John said to [Jesus], “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” But Jesus said, “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. For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.

“If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you 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 to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell, where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched.

“For everyone will be salted with fire. Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.”

Mark 9:38-50

Pastor Marc's sermon on the 17th Sunday After Pentecost (September 27, 2015) on Mark 9:38-50. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below. 


“No one else was in the room where it happened - the room where it happened - the room where it happened” - that’s the start of the chorus for the fifth song, of the second act, of the current hit Broadway musical “Hamilton.” Aaron Burr, played by Leslie Odom Jr, runs into Alexander Hamilton, played by Lin-Manuel Miranda, right as Hamilton is about to meet with Thomas Jefferson and James Madison to talk about the power of the treasury and the location of the nation’s capital. The year is 1790. The US is still brand new. Everyone is trying to figure out how this government might work because we’re trying something different - a democratic republic - where some folks, but not all, actually chose their leaders. Alexander Hamilton, an immigrant, is the Secretary of the Treasury. He has a vision for a strong central government backed by a robust financial system to make the US an industrial and commercial powerhouse. Thomas Jefferson, a Virginian, has a vision of the US being an agrarian society led by educated, spirited, and wealthy white farmers. His ally is James Madison. So the three gather together, sharing a meal to crank out a compromise. In the end, Hamilton gets what he wants: a strong treasury with the power to fund commercial trade. Madison and Jefferson get a promise that the nation’s capital will move from New York City and be placed between Maryland and Virginia. And Aaron Burr, who would become famous as the only sitting Vice President to kill a person in a duel - is sitting there, on the outside. No one knows how the negotiations went. No one knows who said what, what options were put on the table, who showed their cards and who didn’t. The inner-circle of Hamilton, Jefferson, and Madison made the decision. They made it happen. And Aaron Burr fumes because - he wasn’t there. 

And I imagine that the disciples, when they caught that person they didn’t know, casting out demons in Jesus’ name, felt kinda the same way. How could this unknown person do what they do? They didn’t walk with Jesus like the disciples did. They didn’t see Jesus face off against the religious leaders and visit the lands of Gentiles. This mystery person hadn’t earned the power and prestige like the disciples had. He wasn’t part of Jesus’ inner-circle. He didn’t belong to be in the room where Jesus happens. 

I think we all know what innercircles are. The lunch table where the cool kids sit; being invited to the right parties; being able to get a table at the trendy restaurant without a reservation. We know when we’re in the inner-circle and when we’re not. And there’s a desire - an impulse - for us to try and do what we can to get into that inner-circle, into the places where things happen, where decisions are made, and where we are known as the movers and shakers of our little corners of the world. Even if we scoff at what certain inner-circles stand for - we still define ourselves based on them. We might not be the cool kids with the right clothes or the right iphone - but even the freaks, greeks, burnouts, and nerds have their inner-circles. And once we’re in - once we have our spot - our opportunity for a little control and power in the world - we can’t let that go.

And that’s what I think the disciples felt. They were in Jesus’ inner-circle. Jesus called them by name to give up everything and follow him. Jesus gave them a sense of identity, a sense of purpose, and a place in the world. And then this upstart - this nobody - shows up and is doing what they do. We don’t know what, exactly, this unnamed person was doing. We don’t know if they were being manipulative, asking people to pay them before they’d cast out demons, or do something else very un-Jesus-like. But we do know that’s not why the disciples tried to stop him. They wanted him to stop because he wasn’t following “us.” He was a guy who didn’t belong.

And the disciples almost sound afraid - as if, somehow, the presence of this stranger would dilute or limit what the disciples were experiencing. I feel like the disciples imagined that Jesus could only have so many followers. Like his power had a limit and if he gave too much of that away to too many different kinds of people, there wouldn’t be anything left for them. The disciples wouldn’t be special, wouldn’t be powerful, wouldn’t have that status that they believed they should have. And the disciples weren’t wrong to think that way because that’s how the world - that’s how we - think. We live in a world where limits are a part of life. We live in a world where only a few have the power - the status - the gift of name, class, race, and gender - to be seen as the ones who should be in the room, making the important decisions. The disciples could handle an inner-circle of 12. But their room, their place, couldn’t handle more. 

And this is where last week’s lesson comes in. The Gospel of Mark has this habit of intercalating, a fancy word meaning that Mark likes to make a story sandwich. He takes two stories, surround one with the bread of the other, to make a stronger point. Last week, we heard the disciples arguing over who’s the greatest. And Jesus answered by bringing a child, a kid with no power, wealth, or status - into the community. He tells the disciples that this child - this powerless one - is to be welcomed, included, and part of the community because they are already part of God’s community. And today, we hear the same kind of story where the disciples, once again, are trying to hold onto their status, their power, their sense of greatness. They try to preserve their inner-circle as they know it. And Jesus just shuts them down. He starts to get graphic and even a little gross. He continues last week’s story by talking about gouging eyes, cutting off body parts, and burning things with fire. Jesus’ words aren’t for outsiders. They’re also not about an individual’s morality or sense of decency. These are words for those already inside the community and who are struggling with what to do about new people, different people, people who aren’t like them. Jesus, here, is talking about welcome. He’s talking about hospitality. He’s talking about how the inner-circle is suppose to be in the world that God is bringing about. 

And that’s because God’s inner-circle isn’t our inner-circle. Our love might have limits. Our resources might only go so far. But God breaks into the world on the promise that God’s love is limitless. Jesus’ love can’t be diluted into something less. The love that Jesus has for us is the same love he has for that stranger down the road who we’ll never meet. The story of Jesus is the story of an ever expanding, ever welcoming, ever open inner-circle where love and grace rule. And that inner-circle isn’t limited because God’s love can’t be limited by us. We’re not here to limit God. We’re here to live out God’s limitlessness. Because God’s not making the inner-circle smaller. God’s entering the world to show just how big God’s inner-circle truly is. 

“I want to be in the room where it happens - the room where it happens - the room where it happens” - that’s how Aaron Burr ends the song. He’s got to be in the inner-circle that we, and the world, care about. Burr wants in. He assumes that's where he's supposed to be. He believes he belongs in the inner-circle. And so do we. 

But what would it look like to see the world as God sees it? To live as if the person in the pew next to us and that random person in the line at the grocery store who is visiting from out of town - that all of them are already part of our inner-circle? What would life look like if we saw in others, no matter their background, faith, politics, race, intelligence, or abilities - what if we saw them as already part of our inner-circle and we as part of theirs? 

Because that’s Jesus’ challenge to the disciples. That’s Jesus’ challenge to us. We’re already part of the body of Christ. We’re already part of the God who is active in the world, right here and now. We’re the Hamiltons, the Jeffersons, and the Madisons of God’s world. We’re already in God’s room. The table is set. The meal is about to be served. Today, right here, and wherever we go, Jesus is about to happen. So how are we going to take our shot, rise up, and live out God's love in God's worldwide inner-circle today?