What Matters Most

Sermon – Sunday, September 30, 2012
Zion Lutheran Church, Hoople, ND
Mark 9:38-50

“Now the star bellied Sneetches had bellies with stars, but the plain bellied Sneetches had none upon thars. Now those stars weren’t so big they were really quite small. You would think such a thing wouldn’t matter at all.” These words are from the children’s book The Sneetches by Theodore Geisel, more popularly known as Dr. Seuss. They were written in 1961 during the peak of the civil rights movement, yet the message is timeless. The problem is human nature and the sinfulness of pride and arrogance. And as you heard me explain in the children’s sermon it’s a problem that has existed since the beginning of time and certainly one that is highlighted in today’s Scripture readings.

In our Old Testament reading from Numbers we hear that the Spirit of God descended on Eldad and Medad and they were prophesying. What an amazing thing, right? But Joshua, Moses’ assistant and one of his chosen men, told Moses to stop them.

And even Moses is surprised with this response from Joshua… Moses says, “Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit on them!” Moses is right. What a blessing to have all of God’s people witnessing to others. But Joshua isn’t happy. Joshua isn’t overjoyed. Joshua isn’t thanking God that there are now more workers spreading the word of God. No, Moses is right. Joshua is jealous; he doesn’t want other people doing great things. After all, he is one of the chosen people.

And this attitude of self-righteousness continues as we read in Mark’s gospel that John tells Jesus, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” Again, someone outside of the established group is doing miraculous deeds and because he is not from Jesus’ group of disciples he is seen as a threat. This outsider is viewed as someone who is against Jesus and his teachings.

But Jesus responds that “whoever is not against us is for us.” This individual was given power by God to cast out demons just as Eldad and Medad were given power to prophesy. The great deeds they were doing were a result of the Spirit of God present in their lives, whether or not they were even aware of it themselves. God is always at work in our lives even when we don’t know it, even when we aren’t aware of it. Yet our very actions are the sign – evidence of the fruit of the Spirit – that God is using us to accomplish great things. But when pride gets in the way we can block that channel for the Holy Spirit to work in us.

The disciples could not cast out demons because they were focusing on themselves. In last week’s gospel they were arguing over who was the greatest. And before that they had tried to cast out demons because they had forgotten to pray first. It seems obvious that the disciples were jealous because these people who weren’t part of the elite group of disciples all of a sudden can do things that the disciples couldn’t do. Aren’t we all like more often than we’d like to admit?

We see someone achieving success at work and wonder why they get the promotion and not us. What do they have that I don’t have? Or someone at school gets an A without studying and we work really hard and our grade is not so good. Or we see someone who lives what we think is a pretty carefree and unfaithful lifestyle and they seem to get ahead and we work hard and try to be a good person and we can’t seem to accomplish anything. We make groups all the time between the people who are in and the people who are out and mostly it’s because in some way, whether we want to admit it or not, they threaten us. We want to get ahead. We want the prize whatever that is. We don’t want others who are different to accomplish those things we can’t and we don’t want to share because there may not be enough. And then what if – like the Sneetches – we eventually can’t tell who is in and who is out? What then?

Jesus said, “Whoever is not against us is for us.” And instead of worrying so much about what the other person or people are or aren’t doing we need to be concerned about our own behavior. We need to keep focused on the real prize and that is Jesus. We need to be concerned about doing the work of the kingdom and not the work of ourselves. When John said the person who was casting out demons had to be stopped he said it was because he was not following us. That’s an interesting choice of words because instead of focusing on following Jesus, the disciples were now the ones who were the focus.

In my home congregation in New Hampshire, there was an Anglican church that was newly formed and they needed a place to worship. So our congregation decided to share our worship space with them until they could find a place of their own. We would worship in the morning and they worshipped there in the afternoon. This was the case for many years until we both grew bigger and had to have separate spaces. The focus however, was never that they believed differently than us and therefore we couldn’t associate with them. The focus was always that though we may have had differences, we were both trying to follow Jesus in our own ways.

And the church in New Hampshire is part of an interfaith council in the city. It is comprised of Lutheran, Methodist, Catholic, Episcopal, Congregational, Unitarian, Mormon, Jewish and several other faith traditions. All work together to help the greater community by finding the things we have in common rather than those things that divide us. Even here in Walsh County we have ministerium groups of different denominations that work together to help those in need in our community. “Those who are not against us are for us.”

How do we know who is for us? The evidence – the fruits of the Spirit – reveals this. The fruits of the Spirit are love, peace, joy, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Acts of kindness, like giving someone a cup of water, are evidence of that Spirit and we must let the Spirit blow where it will. Jesus says we must not be a stumbling block to them. When we are judgmental or narrow-minded we block the work of the Spirit not only in another’s life, but in our own as well. Even in the people that we see as enemies who have beliefs different than ours, there is a portion of truth to be found in them, for God is so almighty and powerful that not one person or group can grasp the fullness of God’s power. God’s glory is immeasurable and God’s love is enough for all people.

The message of the gospel is to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and to love your neighbor as yourself.” Mother Theresa, a great example of living a life of love and service in the world, said, “If you judge people, you have no time to love them.” And when she was asked once how she had accomplished such great things in her life responded, “None of us can do anything great on our own, but we can all do a small thing with great love.” Love may seem like something quite small, but it really does matter, in fact, most of all.

Our Scripture texts today tell us to stop judging and start loving. May the Spirit of God descent upon our hearts and teach us to love as God loves us.   Amen.

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