Insiders and Outsiders

Emilie Bouvier, "Springing"(Cowling Arboretum; Northfield, Minn.)Image © Luther Seminary Fine Arts Collection, St. Paul, Minn.

Two quick questions, Working Preacher: 1) Have you downloaded your copy of Renew 52 yet? 2) Have you shared this link with your parishioners and colleagues? I’m serious. When you get the work of more than 50 of the church’s emerging leaders to share their best ideas for congregational growth, you want to share those ideas as widely as possible. So please, please, please download the book and share it with everyone you think cares about our congregations. Thanks! (And now back to our regularly scheduled programming!)

Dear Working Preacher,

How far can you stretch a passage in order to speak to a pressing issue of the day? That can be a complicated question. On the one hand, we want to find counsel in these ancient texts to help us navigate our lives today. On the other hand, most of us, trained in literary and historical exegesis, are cautious about stretching a passage too far for fear of our efforts being labeled eisogesis. Well, in this week’s letter, I’m going to risk the latter for the sake of the former, and I’ll trust you’ll let me know in the comments if I’ve gone too far. 🙂

So here’s what I’m thinking: one of the things this complex passage reveals is our human tendency to fear those who are different from us and, for this reason, to insist on a level of conformity, or uniformity, or even bureaucracy, to manage our anxiety. In this passage that gets worked out by the disciples wanting Jesus to put a stop to someone casting out demons in his name because he wasn’t one of them.

Jesus is having none of it, stressing that whoever does a good work or deed in his name will have difficulty doing anything against his name in the future. And then suddenly the metaphor is turned around, as Jesus promises that anyone who does a good deed for one of them because they are Christian will be rewarded. Is Jesus asking them to imagine the relief of those the unnamed exorcist was helping, or was he warning them that they, too, may find themselves dependent on the grace of strangers one day? We don’t know.

What we do know is that we are so very prone to draw lines between those who are in and those who are out. Sometimes we do it by gender. Many Christian traditions still restrict ordained leadership to men. Sometimes we do it by ordination. Remind me again why in my tradition anyone can proclaim the Word of God in the sermon but only those who are ordained can read words off a page to celebrate Holy Communion? Sometimes we do it by age, or sexual orientation, or ethnicity, or income level… (Didn’t someone recently say that 47% of the population was beyond his reach or interest because they didn’t make enough money to pay income tax?)

And sometimes we do it by religion. Truth be told, we often do it by religion.

And here’s where I want to stretch: can we allow this passage to shape how we think of those who name God differently, or even not at all? This seems particularly pressing to me in light of the furor in recent weeks caused by an offensive video made to belittle another faith.

Okay, so I know that in terms of this particular passage, the unnamed exorcist is performing these acts in Jesus’ name. What we don’t know, of course, is whether that makes him a follower of Jesus, a would-be devotee, or just someone who’s heard Jesus’ name works like a charm. What we do know is that he seems to make the disciples nervous, so nervous, in fact, that they try to stop him…but can’t.

We also know that after apparently giving his blessing to this unnamed character, Jesus then turns the tables and lectures his own disciples against the peril of placing stumbling blocks in front of others.

All of which makes me wonder: is our zeal for the gospel — or perhaps, more honestly, our fear of those who are different from us — placing a stumbling block before persons of other faiths that makes it harder to see and feel the love of God in Christ? If so, what should our response be those who believe in a faith different from our own or who have no faith whatsoever?

Perhaps at this point, it would be useful to take a little more seriously the theological implications of the bracelets many Christians have worn in recent years. Except rather than simply ask, “What would Jesus do?” we might instead point to “what Jesus actually did.” In this case, Jesus says not to stop someone who is doing good even if they’re not a member of your group, not to refuse the help of someone even if you don’t know whether they believe, and not to place stumbling blocks in way of anyone who is in need or vulnerable. He concludes by saying, “be at peace with one another.”

On the anniversary of September 11th two weeks ago, Brian McLaren wrote the following: “to love your neighbor of another faith means to seek to understand her, to learn to see the world from her perspective, to stand with her, as it were, so that you can feel what she feels and maybe even come to understand why she loves what she loves.” I agree. And I think we can make a case based on what Jesus actually did — here and throughout the Gospel — that he would too.

Along these lines, I’m reminded something that Duane Priebe, Professor Emeritus at Wartburg Seminary, said years ago and that has stayed with me ever since: “every time you draw a line between who’s in and who’s out, you’ll find Jesus on the other side.” Here’s the thing: our communities and world are only getting more pluralistic, more complex, and more diverse, which means that our people are likely to meet and get to know persons of different faiths (or no faith) in the workplace, at school, the PTA, and more. So perhaps this week’s reading provides a good opportunity to reflect with them on our Christian responsibility to those who believe differently.

Look, I realize that most scholars think that through this passage Mark was most likely addressing some of the early inter-Christian disputes and was inviting these diverse followers of Jesus into the way of peace. But two thousand years later, after inquisitions and pogroms and the Holocaust and Northern Ireland and the Balkans and 9/11 and the religious outrage and violence of recent days… After all of this, can we not also imagine that Jesus calls us to be at peace with those who name God differently or are not able to name God at all? Can we not imagine that Jesus would have us not only tolerate those of other faith traditions but also seek their welfare? Can we not imagine Jesus calling us to understand them, love them, and in all these ways “be at peace with one another”?

To tell you the truth, Working Preacher, the older I get the harder I find it to imagine it any other way. We are called to confess Jesus Christ as the way, the truth, and the life, and part of that confession, I believe, is to love our neighbors in word and deed no matter what they may confess.

There are a lot of ways to look at this passage, I know, and some may not agree with me or, even agreeing, believe this is the right time for this message. But no matter what homiletical tact you choose to follow this week, know that I am grateful for your proclamation, as by your words and actions you invite people not just to know about Jesus, the Prince of Peace, but also to follow him. Thank you. Even more, thank God for you.

In Christ,