Put down your post hole diggers!

27 Sep

I did it – I preached my first sermon on internship.  Phew.  Nerves were high this week as I anticipated the Sunday service and wrote my sermon.  I was pretty nervous until I was there reading the gospel and then I was okay.  No rotten tomatoes were thrown and I wasn’t rushed outside to be tarred and feathered so I think it went over fairly well.  So far anyways.  I realize that what I preached could have some further reaching implications – it seems very applicable to the ELCA churchwide assembly vote to allow gay clergy to be in same gendered monogamous relationships, which continues to be a sticky issue at Grace.  I do not in any way feel that it is my duty to preach my point of view regarding the vote and feel that this sermon was true to the text but could very easily lead people in that direction.  How my words rest and speak to the congregation members, my dear, is the job of the Holy Spirit and not my own.

Gospel text: Mark 9:38-50

My sermon is as follows:

My family has always included a canine member.  I remember running around the farm with Barkley and then Lucy.  Barkley was our guard dog, a black lab mutt, and Lucy was the sweetest yellow lab.  Now we have Jetta, another yellow lab, who is, by far, the most rambunctious and wild of the family pets.  Jetta is friendly and loves to run off and make new friends.  After a few instances of Jetta’s attempts to make friends, we decided Jetta needed boundaries … so Jetta is now subject to an invisible fence.  She is trained to stay within the limits of that fence.  The thought of crossing the line where the invisible fence lies is threatening to her.  She’s scared of it, knowing it will lead to a slight shock from her collar.  Once, when the invisible fence was still relatively new, Jetta crossed the line.  Her favorite toy had wound up on the other side and she was determined to get it.  She crossed the line, felt the shock, and was then fearful to cross back.  She sat on the other side of the fence and cried and whined that heartbreaking puppy cry.  My brother finally found her and brought her safely back inside of her fence. 

Poor Jetta has been stuck on both sides of her fence.  With a fence, we’re always on one side or the other.  We’re either in or we’re out.  Fences create limits and boundaries. They enforce ownership and can put people on the de-fense. We are excellent fence builders in our day and age, and have been for hundreds of years.  Think about the walls of Jericho.  The great wall in China.  Fences for farm animals.  Property lines.  White picket fences.  Snow fences.  A fence that spans the United States and Mexican border.  We even have invisible fences – fences that enforce limits but can’t be seen. 

I don’t think pets are the only ones with invisible fences to keep them in or out, within limits or out of boundaries.  I have invisible fences in my life.  The fences in my life don’t deliver a physical shock to my body if the line is crossed but many times, they are fences that I build myself or am a part of, either intentionally or unintentionally.  When we stop to think about it, we are all faced with fences.  Our families, our churches, our country – think of the lines we draw for membership within these groups.  We put up fences to keep people in or keep people out, to maintain order, or to govern with rules.  Fences can have a good, needed purpose but fences can also be limiting and damaging in negative ways.

The disciples in the gospel reading today want to put up a fence.  They encounter a man who is casting out demons in Jesus’ name but this man is not one of the disciples.  The man casting out demons isn’t one of them – how dare he do such a thing when he is not one of us, the disciples think.  The disciples, with their post hole diggers and wire cutters, had built themselves inside a fence with Jesus.  This other man?  He was not on the inside.  He was on the outside of the fence and the disciples did not want to let him in.  He could not be a part of the group that cast out demons in Jesus’ name.  He was not one of them, they did not know him, and therefore, according to the disciples, must be stopped.

The disciples wonder how anyone else can do good in Jesus’ name but them.  They are the ones who are following Jesus.  They are the ones who are within the fence they have built.  The disciples and Jesus.  Because the others are not with them, what they are doing cannot be right.  It must be stopped.

Jesus thinks differently.  “Do not stop him,” Jesus says.  “For no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me.  Whoever is not against us is for us.”   With those words, the fence is torn down.  The fence that keeps the disciples and Jesus on the inside and this other man on the outside is unnecessary – whoever is not against us is for us. 

Jesus continues, “For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.”  Jesus tells the disciples that any act of kindness, even an act as small as giving someone who is thirsting a drink of water, is an act that advances the kingdom of God, an act in God’s favor.  It makes no difference who does this act – if it is not against God, it is for God.  An act as simple as a sip of water – how simple and trivial this is and yet, how often we need to be reminded to do it.

A small gesture is one that can advance the kingdom of God and further share the love of Christ in and among God’s people.  But just as a small gesture can do good, so a small gesture can do harm.  Jesus continues by warning the disciples against creating stumbling blocks for the little ones.  Earlier in the gospel of Mark, Jesus welcomes the children into his arms, further telling the disciples and us today to welcome the children.  “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”  Jesus goes on with a series of extreme examples of warning regarding the severity of sin and causing others to stumble in their faith.  But as these verses contain warning about cutting off a hand, a foot, or an eye if that body part causes one to sin, the verses also contain promise that speaks to the greatness of the kingdom of God.  It is better to enter the kingdom of God with only one hand than not to enter at all. 

We also know that this is not the last word.  The gospel doesn’t end here but rather continues with Christ’s death and resurrection.  We are sinful people and come before Jesus broken and maimed.  We repent and meet Jesus at the cross.  Three days later, with Christ’s resurrection, we are given a promise.  Promise that we will be raised and that we will be made whole again.  We are sinful people but in the death and resurrection of Christ through God’s love, we are made whole and forgiven.

This promise is not only for those on the inside of the fences we build.  This promise is not reserved for a certain few or the ones that we think deserve it.  It is not within us to determine these limits or boundaries.  God’s love has no boundary.  God is in all places with all people; who are we to say that he isn’t?  God cannot be put inside a fence.  There is no fence long enough or no words in our vocabulary to describe the limitless love and power of God.

When we put up fences, we limit the work of God in the world and limit the promises of God.  We limit what we see as good and the Holy Spirit working among us.  To God, there is not fence.  No insiders or outsiders. Everyone can be the source of God’s action in and among us.  There is no us and them.  We are one.  It is together as one, working to share the good news and love of Christ.  We are not to limit who is restricted from the gospel or who can share the gospel news.  God’s action cannot be contained or completely explained by us. 

God’s action in the world is not always something we can understand.  It does not always come from the sources we think it should.  It can’t be contained in a fence or within only a certain group of people.   We cannot claim as Lutherans that we do more or better work for God’s kingdom that others, like those of other denominations.  We in the United States cannot fence ourselves off and say that we do good work, but kind actions in Asia or Africa or Canada are not pleasing to God.  We cannot say this.  We cannot know God’s master plan or in what ways He is working for the good in this world.  But as we listen to the Spirit, read God’s word, and welcome all into our community, we hope, pray, and act for our neighbor, for the other, and for the coming of God’s kingdom.

If we take down the fences, it might be a scary adventure at first.  With no fence in place, we lose control.  We’re not in charge of who is on the inside and who is not.  We’re no longer the one to say what is acceptable and what is not.  We lose control and we lose definition.  It’s no longer clear who the insiders and outsiders are.  It’s not black and white, not us and them.  But then we wonder – did we ever have control to begin with?  Is it our job to decide who is on the inside and who isn’t deserving of Christ’s promises?  As we take down the fences, we learn to give control to God.

If we take down the fences that separate us, perhaps we’d be surprised about what we would find.  We may be surprised at the people we meet and the deeds of kindness and works of love they are doing because of the gospel.  As we meet people, we should not assign labels or instantly start building a fence to separate us.  Cultural labels, ethnicity, age, economic status.  Instead of labels, instead of fences, we look for the actions, attitudes, and spirit, for mercy, justice, integrity, and faith and welcome it as God working in the world.  As we look to our neighbors, we can tear down the fences we have built, and leave God in charge. 

Let’s put down our post-hole diggers and wire cutters and let us go forth and show Christ’s love with our own actions of kindness, sharing the promise of Christ with all people.


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