Sermon, 9/26/21: The Choice is Right!

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18 Pentecost

Psalm 124; Esther 7:1–6, 9–10; 9:20–22; James 5:13–20; Mark 9:38–50

You must have salt within yourselves, and be at peace with one another. Mark 9:50b

The year was 1972, when the game show “The Price is Right!” first aired on national television.  The host of the show presented a contestant with an item, and the contestant had to guess its price.  If the contestant guessed the price, he/she could accept the prize or continue the game for an even more expensive or desirable item.  However, the choice was not as simple as it may have appeared.  There was pressure from many sides directed at the contestant. 

The contestant had not only to state a price; there were, as well, other contestants who wished for a misquote.  Beyond that stress was the audience, who encouraged the contestant to guess a higher or lower price for the displayed item.  The contestant often had family who called out a price.  The host also played his part in the decision-making.  And then, of course, the contestant had to rely on his or her own experience, intelligence, and instinct.  To whom should the contestant listen: the host, the audience, his/her family, or his/her own instinct?   

I would never be able to prove it in a court of law; however, I am totally convinced that television show, like its competitor “Let’s Make a Deal,” was patterned after the Letter of James and the Gospel of Mark, the two works that have occupied our reading over the last several Sundays.  The disciples of God’s Messiah were confronted with choices; their behavior (namely what they should do) was influenced by people around them, by dynamics within their group, by family members, and, finally, by their own desires.  The lectionary for today illustrates the difficulty of making the right choice before those who followed Jesus. 

Often, making a decision is not difficult because the proffered item is of no use or is totally unthinkable.  Or, second, the choice displays both positive and negative qualities, making the decision not simple any longer.  The third choice offers a prize that is of highest quality, but difficult to obtain, or at least so it would seem, based on experience.  To prove my case, I offer you several examples.

Choice 1.  The Unthinkable:

If you were the Chief Financial Offer of, say, Hewlett Packard, would you accept an offer to speak at the annual awards celebration at IBM?  Answer: chances are, you would not even give the invitation a second thought.  You would probably think the invitation a hoax.  It would never occur to you to accept an invitation from your competitor to congratulate them on their achievement, even if you were cited in The Economist as CFO of the year.  That is the business model, and it seems to make sense in the setting of commerce.

Choice 2.  Undermine or Compete:

Nestled between the two discussions of Jesus on greatness—in chapters 9 and 10 in Mark’s gospel—is a captivating story on making the right choice.  In today’s gospel,  we encounter John, the same John who wants to be fast-tracked into management in Jesus’ kingdom so much so that gets his mother to ask Jesus to make him number one in the coming kingdom.  John makes an urgent, report to Jesus.  “Teacher,” says John, “we have been scouting the countryside, as you have commissioned us, and telling people about you and the marvelous works which you have performed and how you have touched so many lives in positive, constructive ways.  And now, we have discovered that there is competition.  Itinerant preachers are also on the loose.  People whom we do not even know are practicing ministry without a license.  They have not been ordained.  In fact, we found a man casting out demons, practicing ministry in your name.  The impertinence!  The presumptuousness!  This is an infringement on your patent!”  You are the True Word!

Very proudly announces John even further, “I told him to stop it.”  Then John explains his rationale: “because he was not following us.”  Note: John does not say because he was not doing good, but rather ‘because he was not following us—your devoted disciples, us, whom you had explicitly commissioned and sent out in groups of two.  He is not a member of our club.’ 

It does not occur to John that Jesus has devoted followers beyond the disciples’ intimate circle.  Never mind that these other followers were helping people.  Never mind that they were having a good deal more success in casting out demons than the disciples who, so Marks reminds us, failed in their attempt.  No, the sole rationale given, to discredit the fellow, is ‘this fellow is not one of us, and he is encroaching upon our territory, using our rabbi’s name.  I put a stop to this infringement.  Surely, Jesus, you must be proud that we called out this rookie upstart, that we stopped his invasion into our territory.  We must protect our franchise, at all costs!  John’s choice was to preserve orthodoxy.  His limited vision did not allow him to see the benefit received by people in need of better health services and humane living standards.

Choice 3.  Putting the Common Good first

Last week, we heard in Mark’s gospel, ‘Whoever will be great, must become like a little child, or must be willing to be a servant to other.’  Today Jesus makes a rather direct, non-accusatory, commonsensical response: ‘If one is doing good in God’s name, one cannot be against us; the fellow is not our competitor or enemy.  We should be glad for his ministry.  This, John, is the most desirable choice.’

I bring us now to present time, does it not?  It seems to me, if ever there were a direct admonition from Jesus Christ, concerning how we Christian and the churches and communities we have built ought to behave towards each other.  Jesus, as host of “The Choice is Right,” is crystal clear. The right choice is generosity and forbearance among Christian churches, for when we allow business practices to insinuate themselves into the “business” of spirit and faith, envy and distrust cannot be far behind.  And the Letter of James reinforces the words spoken by Jesus of Nazareth. 

Indeed, it is difficult to think positively about the competition.  That parish has more attorneys, more CEO’s.  Another congregation has the best organist and choir.  Another church has a bell choir.  How can we compete against them?  They are after the same demographic as are we.  It is impossible to pray for their success.  We think, erroneously, that their success comes at our expense.  We can find it difficult to admit that the flourishing of other congregation, the competition, may actually be because God is at work among them.  Instead in the broader Christian community, we find fault with the way in which they do things: their theology, their display of emotion, their liturgical practices.

The truth is, of course, that the good news of God’s liberating work in Jesus is not our possession.  God does not need our doctrinaire protection.  The Good News of Christ does not depend solely on our particular way of doing things.  It does not depend upon membership in our group.  In fact, Jesus says as much to John, “Do not stop him, for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me.  Whoever is not against us is for us.” (Mk 9:39f.)

Prior to COVID, when we could still meet in person, John’s approach exhibited itself at a meeting which I attended with fellow clergy.  One of my brother priests decried the fact that ‘all the mainline churches are experiencing decreasing membership.’  Heads nodded in agreement.  ‘The mega TV churches are the way of the day.’  Head nodded in agreement.  ‘We cannot compete against them.’  Heads nodded in agreement.  I did not nod in agreement, and nor did I shake my head in disagreement.  Rather, I cringed.

Let me tell you why I cringed.  First, most assuredly I understand history  behind the term ‘mainline churches,’ the fact that along the mainline of the railroad extending out of Philadelphia were those prominent congregations, people of wealth and renown, the upper crust, the movers and shakers of society, those to whom Martin Luther King Jr. said, “if not now, when?” when those mainline churches said: ‘Are we not moving too swiftly in our attempt to achieve equality?  We needed further study, more committees, more position papers.’  Dr. King, in his “Letters from a Birmingham Jail,” saw complacency at work, he saw a rejection of the fundamental word of God, as Jesus Christ proclaimed it.  God’s word required a faith with works, as the writer of the Letter of James so clearly establishes for us.

Second, that is precisely why, in a pluralistic society, so many are not walking through our doors and why so many take their leave of Christianity.  Until we come to grips with the fact that we never did and do not own God,  and stop bemoaning the ebbing of the past, but rather start to see the  brightness of the future, that God is a God of hope and excitement and surprises, until then, we will lag behind and become irrelevant.

All Christian churches, by whatever flavor, should be on the same side, we are all about the same work, of melding faith and works.  When we study and apply the syllabus which Jesus has given us, we will be met with success.   You and I have been brought together by God in this holy place, a place we love, but not for our comfort, but to serve.  I am glad when other congregations are thriving, for they serve as examples to us and to others of what is unique to that place, but what may not work in another place.  Each community must seek for itself what is the appropriate means of spreading God’s message of reconciling love. 

I believe firmly that the Good News of God’s Messiah is forward looking.  Jesus sought to move people from remaining fixated on the past. You and I, as we continue to discern what our mission is and how best to implement it, will get it right.  We will get it right, when we remember that truth of the gospel of Christ, is a truth which brings perhaps on the one side turbulence and discomfort, but which on the other side provides a path to reconciliation and progress. 

It is a truth that states that Creation did not cease on the sixth day, but is on-going.  Consider the following: We humans are living longer.  We have grown taller.  We have advanced in our understanding of the world around us.  We discover and produce medicines to combat diseases.  We can produce crops sufficient to feed the entire world, if we would.  All this is possible, if we choose to remember that we and all that we have, is of God.  For me, as your pastor, the choice is clear.  And in the process, we all hope to learn a thing or two about our role in the creative process by observing the good examples of others, done in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom be glory, honor, and praise.  Amen