Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Cut It Out

A sermon from Mark 9:33-50 by Lyndon Perry

            I’d like to share three stories that have to do with divorce, but not just the marriage kind. The real issue is separating ourselves from others, ending relationships, cutting off contact friends and strangers alike.
It’s a pressing topic for us today for we live in a very fragmented society. We may not agree on much, but we can almost all agree we are a divided nation. Maybe the most divided society in recent memory. You don’t need to look very far for examples. Social media has made it the norm to “defriend” someone over the slightest provocation.
And this has disastrous effects; all of our most important relationships seem to suffer. Think about it. Are people having marital difficulties? The temptation to divorce one’s spouse seems to be a “go-to” possibility for so many people. It’s almost the default option nowadays.
But not only that, we are often tempted to divorce or separate ourselves from family members, friends, even God, at the drop of a hat. Just cut them out of our lives.
            It used to be, if “the going got tough, the tough got going” and they worked harder to build stronger relationships. Now, if the going gets tough, people often bail out.
            The insidious nature of wanting to separate is inherent in all of us. Maybe these three stories will shed some light on the dilemma and offer a way back to wholeness.

            Imagine a man, we’ll call him Bill. Back in the 1980s he was business partners with Tom, his longtime friend from high school. They entered the video wholesale and retail business right in its infancy and they rode the wave as the market grew beyond all calculation. Of course, they shared the ups and downs typical of any friendship or business relationship but clearly their partnership was a successful one.
            Now as they moved into the 1990s, Tom thought it wise to exit video sales and enter the arena of compact disc technology. (Remember those days?) Market trends seemed to indicate that within a few years, videos would go the way of the dinosaur and computers with CD capability would become the new kids on the block. So Tom suggested to Bill that their partnership head this new direction.
            Now Bill, who was not quite the visionary Tom was, had some major objections. Not least of which was the $200,000 mortgage he recently acquired. Bill’s safe and secure, he doesn’t want to venture out into the unknown and put at risk his current success and stability.
So after a couple of months of debate which included more than a few heated arguments, Tom decided he must part company with Bill. So he sold his half of the partnership to his friend and entered the computer business on his own.
Low and behold, video sales slump as predicted, Tom’s new business takes off, and Bill is left holding the bag. The chain of events leave such a bitter taste in Bill’s mouth that he no longer speaks to Tom. Neither does he want his wife to remain friends with Tom’s wife. Furthermore, he is contemplating whether or not to sue his former partner for breach of contract. He’s not sure how, but somewhere along the line his former friend must have pulled a fast one.
What began as a solid friendship deteriorated into an unfriendly, even hostile, broken relationship. That’s one story of separation. Maybe you’ve seen something like it happen to people you know.
Another fictional story concerns two young mothers, each with children about the same age. We can imagine these two moms’ names to be Joy and Susan.
            Throughout their lives Joy and Susan have shared with each other almost everything. Laughter, hurt, secrets, experiences, wedding presents, baby shower gifts, infant and toddler clothing. 
There does not seem to be anything hindering these two young women from experiencing a meaningful life-long friendship.
            As the time approaches for their children to enter preschool, however, Joy increasingly becomes concerned with the state of today’s public education. She is alarmed to find out that both witchcraft and Satanism are actually taught in some school curricula. She’s read about the strong bias against traditional family values and Christian morality within the public school system, especially in the area of marriage and gender redefinitions.
In short, she has lost confidence in state-run education and is almost certainly going to place her oldest daughter in a private, church-run preschool and elementary school.
            Well, Susan is dumbfounded. In her opinion, her friend’s perspective borders on the fanatical. After all, their particular school district is solid. They even allow ministers to pray at certain school sponsored functions. There seems to be no warrant for Joy’s fears, at least none that Susan can see.
As pre-school registration day draws near the communication between Joy and Susan gradually diminishes. Oh, it’s not a conscious thing, there are no major arguments. They just don’t run into each other as often any more. They’ve cut back on sharing with one another as well. Time, clothes, and laughter no longer make their way into each other’s homes. Soon they have different schedules and one day the phone calls stop altogether. What began as a solid friendship has deteriorated into a distant, apathetic relationship.
Know anyone with a similar story? Could it be your story, but with different particulars?

            I would like to tell you one more story. One that really happened. A number of years ago a new church formed. It was the first Christian witness in this particular area. It started out small; the congregation had a core membership of about 25 men and women. 
            One man, John, was a leader in this newly formed Christian community. And, like many leaders, John was protective of the church’s ministry. He, along with some others, viewed themselves as the only ones chosen by Christ to serve authentically in the name of Christ.
            Many churches today, by the way, have this same attitude. Whatever doctrine a congregation deems important, that becomes the measure of the true church, right? “We are the true church because we don’t baptize infants,” or “We do baptize infants, therefore we are the true church.” You see what I mean?
            Well, the ministry began to grow. John and the other key leaders were serving the Lord the best way they knew how and the Lord blessed their efforts. Within a few months, however, it looked like a new church was going to form. Now this was a bit threatening to some of the members of, let’s call it, “First Church.”
            But again, this is true for us today, isn’t it? Often when new churches are planted the older established congregations feel threatened because maybe some people will leave their church and switch their loyalties to the new church.
            Well, John and the leaders of First Church probably thought this might happen to them. So they got together to see what they could do about this new congregation. They actually wanted to stop it from forming. What compounded the problem in their minds was that the “rival” pastor was a charismatic type who performed exorcisms!
Now this other man was a Christian, he exorcised demons in the name of Jesus. So that wasn’t the real issue. He was a follower of Christ. And by the way, even John and his friends cast out demons in Christ’s name. But the real sticking point? 
It’s found in Mark 9:38.
And I guess what I neglected to tell you is that this story, which actually occurred in history, happened to John Zebedee and the disciples of Jesus. When they saw someone outside their group, outside the chosen twelve, ministering in the name of Christ, they were alarmed.
            “Teacher, we saw someone who was not a part of our group, driving out demons in your name. So we told this person to stop, because, well frankly, he was not following us.” 
            In other words, he was not a member of the “in group.” Today, we might say that he does not worship like us, or she doesn’t dress like us, or they don’t believe as strongly about this issue as we do. Or they hold opposite political beliefs than we do. Whatever the excuse, we will sometimes use it to stop him or her or them from entering into fellowship with us.
            Jesus replied, Mark 9.39, “Don’t stop him.” 
In a sense, he was telling the disciples that anyone who can truly minister in my name is indeed following me. And that’s enough. It doesn’t matter if they are not following your way or traveling your particular path. If they are truly serving in my name, they are my disciples. “For no one who does a miracle in my name can in the next moment say anything bad about me.”
            Jesus said in another context, “I am the way, the true way, the living way. No one can get to God except by traveling my way.”
            John Fisher, a Christian musician from the 1980s sang a song with these lyrics: “Jesus is the only way, but there’s more than one way to Jesus.” In other words, if we are truly ministering in Jesus’ name, then we are brothers and sisters in Christ, despite our difference paths to accepting him as Lord. 
So if that’s true, that “whoever is not against us is for us” (Jesus says this in Mark 9.40), then we should not easily separate ourselves from others just because they are traveling a different path to Christ.
Yet that is often what we end up doing, isn’t it? We distance ourselves from other believers, denounce them, and therefore add to society’s fragmentation.
            Do you see how in each of these stories the theme of separation and divorce, of cutting others off from fellowship, enters in. And how it runs deeper than we realized? 
It’s not merely an issue of people bailing out of a business relationship or a friendship or a marriage when the going gets tough. If that’s all it is then we could train people to become tougher. (And probably harden a few folks in the process.)
But the real issue, the deeper issue here, is actually one of idolatry. That’s what’s behind Jesus’ words about adultery and divorce in this and other gospel texts. It’s a question of ultimate loyalty. Where does our true and unadulterated loyalty lie?
Is it with Christ, or is it with our brand of politics or our particular denominational system or some secondary level of doctrine or with our worship tradition or chosen musical style?
            In a business relationship, is your loyalty to Christ’s way of truth and love and integrity and honesty or is it to some hidden agenda, selfish ambition, or personal vendetta?
In a close friendship, is your loyalty to Christ shining through to each other or is it to changing the other person into someone who agrees with your perspective on all things? (This is my struggle, by the way.)
            In religious matters and faith concerns, do we pledge our allegiance to Jesus Christ, willing to give up everything to follow him? Or do we salute the religious institution, giving up friends and family for the sake of the idols of human pride and prejudice?
            You see, we have to give up something. Whenever we talk about faith, the matter of sacrifice is present as well. Whenever we broach the subject of loyalty then we must also speak of surrender.
            The time of year most of us consider this idea of surrender is during lent, coming up in a few short weeks (Ash Wednesday is March 1st). During Lent some people give up sugar or smoking or television or alcohol or something for the purpose of preparation – they are preparing for Easter. 
Now to temporarily give up, or sacrifice, whatever gets in the way of our relationship with our Lord has been a meaningful Christian tradition for hundreds of years. And usually, it’s one we don’t mind. I am sure we can all think of certain unpleasant things in our life that we would like to sacrifice and do without.
The Lenten season is a time for doing just that. It is a time to clean up our act, if you will. After all, if our loyalty is to a holy God who cannot tolerate sin, who even sacrificed – gave up – his own Son for our sake, then who wouldn’t want sacrifice those unpleasant aspects of our lives?
            The trouble is, we sometimes take this matter of sacrifice too far and into the area of relationships. Whoever is an unpleasant intrusion in my life, well, I’ll give them up . . . for lent. 
After all, if my loyalty is to me/myself/and I, the big Numero Uno, then I can sacrifice any relationship that is unproductive, or unpleasant, or not gratifying, or not uplifting, or that doesn’t add to my sense of self fulfillment. (You see where I’m going here, right? I’ve become my own idol and am sacrificing others on my own altar.)
Lou Kilgore, a pastor friend of mine from seminary, pointed out to me that we Christians are so often too quick to sacrifice people we deem “unholy, unfit, and unpleasant.”
Isn’t that that John, the son of Zebedee, wanted to do? Mark 9.38 – “Teacher, we saw someone who was not a part of our group, driving out demons in your name. So we told this person to stop, because he was not following us.” 
In other words, let’s sacrifice this guy, let’s divorce him, let’s give him up for lent, let’s cut him off from our fellowship.
Friends, that’s the wrong kind of sacrifice.
            So Jesus, in Mark 9, verse 43-47, essentially responds – with a strong dose of irony, I believe – “Hey, John, the rest of you, you’re right. If your hand causes you to stumble, go ahead and cut it off. It’s better live without it than to live a life in hell. If your eye is your problem, pluck it out. If your foot gets in the way, chop it off. If your ear provides you with unpleasant news, twist it right off. If it’s inconvenient for you to live with your big nose, sacrifice it, get a nose job.”
Do you hear the sarcasm? Ridiculous, right? Jesus just painted an absurd picture a person with body parts flying off left and right.
            And the disciples knew it was absurd. I think they got it. I think they heard Jesus saying, “Don’t you realize what you’re doing? You want to start sacrificing parts of the body, MY BODY, the body of Christ, the Church. So sure, if you want to start getting rid of people because they are unpleasant or unfit or unholy or not good enough or too different, then sure, go ahead, start sacrificing parts of yourself. Perform surgery on the parts of your own body that trip you up or cause you to sin or aren’t living up to expectations, and see how far you get before you become a bloody mess.”
            Because that’s exactly what will happen when we start divorcing our friends and family – even strangers who are seeking Jesus – we end up cutting them out of our lives, sacrificing them on the altar of our selfishness. We end up a broken, bleeding, and fragmented people. That’s the insidious nature of separation.
            Paul says to offer our bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God, Romans 12.1. I think we can expand his words to include the whole body of believers. We are to offer the Church body as a living sacrifice, whole and holy, pleasing to God.
            Let’s not rip the body apart by divorcing each other. Let’s not cut others out. Instead, let’s unite our lives around Jesus as Lord and Savior. Let’s announce our loyalty to Christ alone and his way of love and healing and wholeness and forgiveness. This is the way of Jesus, the true way, the living way. And he will meet us right where we are and will help us travel down his path. We don’t have to end up a fragmented people, we can join together in the power of Christ’s name and overcome division, separation, and brokenness.

            Praise be to God.