodist-Episcopal) churches.

The Episcopal Church is now in full communion with the ELCA (Lutherans), the Moravians, the Church of Sweden, and more. As our TEC website explains it: “Within this new relation, churches become interdependent while remaining autonomous…Diversity is preserved, but this diversity is not static. Neither church seeks to remake the other in its own image, but each is open to the gifts of the other as it seeks to be faithful to Christ and his mission. They are together committed to a visible unity in the church’s mission to proclaim the Word and administer the Sacraments.” Source

For us, it's about unity, not uniformity.

In today’s Gospel, the disciples discover a man who “doesn’t follow us” healing in Jesus’ name. They complain to Jesus about him, proud to tell him they made him stop.

Jesus’ response probably surprises the disciples who are used to living with rigid boundaries around their Jewish identity, but he is teaching them (and us) about the inclusiveness of God’s plan of redemption. As our Prayer Book says, “the Church is one body under one head, Jesus Christ. It is holy because the Spirit dwells in us. It is catholic because we proclaim the whole faith to all people to the end of time. And it is apostolic because we continue in the teaching and fellowship of the apostles, being sent now as they were then to carry out Christ’s mission to all people.” (BCP, 854) Source 

The exorcist in this gospel story is not an enemy, he’s a gift from God, and Jesus admonishes the disciples to recognize that the grace of God is in him – a lesson that was repeated later at the first Pentecost.

This is Jesus’ church, not ours. We are members of the Body of Christ in the world, and that body is diverse and living, evolving and interdependent. As our Presiding Bishop often says, we are the Episcopal branch of the Jesus movement.

When the disciples tried to stop this man from healing in Jesus’ name, they became stumbling blocks on the path of love. Jesus’ teaching on the consequences of being a stumbling block is clear: “it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea.”

The next part of his teaching requires some deep listening. We can do this. We are a people of prayer so we’re used to hearing words that point to a larger meaning. It’s also one of those times I’m grateful that as Episcopalians, we take the Bible too seriously to take it literally.

Rabbi Jesus had a point to make, so let’s look at the words he chose: 

HAND = our actions... At the Last Supper, Jesus said: the one who betrays me is with me, and his hand is on the table, that is, his betrayal is already happening. (Lk 22:21) Also, Jesus continually asserted that the kingdom of God is at hand – it’s happening now. If our actions inhibit anyone God is drawing in, we are a stumbling block.

FOOT = our direction, our path and how we travel it... The Way of Love is inclusive of more and more until the whole world is reconciled to God. Jesus established this path and it is one of gentleness, mercy, welcome, and transformation by the grace of God. If the path we or our church is on is coercive, judgmental, exclusive, or conflicted we are off the path of love and we are a stumbling block.

EYE = how we receive information, how we perceive and understand. Depersonalization allows us to make an enemy of another person. They become a classification: illegal, black, brown, wrong, condemnable. Jesus calls us to see differently, to see with the eyes of the Spirit, so that we can recognize the grace of God in the least likely of people or circumstances. The Bible is full of stories about this: God choosing Moses who stuttered, Abraham who traded his wife for his life, and the stranger who is healing in Jesus’ name.

If our actions, our way of traveling our path, or our way of perceiving cause us to become a stumbling block, we must be willing to disconnect from them. That can be hard for a people who love saying, “We’ve always done it this way” or who believe theirs is the only correct, moral, or logical view.

This is also the Episcopal way. I refer you to our (still current) statement of ecumenism in the BCP, on page 876: “We do solemnly declare to all whom it may concern, and especially to our fellow-Christians of the different Communions in this land, who, in their several spheres, have contended for the religion of Christ… That in all things of human ordering or human choice, relating to modes of worship and discipline, or to traditional customs, this Church is ready in the spirit of love and humility to forego all preferences of her own.”

How powerful is that?! And how much peace would come from applying this to church ministries and worship preferences?

In our Eucharistic Prayer C, we pray to God: “Open our eyes to see your hand at work in the world about us…” (BCP, 372) It is God’s work we do, and Jesus concludes this teaching moment by clarifying that using the metaphor of salt.

“For everyone is salted with fire,” Jesus says. Salt is a preserver of meat (of flesh) and fire is the Biblical symbol for God. Remember the burning bush and the tongues of fire at Pentecost.

Followers of Christ are salted with fire… we are preserved by God, with God, and in God so that we can be sent into the world to do our part reconciling the world to God. As theologian Jim Marion says: “When the kingdom is established upon Earth everyone will be spiritually developed to the point of living effortlessly… All humans will live in conscious union with God and with each other, each one manifesting Spirit in their own uniquely creative way (Mt 13:52). This creativity will continually deepen and find ever new and wondrous ways of expressing itself, for there is no end to the depths and riches of God, nor is there any end to the gifts God is prepared to shower on those who follow the path of love (1Cor 2:9).” (Source: “Putting on the Mind of Christ, The Inner Work of Christian Spirituality,” Hampton Roads Pub Co, 2011, pp 291-292)

Let us pray… Grant us, God of love, to remember that we are salted with the fire of your Spirit and bring us to be at peace with one another in this church and in the world. Then send us out onto the path of love where we will find heavenly treasure strewn about in divine abundance for us and for all. Show us when we are in the way and mercifully restore us when we’ve strayed from your path of love, that we may glorify you as we serve your creation in the name of Jesus. Amen.

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