Toorak Uniting Church

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Called to diversity

Mark 9: 49 – 50
Rev. Pr Wolfgang Stahlberg
Pentecost 18
27 September 2015

Grace and peace

This passage reveals one of our human tendencies – to fear those who are different from us. For this reason, we often insist on a high level of conformity, or uniformity, or even bureaucracy, trying to manage our anxiety with some kind of framework.

In this gospel text, the disciples want Jesus to put a stop to someone casting out demons in his name. Why, isn’t that a good thing to do? Yes, but the disciples are afraid to lose what they see as their privilege of Jesus’ friendship and belonging. They do not consider this other person "one of them."

Scholars tell us that this particular section reflects some conflicts between early communities of Jesus followers. The gospel writer is framing this part of his narrative to address some of the problems his people are having with other communities. They were not all united in their convictions, sometimes they clashed with each other, and occasionally they even berated one another over differences in practice. In other words, Mark is trying to help his community answer the question of who they are. He asks whether they will define themselves over and against other Jesus followers or whether they will discover their identity in their own attempt to do what Jesus taught – to care for the vulnerable, and to avoid those things that are destructive to self, neighbour, and community?

Jesus points out that whoever does good in his name is OK. I think that Jesus is also asking the disciples to imagine the relief of those the unnamed exorcist is helping. We do not know whether the unnamed exorcist in Mark’s narrative is a follower of Jesus, an aspiring disciple, or what. What we do know is that he seems to make the disciples nervous, so nervous, in fact that they try to stop him... but cannot.

We also know that we ourselves are so very prone to draw lines between those who are in and those who are out.

Sometimes we do it by gender. Many Christian traditions still restrict ordained leadership to men.

Sometimes we do it by ordination. Remind me again why in church tradition anyone can preach a sermon, but only those who are ordained can say words of celebration for the Eucharist?

Sometimes we draw lines by age, or sexual orientation, or ethnicity, or income level... And sometimes we do it by religion. Truth be told, we often do it by religion. Why do they – these people out there – worship the "wrong" God? Why do they wear these clothes or act in this way or that?

And I have to admit that I have problems to find a common basis with fundamentalist Christians. Why do they not understand? But they can do great and important work, I should be able to accept their motivation, even if I do not agree!

I want to stretch our imagination: Can we allow this passage from Mark’s Gospel to shape how we think of those who name God differently, or even do not name God at all? The question at hand is, "How can we develop a healthy, sane, and faithful Christian identity in a multi-faith (and multi-denomination) world like ours?" (McLaren)

Apparently Jesus is giving his blessing to this unnamed character. Then he turns the tables and lectures his disciples not to put stumbling blocks in front of others.

This makes me wonder whether our zeal for the gospel or, more honestly, our fear of those who are different from us sometimes makes us place stumbling blocks before persons of other faiths, which makes it harder for them to see and experience the love of God.

Remembering September 11th, Brian McLaren wrote: "To love your neighbour of another faith means to seek to understand her, to learn to see the world from her perspective, to stand with her, as it were, so that you can feel what she feels and maybe even come to understand why she loves what she loves."

I agree. And I think we can make a case based on what Jesus actually did that he would agree, too.

Years ago, somebody said: "Every time you draw a line between who's in and who's out, you'll find Jesus on the other side."

Here is the thing: our communities and the whole world are only getting more pluralistic, more complex, and more diverse. This means that we are likely to meet and get to know persons of different faiths – or no faith at all – in the workplace, at school, in the park, or at the swimming pool.

So perhaps this week's reading provides a good opportunity to reflect on our Christian responsibility to all people who need a word of comfort, a bowl of soup, or a hand of support.

?

Can we imagine that Jesus calls us to be at peace with those who name God differently – for example Allah – or are not able to name God at all? Can we imagine that Jesus would have us not only tolerate those of other faith traditions but also seek their welfare? Can we imagine Jesus calling us to get to know our neighbours, to understand them, love them, and in all possible ways "be at peace with one another"?

To tell you the truth, the older I get and the more people from other cultures and other faiths I meet, the harder I find it to imagine any other way of living as a Christian in this world than in harmony with each other – no matter what our religion is!

And right now, that includes, of course, all the refugees in the world, many from Syria, but also from Eritrea and Sudan, and several other countries. Most of them are not Christians. Does that mean we have no responsibility for them? Are we not all children of God?

Let us pray: God of all creation and all people, you love all of your children alike. Open our eyes and our hearts that we can embrace our siblings who need us although they are different from us, that we can learn from them, and build relationships that change the world into a place of diversity, justice, and peace.

Amen.

© Rev. Pr Wolfgang Stahlberg, 2015


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