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According to Jesus

The following sermon was preached by Zach Parris, LSTC student, in Augustana Chapel at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago on Thursday, October 1, 2009.


Mark 9:38-50

It is at this point in the lectionary that I start to wonder if the writer of Mark spent some time writing for a sitcom. And not for a good one, more like According to Jim than The Office. Because once again, like a tired joke in a bad sitcom, this week the joke is on those bumbling and baffling disciples, who never seem to understand Jesus' teaching.

Last week the disciples didn't seem to understand what Jesus was saying about welcoming and serving. And so, Jesus breaks out this really compelling image to illustrate his point. Jesus physically embraces a child and says to the disciples "Whoever welcomes a child like this, welcomes me." It's a powerful image of the welcome and embrace of God.

And then we move to this week's passage from Mark. And as we move from last week to this week there is no passage of time. The gang doesn’t journey together to some other place and then get into this discussion. Rather right after Jesus' illustrative image, welcoming and embracing the least in society, John responds, "Oh yeah, Jesus. I think I see where you are going with this. One time we saw somebody casting out demons and we stopped him because he wasn’t following us." It's almost comical how far the disciples come from getting it right, once again.  

And maybe it would be funny, if it weren't so frustrating. This week the dimwitted disciples' inability to understand appears to push even Jesus to frustration, as he moves from a beautiful image embracing a child to images of severed body parts and millstones around the necks of the disciples.

Now, I know it's a characteristic of Mark's gospel account that the disciples never really seem to get it. But today, after a couple weeks of ragging on the intellectual aptitude of the disciples, I start wonder that maybe the disciples aren't picking up what Jesus is putting down, not because they aren't smart enough or because they haven't been on internship yet, but maybe they don't get it, because it's hard. Maybe it's just that this radical welcome is really difficult to live out in the world.

A good portion of my internship was spent at a campus ministry center at the University of Tennessee. There I found myself in the disciple's shoes. One of the unique characteristic of campus ministry in general, is that it is a ministry aimed at a particularly and rather clearly defined group of people. Our campus ministry center was located right in the midst of the campus community. Students continually flowed by and through our doors, stopping in for lunch, for bible study, and for worship. Daily our center was washed over by students going to and from class.

But another reality of this particular context was our proximity to a major thoroughfare. On which a large number of the chronically homeless passed daily. Situated between these two very different communities, we wrestled with Jesus' call to welcome and embrace all. Every Sunday evening, we would put out our big sandwich board sign which proclaimed "Eucharist Tonight" and the most important element of any successful campus event, "Free Food." And our big sign attracted people from both communities surrounding our center. Sunday evenings the campus ministry center would slowly start to fill with both college students and the homeless. Which in theory sounds great, it sounds like a perfect example of what Jesus has been talking about. It sounds just like God's radical embrace. Maybe if Jesus told this story the disciples would have gotten it.

But in reality the bringing together of these two very different groups of people left my supervisor and me to wrestle with difficult questions. We had to wrestle with issues of welcome. And it was hard. We had to ask ourselves how the 18-year-old college freshman, nervously searching for a place to fit in, for a place of comfort in the face of a great wave of changes and uncertainty, how would experience welcome, when they entered into a room for the first time filled with the tired, worn, and sometimes intimidating faces of the homeless.

And at the same time, we had to ask ourselves how these marginalized members of our community would experience this radical welcome of Christ, when yet another institution pushed them out the door, no matter how politely we might have asked.

And so, I feel for the disciples, 'cause this radical welcome and embrace is hard. And it's hard, because the difficult decisions we make have real and definite consequences. We had to ask ourselves if in the decisions we were making, we were leaving stumbling blocks at the feet of the people we were called to serve.

But fortunately, our stumbling blocks aren't Jesus' stumbling blocks. Our stumbling blocks of fear and anxiety do not cause Jesus to stumble. God moves over and around them. God overcomes our fears with an embrace and welcome of love and life. 

Whether we occasionally leave stumbling blocks behind us like crumbs or whether we fashion formidable walls out of our blocks, Jesus overcomes them and is strong enough to pull together the whole body of Christ and fill us with hope and peace.

Even in Mark, where the disciples seem to be building a fort with all the blocks they are leaving behind, even in the face of these stones Jesus moves on through to the cross and to the life and welcome it brings. No, the obstacles that stand in our way, do not stand in the way of Christ.  

At the end of a semester wrestling with God's call to welcome, I was on campus as our weekly bible study was about to get started. The group that regularly gathered for this bible study was primarily composed of freshmen, people looking for a place and a group to fit in with. But this particular evening, as the students were gathering two older homeless men, Roger and George, showed up.

As we gathered around the table, I noticed the eyes of our students were a little wider than usual as Roger and George sat down and joined us. There was a general uneasiness as we began our discussion, and I must admit that I was included in that tension. Our topic for the night was the end of times. And after I introduced the topic, I asked for the group's reflections. In response there was period of silence. But this silence was broken when Roger announced, "I sure hope the end times come soon, 'cause this life hasn’t been very good to me." It was a mournful statement.

While I was trying to figure out how I would respond, one of our students quickly replied and engaged Roger's statement. And from there the floodgates opened and discussion poured out. In the following hour I was able to bear witness to an amazing discussion filled with empathy and concern for the other. These two disparate groups were gathered together around one table.

And there they shared with each other and wrestled together with how God was moving in their very different lives and worlds. And despite all the grappling my supervisor and I had done about how to best be welcoming with these different groups, it was God who moved and brought the welcome that evening. That evening, it was God who overcame our tensions and anxieties and brought together seemingly irreconcilable parts of the body of Christ. That evening, God welcomed us all.

That night God gathered and welcomed, and yet that experience did not answer all of my questions nor did it completely resolve the tensions between these two groups. I guess, like the disciples, I still don't get it. But we move from these experiences, where God welcomes and embraces, with hope.  Hope in the reassuring promise that it is Christ who will welcome and Christ who will embrace. With this hope and this promise we are sent to make hard and difficult decisions that bear witness to the God who does not stumble, the God who embraces all. AMEN.

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