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Dear Friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
51 years ago, in 1970, the comic strip artist Walt Kelly was invited to create a poster to mark the nation’s first Earth Day. The poster depicts the image of his beloved character, Pogo the possum, looking out over a trashed forest landscape littered with refuse and cast-off household items. Pogo stands as if going off to battle, with a pointed staff in his hand and a litter bag over his shoulder piercing the closest pieces of crumbled paper in front of him. And across the poster are the words that have become both familiar and iconic, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”
I rather suspect that Jesus understood Kelly’s sentiment. Jesus’ followers can just as easily become their own worst enemies- without even being aware of their words and actions. It happens in our homes, in our communities, in our workplaces, in our schools, and yes even in the church.
We live in a troubled, polarized world, and the church can be just as divided and broken. But Christians don’t have to embrace the uncivil tone that surrounds us. We don’t have to be opposed to someone simply because of the difference of opinion or political understanding. Instead, we can choose to embrace Jesus’ own words and live by them, that, “Whoever is not against us is for.”
Let us begin again, by reflecting on the opening scene of this morning gospel lesson. We don’t know what motivated the disciple John and the other disciples suddenly to stop an unknown man from exorcising demons. Perhaps, John was trying to justify himself. He may have been the one of those caught arguing about who was greatest. It was there and then, that Jesus had placed a child in the center of his little band of twelve and said that whoever welcomed one such child, welcomed him. It could be that the disciples were simply trying to protect the name of Jesus. After all, you just can’t have anyone going around exorcising demons. What if this man had a checkered past? What if he carried with him a nasty reputation?
John was no doubt proud of what he had done. In a time where people were defined by their special interest groups, he believed that everybody had to choose and stand in one camp or the other. The Herodians sneered at the Sadducees, and in turn the Sadducees spoke maliciously of the Pharisees. The Romans disregarded and despised everyone.
Jesus’ own disciples fell into this same way of thinking. So when they heard of someone else going around invoking the name of their master, someone whose beliefs and social positions they had not vetted, they confronted him and tried to silence him. They then returned to Jesus with puffed up chests, expecting their teacher would applaud them for their purity of purpose, but Jesus surprised them. “Don’t stop him,” the Lord said, “Whoever is not against us is for us.”
My friends, the church has good news to share. Jesus is calling you and me to offer his peace to the world. It is a peace that passes all understanding, “a peace with your present, your future and your past.” It is a peace that finds reconciliation with your neighbor, and it is a peace with God. Unfortunately, we can all fall into the same bad habits as the disciples. We choose sides, instead of Jesus. We choose ideology over God’s purpose. For us, Jesus’ words of warning should be strikingly clear, “If anyone of you put a stumbling block before one of the little one who believes in me, it would be better if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you be thrown in into the sea.” Jesus does not call us to be like the disciples, who were preoccupied with questions of who was in and who is out. Instead, Jesus wants us to be like that unnamed man who didn’t have time for such questions because he was too busy healing and feeding and sowing seeds of grace and mercy abundantly in the name of Jesus. That is your true calling.
Jesus then taught his disciples that a change of habit and perspective all begins with gestures of hospitality. In the ancient world to give a cup of cold water was a symbol of hospitality and of meeting another person’s essential need. It is to be noted how simple the gesture is. You are not asked to do great things for others, things beyond your power. Nor are you being asked to serve as door keeper of the church inquiring people of the political affiliation, how they feel about masks or vaccines. You are invited to give the simple things that any person can give. It is the simple act of kindnesses and respect and civility that is needed in the world today. “Whoever is not against us if for us”- and remember that person does not have to walk in your likeness.
So where do we begin? Years ago, I attended a workshop entitled, Congregational Tools for Effective Evangelism. It included a survey of people who had recently joined a congregation. The new members were given a list of 48 reasons why they joined a particular congregation. The “seven highest ranked reasons for joining” were:
1) Because of what the pastor was like as a person.
2) Because members made me feel welcomed when I attended.
3) Because it helped me in my attempt to live a Christian life.
4) Because I especially like the worship services.
5) Because it was a place where my children could receive good religious education.
6) Because the pastor preaches good sermons.
7) Because I felt that something was missing in my life.
What was the second highest factor? “Because people made me feel welcomed when I attended.” And what was the sixth highest factor? “Because the pastor preaches good sermons.” In other words, the power of welcoming by the congregation was more important than the power of the preaching by the pastor. What the congregation said in the pews, and how they treated each other before, during and after the worship was more important than what the pastor said from the pulpit. Of course, it is not that what the pastor preached was unimportant; it was that what the congregation’s role in “welcoming” was very important. Often we as Christians undervalue the power of being a genuinely and deeply welcoming community, but we shouldn’t. And sometimes, we are completely unaware of our quickly our words and action sabotage the good news of peace that God is calling us to share. In those moments, we shouldn’t be afraid to acknowledge that others may be doing a better job of welcoming than we are, and maybe we could learn a lesson or two.
My friends, let us not stumble and become our own worst enemy. And let us not draw lines that the Lord Jesus did not draw and then regretfully confess that, “We have met the enemy and he is us.” Instead, let us embrace his counsel, “Whoever is not against us is with us.” Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.