We're in This Thing Together
Mark 9:38-50James 5:13-20
A movie came out this summer called Little Miss Sunshine. If movies with strong language are hard for you to take, then this is definitely not the movie for you. Even so, it is, at its heart, a family movie. Let me rephrase that: it is a movie about an extremely dysfunctional family.
At the heart of this family, its one moment of sanity, is six-year old Olive, who learns she will compete in the Little Miss Sunshine beauty pageant. Her whole family jumps in the van and heads west to California. On the trip out West, we get a fuller picture of her family: Dad is a complete failure at everything he tries, and yet forges ahead with his career as a third-rate motivational speaker, plugging his nine steps to success. Grandpa got kicked out of the nursing home because of his unseemly behavior; he’s also a heroin addict. Uncle Frank is now living with them, having tried to kill himself; you have to keep him away from sharp objects. Teenage brother Paul has taken a vow of silence, inspired by the nihilistic philosophy of Nietzsche, but mostly by the fact that he simply hates the rest of his family. They fight and argue the whole way to California; the hatred and dysfunction is bubbling just below the surface most of the time.
I won’t ruin the ending for you, but suffice it to say that the arrival at the Little Miss Sunshine pageant, with its gruesome images of six-year old girls dolled up with spray-painted tans and two-piece bathing suits and beehive hairdos, is enough to bring this family together. We may not be perfect, the message seems to be, and we may not like each other, but we are in this thing together. It’s us against the world, and I’d rather be on our side than theirs.
It’s this message of an inner circle of sorts that begins our gospel lesson from Mark. The disciples understand that they’re part of something special as followers of Jesus. So when they see someone claiming to do healings in his name, they interfere. “He’s not one of us,” the logic goes. They tell Christ about this man and their attempts to stop his illicit casting out of demons, proud of their intervention. And, of course, Christ sets them straight: “Whoever is not against us is for us.” In other words, we’re in this thing with more people than you know. We’re not alone. And the other people who are in this thing with us, they may not look like us or talk like us or act like us. Be that as it may, we are in this thing together.
The rest of that lesson seems a bit disconnected at first, startling in its graphic imagery of millstones around necks and of hands and feet chopped off. Our first reaction is to turn away in horror from these violent descriptions of punishment and judgment. We like our Jesus to be warm and cuddly, someone who is a teacher of self-improvement, not an advocate of self-mutilation. It is for this very reason, and for the fact that we take Scripture seriously, that we must look again.
All of what Christ is saying is connected to this incident with the outsider exorcist. He is the one worthy of a cup of cold water. He is the one who should not be tripped up. And the disciples, members together of one body, the body of Christ, should hold those hands and feet and eyes accountable when they cause us to wander astray or when they fail to recognize God’s messenger in our midst.
At the heart of what Jesus is saying here is simply this: what we do matters. It matters whether we bring cold water to those who are thirsty or turn them away because they’re not following us. It matters whether we reach out to those who would seek to follow Christ and welcome them into the community of faith or put stumbling blocks in their way and keep them out. And it matters whether we, who are members of the same body, work together and support one another or trip each other up.
It’s like one of those Rube Goldberg drawings, where an elaborate series of pulleys and levers and marbles and dominoes work together to perform a simple task, like turning on a light switch or starting the toaster. If only one of those mechanisms fails to work, the whole operation draws to a halt. We are in this thing together.
All the while, there is the possibility of judgment and punishment. We are accountable to one another and to God. And yet, when we are at our most punishable, when we most deserve that judgment, it is then that the hand of mercy reaches out to us.
This message of communal responsibility and connection runs throughout our lesson from James as well. Having followed his letter over the past month or so, we have noted his insistence on action, and the fact that action matters. It grows from a seed of good faith and out to the fruit of good work. In the same way as Christ shows, that what one member does affects the rest of the body, so James compels this community to live their lives together. Whether it is prayer for the sick or praise for celebration, whether it is confessing faults to one another or reaching out to those who wander, the community is in this thing together.
And that community, let us be clear, is not simply James’ original audience. Nor is it the description of the idealistic, and yet non-existent, utopian community. We are, in fact, that community. We are the ones to whom James is writing. We are the ones who are called to care for one another, to weep and to rejoice together, to confess and embrace side by side, to reach out to those in need and to acknowledge our own needs. We are in this thing together.
There is probably no more fitting message for us today as we gather around this table not only as a community here, but also spiritually with those of other languages and nations on this World Communion Sunday.
And as we gather, I am reminded of the story of a couple that attended a church where a friend of mine was pastor. He had counseled them, but to no avail. Their dysfunction was not Hollywood at all, but was all too real. There were allegations of abuse, both physical and emotional, on both sides of the relationship; allegations that seemed, all too sadly, to be all too true. She filed a restraining order against him. They were both members of that same Presbyterian church; he got the early service, she got the late service. A world of hurt, hatred, and mistrust separated these two broken children of God. There was probably nothing in the entire world that could bring this couple back together.
One Sunday, a communion Sunday, the early service was cancelled. He came to the late service and sat in the balcony. She sat in her usual seat on the main floor. As my friend looked out at the congregation, and saw them both in attendance, each with their legitimate grievances against the other, his heart ached for their healing. Then something amazing happened. Communion began. It was the practice to have one procession downstairs and one upstairs. And my friend commented that, as they both came forward, even though they were separated by time and space, that for that brief moment, they were brought together through this broken bread and poured cup. The sacrifice that this table represents brought these abused, abusive people together in all their brokenness, offering healing to each one in a way that the world was incapable of doing.
I don’t know what happened to that couple. I wish I could say that there was a Hollywood happily ever after. I would hope that, in that moment of communion, they saw the error of their ways, turned over a new leaf, and began the long, hard road of healing together; that as judgment loomed over them, they chose mercy instead. I don’t know, but I sincerely doubt that that’s the case.
Even so, I think that their story shows us the possibility that this table offers us. It brings us together, from wherever we might come, offering us this incredible moment. The body of our Lord is broken. His blood is poured. And when that happens, we are called to look inward, to that place of our own severe brokenness, allowing ourselves to be opened to the healing that the brokenness of this table brings to us.
And all the while, as we pray for the sick and sing our praises and confess our sins to one another and gather around this table, we are reminded that we are bound to one another. We can draw strength from each other, our sisters and brothers, who support and care for us through it all. Friends, we are in this thing together. Let us give thanks to God.