“Seven Deadly Words”
A Sermon on Mark 9:38-50 (with Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29) for the 26th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B; preached September 27, 2015, by the Rev. Matthew Emery, Senior Minister
So, I don’t know if you’ve heard, but the pope’s been here in the US this week. I know, hard to believe, right? You’d’a probably never known had I not mentioned it this morning!
Ok, obviously, I’m being facetious. The fact that Pope Francis has been here, with appearances at places both sacred and secular, in Washington, New York, and Philadelphia— it’s been all over everything: television, newspapers, Facebook, and beyond.
Perhaps this isn’t terribly surprising. After all, Christianity remains the largest religion in the world. And no matter how we may differ on issues of either theology or practice, you just can’t get around the fact that the majority of the world’s Christians—between half and two-thirds, in fact—are part of the Roman Catholic Church. So, you know, to be the identified head of the majority branch of the world’s largest religion, that is kind of a big deal.
And yet, I must confess that I myself haven’t honestly been paying all that much attention to the papal visit this week. I have one UCC clergy colleague who’s also a chaplain for the Fire Department of New York, and she’s been in person at a few events this week where Francis was. I, on the other hand, have hardly even paid much attention to the news reports. In fact, earlier in the week someone asked me if I was excited or interested by what was happening this week, and only after a quizzical look by me and a further clarification by them did I even know what they were talking about. And it left me musing about why someone would ask me about being excited about a visit from the pope. After all, I’m a Protestant, and have been my whole life.
But of course, as most of us know, it hasn’t only been Catholic Christians—whether devout, lapsed, or somewhere in-between—who’ve gotten all excited about this visit. After all, Francis speaks with great Christian passion and moral purpose on issues that plenty of people resonate with, people in congregations like ours even, and people from entirely different religions or no religious tradition at all… issues like climate change and economic justice. Indeed, lots of people from lots of backgrounds have found not only his stances on these issues, but his willingness to use his position on behalf of them, rather refreshing.
Others, though, haven’t been so caught up in the pope-fest. I don’t mean the ones—largely conservatives—who don’t like his bold environmentalism or his significant, well-placed criticism of modern capitalism. No, I mean ones who say they refuse be excited because he’s not gone far enough, not really changed anything, as it were. Maybe it’s about the ordination of women or the stance on LGBT persons, as a couple of examples I’ve heard… Now, I get that, at least to a degree. After all, the pope does have a lot of influence and power; a new and different word from him in either of those areas would, in fact, make a meaningful difference in the world. But refusing to celebrate what witness he does bring, refusing to be excited about what positive influence he can exert on these other issues that are also so critical? I wonder just what Jesus might say about that…
Well, actually, I don’t have to wonder much, because in today’s gospel reading, Jesus is—as it turns out—responding to what sounds like a rather similar situation. “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” Wait… what?! (I imagine Jesus saying). “We tried to stop him, because he was not following us.”
In other words, they weren’t part of our group. Maybe they didn’t have exactly the same theology and liturgy. Maybe they operated from a different guidebook and had a different governance structure. Maybe they simply sang things out of the wrong hymnal! Whatever it was—and we can’t even be completely sure whether this passage reflects more on Jesus’ disciples or on a situation that was being faced by the community that Mark’s gospel was written for—whatever it was, there clearly were those people over there, and they weren’t part of our group, and so they needed to be stopped!
And it’s a story practically as old as time itself. We heard it in the Old Testament reading today too, with Eldad and Medad, two people who hadn’t been at the tent meeting where the others had gotten ‘ordained’, and yet they were out in the camp prophesying. “My lord Moses, stop them!” says Joshua.
Whether it’s with Moses’s men, or Jesus’s disciples, or with any of the myriad of ways we still do exactly the same sort of thing today, doesn’t it all eventually come down to that ol’ set of seven deadly words? You’ve probably heard of the seven deadly ‘sins’, but that’s not what I mean. No, the seven deadly words in their purest form go like this: “We’ve never done it that way before.” Oh, there are variations, too, like “That’s not how we do it here” and “This is how we always do it”. Or the version that goes with today’s stories, which is: “They’re not one of us, you know…” Which sounds like a little bit different of a message, but let’s be honest: how often is that mostly just a back-door way of getting around to “we’ve never done it that way before”. Moses’ followers, Jesus’ disciples back in the day, and us ourselves now… how often we get caught in the deathly rut of “That’s the way we’ve always done it”.
There was a story told by Anthony de Mello, a well-known 20th-century Christian spirituality writer from India. “When the guru sat down to worship each evening,” the story goes, “the ashram cat would get in the way and distract the worshipers. So [the guru] ordered that the cat be tied during evening worship. After [that] guru died the cat continued to be tied during evening worship. And when the cat died, another cat was brought to the ashram so that it could be duly tied during evening worship. Centuries later[,] learned treatises were written by the guru’s disciples on the religious and liturgical significance of tying up a cat while worship is performed.”
It’s a humorous story, a laughable example, sure… but how often do we get caught in that same sort of absurdity in our own lives. From enduring the same old traffic back up each and every time you go to work, even though there’s an easy alternative, because that’s the one route there you’ve become familiar with… to engaging in the same old debates in the board room or the family dining room because we seem unable to break out of the old patterns. The old saying goes, after all, that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again all the while expecting a different result.
I wonder how many times the founders of this very congregation heard those words, “we’ve never done it that way before.” After all, way back in 1737, it wasn’t very common for a New England town to have more than one “church of the standing order”—that is to say, more than one Congregational church—in its bounds. Not unheard of, by this point, but still not very common. But the people here at the north end of this town, they needed a church that was going to meet them where they were. In 1737, “meeting people where they were” had a lot to do with simple geography—where could people reasonably travel on a regular basis, with nothing but their own two feet, and perhaps the feet of a horse or two, to take them there. Getting from here to the church at Mansfield Center was no easy task in those days, and so this congregation was established to meet the people where they were.
I would argue that for this congregation, across the 278 years that have passed since our founding, meeting people where they are has remained core to our identity, a central part of who we are. As the years have gone by, raw geography became less of a factor… but still, as a congregation built around meeting people where they are, we have refused to simply do it “the way we’ve always done it” when the realities God put before us have called forth from us something we’ve never done before. Rebuilding our facilities to meet a newly growing college community… making the space to start ministries to people in need that would become a forerunner to WAIM, which we were integral in helping found… taking the time and the risk to become officially “Open and Affirming” back in 1994, before welcoming LGBT people and affirming their lives and loves started becoming more-and-more the in-thing for churches to do… The list could, of course, go on: accessibility, the ever-changing face of university ministry over the decades, even the willingness to break out of the “Reverend Doctor so-and-so” mold in your last senior minister search. This church… you… us… we’ve stayed true to who we are at our core by being a church that refuses to be stuck in the “we’ve never done it that way before” rut.
All of this is possible… life-giving, even… because ultimately that’s who God is as well. There is that old saying from scripture, the book of Hebrews to be precise, that says “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.” And we as Christians have long spoken of God’s unchanging nature, God’s unfailing faithfulness, God’s immortality and immutability. “We blossom and flourish as leaves on the tree,” the old hymn says, “and wither and perish, but naught changeth thee.”
But here’s the thing… the world that God loves unconditionally, the people that God embraces unfailingly, it all changes. We change. We grow and we backslide. Our relationships come and go, the world around us evolves. And so in order for God to stay true to who God is, true to faithfulness, true to the promise of new life… well, God breaks out of the way it’s always been done, too. God meets us with the Word we need to hear now, in the midst of this day and this delight and this dilemma. God is unchanging in as much as meeting us where we are—in the slave shackles of Egypt, in the glory of the temple, in the wonder of the starry night, in the stench of the occupied tomb—meeting us where we are, it’s at the center of who God is, no matter where it is we find ourselves. In fact, that’s ultimately the good news of our Easter faith, that God breaks out of the ways that say death has the final word, that light cannot come from darkness. In remaining true to who God is, God invites us to have our stones rolled away, to stop dwelling in the “way we’ve always done it” in order to find the wonder and delight and joy of new life on the other side of death.
And the awesome thing about our God, really another thing about God that’s been the same “yesterday, today, and forever” is that God invites us to be a part of this amazing mission to meet people and all the world where they are… to be the ones blessed to be God’s way of blessing others… to be the agents of God’s unfailing grace and mercy, unchanging peace and justice, unending power and purpose and presence, bearing them anew into our ever-changing world in the new ways that will meet people where they are.
Blessing and honor, glory and power
be unto the unchanging and therefore ever-changing God,
now and forever. Amen.
 Anthony de Mello, “The Guru’s Cat”, The Song of the Bird (New York: Image/Doubleday, 1984), 63.
 Hebrews 13:8.
 Walter C. Smith, “Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise”; in Pilgrim Hymnal (New York: Pilgrim Press, 1958), #7, vs. 3.