A sermon preached by Christopher L. Webber at the Church of the Incarnation, San Francisco, September 27, 2015.
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Some years ago, the church I was serving was using mite boxes for something or other and put extras out in the vestibule for people to pick up. One day some children wandered in and found them and went up and down the street ringing doorbells and telling people they were collecting for Christ Church. We never found out who they were and never got the money, but we did stop putting out mite boxes. You can’t have just anybody collecting in the church’s name.
Now I think that’s a little like the story we just heard from the Gospel. Someone was casting out demons in Jesus’ name and it wasn’t Jesus. It wasn’t even one of the apostles or disciples. And that got the disciples upset. How come he’s out there talking like one of us when he’s not a dues-paying member? What right has he got to do good things if he doesn’t come to our church on Sunday? And Jesus said, “Those who are not against us are for us.”
Now, the hard part of this is that we are reading St. Mark’s gospel this year, and in Mark, Jesus says, “He who is not against us is with us,” but in St. Matthew you find the opposite: “Those who are not with us are against us.” And in St. Luke’s gospel you find it both ways two chapters apart. One way is open and inclusive, the other is narrow and exclusive. And depending on which gospel you read, or which chapter of which gospel, Jesus said one or the other or both.
So, what do you do about that? Well, but doesn’t it depend on the context? I mean, suppose you’re rolling a rock up hill and the slope is slippery and you’re about to lose your grip and the rock is about to roll back down and take you with it and your friends are just standing there watching, giving you the benefit of their advice but not putting their shoulders to the stone. Those who aren’t with you are against you. But suppose someone who hates you is trying to round up a gang to come and throw stones at your house and he goes to one neighbor after another and says, Let’s go throw stones at the Webbers’ and gets turned down. Turns out, they don’t much care, one way or the other, but they’re watching a soap opera on television or weeding the garden or something else and can’t be bothered to get involved one way or the other. You might wish they were more supportive, but, hey, at least they do no harm. “Those who are not against you are for you.”
Now, Matthew shows Jesus facing a hostile crowd and saying “Those who are not with me are against me.” But Mark shows the disciples reporting on someone who is somewhere else acting in Jesus’ name. That’s a very different situation and in that situation, those who are not against us are with us. They’re spreading the word that there’s healing in Jesus’ name, and that’s good news no matter who is doing it.
So now think about our life in this community, and in this congregation. Jesus’ followers in San Francisco line up in any number of separate groupings on Sunday morning and we all claim to be acting in Jesus’ name. Should we try to prevent the others from claiming the title Christian; if they aren’t here, they’re the enemy? Well, do they enhance the name of Christian or not? Do they act in a way that brings credit to the name or do they dishonor it? Isn’t that the basic question? If members of other churches bring honor to the name of Christ that strengthens all of us; that’s a positive. But if they act in a way that makes others sneer at Christianity, that’s no help, it’s negative.
Or look at it in terms of our church, our parish: we don’t have a lot of members so when the doors open on Sunday morning and someone is missing, we know it and it’s a negative, it weakens us. He or she who is not with us is against us. But suppose that missing person had actually started for church this morning when someone in front of them on the sidewalk keeled over and that church member dialed 911 on their cell phone and then administered CPR until the ambulance came and then since no one else was available rode with them to the hospital to make sure the patient was cared for. Well, they didn’t get to church, but surely in that situation, he or she who is not with us is for us – is acting in a way that bears witness to our faith.
Or try a wider frame: in this country, there’s a pretty wide range of people claiming to speak for the gospel. And there are, to be honest, some who claim to be with us who do damage to the name of Christ, so that people say, “If that’s what Christians are like, forget it.” and there others who maybe aren’t any kind of standard brand Christian, but who make outsiders say, “If that’s what a Christian is, I should check it out myself.”
I think the attitude Jesus reflects in this gospel is one of a broad and generous inclusion of anyone who is serving God. And I think this attitude of a broad and generous inclusion is very much a part of the Anglican tradition – though we haven’t always been true to it – and I think it’s an attitude other churches are beginning to adopt also. Episcopalians and Lutherans, for example, both come from traditions that used to say “Those who are not confirmed or ordained in our tradition aren’t doing it quite right and aren’t acceptable at our altars.” Episcopalians used to say that if you weren’t confirmed by a bishop in apostolic succession you couldn’t come to communion. We may read the same Bible and say the same Creed, but we have some different customs about bishops so we can’t possibly work or worship together. Those who are not with us are against us.
Both Lutherans and Episcopalians used to take that kind of stand. But does it really work against us and against the cause of Christ if we have slightly different patterns of ministry as long as ministry gets done? If those who claim to be Christian are selling snake oil on television that’s another question. If they are teaching hostility toward other Christians, that’s another question too. If they are witnessing to a kind of Christianity that’s intolerant of immigrants or unconcerned for the poor, they do harm to the possibility of common witness. Those not with us in ministry to human need are against us. But don’t we do more damage to the name of Christ by our divisions than almost any other way, and isn’t it good that we’re beginning to be a bit more open toward those with whom we have so much in common?
It seems to me the new Concordat with the Lutherans is a step in the right direction. In fact, aren’t there even greater opportunities than that to work together with other people of good will toward common objectives? There are service groups in every community made up of Christians and non-Christians working together for the common good. And I think that’s a good thing too. God is able – believe it or not – to work through non-Episcopalians as well as Episcopalians, and even non-Christians as well as Christians. God is not limited by our boundaries.
And then we might look more closely at ourselves. We claim the name of Christ; we come here and worship; but are we with or against our Lord when push comes to shove: when there’s work to be done, when pledges are needed, when there’s a witness to be made, when there are prayers that are needed? Are we with Jesus in a way that makes a difference, or are we actually a dead weight holding others back, claiming to be Christian but not giving much evidence of it?
It’s one thing to be generous and inclusive in regard to those outside our particular church or even outside any church. If they aren’t against us, if they don’t get in the way, if they maybe even do some of the things we should be doing, that’s good. They’re really with us whether they know it or not. But here, within the community, when there’s work to be done and some of those needed aren’t with us, aren’t there when they’re needed, that’s a negative, not a plus. Those who aren’t with us in that sense are against us; they weaken the whole body.
I heard of a church once where every member was mailed a piece of a picture puzzle of their church along with their pledge card and asked to bring both in on stewardship Sunday so they not only made a budget but they put the parish picture together very dramatically. Have you ever noticed how incomplete a jigsaw puzzle looks when just one piece is still missing – even one piece out of several hundred? There’s that hole that seems to be more important than all the other pieces; the puzzle is obviously incomplete till that last piece is there. If you aren’t with us, we’re incomplete, we can’t be the church that we need to be to serve Christ in this community.
And look at the way the gospel this morning then goes on to stress that point. Every member counts. Every member of the body counts. If your hand causes you to stumble, or your foot or eye, cut it off, tear it out, you’re better off without the member who isn’t contributing. Suddenly we switch from being open and inclusive toward those outside the body to being incredibly narrow and exclusive to those within the body. I wonder if Jesus had Judas in mind? One member of the body who destroyed the head of the body. Those not with Jesus in Gethsemane were surely against him. So the standard we hold up to others can be open and generous, but the standard we hold up to ourselves is very different. It’s fine to be easy on others, but not on ourselves. Discipline is for our children, not the neighbor’s children. What they do doesn’t reflect on us; what our own children do does. We hold our own to a higher standard.
I read reports of these new mega-churches – one of the best known is in Willow Creek, Illinois – that have no prayer books or hymnals because they throw everything up on a screen, they use rock groups for their music and actors to do a skit in place of a sermon and they preach a minimal gospel. It’s been called entertainment evangelism and I have to wonder how long the fad will last without the tradition or the creeds or the sacraments. But should we bomb the place? I don’t think so. They act in the name of Christ and they draw a lot of people who aren’t touched by the traditional churches. We can hope the small first step will lead to a thirst for something more. But that’s not our problem.
Our problem is first of all our own body, this church, and our own bodies, the kind of lives we live – and how much of that life – our life – your life and my life- is for or against the Lord who loves us and calls us to work together to serve God’s people and build up the Body of Christ.
© 2015 by Christopher L. Webber. All rights reserved. Used by permission.