Here are my thoughts for the 17th Sunday after Pentecost.
Two comments come to mind when I read the Gospel reading for today. (1) First, why is it that the disciples don’t get the message about how power is shared in God’s kingdom? Second, who are those individuals who are preaching in the name of Jesus that have gotten the disciples so riled up?
Of course, we know that the disciples are still stuck in the “old-school” mentality that power comes to those who follow a leader. And you had to be part of the group in order to be able to pass on the knowledge that you gained. Whoever has caused the disciples to get angry is not part of the immediate group and that is why the disciples see them as a threat. This outsider was also able to do what the disciples had not been able to do; that is, he was healing in the name of Jesus and the disciples hadn’t quite gotten that down yet. (2) So, who are these “outsiders” that threaten to destroy the cohesiveness of the disciples?
None of the notes that I have give any indication as to who this individual was. But we know that on at least one occasion, Jesus sent seventy others out into the world to teach and heal. (3) And they returned, exclaiming how successful they had been in doing what Jesus had asked them to do. It seems likely to me that this individual might have been one of the seventy.
This notion that others can do what we think can only be done in one specific way has great implications for us today. We tend to lock ourselves into one set of thoughts and we are very opposed to anyone who offers an alternative to those thoughts. I receive the newsletter Connections each month and in the October issue, the editor/publisher Barbara Wendland discusses Reverend Barbara Brown Taylor’s memoir, “Leaving Church: A Memoir of Faith.”
Reverend Taylor has recently left the pastoral ministry and, in her book, she offers a number of reasons why. The primary reason was that she saw members of her church who were pressured to believe official doctrine when their own experiences of God in this world did not match those beliefs. In many cases, those who were leaving the church did so, not only because of the dichotomy between experience and statement, but because they feared sharing their own experiences.
I am more than acutely aware of people who have left the church because they felt that what they believed would be dismissed by others. I am also aware that there are many who have left the church because they see hypocrisy in action on Sunday mornings.
As Reverend Taylor writes, “we proclaim the priesthood of all believers while we continue living with hierarchical clergy, liturgy, and architecture. We follow a Lord who challenged the religious and political institutions of his time while we fund and defend our own. We speak and sing of divine transformation while we do everything in our own power to maintain equilibrium.”
Is it possible that we can meet God in settings other than formalized church structures on a Sunday morning? The answer, of course, is most emphatically yes! But we have to make sure that the settings that we choose are God’s settings and not what we feel they should be.
Those who have heard me and read what I have written know that I am not terribly fond of much of the new worship styles. It is not that I am stuck in a traditional mode when it comes to worship. If that were the case, then I would be arguing against myself in this message. What I am opposed to is approaches that are more market-driven than God inspired.
I have no problems with alternative forms of worship; having started my ministry through services in the Colorado Rockies while camping out, I cannot be opposed to alternative worship services. But those who proclaim that alternative processes are the only true worship services or the way to bring new people into the church are as closed-minded as those who would proclaim that there is only one true way for worship.
Some would say that the Internet is going to be the new form of worship. I don’t deny that one of the reasons that I post these messages on my blog is to utilize the far-reaching capability of the Internet. There are those who post the entire worship service, as either an audio or video file, on the Internet. But these cannot possibly take the place of actually being in worship and being in contact with others. It strikes me that something is missing from worship if you are not in contact with others.
I am not opposed to using modern music in church. We should have more of it. I will admit that I felt a certain ambivalence when the music of “Godspell” and “Jesus Christ, Superstar” first came out. But now the words and the music of these two pieces ring true in my heart and I wish there were more pieces like them. But it seems to me that more and more of the modern music is nothing more than simple phrases repeated several times. Some people may like these songs because they are simple and unchallenging.
The music and the words themselves are not the issue; it is what we do with the words and the music, it is the meaning that we give to the words and the music. If our words and actions in church have no meaning, then we gain nothing from the time we spent in worship. Others may disagree with me on this point, saying that they do get something from such services. And I would applaud them for that. But let us understand that we can no longer say that only one way of worship is the answer nor can we say that what others are successful doing is the way that we should do it.
We need to seriously examine how we come to find God, not just for a few short hours on Sunday morning but at all times of the week. We need to examine the possibility that we can find God in the most unlikely places as well as in an elaborate sanctuary.
A couple of years ago I drove to Detroit for a job interview. The job had potential but I felt a degree of uncertainty about the process. As I was driving home and leaving the plains of the central United States, I could see the mountains that held the town where I lived. And all I could think of as I saw the hills and mountains before me were the words of David,
I lift up my eyes to the hills — where does my help come from?
My help comes from the LORD, the Maker of heaven and earth.
He will not let your foot slip— he who watches over you will not slumber;
Indeed, he who watches over Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.
The LORD watches over you— the LORD is your shade at your right hand;
The sun will not harm you by day, nor the moon by night.
The LORD will keep you from all harm — he will watch over your life;
The LORD will watch over your coming and going both now and forevermore. (4)
In the solitude of my car, the decision I had to make was illustrated by God’s handiwork and David’s writings. The decision to go back into the hills and pass on the job in Detroit ultimately led me down the road that I have walked these past few years and has come to the writing of this blog and notes on sermons. Would I have been able to find God and find the answer elsewhere? It is possible but the experiences I have had in other places, such as the plains of Kansas, tell me that there are other ways of finding God and being in communion with Him.
It is interesting that the Old Testament reading for today (5) is from Esther. Esther is a unique book in the Bible from the standpoint that the central figure of the story is a woman. At a time when women were very much marginalized, the deliverance from destruction comes through a woman. The second aspect of this story is the absence of any explicit reference to God, worship, prayer, or sacrifice. To many, this makes the book one with little religious value. But it may be that the author of Esther deliberately did this to highlight the fact that it is God who directs or controls the seemingly insignificant coincidences that make up the plot and issue in deliverance.
When we deliberately make God a central figure in our lives, we risk making Him nothing more than a figurehead. This is what was happening to the Israelite nation when Jesus began His ministry. God was no longer the Father to whom the nation turned but rather an abstract concept that was to be held in reverence. Tradition became more important than understanding who God is and the meaning for God in the people’s lives.
When Jesus rebuked the disciples for not accepting the work of another, He was reminding them (and us) that the community of God is bigger than we think it is. In his writing for today (6), James is reminding us that we are a community and that the community extends beyond what we might think. It is a community in which we should not close the doors to those who seek God in other ways but a community that opens its doors to all who seek God.
October 1st is World Communion Sunday. It is a day when the community of God goes beyond the walls of the church and extends around the world. The readings for today remind us that the community of God exists every day and we should be looking for that community every day. The community of God extends beyond the walls and we should make sure that the walls that we build enclose everyone and not keep others out. We should not be asking “where is God?” but rather we should be saying “welcome to our community for here you shall find Him.”
(1) Mark 9: 38 – 50
(2) Mark 9: 14 – 18, 28
(3) Luke 10: 1 – 12
(4) Psalm 121
(5) Esther 7: 1 – 6, 9 – 10, 9: 20 – 22
(6) James 5: 13 – 20