Preacher: Jo J. Belser
Location: Episcopal Church of the Resurrection, Alexandria, Virginia
Text: Mark 9:38-50
18 Pentecost (Proper 21), Year B
“A salty community”
Do you remember the now very-old TV show Cheers? Set in a bar, the main characters were those who showed up there every day and hung out together—drank together, although the alcohol angle was downplayed. The theme song of Cheers clued us in to the characters’ motivation: “I want to go where everyone knows my name.”
This is need we humans have to gather together, this is the need to know and be known to each other, this is the impetus for forming community. The regulars at Cheers were a community for each other, of sorts. At Cheers, the people hung out together for community and the drinking was secondary. The more close-knit the members of the community, the tighter the bonds among them. And the tighter the bonds among a community’s members, the more that community enriches the lives of its members.
Take Church of the Resurrection, for example. This is a community, of sorts. The sort of community we are is a Jesus community, a place where we gather to learn and teach each other about God and how to become disciples of Christ Jesus. The bonds that have formed among us go beyond worship, though. I have noticed that we give each other rides to the hospital and all sorts of other help, even as we pray for those who are sick and provide food for hungry people beyond our walls. We sometimes even call our community a “family,” implying a strong sense of belonging among our members.
To be known, as at Cheers; to receive and provide mutual support; and to learn and practice Christian discipleship, as at Resurrection; all these are benefits of community. But there are dangers in a strong community, as well. The most severe danger is that a strong community can become so focused inward that the community loses the ability to truly see and know new people who want to join. This, and a related danger—to lose a connection to the outside world—are the challenges of a Christian community, any Christian community, where the imperative of the gospel is to tell the world about Jesus. There is a strong desire to be cohesive and be known, as well as a gospel imperative to go out beyond the community in the name of Jesus.
There are also always questions about how far we should go to adapt to new ideas, new ways, and new people — let’s name it: often-times scandalous new people with strange new ideas and odd new ways. I’m thinking here of divorced people, and then women people, and then gay people, and whoever else is next.
These are all the very questions that today’s gospel lesson addresses: how to identify who is part of the Christian community, and what things are not acceptable in that community. I am going to focus on the first part: how to identify who is part of the Christian community. How do we define our community as radically different from the culture around us, even while we invite that culture into our church?
Jesus’ first disciples ran smack into this problem when they discovered that someone they didn’t even know—someone who wasn’t part of their community—was casting out demons in Jesus’ name.
Now this whole idea of demons and of exorcising said demons, might present a problem to our modern minds. But the reality is that there ARE strong forces of evil in our world, even today, and the ability to cure people infected with such demons is a very strong power. Imagine, for example, someone so addicted to drugs that she sells those drugs to children in schools. And imagine someone able to heal her from that addiction, to the point that she turns to another way of life.
When Jesus’ disciples encountered such a healer, they were scandalized. Weren’t THEY the only source of Jesus? Wasn’t their community the only authentic Jesus franchise? How dare someone who wasn’t with THEM, the original Jesus-followers, do any deed of power in Jesus’ name? (Did you notice in our gospel reading, that John complained to Jesus that this healer wasn’t following “us?”)
Jesus, of course, was not particularly worried about the situation. He told his followers “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.” We understand here that Jesus isn’t interested in drawing a strong boundary around his own group. Instead, anyone who acts IN JESUS’ NAME is a Jesus franchise. In other words, the church is not OUR church, but Jesus’ church. The question isn’t, “Are they following us?” but “Are they following Jesus?”
In our world today, we are very used to other groups who bear Jesus’ name. There are the Catholics (of every kind), as well as Protestants (of every kind), all of whom define themselves IN JESUS’ NAME and who do good IN JESUS’ NAME. What we are less comfortable with is the “in Jesus’ name” part of today’s lesson. WE might say, “all good is from God, so anyone who does good IS acting in Jesus’ name even if they don’t name Jesus.” And while I might agree with that thinking, in theory, I wonder how the world will know about Jesus if we never speak his name? Or worse yet, will the world get a very skewed, one-dimensional view of Jesus if we are silent and other Jesus franchises are the only ones to speak Jesus’ name?
At the end of today’s gospel, Jesus told his disciples that they should be “salt.” In other words, they should be the very thing that preserves and brings Jesus’ teaching to life. WE are Jesus salt for today’s generation. So the question for us remains, drawing on today’s gospel lesson, how do we define ourselves? This defining, this naming, is more than mere words. Who we say we are, and what we say we will do, for Jesus, is important, both setting our boundaries and announcing our intent to share our Jesus community beyond ourselves. Last Monday our Vestry adopted a new mission statement for Resurrection: “God’s work—our hands, voices, and hearts committed to our community and the world.” In THIS way, we will be salt, for Jesus.