Sermon for Sunday, September 30, 2018 || Proper 21B || Mark 9:38-50
(I was blessed to preach this day at my father’s retirement service. For the sermon preached at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Mystic, please click here.)
Good morning. I feel so blessed to have the opportunity to speak with you today as you say farewell to my mother and father. After nearly thirty years of active ordained ministry, my dad is “retiring” tomorrow. I put that word in air quotes because if you know my dad, then you can’t imagine that particular verb ever describing him. For him, retirement won’t mean playing golf every day (which is good, because he’s not very good at it). For him, retirement will mean a refocusing of the life God has called him to live so that he might help others learn how to do the kind of work that you and he have been doing together these last three years. God called you and my parents together to participate in God’s mission of healing and reconciliation here in Middletown. As my parents depart this place, the mission of God remains, and you will have a new pastor with whom to share this mission.
Partnership. Togetherness. Sharing. When we suit up to participate in God’s mission, these are the words that should be on our lips. Yes, we can certainly lone wolf our way through life, but our witness as followers of Jesus Christ leads us down the path of community. My parents will smile at my saying this to you because my personal journey started with me firmly in the lone wolf camp. I was the kid in school who loathed doing group projects because I didn’t want others to have an impact on my grades. So I never treated them as group projects. My classmates would always want to be in my groups because they knew I would just do all the work anyway.
The knee jerk lone wolf persona is still there, but life in ministry has pushed me closer and closer to other people. If God’s mission is based on sharing and togetherness, then there’s no way I can participate in it by myself. Renowned theologian and mystic Henri Nouwen says it like this: “The mystery of ministry is that we have been chosen to make our own limited and very conditional love the gateway for the unlimited and unconditional love of God. Therefore, true ministry must be mutual.”
True ministry must be mutual because the love I’m bringing, the gifts I’m bringing aren’t going to hack it. But just maybe when your love and your love and your love and your love and all our gifts come together, then that gateway to God’s unconditional love will be flung open wide. Imagine that! Imagine being the vessel by which someone else feels in their bones the unlimited love of God.
That’s the power of a community participating together in God’s mission. Presiding Bishop Michael Curry calls this partnership in mission by the shorthand “beloved community.” Beloved community stands on the firm foundation of recognizing that my fundamental identity is God’s beloved child. And your fundamental identity is God’s beloved child. And each person we encounter in our lives is God’s beloved child. Such innate belovedness compels us to treat every single person on this planet with respect and dignity and to work for justice and peace and to end our complicity in the great sins of the world that trample on the beloved identity of our neighbors. Sins like poverty and racism and environmental degradation; sins that show just how limited and conditional human love can be.
You and my parents have been building beloved community together these last three years. When they leave New Jersey this week, your work is not done. They will bring with them the blessings your have given them, and you will retain the blessings they have given you. For the ripples of beloved community do not stop when the nature of ministry changes. Rather, beloved community is the culture upon which ministry flourishes. Beloved community is the mission of God while also feeding the mission of God.
I think this is why Jesus is so strident in his words in this morning’s gospel. Ever since he gathered his first followers, he has been trying to help them understand that the life he offers is best lived by sharing the love of God with one another. He has been trying to build beloved community. Then his disciples go and argue about which one of them is the greatest; and they request the best seats in the house in God’s kingdom; and they try to stop someone who’s not in their immediate circle from doing works in Jesus’ name; and they try to bar kids from coming to Jesus; and they desire to call down fire and brimstone when people won’t listen to them; and and and…You get the picture.
Sometimes I wonder if Jesus called those guys because he thought that if he could teach them to form a beloved community, he could teach anyone. But in today’s gospel lesson, he’s fed up. His disciples just aren’t listening to him. Jesus is standing there with a little child on his hip telling them about their need to welcome even the most vulnerable into their beloved community, for by welcoming this child you are welcoming
“Hold on, hold on.” John interrupts Jesus. “What about that guy we saw casting out demons in your name. He’s not with us.”
Jesus shifts the child to the opposite hip and lets out a deep sigh. “Of course he is. You just don’t see it yet.” Then he hugs the child tighter and says, “If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me,” it would be better if you were just drowned in the sea.
Jesus has tried subtle. It ain’t working. So he goes for about as challenging an image as he can think of to get his point across. It’s as if he’s saying, “Building beloved community is my mission. Do not stand in the way. Rather, walk along the way. My Way. Walk along my Way hand in hand. Together.”
Then he keeps going: “If there’s anything that is keeping you from both living and sharing the life I give you, then get rid of it.” This “life” Jesus speaks of is the special word that means “living just as you were created to be.” And if you were listening earlier in this sermon, you’ll remember that we were created to be God’s beloved children. So we come full circle. We acknowledge that everyone is God’s beloved child. We build beloved community because of this revelation. And then our beloved community enacts God’s mission, which helps us remember and live out that fundamental identity of Belovedness.
As you move into the next chapter in Christ Church’s participation in God’s mission I invite you to celebrate this fundamental identity. Celebrate belovedness in the building of your community, in your advocacy for the most vulnerable among us, and in your hand in hand walking the way of Jesus Christ. God’s mission of healing and reconciliation is alive here at Christ Church. My parents will be importing it to North Carolina when they move next week. And you will continuing living into that mission together as the beloved community of God.