Monday 27 September 2021

Sermon on Mark 9:38-50 – Working for Good and Evil

Mark 9:38-50
“Teacher,” said John, “we saw someone driving out demons in your name and we told him to stop, because he was not one of us.”

“Do not stop him,” Jesus said. “For no one who does a miracle in my name can in the next moment say anything bad about me, for whoever is not against us is for us. Truly I tell you, anyone who gives you a cup of water in my name because you belong to the Messiah will certainly not lose their reward.

If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them if a large millstone were hung around their neck and they were thrown into the sea. If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life maimed than with two hands to go into hell, where the fire never goes out. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than to have two feet and be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to stumble, pluck it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell, where

‘the worms that eat them do not die,
    and the fire is not quenched.’

 Everyone will be salted with fire. Salt is good, but if it loses its saltiness, how can you make it salty again? Have salt among yourselves, and be at peace with each other.”

Today's reading is challenging, because it warns us about a stark contrast between those who are working for good and those who are working for evil. And on both sides Jesus uses dramatic, hyperbolic language to challenge us to expand our understanding and shake us out of our complacency. There are times, though, when we need shaking up and being faced with the importance of the choices we can make for good or bad. Let us remember the words of the Gospel, that “God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save”, so let us take this challenge and learn from it, and grow from it, and not despair. 

The disciples come to Jesus to complain about a person who was not a recognised disciple calling on the name of Jesus to drive out demons. And Jesus corrects them, saying "for no one who does a miracle in my name can in the next moment speak against me, for whoever is not against us is for us". Jesus is expanding the boundaries, of who can be called a disciple, saying God is not bounded by our organisations and categories, but reaches out to all those who want to put their faith in him.

And the Church has not always been good at remembering this verse. The Spirit goes ahead of us, finding those people with a heart turned towards God. Too often though, the Church has rejected people seeking to act outside the current accepted structures, out of fear and concern about what people might say or do, out of a desire to keep the mission of God under control. But God is not under our control or command. Always the Holy Spirit is going ahead of us and inspiring new people, in different ages and place and ways. Perhaps we should see our mission more as going out and finding those people the Spirit is inspiring and offering our help.

Let me tell you a true story. 300 years ago, the Church in England was in a bad state. Personal faith and commitment were rare among ordinary people, clergy were not appointed for their spirituality and dedication to God, but because they were sons of minor gentry who didn't have another job; the government and aristocracy saw the Church as a means of controlling society and ensuring the poor and working people did not get the wrong ideas. Then within this environment came a man called John Wesley, who went on to found the Methodist movement. Wesley was a remarkable man. By upbringing and training he was a stiff high-churchman, a Tory and a conservative, who believed church should be conducted by the book, by rules and order. But then one day at a church service in Aldersgate London the Holy Spirit moved in him and from then on he was a different man. 

He began preaching outside of physical church buildings, something that was unheard of and basically illegal at the time. He preached in fields and in graveyards, and on the street and at factories, anywhere people would stop and listen. He preached about the Love and Forgiveness of God that could change the life of any man or woman or child. He inspired people to seek a life of genuine holiness, giving up violence and drunkenness, and hatred and bitterness, and embracing a Christian life of love and faith. He encouraged groups of working-class people to form their own religious communities, he encouraged ordinary people to preach and teach without clergy being involved, he cast aside every High-Church principle he had treasured of what respectable conduct looked like to reach people with the message of God.

He and his followers suffered abuse and persecution: they were barred from churches, dragged before magistrates and rejected by polite society. They carried on day after day, for 50 years. He spoke out condemning slavery, long before that was a popular position, and he supported women in preaching and leading, many years before that became accepted across society. When he died, he left behind 140,000 people dedicating their lives to the Good News of Jesus Christ, 500 largely working class lay preachers, and not a penny to his name. The tens of millions of Methodists worldwide are today a testament to his selfless love of Jesus Christ.

John Wesley was faithful to the Church of England his whole life. He never rejected the Church, he never wanted the movement he started to be separate from the Church of England, but he would not, he could not allow the constraining rules of the Church in his day to stop him from carrying out the mission of God's Spirit. Caught between his loyalty to the Church and his loyalty to God, he chose God. But what of the Church? By turning its back on the Methodist movement, by refusing to judge a tree by its fruit, by refusing to see what God's Spirit was doing, the Church of England lost out on a great opportunity to be renewed and revived, and after John Wesley died Methodists and Anglicans in Britain and around the world became more divided, and sadly that divide is still with us today. How much energy and hope and blessing has been squandered in this country because Church leaders were not willing to accept that God was going ahead of them? And the lesson was there in the Gospel the whole time - “For whoever is not against us is for us."

At least then do not let us make the same mistake. I think to some degree we have finally learned the lesson. I hope and expect there is not anyone here today who would say you have to be an Anglican, or a Methodist, or a Baptist, to be a Christian. No, rather the one who has faith in God through Jesus Christ, and does what the Lord Jesus, commanded, in faith, hope and love, that person is truly a Christian. Let us always be open and humble, willing to consider new ideas, new ways that God might be moving, and inspiring people: to set up a ministry, a Christian community group, a charity, a YouTube channel, an entire church. Let us always be open to help where we can, for "by their fruit you shall know them".

At the same time, we should not abandon our scepticism, we should always be willing to ask questions, about plans, intentions; and we should always be willing to answer them humbly and peacefully. If we asking people to give us their money, their time, their trust, then we should welcome the chance to reasonably justify ourselves. Scrutiny is not persecution, we should welcome the chance to demonstrate that we act from the right motives, and with ideas that can work. We should be willing to consider that I myself, might be wrong, not just some other person.

Because, in the second half of our reading, we see what it can mean, at the worst, when we are not humble enough to accept that we might be wrong, where we reject scrutiny, and fail in our responsibility to be accountable to one another. "“If anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in me to stumble, it would be better for them if an enormous rock were tied around their neck and they were thrown into the sea." I cannot hear those words without thinking of the terrible scandals of abuse of children and adults that have taken place in many of the institutions of our society: the BBC, Football Clubs, Social Services, the Police, Schools, and in Churches. Lives have been devastated. People who trusted in Church ministers and leaders to protect them and nurture them, have been betrayed in the most appalling way; and when victims have come forward to warn people about the predators in our midst, wolves in sheep's clothing, often they have been ignored or side-lined, and more innocent people have been victimised.

It would be better for those predators, and better for those people who enabled them, better for those people who allowed abuse to continue, if they had enormous rocks tied around their necks, and they threw themselves into the sea. Every time we discuss Safeguarding at church meetings, I hear those words. God's anger and wrath burns against the evil done to his children. How do these things happen though? There are a small minority of wolves in sheep's clothing, of predators, and they are very good at hiding themselves, and they could be anywhere. They are priests and school teachers and social workers and doctors and parents and university professors and policemen and a hundred other things. They can appear anywhere, but they are very few in number. But for each predator there must be many people who do not ask questions, who do not keep their eyes open, who do not scrutinise what is happening around them, who give in to inertia, and so become accomplices to evil.

And I suspect we would be terrified by how easy a thing it is to do. You're a busy person, incredibly busy, you're constantly swapping between a dozen different things: work, family, social events, community groups. You've got a list of people you need to speak to, another list to email, text, WhatsApp, Facebook messenger, all going off throughout the day; and at the same time, you're trying to remember to post a birthday card, and a dozen items to pick up from the shops. Amid all that you receive one message asking to meet and talk about something, some kind of complaint about a person you know. You know the person, you've known them for years, they've always been reliable, cheerful, and caring. They are a friend, and you feel loyalty to them, warmth, trust. You don't know the details, you can't believe it, and you don't know what you should or could do, so you put it to one side for now. And before you realise there's another email, another meeting, another responsibility, and without ever meaning it, the message, the allegation, the warning, is forgotten and the chance is missed.

It has happened, you have become an enabler of evil, and "it would be better for them if a large millstone were hung around their neck and they were thrown into the sea." There are other ways this can happen as well. Perhaps you do not receive a message about potential abuse, perhaps you just notice something out-of-place, something that makes you uncomfortable, and you brush it off and never mention it to anyone. That too can be a way we fail in our duty to provide a safe and loving environment, for children, for vulnerable adults, for everyone. You may never be in that situation, but if you are, if you notice something, if you are told something, you may be the only one, which is why it is so important that you know how to act, and you do. That is why we have safeguarding procedures, and training, and a safeguarding officer - currently Josie Gadsby - so in the rare event we can act to prevent evil happening among us, we know what to do, and we do it. We must all be prepared; and we must make clear, that if you notice anything inappropriate, or if you are suffering anything that is wrong, this is a safe environment to come forward and speak out, knowing it will be taken seriously and acted upon.

The terrible evil of personal abuse, is, certainly, not the only form of sin, though it is one of the most terrible. Often sin comes in smaller, more mundane forms: anger, greed, self-obsession, bitterness, thoughtlessness, dishonesty. In small doses these make up the everyday failures which mark our lives, alongside, of course, all the good we do. But the bad does not wash out the good, nor the good the bad. Still, we harm and do injustice to those around us, often in ways we are not even aware of, but the effect is the same. And smaller doses combine into doses that may then be fatal. All the evils of our world, up to the big lies that poison whole nations, originate in these same mundane sins, that combine and grow.

I was reminded of this again recently, when I came to church to see the 'Camino to COP' walkers, who are walking from London to Glasgow to beg Global Leaders gathering there to take serious action against the threat of Global Warming. I have to say I was deeply moved by their pilgrimage, by their description of walking and singing and laughing and hoping together on this great journey across our country. It was also a reminder that the damage done by Global Warming, which we are seeing in increased wildfires, and flooding, retreating polar icecaps, and other symptoms in recent years, and which threatens both humans and animal species. I think of not just Global Warming, but the Plastic Pollution problem, the destruction of the Rainforests, the devastation of fishing stocks, of air pollution and all the forms of damage we have done and are doing to our Environment.

The church service I grew up with, Common Worship, had some wonderful words in the Confession of our sins that stick with me today: through negligence, through weakness, through our own deliberate fault. Sometimes you hear people talk about sins of commission and omission: that's what you do, and what you don't do; what you say, and what you don't say. Each kind is as important as the other, and environmental problems are an important example of how they can also come mixed together. Nobody gets up in the morning and says, "Today I'm going to screw the planet", but at the same time, we all contribute, through the consumption and lifestyles we lead, the plastic we throw away, the cars we drive, the flights we take, the palm oil in the food we eat, etc. We don't do it to do harm, but we all do it, and we do cause harm.

"If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off. It is better for you to enter Eternal Life maimed than with two hands go into hell. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off. It is better to enter Eternal Life crippled than have two feet and be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to stumble, pluck it out. Better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye, than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell"

Strong words, words designed to shock and startle us, that would have been just as horrifying to Jesus' original audience. But not words meant to be taken literally. Often Jesus talks in parables and metaphors to provoke deeper thought and reflection, and that is what he's doing here. But only because it is not the hand, or the foot, or the eye that causes you to stumble: it is the heart, it is me, or you. If I curse someone is it my mouth who sins? No, it is me. If I kick someone in anger, is it my foot that has sinned? No, of course, it is me. And though with God's grace I try to fight sin in one part of my heart and my life, it is still there in another, and another. 

Maybe, then, I should conclude these words are just windy rhetoric, which can be easily ignored. No, they most certainly are not. They are incredibly, deadly serious. Well then, maybe there is nothing left to do but despair, since sin is everywhere. No, my friends, not that either. We cannot ignore evil, and we cannot minimise it, and we cannot give in to despair because of it. We have another option, because we are not alone. We could never free ourselves from the grip of sin by our own power, but we do not need to.

Jesus Christ, who is God of God, was born a man, lived and died as one of us, and because he is God himself, rose again free of sin and death and shame; and through Jesus Christ we have the gift of forgiveness, grace and freedom from our sins. We are joined with the very Power of God, and the Holy Spirit comes to live within us. We have a terrible responsibility, to fight against sin and evil every day in our own lives, but never alone, with the Grace and Power of God who walks alongside us every step of the way, knowing he sees us as we really are and loves us anyway, enough to die for us that we may live.

Jesus Christ, my Master and my Friend, walks alongside us but we have help from another source too. The Holy Spirit is moving around us and ahead of us, stirring people up, and if we can keep up with the Spirit then we are in for a remarkable adventure. I spoke earlier about John Wesley and the incredible life he had, one that still touches tens of millions of people, Methodists and others, around the world today. He was not the first, the man in our reading today, who was exorcising demons, he probably wasn't even the first, and neither will either of them be the last. The Holy Spirit is moving today, and so I still have hope, no matter what you read in the papers, what you read on Facebook, what you read online, thanks be to God, there is always hope. The powers of sin and death and evil and fear in our own lives and in our world are terrible, but they are nothing against the power of Jesus Christ.


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