Sermon for Sunday, September 26, 2021 || Proper 21B || Mark 9:38-50
I’m a lot like Harry Potter. Not magically, unfortunately. And I’m taller than him. And I’m not British, also unfortunate. But, but, but in one very important way, Harry Potter and I are the same. We both had to learn to accept the help of a loving community. If I look for a through line across the seven Harry Potter novels it is this. Harry tries to do everything alone because he doesn’t want anyone else to get hurt. He truly loves his friends. But his love for them keeps him from letting them be full members of the mission to take down Voldemort. Only when Harry finally lets his friends share fully in his mission do they stand a chance of succeeding. His love for them changes from a protective kind of love to a partnership kind of love. And they are all stronger when they work together.
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. Now, my personal journey started with me firmly in the lone wolf camp, like Harry Potter. 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 maybe, just maybe, when your love and your love and your love and your love and all our gifts come together, then that door 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. Many have called 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.
Let’s break apart these words: beloved community. “Beloved” is just two smaller words smooshed together. “Be loved.” The beloved is the object of the one who loves, in this case, God. And we feel God’s love by sharing God’s love. That’s what makes us “community,” a group of people who have come together with a unified purpose. Our purpose is to share God’s love, and not just with each other, but with everyone we meet. The blessings of beloved community do not stop at the doors of the church. The ripples of beloved community spread out to touch more people than we can possibly count. Beloved community is the culture upon which our shared 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. Here’s my paraphrase on the next bit of the Gospel lesson: “If your hand causes you to separate yourself from God, then separate yourself from your hand instead. If your goal is to live the kind of life that God yearns for you to live, then you would be better off having only one hand than to have two and wind up in the refuse dump, where they burn trash all day long.”
Another way of saying this is: “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 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 of healing and reconciliation, which helps us remember and live out that fundamental identity of Belovedness.
I invite you this week to celebrate this fundamental identity. Celebrate belovedness in this community, in our shared service with and advocacy for the most vulnerable among us, and in our walking the way of Jesus Christ together. Harry Potter and I both learned that we cannot complete our missions alone. Harry needed Ron and Hermione and all the others to keep him being the loving person he needed to be to confront Voldemort with the one kind of magic Voldemort does not understand: love. I needed to reject my lone wolf persona because my very desire for aloneness was the thing Jesus would wish for me to cut off so I could fully embrace his life. And when I did, I discovered something so much better: I discovered the beloved community of God.
Season 4, Episode 3
“Scapegoating in Times of Crisis”
The Podcast for Nerdy Christians returns for our fourth season, and we’re back with a new tagline: “Where faith meets fandom.” This episode, we’re talking about scapegoating in the Bible, in fantasy properties, and in real life. We’ll also tackle some chapters of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.