Worship Sunday at 10:30

Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

 
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Pentecost 09/27/2015

Many of you remember Father Jim from down the hill at St. Joe’s. He died a couple of years ago and you may remember that his health problems started with cancer of the eye which necessitated the removal of one of his eyes so for awhile he wore an eye patch that he was typically good natured about, poking fun at himself, making pirate jokes and such.

After he was fitted for a glass eye the patch disappeared for a long time but then one Tuesday at the pastor’s text study group he showed up wearing it again. There was a reason, I don’t remember exactly but the shape of his eye socket had changed or something. But when someone asked him about it, in that quiet Father Jim way, he said, “Well, my eye caused me to sin so I decided I should take last week’s gospel lesson literally,” that lesson being today’s about cutting off hands and feet and tearing out eyes. I guess from now on whenever I come across this text I’ll think about Father Jim, and that’s not a bad thing; he was a pretty good example of what a clergy person should be.

I’m not here to talk about Father Jim though; I’m here to talk about the gospel text and it is kind of an interesting one. It comes a little past the mid-point of Mark’s gospel and the disciples are now on the road to Jerusalem with Jesus. Along the way Jesus continues to teach. Today’s portion is a bit disjointed though, some of it clearly overstatement to make a point like the part about cutting off body parts, but the topics touched on don’t all connect in any obvious way; you suspect that Mark wasn’t quite sure where to put this material so he put it here.

If there is a connection though, it has to do with being a disciple of Jesus. This section of Mark is largely about the demands of discipleship, demands that frequently upset the expected order of things as we’ve seen in the last couple of weeks with take up your cross, whoever wants to be first must be last, things like that. Part of the overarching message is that being a disciple isn’t necessarily what you expect and it is not easy.

What this text points out though, is that in addition to those who were following Jesus closely, those who were trying to make sense of discipleship’s difficult demands, there were others. Among the others were those who were clearly in opposition to Jesus, those who were threatened by him for whatever reason, and in the gospel texts we encounter them along the way, but this text isn’t about them. It’s about those who were following more at a distance, not fully accepting the call to discipleship, but not hostile toward Jesus either.

That’s where today’s gospel starts; the disciples were complaining to Jesus about someone who was not part of the inner circle, but who was casting out demons in the name of Jesus. “We tried to stop him,” they said, “because he was not following us.” But Jesus’ response wasn’t what they expected: “Leave him alone,” he said. “Whoever is not against us is for us.” With that response, Jesus must have once again had the disciples wondering what was going on. All along he’d been talking about the demands of discipleship and how difficult it was, but then when someone is pointed out to him as invoking Jesus’ name but clearly not paying attention to those demands, he says to leave him be. It doesn’t seem to follow; Jesus’ response raises questions but then he was always pretty good at raising questions, many of them questions that persist into our time.

With all of that in mind, consider the structure or the makeup of any congregation. Every church has a central group of people who worship regularly and participate in the life of the congregation, serving on committees, singing in the choir, attending Bible studies, acting as worship assistants, I could go on but you get the idea. You know what I’m talking about because you are those people and the church needs you!

Every church though, has other groups. There are those who are not around quite so much, not every week people but once every few weeks maybe, once a month, often enough to get their picture in the latest directory but people reflecting the reality that worship patterns and overall church participation have changed; there aren’t as many every week people as there used to be.

And then, there are still others, not in either of those groups. I mention this occasionally when I do funerals for some of the others. They’re not around very much, less engaged in the activities of the church, present only for special occasions, maybe Christmas and Easter, maybe when the kids or grandchildren are doing something that day. Sometimes they show up to help with a specific project or activity and then they disappear again. But I, or whoever the pastor is, still do their weddings, baptize their children, do their funerals or funerals for their loved ones who weren’t all that involved either.

Sometimes there are comments: “Why was his funeral in church? He was never here when he was alive.” Or, when a baby is baptized, “I wonder when we’ll see them again. If they want their kid baptized it would be nice if they showed up once in awhile.” In our less charitable moments those kinds of thoughts sometimes occur, but…whoever is not against us is for us.

The people I’m talking about feel some connection to the church even if the connection is somewhat tenuous. Still, they’re not hostile to the church; it means something, something positive. If asked, most would proudly say that they are members of Bethany, that this is their church. Strangely enough, in some cases I think they’re more comfortable talking about and promoting the church than those who are here more often. They call me pastor; if presented with the opportunity they would introduce me as their pastor and probably say nice things about me. Would I like it if they came around more often? Absolutely, I think there is great benefit in being an active part of a worshiping community; but they’re still part of the church and…whoever is not against us is for us.

What this text seems to point out is the great variety of forms of participation in Jesus’ cause. In his time there were the twelve, the inner inner circle. Then there was the broader circle of followers attracted to Jesus, hopeful about what he might represent. There were those who participated in Jesus’ life in some fashion, perhaps making their homes available to him, others who helped out or served him in a particular situation.

Of course there were also those who benefited directly from Jesus, those who were healed of various ailments, families that were made whole again. In most cases we don’t know what happened to those people, they disappear from the text, but it’s quite certain that they didn’t have anything bad to say about Jesus. The bottom line though is that the community around Jesus wasn’t a one size fits all group, but one that was rather complex, representing varying levels of commitment to Jesus and his ministry.

The contemporary church is similarly complex. In addition to the kinds of people I already mentioned there are still others, for example, the families whose kids come here for Homework Club or the people who call or who come here looking for assistance of some kind, their rent, or gas bill or whatever. There are others and for the most part they’re not here for worship, ever, but none of them is likely to badmouth Bethany Lutheran Church either; there is a connection. Whoever is not against us is for us.

It’s easy for churches to get into an insider/outsider thing but a text like this is a caution against that as Jesus expressed tolerance for someone his disciples saw as being unworthy, on the fringe. What it really is, is a call for hospitality. After all, what is gained by looking down your nose at someone or making disparaging remarks about them because they’re not here as often as you are? What we have is a call for hospitality, an opportunity for invitation, a chance to witness concerning why what goes on here is important to us, a caution against judgment. Again, what is gained if the message from the perceived insiders is that this is some kind of exclusive club and to be part of it you have to meet our standards?

That’s why I frequently come back to the idea of faith as a journey, rather than faith as some kind of test you have to pass. Jesus made the demands of discipleship pretty clear, but he also recognized that not everyone was ready for those demands but still, that didn’t make them outsiders, just people at a different point on the journey all of whom are part of and can contribute to the community we call the church.

Whoever is not against us is for us.

Rev. Warren Geier

 
 

Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640
contact@bethanyishpeming.org

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor
pastor@bethanyishpeming.org

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“Whoever
welcomes
one such child in my name
welcomes me, and whoever
welcomes me welcomes
not me
but the
one who
sent me.”
 
 

 

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