9/30/2012 sermon: Gate-keepers in the Kingdom of God

Location: The Episcopal Church of the Holy Comforter, Richmond, Virginia
Text: Mark 9:38-50
18 Pentecost, Proper 21, Year B

Gate-keepers in the Kingdom of God

As you know, this was Virginia PrideFest weekend in Richmond. For a long time, the Pride festivals were a way to foster hope among the outsiders in our society—outsiders who happened to be LGBTQ: lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered, or queer. Now Pride—and our Diocese—are holding a victory dance, celebrating the uniqueness of LGBTQ people among us, and celebrating those who formerly were outsiders, but who are now insiders. The goal of legal and sacramental equality has not yet been reached, but we hope and pray and continue to work toward that end.

Quite coincidentally, our gospel lesson today is about insiders, and outsiders, and those who guard the gate. You might not think the message is about gate-keeping, given this passage’s exhortation to cut off various body parts. But to fully understand what is going on in our gospel lesson today, to see that the message is “There are no outsiders in God’s Kingdom,” we have to go back a few chapters in Mark’s gospel to see what Jesus’ disciples have been up to. When we do, we discover that Jesus had been teaching the disciples about the Kingdom of God, but somehow what the disciples had been learning was how to be gatekeepers.

This particular episode began, I suspect, when Jesus sent the disciples off by themselves on their solo first mission trip.1 Jesus had sent his disciples out two by two; had given them instructions about what to take, and what not to take, and what to do if people accepted or rejected the Kingdom-of-God message. Jesus had even given them a list of duties, and exorcism was one of those duties.

We could spend all day figuring out what exorcism was in the context of Jesus’ time; I am going to take this word at face value: Jesus instructed his disciples on how to heal people of the very bad things that had taken control of their lives.

After the disciples had returned from their first mission trip, Jesus had discovered that they had been unable to perform an exorcism on a young boy. When confronted by the boy’s father, Jesus had healed the child himself, then he had advised his disciples that their prayer life had been lacking. We do not know which two disciples had been unable to perform this difficult exorcism. Somehow, though, we suspect that James and John had been the culprits, because John was the one who speaks up in today’s gospel lesson.

There is another event that is important for understanding what’s going on today. Just before John tattles on an outsider who was performing exorcisms in Jesus’ name, the disciples had been arguing among themselves about “who was the greatest.” As you will recall from last week’s lesson, Jesus had told his disciples that the last would be first, and that they needed to be servants of all.

And yet, in today’s lesson here are the disciples, gate-keeping again! Having been chastised by Jesus, John tried to divert attention away from his own shortcomings, to the shortcomings of others. “That other guy over there,” John told Jesus, “that other guy was casting out demons in your name, and yet he doesn’t even follow you (like we do).”

We can recognize this maneuver, can’t we? The goal is to divert attention onto someone else. I wonder if John also was thinking, “How come that outsider can succeed at exorcism, when we who have given up everything to follow Jesus can’t always perform one?”

John had slipped into gate-keeping again.

Insider. Outsider. I’m in. You’re out; get out, stay out.

Hadn’t John yet learned that there ARE NO OUTSIDERS IN GOD’S KINGDOM? Those who are inside the Kingdom are living by Kingdom values, and are doing Kingdom works. Conversely, those who are outside the Kingdom may speak the God-talk, but they don’t walk the God-walk; we can often find them at the gate, trying to regulate who’s inside and who’s outside.

Hadn’t John yet learned that there ARE NO OUTSIDERS IN GOD’S KINGDOM? More instruction was needed, instruction which Jesus next provided. Apparently Jesus thought that his disciples were not yet sufficiently single-minded about entering into and participating in God’s Kingdom. We know this because he used some very strong and vivid images about cutting off body parts, if need be, to enter God’s Kingdom. Jesus wanted his disciples inside the Kingdom of God, not loitering at the gate.

I can’t even begin to count the number of times that I have heard today’s gospel lesson quoted as justification for excluding gay Christians from the Church. Well, part of today’s gospel lesson, anyway. This part:

If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea.

In most cases, the one doing the quoting was saying, in essence, that we would be better off dead than to be an “unrepentant” gay Christian, or if not dead, neutered for the sake of the Gospel.

These folks would have done better to have considered that Jesus was using strong language to get his disciples’ attention. Knowing this, these folks would have looked more closely at the first part of today’s gospel lesson. Are there those whom we do not recognize as Kingdom insiders, who are living a godly life and are doing God’s work in Jesus’ name? Our lesson tells us that the answer is “yes,” and that these people are not really outsiders. We need to get away from the gate and get on with doing the work of the Kingdom.

Jesus’ name is so powerful, that those who use Jesus’ name to do God’s work get converted in the process—even if we ourselves are not yet ready to recognize them as fellow Christians. Somehow, they have tapped into Christ Jesus before they have formally begun to follow Jesus Christ. Jesus teaches us today that doing the one, works in Jesus’ name, leads to the other, following Jesus, just as surely as the process works the other way around.

So, how does this message apply to us, here at Holy Comforter in Richmond, at the end of PrideFest weekend? This parish can be justifiably proud of its long history of sharing the Good News of Jesus with the LGBTQ people in this city. Holy Comforter has long stood as a beacon of hope, a beacon of light, proclaiming that God loves absolutely everybody—THERE ARE NO OUTSIDERS IN GOD’S KINGDOM. And today is a day of celebration. Those who once were kept out, are recognized as part of the Kingdom of God.

Just when you might think that this work is done, though, there is always a new call. The work of the Kingdom is NOT done. So I am here today to ask if Holy Comforter can’t do it all again, to shine that beacon of hope and light, once again—but this time in Spanish? I am here today to ask if Holy Comforter could throw open the doors of our Church, of our Diocese, once more, to ALL of God’s children. Opening the gate of the Kingdom is a good way of keeping ourselves from lingering at the gate.

Who will you next help the Church to recognize as insiders in God’s Kingdom?

1 Mark 6:7-13


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