The text for this sermon is Mark 9:38-50.
So, this guy dies and goes to heaven. He meets St. Peter at the Pearly Gates. St. Peter asks him what church he belonged to on earth. The guy says I was born and raised a Presbyterian. St. Peter smiles and says, Aahh, our Presbyterian heaven is wonderful, let me take you to it. So, St. Peter starts walking him down a long hallway. As he is walking, the guy can’t help but look into the rooms on either side. In one room, he hears oompha music and sees people drinking beer and singing. What is that? Oh, that is our Lutheran heaven. In another room, he sees people dancing and drinking wine. And that? That is our Greek Orthodox heaven. Then, St. Peter turns to him, and says sternly. I really must ask you to be quiet though as we pass this next room. Why? Well, that is where we put a church that thinks they are the only ones who were saved. We just hate to ruin heaven for them and tell them there are others up here, too.
Churches spend a lot of time determining who is in and who is out. Our own denomination has debated these boundaries. Just in my lifetime, we have expanded who is in by allowing women to be pastors, then the divorced to serve as pastors, then Methodist, Presbyterian, UCC and Episcopalians to serve as pastors in our Lutheran churches, and most recently congregations can accept if they choose pastors who are living in a homosexual union. Every time we have expanded these boundaries, congregations have left our denomination. The new boundary was simply too generous. Suddenly, there were people in who we always just assumed were safely out.
The disciples are trying to figure out this boundary, too. They stumble across a guy who is doing exorcisms in the name of Jesus. The problem is that he does not have a union card. He is not a bonified disciple like them. Exorcisms might have been an especially sore subject for them. Earlier in this chapter, these same disciples tried to cast out some demons and made a mess of it. It had to irk them that this stranger was doing something successfully that they were failing to do. So, they make the guy stop and proudly tell Jesus, we stopped someone from doing good things in your name, because he was not one of us.
I don’t think knucklehead is ever uttered by Jesus, but surely he thought it. With a smile Jesus tells them if this guy is using my name for good things and it’s working for him, at least we can count on him not speaking bad about me tomorrow. For whoever is not against us, is for us. He follows with an even broader claim. Amen I say to you, which is what Jesus always says in Mark before something important, whoever does anything good for a Christian, even if it is tiny like giving a glass of water, that guy is participating in the Kingdom of God and he will be welcomed and celebrated.
The disciples, like many congregations, like many of us, want to narrow who is in and who is out. Jesus seems intent on doing just the opposite, throwing the doors open and letting just about any Tom, Dick or Harry who wants to join in the fun of opposing evil to come on in. If someone is using his name for good, that was good enough for Jesus. Can it be good enough for us?
The HEART Food Pantry that Messiah is actively involved in a Mid Ohio Food Bank pantry that was created as a project of the Reynoldsburg Ministerial Association, or the RMA. The RMA is a group of local Christian churches. They saw a need for a new pantry in Reynoldsburg that could meet the growing demand and decided we could accomplish this big task if we worked together. HEART is an ecumenical project from beginning to end and it is working. We have been open since November and we already give away enough food to make over 3000 meals a month for local families.
Messiah has been a leader in HEART. We provide a lot of the volunteers, Margaret Messick, one of our members, is one of two operation coordinators, Ron Moder, another member is the treasurer, Suzanne Schmandt leads volunteers and I sit on the board. My job on the board is to try to get more churches in the area involved. Local churches are beginning to respond. Reynoldsburg Missionary Alliance, New Antioch Baptist Church, Grace Apostolic, Reynoldsburg Baptist, Eastpointe Christian and Temple Israel Synagogue have all inquired recently how they can become part of HEART.
A potential church partner has asked about Temple Israel. They told me they would have to reconsider their involvement if Temple Israel came on board. They reasoned that since they do not use the name of Jesus in their good works, they are not one of us. If they join us in HEART, all the churches become less able to relate what we are doing to Jesus. It stops being a Christian act and becomes simply a good deed. They believe working with Temple Israel hurts the ministry of HEART.
The ministry of HEART has been Christian churches working together in the name of Jesus to feed the hungry, just as Jesus commanded us to do in Matthew 25. What is the most important part of that ministry, the Christian church part or the feeding the hungry part? If we say no to non Christian partners, we are weaker with less food, less money, and less volunteers and unable to do what Jesus commands. Working with others who do not name Jesus, does not limit our ability to communicate the love that motivates us to act. What to do? For me the answer is clear. Jesus told the disciples that even someone who offers you a glass of water has become part of the Christian mission. Anyone who joins us at HEART to feed the hungry is welcomed. If they are not against us, they are for us.
Who is in and who is out? Every time the church draws these lines, we cut off witness and ministry that we could be doing. We create a stumbling block that keeps others from hearing about Jesus. People pay attention to the announcements we make of who is in and who is out. They make a decision on whether to join us or not based on how open and inviting we are. Every time we draw a line we exclude a group of people from hearing any message from the church except you are not welcome here.
In another part of the story, Jesus said that he came to save the sinners, not the righteous. This means that he came to reach people outside our doors, not inside. Jesus is always trying to make the boundaries as large as possible. The disciples in this story and many churches in our day want to narrow those boundaries. Duane Prieber, a retired Wartburg Seminary professor said, “Every time you draw a line between who is in and who is out, you will find Jesus on the other side.”
Messiah has been working with other churches long before I got here. We continue to increase our work with our neighboring churches. Our Joseph’s Coat Ministry is now a full partnership with St. Pius Roman Catholic parish as evidenced by our Spaghetti Dinner Fundraiser held at their hall yesterday. People from many different churches were at the dinner last night, gathered because we all share a common mission, to serve those in need. There is plenty of work to do in this world. We need all hands on deck. If they are not against us, they are for us, as Jesus said. Who is in and who is out? As Christians, I think we have better questions to ask. Amen