Sunday, September 27th, 2015 – Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Gower Christian Church, Gower, MO
Scripture: James 5:13-20, Mark 9:38-50
Hymns: “Come, Christians, Join to Sing”, “O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing”, “It Is Well”, “Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee”, “Break Thou the Bread of Life”, “How Great Is Our God”
Special Music: “The Earth Is Yours”, by Gungor
The Earth Is Yours
Serving in the Chaplain Corps of the United States Navy – or really, of any of the branches of the military – is a calling with challenges unique to those who serve. You see, when we put on our uniforms, we do not cease to be ministers in the denominations of which we are part – indeed, if you take away the fact that we are ministers, we have no reason for wearing that uniform. Though we must always remember that we are officers in the services which we serve, we must furthermore remember that we are ministers first, for without being ministers, we are not officers.
And you know, the United States Code makes very specific provisions for chaplains, stating that we are to conduct ministry in the manner of the churches in which we are members. That is all well and good, except for the fact that you sometimes run into certain issues. For example, a Catholic priest who serves as a military chaplain would only serve communion to Catholic service members, just as he would were he serving a civilian parish. If he’s on a base or a ship where there are multiple chaplains, or if he’s somewhere where civilian leaders from other denominations can be found, that doesn’t present any problems. However, if he’s in, say, a combat zone, and a non-Catholic wishes to receive communion, and there is absolutely nobody else around who can administer the sacrament to that person, you better believe that the Catholic chaplain is going to be expected to give that service member communion.
Military chaplains have a four-fold responsibility: to provide, facilitate, care, and advise. That first one, provide, is widely considered to be the most important: we are to provide ministry to anybody and everybody who comes seeking a chaplain, Christian or not, of our denomination or not. In those cases where we cannot provide for those persons, we are expected to ensure that the provision is facilitated, and failing all else, we must care for them as we would for any member of our flock.
It is, unfortunately, something that more than a few chaplains seem to have forgotten in the last ten years or so, and they have gotten in trouble as a result. When they express their shock and disbelief, that’s where the military reminds them of the fact that they’re officers: number one, they are told, you knew what the rules were going in, and number two, nobody made you take the oath of office.
You see, Christ’s flock extends well beyond those who happen to fit into my particular system of belief. Those who practice Christianity differently than I do, those whose lives are lived differently than mine, those who disagree with, are no less the children of God than I am, and that was a lesson that Jesus’ disciples needed to learn in today’s Gospel reading.
“We saw someone casting out demons in your name,” they tell Jesus, “and we tried to stop him, because he was not following you.” I can only imagine how deeply Jesus must’ve sighed after that one. It’d be like if we had a horrible storm that damaged the building, and the elders came and told me that they had stopped some of the people working on the church because they were Baptists. Just because somebody isn’t necessarily in your exact lane when it comes to belief doesn’t mean that we’re not all on the same road, going the same direction.
And that’s what Jesus tells his disciples. “Whoever is not against us is for us,” he says, in a reversal of what people seem to believe far too often. Too many people hold onto the idea that whoever isn’t for us is against us, and that’s just not true.
One of the worst ways we judge other Christians has to do with the type of church they go to. I’m guilty of it, plenty of you are guilty of it, and quite frankly, most mainline Protestant Christians are guilty of it. We look at a certain type of church and we immediately judge the people who go there:
Yes, they have their foibles, to be sure. When you have 10,000 members, it’s impossible to get to know the pastor. Worship is sometimes treated more like a rock show than an actual worship service. Sermons tend to be more ice cream and less meat and potatoes, and financial appeals are a bit too frequent for many people’s tastes. They make Christianity “easy” so that people go there instead of to a smaller church where they’ll actually have to commit. All these things are complaints that I’ve heard about mega-churches.
And yet… do they not still seek to bring people to Christ? It’s easy to be bitter about them, and easy to justify our bitterness, but just because they don’t follow the same path to Christ as we do doesn’t mean that we should judge them. Now, personally, I believe that the world would be a better place with fewer mega-churches and more smaller, community churches where people are a name and not a number, but that doesn’t change the fact that people who go to those churches are still going there to find Christ.
But Christ has more to say about the issue. Not content to just point out the fact that people of faith who work toward the same goal as us are our allies, not our enemies, he further points out that whoever puts a stumbling block – or, from the original Greek, a SCANDAL – in front of a believer who is young in spirit might as well just go cast themselves into hell. And I tell you what, when we tell a “young” believer that they’re going to the wrong church – whether that’s a mega-church, a church whose doctrine differs from ours, or even one of the more recent phenomenon, Internet churches – we’re doing them a severe disservice. Who are we to tell them that the place where they encounter Christ is wrong? Furthermore, by so doing, what are we, as Christians who are “older” and more mature in our faith, doing to their own fledgling faith? Do they hear what we say and then fear that their own faith is somehow inadequate because they aren’t doing things “correctly”?
In his address to Congress on Thursday, Pope Francis mentioned the fact that the Roman Catholic Church has, in the past, been guilty of doing exactly sort of this thing. He made mention of the fact that strong ecumenical efforts have been made in the last couple of years to begin to work toward overcoming some of, as he put it, the painful episodes of the past. “It is my duty to build bridges,” he said, “and to help all men and women, in any way possible, to do the same.” This was the leader of by far the largest of the denominations of the Christian Church admitting to the sins of his church’s past, and acknowledging that it his duty not just to make penance for those sins, but to build bridges to overcome the pain that was a result of them.
I am certain that today’s Gospel text was in his mind when he went on to point out that the youth of the world and of our nation are the most vulnerable members of society. “For many of them,” he said, “a future filled with countless possibilities beckons, yet so many others seem disoriented and aimless, trapped in a homeless maze of violence, abuse, and despair.” As he spoke these words, he stood in Washington, DC, a city where a full one-third of the children who live there live below the poverty line. Indeed, how can we ever expect these children to live a life of hopeful faith, when all around them is poverty which begets violence and abuse, and instigates a seemingly never-ending cycle of the same? “Their problems are our problems,” Pope Francis insisted. “We cannot avoid them. We need to face them TOGETHER.”
And there we come back to togetherness. It is appalling how often efforts to assist those vulnerable – Christ’s little ones – are derailed by people of faith who refuse to work with one another. Whether due to matters of denomination, politics, or a disagreement over which church gets to the buffet line first on Sunday afternoon, too often churches are just unwilling to work together. “Whoever is not against us is for us,” Christ has told us, and if we are so wrapped up in another church’s politics that we overlook the fact that they preach the same message of Christ’s salvation that we do, then we have left Christ’s words behind in favor of our own human interests. It would be better for us to tie a millstone around our neck and throw ourselves into the river.
So then, how to escape this problem of putting human interests before the leading of Christ? He tells us exactly what to do in the next part of the passage: cut off the offending part and throw it into the fire. Now, obviously, we aren’t going to start cutting off hands or plucking out eyes when somebody puts their own interests ahead of Christ’s commands, because if we did that, I’m pretty sure we’d have a bunch of blind, handless people calling themselves “Christian”. It’d make it awfully difficult for me to play the piano, I can tell you that for sure!
But what we do need to do – and perhaps this is over-simplifying the matter, but simplicity is always a good place to begin – is to identify those parts of our lives and of our faith that cause us to sin. If there is something about our faith that causes us to judge another Christian and deem them less than worthy of our time, then first of all, that has no business being part of our faith, and secondly, it needs to go. I know I’m starting to sound a bit like a broken record the last couple weeks with this point, but we are all the chief of sinners. We have all fallen short of the glory of God. We have no call to elevate ourselves above other Christians, and if something about our beliefs makes us think we do, then it needs to go.
This message is why I chose this week to introduce the song from earlier, “The Earth Is Yours”. The chorus of the song is very simple: “Holy, holy, holy Lord, the earth is Yours, the earth is Yours.” Not the earth is OURS, but the earth is the Lord’s. All things on this earth and all people that dwell in it belong to our God. Our call on this earth is to work with each of the children of God, helping them to grow in their faith and working alongside of them to make our Lord’s earth a better place for each of God’s children.
This last week, there was a situation at a very small Coast Guard station in Oregon. Less than thirty Coast Guardsmen and women work there, and as such they are a very tight-knit community. When one of their number was killed in a car accident on Monday night, it sent a shock through their community, evoking responses of pain and anguish from the members of that community, perhaps none more so than in their senior chief petty officer.
At 44, with 26 years of service under his belt, the senior chief is old enough to be the father of most of the young men and women at his station, and so the death of one of his “kids”, as he put it, hit him especially hard. And though, by his own confession, he is not a man of faith nor has he ever been particularly involved in church, he still needed to be ministered to. And though the active duty chaplain for Coast Guard Sector Columbia River and I have very different backgrounds both in life and ministry, we put aside any doctrinal differences that we may have and worked together to be the presence of God to this man, not in the way that we thought was right, but in the way that he needed for the nourishing and healing of his soul.
Whoever is not against us is for us. Let us work together with them to be the light of Christ to all God’s children on this earth, for this earth is indeed God’s.