The 18th Sunday After Pentecost

The Rev. R. Allan McCaslin

Readings: Esther 7:1-6, 9-10; 9:20-22; Psalm 124; James 5:13-20; Mark 9:38-50

From this morning’s Collect: “O God, you declare your almighty power chiefly in showing mercy and pity.” I speak to you in the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

     Do you ever find that in the midst of your daily routine, a hymn or sacred song comes to mind? That typically happens to me when I am at prayer or when meditating on the day’s scripture lessons. And more often than not, that song – and for, me it’s usually a hymn - stays with me for days. No matter how hard I try to distract myself, its words just keep buzzing around in my head. I had that experience this week while focusing on today’s scripture lessons. And I found that the more I sang that hymn over and over in my mind, it began to reshape my outlook on the world, and our life together. So much so, that the more I reflected on those words, the more humble and more inadequate I felt not only as a priest and pastor, but as a Christian. I’ll share more about that hymn in a few minutes. But for now, let’s consider today’s scripture lessons in light of everyday life.

    So often in the church, rather than demonstrating God’s mercy and pity as we prayed in today’s Collect, we focus, instead, on differences and allow those differences to divide us and get in the way of advancing God’s kingdom. Differences in worship styles, which translation of the Bible we use, what hymns we sing or don’t sing, how we pray, whether we serve communion wafers or bread, a common cup, or individual servings and so on, have divided churches for centuries. And history has shown that most often, such differences are simply matters of style and personal preference. Now, it’s one thing to have preferences, but whenever we insist that everyone worship and do things just like us we risk suggesting that God can’t do anything new. Today’s scripture lessons tell us exclusivity is never God’s way. God’s way is mercy and pity that exceeds our wildest dreams; mercy and pity to, and for, all.

     The comments of the disciple John, in this morning’s gospel reading, smack of an exclusivity that continues to plague many churches still today. John is upset that someone outside their group is casting out demons in Jesus’ name and he doesn’t think that’s right. He says, “Lord, they don’t do it the way we do.” Ever thought or said that? Looked at others in church to see if they worship the “right” way, like I do, and you do? How do they sit? How do they kneel? When do they bow? Are their hands folded in prayer or with palms opened? I realized a long time ago that whenever I lapse into watching whether others are “doing it the right way,” I really mean, “doing it my way.” Yet, our lessons this morning suggest God is much bigger than our neatly packaged styles of worship. Jesus, in response to John’s complaint says God works in ways we can’t even imagine. So, he says, celebrate and welcome those who may not follow our patterns of worship or life because, just like us, they, too, are living proof that God is at work in this world. Besides, God doesn’t look at styles; God looks for justice and mercy – an abundance of justice and mercy that should flow from our hearts.

    Jesus challenges his followers to forsake divisive labels and, instead, look for actions, attitudes, and spirit because that is where true godliness will be found. When we see acts of mercy, justice, integrity, reverence, and faith that honor Jesus Christ, we must set aside our own expectations of how things should be done and welcome those differences as fresh movements of God’s Holy Spirit.

    This does not mean reducing our faith to the lowest common denominator or tossing aside rich traditions but, it is a reminder that God is always at work doing new things. Our task is to test the spirits and carefully discern that which is truly of God and do so in light of God’s inclusive mercy and pity, do so with hospitality, with kindness of heart, wisdom, and gentleness. The danger of dismissing others because they, “don’t dress like us, kneel like us, speak like us,” and insisting they conform to our ways, is that we can become stumbling blocks to their faith and growth in Christ.

     Now some might be thinking, “There is no way I could possibly be a stumbling block: I’ve never encouraged anyone to sin, to cheat, to steal, to oppress others.” That certainly addresses sins of commission but what about stumbling blocks that, in reality, are sins of omission? How often has the Church, have Christians, through our silence, endorsed turning a blind eye to blatant sins of abuse of power and authority, or chosen to ignore the homeless and hungry, or, in our complacency, done nothing to challenge our culture’s status quo. Jesus says as we have done to others, so we have done to him. Sometimes the greatest stumbling block is as subtle as a comfortable pew that encourages inaction – and inaction always gets in the way of living faith to its fullest. Jesus says if our hand, foot, or eye, gets in the way of actively engaging in our faith, get rid of it. He is not encouraging self-mutilation here, but rather, reminding us that more often than not, what gets in the way of advancing God's kingdom is our own selves.

     Jesus restates that we are to be salt in this world. We have heard the phrase “you are the salt of the earth” so often we tend to think of salt solely as a preservative. But remember: salt also stings the eyes. When we choose to uphold God’s values when our culture suggests they are passe; when we dare to speak up against injustice; when we foster mercy and demand that every person be greeted and honored as if they are Christ himself; we sting the eyes of our complacent society.

You know, William Temple once said, “When the body of Christ becomes a social class or order  … and does not stand firm on its feet and confront the world’s ills, it is of no earthly value; it is no longer salt.” He added, “True Christianity cannot be undisturbed in the presence of physical need.” Christians demonstrate they are salt, not through exclusion or judgement, but through acts of mercy and pity, acts that restore wholeness and dignity, and stand up to our culture’s ills and proclaim the depths of our faith in Christ who welcomes, embraces, and redeems all.

     Our Old Testament lesson this morning tells the miraculous story of how Haman’s plot to annihilate the Jews was turned back on him, and all Israel was saved. We hear their jubilation in this morning’s Psalm, “Had the Lord not been on our side, we would have perished.” Yet, this story celebrated as the springtime feast of Purim is always read aloud on Yom Kippur: the most sacred day of the Jewish year; the Day of Atonement. Why? Because Yom Kippur calls Jews to think about how easily, how often, they have sinned against God, against themselves, and against their neighbor, and then beg God’s forgiveness for failing to show mercy and pity. You see, the rest of the story from Esther reveals that the newly liberated people of Israel turned and exacted revenge upon their oppressors and slaughtered them. They who had once been oppressed became oppressors themselves. Such can happen when people of faith think God is exclusively on our side, rather than asking ourselves the more important question: Are we on God’s side: God’s side of mercy and pity that extends even to our enemies.

     In the beginning of his letter, James urged the Church be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger. Later, he urged us to watch our tongues and how we speak to or about each other because words can become stumbling blocks – “Lord, they don’t do it our way.” James says God’s people act with gentleness at all times. And James in this 5thchapter says that once our tongues and actions are under control, we are free to pray and pray effectively. We are a people of prayer. We pray when we are in distress; we sing our prayers when we have something to celebrate and, we pray them in community together. We bring our sick to the congregation’s attention as we offer the Prayers of the People each week. James encourages us to do so, but he also says we should bring our troubles and sins to each other too, knowing that no matter what we’ve done or failed to do, we will still be welcomed with gentleness and forgiveness because that’s what people who embrace God’s mercy and pity do. James paints a picture of what the Church is meantto look like. What we are to be and what we are to do. And he shows us that healing, welcome, and forgiveness are inextricably bound together just like God’s mercy and pity.

     Any insistence that things be done our way can deny the endless mercy and grace of God. And a hymn about that mercy and grace kept buzzing around in my mind this week. I invite you to ponder these original words of that great Hymn in light of today’s lessons:

“There’s a wideness in God’s mercy that is wider than the sea.

                  There’s a kindness in God’s justice that is more than liberty.

                  There is welcome for the sinner, and graces for the good.

                  There is mercy with the Savior, there is healing in his blood.

                  For the love of God is broader than the measure of our mind.

                  And the heart of God Eternal is most wonderfully kind.

                  But we make his love too narrow by false limits of our own.

                  And we magnify God’s strictness with a zeal God will not own.

                  God’s love looks mighty, but is mightier than it seems.

                  God’s love is so much wider: it goes far beyond our dreams."                 
                 (From the original text by Rev. Frederick William Faber, 1814-1863)

Let us pray: O God, enlighten our hearts and minds to understand that in welcoming those different from us, so often, your Christ is made known in our midst. Teach us to be a people of mercy and pity, and, thereby, be the Church, the very salt you have called us and redeemed us to be. Amen.