Stumble on the Way

By Rev. Dr. David D. M. King

The Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Mark 9:38-50

“Teacher, we saw someone throwing demons out in your name, and we tried to stop him because he wasn’t following us.” Sometimes we talk about schism in the church. Schism is just a fancy Greek word for break or fracture. Sometimes the Reformation, in the 16th century, is thought of as a schism. Before that there was the Great Schism of the 11th century, when the western churches and the eastern churches broke apart from each other.

But in our story from Mark this morning, we hear about a schism in the church that happened much earlier than that. John and the rest of the disciples, amazingly, were able to create the first denominational split before Jesus had even died. They saw someone casting out demons who wasn’t part of their group, and they said, “Hey stop that. You can’t cast out demons in Jesus’s name if you’re not part of our club. Don’t you know that we are the only true church? What do you think you’re doing? How dare you perform miracles without our permission?”

Now, Mark doesn’t tell us much about this unnamed miracle worker, just that he was performing miracles for Jesus even though he wasn’t part of Jesus’s inner circle of apostles. And the apostles were none too happy about this. They felt quite justified in prohibiting this unsanctioned, unorthodox, unauthorized ministry. Clearly if this person was not part of their church, then he had no business claiming to be a follower of Christ at all. Obviously he was just some wrongheaded, dangerous, religious nut who must be stamped out before he could do any more damage. What if, God forbid, people saw these miracles and started to follow him instead of the true apostles.

When they report all this to Jesus, they are shocked to find that he doesn’t agree with their assessment of the situation. They had figured they’d be rewarded for maintaining the purity of the church, for defending it against dangerous, corrupting forces; perhaps receive some sort of medal for special services to the faith. But that’s not what they get.  Instead, they receive a royal scolding.

And it’s a really good scolding, too. “You just wait, when I get through with you you’ll wish you’d tied a giant boulder around your neck and thrown yourself into the ocean, you’ll wish that you’d gauged out your eye and cut off your hands and feet before I’m finished with you!” Jesus really takes it up a notch. He goes beyond the already formidable tongue-lashing we might expect to come out of the mouth of a parent. Jesus ends up sounding like more of a mob boss than anything else. “You know what happens to people who cross me? You’ll wish you had a boulder tied around your neck before you got thrown in the lake, because, I promise you, what’s going to happen to you will be much, much worse.” The disciples, who had really been quite pleased with themselves, now find that they are in a whole heap of trouble.

But what are they in trouble for? Jesus says, “Don’t you get it? Anyone who isn’t against us is for us?” It’s quite different from what we often hear. Jesus accepts the work of just about anyone, as long as they’re not directly opposed to him.

By the way, what is that whole bit about gauging out your eye, or cutting off your hand or your foot if they cause you to sin? In all my studies of Christian history, I have never come across even a single instance of someone actually cutting of their own hand to keep themselves from stealing, or gauging out their own eye to keep themselves from coveting their neighbor’s wife. You’d think that with all the crazy Christian cults and fanatics that we’ve had over the years that someone would have tried it, but apparently even the most zealous followers don’t take all parts of the bible literally. I think we’re pretty safe in assuming that Jesus is telling us that we would be better off giving up some of things that we really cherish if it turns out that those things are becoming a barrier between us and God’s call for us.

But I’m getting off track. Back to the disciples and the unnamed exorcist. The disciples are concerned because this rogue miracle worker probably doesn’t believe the right things, he probably doesn’t have the right lifestyle, he’s really not fit to be casting out demons. But Jesus says, “No. It’s obvious that this man is doing God’s work. Just look at the fruit of his labor. Before there were people enslaved by evil forces, now they are set free. Why can’t you see that this man is doing God’s work, God’s will, even if you haven’t approved him? Don’t stand in the way of someone else’s effective, God-breathed ministry just because you don’t agree with him. He’s helping people, why would you stand in the way of their progress?”

In today’s world, we tend to be pretty good at putting up stumbling blocks along the way of faith. We Christians are rather skilled at discounting the ministry of others who aren’t a part of our group, who don’t follow our way of doing things. After all, we had a good example in John and the apostles. And we’ve had nearly two thousand years to perfect our technique. We have denominations, communions, movements, which are supposed to be ways of bringing people together, but often end up being tools to keep people apart.

In 1750, John Wesley wrote a sermon on this same scripture passage, and he pointed out some of the ways that the church in his time was fighting against Jesus’s call not to get in the way of someone else’s effective ministry. He argued that anyone who was able to turn another person away from sin was in fact, “casting out devils,” and that so long as there was sufficient proof that such casting out of devils was indeed occurring, that we should not then block or forbid that ministry. In particular, he was concerned that many lay speakers were forbidden to preach on the grounds that they were not ordained and thus could not have been called of God. Wesley argued that as long as their preaching was effective, as long as it was turning people from sin, that is, casting out demons, that it must be from God, and should not be forbidden.

But toward the end of the sermon, he takes the point even farther and says, “What if I were to see a Papist, an Arian, a Socinian casting out devils? If I did, I could not forbid even him without convicting myself of bigotry. Yea, if it could be supposed that I should see a Jew, a deist, or a Turk doing the same, were I to forbid him either directly or indirectly I should be no better than a bigot still.” Now, there’s quite a bit of antique language in that quote, but Wesley is saying that if a Catholic, a heretic, a cult leader, a Jew, a humanist, or a Muslim were able to effectively turn someone from sin, then it would be wrong to get in the way.

Imagine that. The originator of the Methodist movement, John Wesley, said that it would be wrong to interfere with the ministry of anyone who was effective at turning someone away from sin, anyone who was showing fruit. It didn’t even matter if they were Christian or not, so long as the ministry was effective.

It’s very easy for us to discount the ministry of others. Maybe they have the wrong theology. Maybe they haven’t had enough schooling, they’re ignorant; or maybe they’ve had too much schooling, they’re bookish and disconnected. Maybe they belong to the wrong group or denomination. Maybe they have the wrong values, or the wrong set of morals. Maybe they speak the wrong language, or have the wrong culture. Maybe they don’t look like us, or don’t want the same things we want. Maybe they stand for the status quo. Maybe they stand for revolution. Maybe they use the wrong name for God, or picture God the wrong way. Maybe they read the wrong books or listen to the wrong people. Maybe they’re too highfalutin. Maybe they’re too folksy. Maybe they perform the wrong rituals. Maybe they don’t perform the right ones. Maybe they quote scripture too often, maybe not often enough. Maybe they have the wrong politics. Maybe they have the wrong lifestyle. It’s easy to dismiss the ministry of others, to put stumbling blocks in their way.

Our own denomination is facing a potential schism in the next year or so. And, as it happens, the argument is over precisely this issue. Who is able to do ministry in Jesus’s name? Who is able to be ordained? Should we allow anyone who is effective in ministry? Or should we categorically exclude all LGBTQ persons based solely on the sexuality? That is the question at the heart the schism. Who is allowed to do ministry in Jesus’s name?

Jesus tells us, “Do not forbid them. Anyone who isn’t against us is for us.” You see, we serve a very strange God. A God who doesn’t seem to be very picky about where good things come from.  A God who is willing to work with whoever is willing to work with God.  A God who is on the side of all different kinds of people, all over the world.  A God who takes advantage of any opening, who works with whatever materials are available, in whatever way will be most effective.  We serve a God who puts absolutely no limits on where or how or from whom grace can flow.  A God who blesses us, and our neighbors, and our enemies.  A God who does things our way, and their way, and theirs too.  And if we are brave enough not to forbid it, not to set up stumbling blocks in the way, then we will see God’s amazing grace in the most unusual, most unexpected places, even in the one who casts out demons, but does not follow us.

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