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September 26, 2021
What were you hoping to hear this morning? Were you longing to hear Jesus tell you how much he loves you? To remind you to love God and to love your neighbor? To pray as he taught us?
I’m guessing you didn’t say, as you were taking a shower and getting dressed and grabbing breakfast, “I sure hope Jesus tells me to cut off my hand this morning…I really need to hear a word of encouragement to tear out my eyeball.”
It’s a good time to remind you that I don’t pick the readings that are assigned for each Sunday. They’re part of something called the Revised Common Lectionary, and we share them with our Catholic friends and with folks in several other Protestant denominations. So compare notes this week with your churchgoing friends from other places. How did we all make sense of these texts across different contexts?
This week I thought a lot about something that today’s gospel has in common with our first reading.[i] Let’s start with the gospel. At the beginning of the passage from the Gospel of Mark, one of the disciples, John, comes to Jesus to report with great concern that someone is casting out demons in Jesus’ name. I’m sure John expected Jesus to be indignant. “We tried to stop him,” John says. “He was not following us.”
Notice that Jesus doesn’t seem worried. Don’t stop him, he says. He’s doing good things in my name. He’s helping people who need help. That’s what matters.
Now let’s travel back several centuries to the situation described in the book of Numbers near the beginning of the Hebrew scriptures, what we think of as the Old Testament. Moses has led the people out of slavery in Egypt into the wilderness on their long trek toward the promised land. The people have quickly forgotten that life in Egypt as slaves was difficult and deadly. They act like they have left behind not slavery, but a Michelin star restaurant – oh, the fish! And the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the garlic! The people complain to Moses and then Moses complains to God: Where am I supposed to get meat to feed these people???
God’s answer to Moses is a little strange. God instructs Moses to gather together 70 elders who will be filled with the spirit and will prophesy, who will call the people back to a more faithful, patient way of seeing their situation. Curiously, most of those 70 elders say their piece and then quit. There’s no repeat prophesying. But two of them – Eldad and Medad – keep talking. They keep prophesying, keep imploring the people to do what’s right. Joshua, Moses’ right-hand man, comes running to Moses to report with great concern what Eldad and Medad are up to, saying, “Moses, stop them!”
But Moses doesn’t stop them. He wants to encourage them: “Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets,” Moses says. “And that the Lord would put his spirit on them.”
Two different situations, centuries apart. And in both cases, well-meaning people of God – Joshua and John – want to stop someone else from doing good work in the name of God. They try to act as gatekeepers for who’s allowed to speak and serve on behalf of the Lord. They want to hold a line between who’s in the inner circle and who is out. And in both cases they are chastised – one by Moses, the other by Jesus. Both Moses and Jesus say in their own way: Stop trying to limit the ministry of others.
It’s easy to sit here on a beautiful Sunday morning and laugh at Joshua and John. But the Christian church has a long history of drawing lines between who’s in and who’s out, who is worthy of doing the Lord’s work and who is unworthy.
As a woman who is also an ordained pastor, I encounter it more often than you would think. People take a few Bible verses out of context and tell me that it is not God’s will for me to be a pastor and that by pretending to be one, I’m a sinner. I am a sinner, but not for that reason.
I may have told you before about my friend Michael, but I want to share the story again because he was such a formative part of how I came to understand the way that God erases those lines that humans love so much.
I headed off to college many years ago with little to no understanding of what it meant for a person to be gay. That will strike the teenagers in our congregation as strange because they have the privilege of having a sophisticated understanding of what it means to be LGBTQIA+ as well as deep and beautiful relationships with people who identify as such. But remember that I grew up in the middle of South Carolina in the 1980’s, where we didn’t talk about those things at school, and we didn’t talk about them at church.
In college I had a vague sense of what it meant for someone to be gay. I also knew that some Christians thought it was bad to be gay. At that point I hadn’t done the deep study of scripture that would help me make sense of the question theologically, but I had spent enough time with the Bible to know that Jesus opened his arms to all people and was always saying to those who were judged or excluded: Come closer. I am here with you and for you. But my understanding was pretty underdeveloped at that point.
In the spring of 1993, a couple of months before graduation, my friend Michael came and asked me to come sit under one of our favorite trees on the Lawn, right in the middle of the University. We’d spent many hours together on the Lawn, but I could tell that something was different that day. Michael was usually energetic and quick with a snarky joke. On this day he was more contained, more serious…anxious even.
There, under that tree where we’d spent so much time, Michael told me that he was gay. His voice was tentative as he said the words. He could barely look at me. He seemed terrified. I honestly don’t remember exactly what I said, but I remember thinking that I loved him and I was sure God loved him, and that’s all that mattered to me. I think that I said something along those lines to Michael, telling him that God had created him to be exactly who he was, and that I loved exactly who he was.
I don’t remember my exact words, but I will never forget something Michael said to me. He said: I know how important your faith is to you, and I was afraid you would reject me once I told you. And that was my painful introduction to the fact that being Christian meant that I would sometimes be associated with judgment more than love, associated with exclusion more than exuberant welcome. In that moment I represented a church with a long history of excluding LGBTQ people from ministry and leadership, a long history of judgment.
There was a lot that I didn’t know in 1993. In the 28 years since then, I’ve learned as much as possible – about the experiences of my LGBTQ friends, students, and colleagues…about what scripture actually does say (which bears little resemblance to how it’s been misinterpreted and weaponized against LGBTQ people). I’ve learned – and continue to learn – what it means to follow a Jesus who says to us this morning: Do not put stumbling blocks in anyone’s way. Do not harm people simply because you don’t yet understand what you need to understand.
Nobody here this morning and no biblical scholar I’ve read believes that Jesus actually wants any of us to chop off a hand or a foot. But the thought of the disciples playing gatekeeper, the idea that his followers might create obstacles for those who are acting with compassion and care in the world – that kind of gatekeeping upsets Jesus. And so he exaggerates to make the point, but the point still matters: It would be better to hurt yourself than to hurt people who are being faithful and compassionate.
What were you hoping to hear this morning? The good news is that you don’t have to chop off your hand. The really good news is that Jesus isn’t interested in keeping people out or drawing lines of separation. The best news of all is that Jesus’ entire life and ministry and death and resurrection are about freeing us from judgment and exclusion. We are set free to erase those lines that have been carved between and around us.
We’re all going to have the chance to judge someone this week. For all kinds of reasons, some of which will seem entirely justified to us at the time. When we are in that moment, I hope we will pause and imagine Jesus looking at us pointedly, saying, “Are you sure about that? Be at peace with one another.” Amen.
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ
[i] As is so often the case, I am indebted to Debie Thomas for her weekly commentary, which significantly informed this sermon: https://www.journeywithjesus.net/lectionary-essays/current-essay?id=3158
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