19th Sunday after pentecost
“May the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.” (Ps 19:14)When I was a kid growing up in Westfield, I remember a tiny restaurant in the North End of town. It was located by the Westfield River. It was Soo’s Chinese Restaurant. And on the weekends people would be lined-up outside of that little restaurant just waiting to get in. I don’t ever remember eating there so I don’t know how good the food was, but I do remember that there were not a lot of Chinese restaurants in town. This was the only option. Soo’s was different-food before different took-off and became so popular.
A couple of weeks ago I helped man-a-table over at the Amherst Block Party. I had gone there from another meeting, so I hadn’t eaten supper. Luckily, the Block Party was full of restaurant options, so many that it was difficult to choose what to eat. I ended up having some sort of kabob at a Moroccan restaurant and something called pork momos at a Tibetan restaurant.
Back when I was a kid, different-food was not embraced because it was different and that’s why the brave foodies of 1960’s Westfield had to wait in line outside of the only Chinese restaurant around. The rest of us were afraid of different, and I look back on that now and I see how silly it was. Soo’s Restaurant was different, but it must have been very good as those long line testified to. I shied away from different for no good reason.
In today’s Gospel, the disciple John falls into that same trap of being unwilling to give different a chance. John is known as the youngest disciple. And there seems to be some youthful exuberance in his attitude. He’s part of the inner circle around Jesus, a Jesus that the disciples are thinking is going to Jerusalem in order to usher in the kingdom of God.
This exuberance can be heard in his boasting to Jesus: “‘Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.’” I’m sure that John is expecting a compliment from Jesus, a “Job well done.”
John was a part of the “us” around Jesus and he took a lot of pride in that “us.” Maybe a little bit too much though. The crowds hovering around Jesus were not following “us.” They were following Jesus. I think John was trying to give his part of the “us” more credit than was proper. And this may be a sign of his youthful exuberance.
But regardless, John gives voice to the motive found in all of the disciples when they tell someone outside of their “us” to stop working in Jesus’ name. This other person was different. It didn’t matter what he was doing. It didn’t matter if he was helping other people in Jesus’ name. It only mattered that he was different. The disciples wanted to reject him because he was not among their “us.”
In response, a very gracious Jesus tries to rein them in, tries to lower the walls of their boundaries, tries to help them be more receptive to different, to other, to helping them see that different is not a disqualifier. This openness is behind Jesus’ teaching: “‘Whoever is not against us is for us.’”
Jesus then moves on immediately to a strict warning against anyone who would dare endanger a child. To understand His comments, we have to distance ourselves from the mindset of 2018 and go back to the time of Jesus.
In the ancient world, children were treated far more pragmatically than today. There was the definite chance that they would not survive childhood. Their mortality rate was high. Boys were young workers. Young girls were basically sold for a dowry into marriages. Children were seen, not heard. They were marginalized. This doesn’t mean they weren’t loved, but it was a different world we’re talking about.
And in this different world where children were less cute and protected than as they are seen today, Jesus warned that no one had better harm or endanger any one of them because if they did maybe they wouldn’t be punished in this world, but God would make sure that they were in the next. Jesus is expressing, again, His concern and compassion for the powerless.
By putting this story of the children right after the story of “Whoever is not against us is for us” Jesus is forcing us to reconsider what is important as His followers. We shouldn’t be erecting walls that protect the “us” of our group from different as if that alone were a threat to the work of Christ. Instead, says Jesus, we should concentrate not on who is doing work in Jesus’ name. We should concentrate on what is being done, even to the level of the child.
David Jenemann is a professor at the University of Vermont in Burlington. He tells the story of being a part of a group that took a team of 11- and 12-year-olds to Cuba to play baseball. One day as he was heading out to play catch with his son a stranger yelled out to him in Spanish, “Oye! Segunda base?” The professor answered back with an uncertain, “Si,” “yes.” The man calling out to him sensed this and held up his left hand and spread the fingers wide. Then using his right hand, he pointed to the professor’s baseball glove. “Segunda base!” he repeated.
The professor finally realized that the stranger had recognized that his baseball glove was small and that the smallest glove on a baseball team is the one used by the second baseman. One man was from Vermont, the other from Cuba. They had a language and cultural barrier between them. But the stranger felt a connection with the professor because he recognized the size of his baseball glove.
Sometimes it’s really easy to point out the differences between us. The colour of our skin jumps to mind, the neighbourhoods we live in, the bumper stickers on our cars and trucks, that kind of thing. It’s not as easy to notice what should bring us together, maybe like the slightly smaller size of a baseball glove.
But Jesus is pushing us to look harder for the connections and to more readily look past the differences. He wants us to concentrate on what we can all do together for the weakest among us, the powerless, the marginalized, in His example, the children.
That’s why we come together as church. Church is the community that forces us to see God through all sorts of different eyes.
We’re trying to focus less on “you’re not us” and this is why we’re Open and Affirming. This is why we begin our worship by saying “Whoever you are, you are welcome here.” And we mean “whoever.”
This is why the Tri-Conference is seeking working-unions with other churches and even non-churches who are all working toward the common good of our shared values.
This is the stuff of “Whoever is not against us is for us.” May we become more and more that church and those Christians who can see as Jesus sees, who can look past the different that separates and focus on the second baseman’s glove that can bring us together.
For this may we pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.
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