A sermon preached at the United Parish of Upton, Massachusetts on September 27, 2015
Mark 9:38-50 . . . why anyone by just giving you a cup of water in my name is on our side. . .
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.
Upton is better than Mendon. True?
Massachusetts is better than Connecticut.
New England is the best part of the United States.
Ours is the best country in the world.
The Red Sox are better than the Yankees.
And everywhere else in the country, except New England, the Patriots are the most despised football team…..
There’s something in us that wants to make “we” and “us” and “mine” better than “you” or “yours” or “the other one”.
Sometimes, it’s not that my place is better than yours – in northern New England, I used to hear it as “ boy, you wanta talk about cold – you’ve never felt cold until you feel the wind sweeping across Sebago Lake from Mount Washington”. And I have to say, I hope to never feel it again… it sure was wicked cold! But, really, that’s just a variant on the old song, “mine is better than yours”.
There’s something in our nature that wants to build our sense of worth on the backs of those around us. My lawn is greener (or, if you look at it from the other direction, my lawn is browner) than yours, not only measures my worth against yours, but says that you’re less important than I am.
But when we start defining our worth by the shortcomings, failings of others, it means that when they get better, it somehow takes something away from us. If the way we see our lives is “well, at least I’m better than X,” when X gets better, what does that do to our sense of self?”
It posits a world where everyone is in competition with everyone else, where life is like the apocryphal story about the engineering professor at MIT who always distributed grades on a bell curve, no matter how well the class “got” the subject. Even tho no one in the class scored lower than 90 out of 100 on the final, some failed, some got A’s, while most got Bs, Cs, and Ds….. they were essentially all in competition with one another over the very few As that would be earned there.
Now, think about it…. Do you think those students would be willing to help one another get better grades?
Today’s Gospel reading is the story of the MIT students, except, of course, it’s set in Palestine, and it’s Jesus talking with the disciples once again. But it’s that same issue of, “there’s only so many <whatever> to go around, if he gets some, I won’t”. You can hear them whining… we’re here with you every day, why can someone who’s never shown up get the same blessing”?
Don’t you just love the disciples? They’re so real. It’s one of the reasons I love the Bible – they’re not plaster saints, but real people who make the same kinds of mistakes as I do.
Well, the disciples whined that this nameless someone was doing good in Jesus’ name, without the proper permission or preparation or whatever, and so they (and aren’t we good little boys and girls), told him to stop. To their astonishment, it’s they whom Jesus chastises. He says, “…anyone by just giving you a cup of water in my name is on my side. . . “
Why does this matter to us? Because there’s more than one right way to do things. Because there’s more than one right way to live. Because there’s more than one right religion. Because there’s more than one right political party.
Because everytime we set the world up as us against them, we build a foundation for hatred and rejection.
Last week, a candidate for President of the United States, running on the Republican ticket, suggested that Islam renders a person inappropriate to be President of the US. Now, at one level, that’s an academic question – no Muslim is running for President. But at the more important level, it says that there’s something intrinsically wrong with Islam, with being a Muslim. But Jesus said, “anyone by just giving you a cup of water in my name is on my side”
Far better that we should evaluate our candidates on their ability to govern, on their basic decency, on their intelligence, than to go back to those days before the election of John F. Kennedy, when there was an informal religious line that said “no Catholic need apply”.
Karoline Lewis, a professor at Luther Seminary in Minnesota, writes:
As soon as our denominations, our church, our faith, becomes that which we need to defend, we’ve given up on true dialogue and openness to conversation. We’ve shut the doors and decided that our confessions are better than others.. . . faith is not about competition. Faith is about conversation. It is about support and community. We need a lot of reminders about that.”
Tearing down the other, because they’re not like us – tells those outside our doors that they’re not welcome. It tells people who’ve read the Bible, who’ve heard the stories, that we don’t take our own story seriously.
The Pope came to Washington this week, and the reporters were astonished at what he said when he spoke to Congress. Now, there was nothing earth-shaking about what the Pope said – it was simply what Christians believe and try to practice all over the world – but he didn’t define what he was proclaiming by putting down others. He didn’t begin by saying, everyone who disagrees with me, or everyone who practices faith differently, is wrong. He simply said what he believed.
What does it say about the way Christianity is being proclaimed these days that the press was astonished at his version of the faith?
My friend, David Gaewski, who’s the NY Conference Minister, attended one of the services with Pope Francis and wrote this:
So here is my end of the day reflection of attending the service with Pope Francis: There were many very high church officials from all faiths present; the multi-religious prayers for peace were beautiful and many were quite fervent; . . . and then this priest from Argentina comes in and speaks in a very soft and humble voice– And he thanks the Fire Fighters of New York for modeling what it means to be human fourteen years ago when the towers fell. He honors all the faiths present and says “we must say “no” to those who want us all to be alike; and we must say “yes” when we celebrate all of our differences.” And then the youth sang “Let There Be Peace on Earth” and it became a holy moment on what already was holy ground.
We must say “no” to those who want us all to be alike; and we must say “yes” when we celebrate all our differences.”
Here’s the key: what makes us good, what makes us acceptable, isn’t that we’re better than the next guy, stronger than the other football team. It isn’t that we’re all alike, all believe the same things, follow the same teams, dress the same way, eat the same foods, practice the same religion or even look alike.
What makes us good, is that God loves us. God loves us as we are. We don’t need to belittle our neighbors to be acceptable. We don’t need to pretend to be perfect. We don’t need to worry that someone will show us up.
As we are, we are loved by God.
As we are, we are empowered to do good in our world.
As we are, we can create community.
We’ve been working on this for the past 2000 years. Sometimes we’ve been better at it that others, mostly when we remember this one sure thing: as we are, we are loved by God.
As all the world is, it – every single person – is loved by God.
As we are, we are loved by God.
© 2015, Virginia H. Child