Called to Do Welcoming and Inclusive

Delivered at St. Thomas of Canterbury Episcopal Church on September 30, 2018.

Mark 9:38-50

1.

“Whoever is not against us is for us.” What a welcoming and inclusive phrase!

It reminds me, actually, of a story from Alexander the Great’s conquests. Maybe Jesus had this in mind too.

The year was 331 BCE. In his campaign against Darius III of Persia, Alexander’s army was making significant headway. Strategist that he was, Alexander reasoned he would divert his focus for a time to conquering Egypt. Conquest of Egypt would be advantageous for many reasons, not the least being the establishment of a strong coastal base from which he could communicate across the Mediterranean.

When he reached the town of Pelusium (in Egypt), he was met by a man named Mazaces, the governor who had been left in charge by Darius himself; but only Mazaces—no army, no navy, no kind of resistance whatsoever—for Darius had recently commanded all military forces to return to Persia.

So, Mazaces did the only thing he could think of: he handed over the treasury, 800 talents; and the royal furniture. Alexander installed a new governor, Cleomenes, but warmly received Mazaces, even appointing him to an administrative position overseeing finance and the royal mint.

News of this meeting spread. Later, having sailed up the Nile, Alexander and his navy reached the capitol Memphis. There they were received with a red-carpet reception. Alexander was hailed across the land as Savior and Liberator. As if to say, “Whoever is not against us is for us,” no battle of even the smallest scale took place. In fact, awed as he was by Egyptian culture, Alexander largely returned life to what it had been before Darius.

But this saying also reminds me of St. John’s Episcopal Church, in New Braunfels, Texas: the first Episcopal Church I ever attended, on Maundy Thursday of 2006. Soon after that, the bishop visited and confirmed Holly and me. At last, my family and I had found our spiritual home.

But about a year later, on a Sunday morning, from the pulpit, the rector announced, “After much prayer and discussion, the vestry and I have decided to leave the Episcopal Church. Next Sunday will be my last. In fact, we will march in procession out of these doors and down Guenther Ave. two blocks to where we have rented a new facility. Who’s with us?”

Is this the same thing as to say, “Whoever is not against us is for us”?

Now, the bishop was against him, surely. As for me, I didn’t really care what he, as a person, decided to do; but I was concerned about the parish, the community. I suppose, then, I was against him, in a way.

But what about all the other people, people like my dad, who was far removed from this drama and didn’t really care one way or another. He wasn’t against the rector; did that then mean he was for him?

Well, no.

So, I wonder, what about all those people in and around Galilee and beyond who were ambivalent toward Jesus? Was Jesus saying that, well, they weren’t against him so therefore they must be for him?

Um, Jesus, I’m not so sure it works that way.

We like to say things like, “Whoever is not against us if for us”; and “We’re welcoming and inclusive.” But in reality it doesn’t always flesh out like we think it’s supposed to.

2.

Whatever we make of Jesus’ words, today’s Gospel puts these ideologies to the test.

A man is casting out demons in Jesus’ name; and the disciples want to stop him, “because,” they say, “he was not following us.”

Jesus then says something unexpected: “Do not stop him”; and, “Whoever is not against us is for us”; and we think, rightly, that Jesus wants us to be similarly welcoming and inclusive.

However, did you catch what happens a little farther down? Jesus says it would be better to maim the body than to enter hell whole. Entering hell complete is still complete hell.

But here’s the thing: by body Jesus probably means the common metaphor for church; then what Jesus is now saying is that there is a time and place to be exclusive. Specifically, it is better to cut off a bad body part—better to exclude a present member of the community—than not to include an outsider seeking to come in.

Include the outsider yet exclude the insider? Is this a paradox? What gives?

At the very least, today’s passage brings up some difficult questions about communities that are formed in Christ’s name: churches.

Questions like:

Who is in the community; and who is not?

And:

Once a person is in the community, what are acceptable behaviors; and what are not?

3.

We, the Christian church, like to say we’re welcoming and inclusive. It’s a good thing to say. Nevertheless, what we do often demonstrates otherwise.

What do I mean?

Well, for starters, a church can become like a museum.

A museum is beautiful—and sacrosanct and awe-inspiring and all that—but at the end of the day it is mostly a place for artifacts, things that maybe once upon a time made the world a better place but have lost their relevance for today.

Chanting Rite I, facing east, wearing holy vestments from Roman times, burning incense, singing masses—these sorts of things are spectacularly and aurally beautiful, and no one wants to see or hear them fade out entirely; but when they become a church’s main focus, that church largely loses its relevance to the outside world.

A church can also become like a country club.

Now, don’t get me wrong, country clubs are nice places—the food, the recreational activities, the hospitality, the friends. But the reality is they are there to serve the insiders, the members, those who pay the annual fees. Apart from a modicum of marketing efforts, country clubs do very little for the outside world; and likewise the outside world is little concerned about what happens inside the country club—or the country club church.

A third analogy: I’ve heard statements made on many occasions like this: “That church is in hospice.”

The idea is that the church body in question is on its last leg, doing all it can to keep going another year or month or week or day before it is forced to close its doors. The focus is no longer on its life in connection with the outside world, but on life support: on how much longer it can be kept going.

Hospice facilities are good and necessary; and a very real part of the church’s responsibility is to focus on end-of-life issues. But death is just that: only part of the story. New life—resurrection—is the other part. And if you ask me, new life actually takes precedence over everything else. It’s the focal point in all our liturgies, even funerals. The goal of a “church in hospice” shouldn’t be to keep it going.

On the other hand, a fourth analogy, a church can just as easily become hipster.

But, regardless of how much a church tries to keep up with the times—technology, fashion, music, how cool the pastor is, whatever—trends toss and turn like the waves of the sea; yet the deeper realities and needs of humanity, the outside world, continue.

One more: a church can become a school of theology, where doctrine becomes the brand. What matters to a church like this is where you stand or don’t stand on hot topics—abortion or home-schooling or global warming, for instance.

I could go on, there are more analogies; but the point has been made. In each of these cases—no matter how welcoming and inclusive they say they are—these churches end up excluding those who are not like them.

And this is Jesus’ point today: even as communities of Christians, we humans naturally establish unwritten rules—shibboleths, invisible boundaries, walls—to keep out those who don’t see things the way we do.

But when these are stumbling blocks . . . it would be better to tie a millstone around our necks and plunge into the sea, Jesus says, than to put them in the way of those outside of our community who seek to come in.

I cannot stress it enough: Jesus calls us not just to be but to do welcoming and inclusive.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: