“Whoever Is Not Against Us” / Mark 9:38-50 / 30 September 2018
Oh, it’s a hard day to be a preacher. You just heard the two Bible passages that I’ve got to choose from, didn’t you? Hard day! You know how I’ve been complaining for the past four weeks about the Epistle of James…but then preaching from it anyway? Well, today’s reading from James was over the top even for me. I mean, faith healings? I’ve got nothing. But then again, this reading from Mark isn’t that much better. It’s replete with all the stuff we try not to let church be about around here. It’s got demons and exorcisms and hellfire and maiming. Plus, I’ve got this added pressure today: on the way home from church last week, my daughter told me that my sermon was “dark.” And when I bemoaned that sermon review to a parishioner, he simply said, “Yeah, and last week you preached about how ‘You gotta carry a cross’.” So, I feel some obligation to be a little more…uplifting this week. But how to do it with such hard readings as these? Well, I’ve told you before that if your Jesus is entirely to your liking, if he never disturbs you, if he never makes you squirm, then he’s probably not the real deal. And I must admit that the Jesus speaking in the Book of Mark today isn’t anyone I’d invite to a get-to-know-you backyard cookout. But he says something very significant amid all the talk of fire and devils. He says, “Whoever is not against us is for us.”
I was recently told by a 14-year old that Facebook is for the elderly. Younger folks have all moved to Snapchat, Instagram, Twitter. Even my African godson asked me why I haven’t migrated yet to WhatsApp. It’s important to age with grace, so I’ll just stick with Facebook. But for those of you who are either too old, or now too young, to be using Facebook, let me explain. You can go onto the Facebook website, and anyone can talk about anything. But there are different Facebook groups that are always publishing their stuff, too. I get pictures and articles and commentaries from any group I join, which are either churchly groups or outdoorsy ones. Well, Facebook recently has been trying to get me to join an Episcopal group called “High Church Coyote.” It keeps pushing this group at me and asking me to subscribe to its postings. I was intrigued. It sounded to me like the kind of group that might talk about candles and capes. Not that I’d ever make use of those things. Even if I were an Episcopalian, I don’t think I’d be of the high church variety. Incense makes me sneeze, and all the bowing feels a bit much for my modern tastes—as if God were a medieval monarch who needed to be placated. High churches would disapprove of signature neckwear, too. But it turned out that this group does not talk about which kind of incense is least smoky and how to get the ashes to stick on people’s foreheads on Ash Wednesday. No, they’re all about religious humor. They have a Chesterton quote: “It is the test of a good religion whether you can joke about it.” Apparently this group formed on another Episcopal site where some people thought it was inappropriate to make jokes about church life. So they jumped ship, started their own site dedicated to church humor, and dubbed it the High Church Coyote.
But this was my burning question, and maybe it’s yours, too: Why coyote? Why not the High Church Jester, or Comic, or Clown? When I looked around their page, I found a variety of answers: Because Wile E. Coyote from the old Looney Tunes shows holds a mirror up to our faces, highlighting the ridiculous pain that we bring on ourselves and our world in our constant quest for things we cannot have. They said maybe they were named Coyote after the Coyote clans among the Croatan Indians, whose job it was always to agitate the status quo. Then again, maybe they were named after the coyote who boarded a city bus in Portland and sat in the seat like a paying passenger.
Portland being what it is, that friendly coyote quickly became a symbol of the ills of suburban expansion, and indeed a symbol of the cost to other living creatures for the way we humans live in this world. Songs were written about the doglike fellow, who exited the bus to chase mice. It’s up to you to decide which coyote legend catches your fancy. But like most Facebook groups, High Church Coyote lists rules for how to speak to other coyotes on their page. Rule #1: “Never close the chapel door on someone else’s tail.” I did not join the group. And I never joined the Presbyterian equivalent group either, mainly because it’s run by the wrong kind of Presbyterians, all very doctrinal, with constant references to Calvin, and the Reformation, and predestination. No, as much as I like religious humor, it’s kind of hard to identify with a high church coyote. But I do like their first rule for engagement. I think it’s the selfsame thing Jesus is saying here in this obscure and perhaps slightly mystifying reading from the Gospel of Mark: Never close the chapel door on someone else’s tail. “Whoever is not against us is for us.” There are people out there in the world doing what they know to do, and it’s nothing like what you and I do. But ours is not to judge them. Ours is not to close the door on them.
Now, we do need to talk about this reading from Mark. It probably made you squirm a little if you were listening. It’s full of all the cringe-worthy details that we’ve come not to expect at most polite churches these days: imps, and damnation, and physical mutilation. But it’s got a clear trajectory that makes a kind of sense. The disciples come across a fellow they don’t know, but he’s invoking the name of Jesus. He’s not a known member of their band, but he appears to have the same interest in Jesus as them, the same goals, perhaps. Does Jesus have a secret other band of followers? Is he like one of those kings or bishops of old, who had secret other families that didn’t know about each other? Is that where he goes whenever Mark says that he disappeared to a lonely place to pray? No, surely not. Surely not. The only explanation is that this stranger, this other exorcist, has a relationship with Jesus that falls outside the scope of their experience. The only explanation is that this man admires and follows Jesus, even if he’s not in the inner circle. And Jesus sternly orders the Twelve not to interfere with the man, indeed, not to reject him, for he is “one of these little ones who believe in me.” And so, this is the trajectory I mentioned: The disciples see someone they don’t know and want to correct. Jesus tells them that he’s one of them even if they don’t know him, and to reject such a one, or to cast “stumbling blocks” on his path is an offense. Better to suffer the discomfort of his presence than to suffer the eventual pain of rejecting one whom God embraces. Indeed, Jesus goes on to say, since everyone is going to suffer anyway—from plucked out eyes or the fires of this world’s trials—then you might as well suffer for the right things. But his conclusion comes back to the outsider, acting in Jesus’ name, and Jesus says, “Be at peace with one another.” Whoever isn’t against us is for us. Don’t close the chapel door on his tail. Let this guy follow me as best he can, and you do the same.
Ah, but closing the chapel door on the tails of others…it’s kind of what people do. Maybe coyotes do it, too, but mostly I see humans doing it. Already in this sermon, have I not closed the chapel door on 1) religious people who cannot joke about faith; 2) high church Episcopalians who bow a little too much for my tastes; and 3) the “wrong kind” of Presbyterians? That’s the way we do it. We rarely say overtly nasty things about people unlike ourselves. We simply draw subtle circles around them and imply that they’re not really part of our clan. As a minister, sadly, I find myself doing this quite frequently as I try to differentiate myself—and my church—from the religious people you see on TV, the angry ones who want to force everyone to abide by their scruples. How do you avoid closing the door on a few tails from time to time?
We do it all the time when it comes to politics—probing strangers with gently leading language and cues, just to figure out which side they’re on. We do it according to social class without even thinking about it: a mere glimpse of someone’s car, or clothes, or patterns of speech, and we’ve got them figured out, right down to who they voted for and what part of town they live in. And we try to do it so…politely. I recently heard a minister talking about a certain company that sews clergy apparel, robes and things like that. He said of one company, in order to write it off, “It caters to African American clergy.” In other words, its robes are a little to garish, don’t bother shopping there. But these ways of closing the door on others are not exactly what Jesus is talking about here. He’s mostly concerned with how we look at our own experience of faith, decide it makes the most sense, then dismiss anyone else whose experience of faith is unlike it. This includes people of other faiths, usually, but also people we’ve never seen in the Jesus-inner-circle, folks like the other exorcist, “these little ones who believe in me.” Jesus says that by not accepting their experience of faith as genuine, we’re placing stumbling blocks in their path. Has anyone ever done that to you? Has anyone ever judged your faith to be inferior to theirs? Substandard, not-certain-enough, or maybe too certain, too off-the-wall, not within the historic confines of orthodoxy or the right church? Their judgment didn’t make you want to join them, did it? No, it made you want to get far away from them and maybe give up on faith altogether. Take heart. Jesus expresses his solidarity with those whose faith others find puzzling, like this other exorcist. “Don’t cast stumbling blocks in his path; don’t close the door on his tail.”
But do you know what does throw a few stumbling blocks into our roads, yours and mine? All this first century talk about exorcisms, and cutting off one’s foot, and hell and unquenchable fire. It’s this imagery that has developed into the gross cartoonesque ideas that many people have about the afterlife and Christianity in general. This language and these portrayals of divine wrath have done much to turn the modern heart and mind away from the faith. And yet, a careful reading of this text does not lend itself to a belief in a cartoon hell with red devils wielding pitchforks. Jesus is talking about the universal hell that is human suffering. The clue to that is in his enigmatic words, “Everyone will be salted with fire.” In other words, “Everyone is going to suffer in this life. Into every life a little fire must fall. No human being can fully escape the blight to which all mortal things are born: weakness, failure, suffering, loss. Yes, we’ll all experience our hell here below. These words about cutting out your eye to avoid hell, this is hyperbole to say that it’s better to suffer from resisting your own inner demons than to suffer from their rule. Since you must suffer anyway, best to suffer for the right things. Or in this particular case, best to suffer the indignities of sharing the world with Jesus-followers whom you don’t know and don’t like than to endure the pain of hating and rejecting them. “Be at peace with one another. Whoever is not against us is for us. Just be careful of their tail.”
This was voted the best religious joke in the United Kingdom. You might have heard it: I was walking across a bridge one day, and I saw a man standing on the edge, about to jump. I ran over and said: “Stop. Don’t do it.” “Why shouldn’t I?” he asked. “Well, there’s so much to live for!” “Like what?” “Are you religious?” He said: “Yes.” I said: “Me too. Are you Christian or Buddhist?” “Christian.” “Me too. Are you Catholic or Protestant?” “Protestant.” “Me too. Are you Episcopalian or Baptist?” “Baptist.” “Wow. Me too. Are you Baptist Church of God or Baptist Church of the Lord?” “Baptist Church of God.” “Me too. Are you original Baptist Church of God, or are you Reformed Baptist Church of God?” “Reformed Baptist Church of God.” “Me too. Are you Reformed Baptist Church of God, Reformation of 1879, or Reformed Baptist Church of God, Reformation of 1915?” He said: “Reformed Baptist Church of God, Reformation of 1915.” I said: “Die, heretic scum,” and pushed him off the bridge.
If we call people to our particular brand of faith, it’s not because we think ours is the closest to ultimate truth. I do believe we’re onto something big here, but I doubt that the whole truth of life and history can be contained in a single creed. If we invite people to our particular kind of church, it’s not because we think we’re the one true church. I’d wager that there is no “one true church,” just a bunch of us out there in the world doing what we know to do in the name of the same Jesus—like that unknown exorcist long ago, who was not in the inner circle. And if we cannot agree on who Jesus is and what he’s about, then perhaps we operate in the name of the same God. And if we cannot agree on a god, then perhaps we can come together around all that’s best in our shared human lot. Maybe we can find unity in the name of all that’s generous, and just, and kind. No, if we offer our brand of faith to our neighbors, it’s not because we’re bigots, nor because we believe ourselves to be the ark of safety that will bear them unscathed into a blessed afterlife. No, it’s because we’ve found something life-enhancing here, something profound and holy, and we wonder if they will not find it, too, and if it might not enrich their lives as it does ours. Here we’ve found inspiration for our dullness, peace for our turmoil, hope for our fears. And though our kind of faith isn’t always entertaining, it holds within its sacred folds—its ritual, and story, and community, and mission, and song—it holds within itself the possibility to see our lives anew. It sheds a light on our world that we would not otherwise see, and that light makes its way into our souls and lights them in ways that bring us joy and make us kinder. Not everyone gets it. Some go about faith in radically different ways and turn from ours in disgust. But let us not turn from them in disgust! Let us assume the best of them. Let us find common ground with them. Let us celebrate and include them. God is present and at work in the lives of people you and I would never suspect, people we gave up on long ago. Whoever is not against us is for us. Don’t close the door on them. Be at peace with one another. Amen.
“Whoever Is Not Against Us” / Mark 9:38-50 / 30 September 2018