Getting Back on Track: Who Is on My Side? Am I Alone?

[audio]Psalm 124 Mark 9:38-50

Today we're back in Capernaum, immediately following the story we heard last week. As we look and that text, let’s keep in mind the topic: Who Is on My Side? Am I Alone? Every single one of us, at some point in our lives, has felt alone; maybe in the literal sense of feeling friendless, or maybe in more of a metaphorical sense that we are in community with others, but we have no one to talk to about our situation: our doubts, our fears, our direction in life. We feel like we might be alone in what we face in life. Our text can give us some insights on how we might deal with these feelings of loneliness and isolation.

John comes to Jesus bragging, thinking he has done the right thing, that there's been this exorcist going around and saying, “I cast out demons in the name of Jesus,” but since he wasn’t an officially sanctioned disciple, “we told him to go away. We did the right thing, didn’t we?” Once again, Jesus, as he often seems to do, surprises the disciples when they feel at their most righteous and reveals them as off track. He says, “That's not what it’s about. I know that this guy thinks he has power because he's using my name, but that's not really the issue.” And then he adds this provocative statement: “Whoever is not against us is for us.”

The disciples must be scratching their heads and saying, “What does it mean to be for you if you can be with this other guy and that's OK?” Jesus responds by making the teaching tangible: “Whoever gives a drink of cold water to one of these little ones who follow me will have their reward.” That meaning would have been lost by those living in the ancient Near East at the time when the custom was, even until today, to give somebody something cool to drink when they come inside from the heat outdoors. When I was in the Middle East this Summer, the first thing that happened when we checked into a hotel is that someone would meet us with a a platter of fresh juice.

And if that's not clear enough, Jesus goes on to give some pretty stark examples of what it means to keep somebody on the outside. Remember last week that he had a child in his arms. It may be that this child is still there in his arms. He says, “If you prevent one of these who are on the margins, who are outside, despised, the marginalized, if you prevent them from coming into fellowship with me, with us, it would be better for you to have a millstone around your neck and be tossed into the sea.” He says this as they're sitting feet away from the Sea of Galilee. Millstones are not small. Those for grinding grain by hand can be about two feet across; those for crushing olives into oil are six feet in diameter. Jesus is not being subtle here. It’s like the Jesus version of the mafia’s concrete shoes.

From there he talks about self inflicted damage: “It would be better for you to chop your foot off or poke your eye out or cut your hand off than to go into hell.” I think it is important for us to say that we take Scripture seriously, and not literally. Jesus often speaks in metaphor. Are we really pluck out our eye? Are we really to cut off our hand? Are we really to chop our foot off? No. But Jesus is being blunt in order to make a point about exclusion and inclusion. If we are excluding people, then we are completely missing the point. When Jesus uses the word “hell,” the Greek word is Gehenna. It was a literal place. Just to the south of the old city of Jerusalem, there was a valley (Ge) of Henna. Gehenna was the municipal dump. All the refuse would be dumped into this valley and you burned it. This is where we get the image of hell as a place of fire. Gehenna was a valley where trash was burned. And that fire never went out. It was an unquenchable fire.

Jesus is making the teaching that he gives relevant to the people's lives. In essence, he is saying, “This stuff matters. No, I don’t want to cut your foot off. No, I don’t want you to chop your hand off. We've all been in Jerusalem. We've seen what’s just outside the city walls. We’ve all seen millstones and the sea is right there. I mean this stuff. Make sure that you are not excluding those that I would like to include.”

There’s something about our contemporary culture and it’s unique character. Part of it breeds isolation. We consider self-reliance one of the highests form of character. In a sense, to be dependent on somebody else, even for a short period of time, is seen as failure. At the same time, personal privacy is one of the highest values in our society. When Elizabeth and I lived in Palestine, we learned how a different culture treats these issues. In Palestinian culture, we came to call the strong hospitality of hospitality lovingly as “belligerent hospitality.” In the afternoons and evenings, people would walk around town and be invited into homes and be given a cup of cold water and sit down and drink coffee together and then go onto the next house. As we came into this town, we learned that hospitality was central. Since we had no family there, it was especially important that folk reach out to us. I remember one time in particular that we were walking past somebody's house and he invited us to come and drink a cup of coffee. We were in a hurry, and when we passed by, saying, “No, thank you,” I reached out to shake his hand. He pulled and pulled and I have this image of my foot on his door post trying to turn loose. Our friend Marwan would come over to visit us from time to time. He would knock on the door, and there were times when we just wanted to be alone. We wouldn’t answer. He would knock again. He would try the handle. It would be locked. He would leave for a little while, go outside, call from his cell number, and we’d let it ring. Then he’d come back up, knock on the door again, and try the handle. The point there was not an invasion of our privacy; even though it felt like that to the two Americans. The point was to say, “You are welcome. You are on the inside. You are included.”

There must be middle ground, of course. But we can look at our own culture and see what it is that we can learn about what it means to be alone. We know that there are those of us who are naturally more inclined to be introverted, that we get exhausted by being with other people and get the most energy from being alone. There are others of us who are extroverts. We are most on of our game when we are surrounded by others; We get energy from that. Not everyone is alike. But I can’t help but wonder this week: could it be that there are times when isolation and loneliness is self-inflicted? I say this with a great deal of caution. I’m aware of the seriousness of depression and the fact it is one of the most treatable afflictions that we have. The most common conversation I have as a pastor with people is about depression. So the irony is that when we feel most alone there are many in the same boat. But are there times when being alone is something we do to ourselves?

I think of John’s response. When he comes to Jesus and draws this line in the sand and says, “There was this guy casting out demons in your name, but we don't know him, so we told him to go away and to cut it out.” Do we do similar things in shaping our community? Do we draw lines around denomination, religion, nation, race, class, age, stage of life? There is much to be gained by being community with those who are like us. That's the reason for support groups for addiction and grief. And yet, there's something to be learned from being with those who are very unlike us.

When we lived in Palestine, that was part of the nature of the community there. These were multi-generational families, three or four generations living together under one roof. You would see rebar everywhere because you would not finish the top of your house so you could add another story for the next generation. We would go over and visit with people and watch Arab pop music videos with families: grandmothers, little children, all watching these music videos and commenting from their own perspective. It meant something to be together.

And there in that small village, there was a mixture of Muslims and Christians living together. We also learned about how faiths can cross lines that we might not otherwise assume. Jeries was the patriarch of one of the families we visited regularly. He was a Greek orthodox member of the church. One day when we were visiting, there was a Muslim family visiting them, friends of theirs, and they had brought a very, very sick child. As we were having a conversation and drinking coffee together, out of the corner of our eye, we noticed that Jeries had gotten up and was standing over this family and was mumbling some kind of prayer to himself as he was making the sign of the cross over this Muslim child. Perhaps it's not ours to draw the lines as clearly as we as we think we should.

The bottom line is that Jesus is often speaking about, and living out, breaking down barriers; inclusion; bringing others into community. We saw this last week as he held this child in his arms, one who would have been disdained. Jesus was often bringing those who were disregarded into community, whether they were Samaritans or Gentiles or lepers or tax collectors. Those who were rejected at the time were often included in the community as far as Jesus was concerned. Jesus is redeemer for Christ does not belong to Presbyterians alone. Christ is not the redeemer for Christians alone; for Americans alone; for Tech fans alone. The challenge is for us to live our lives in ways that make that real.

Do you have anyone in your life that you would consider a friend who is unlike you? However you want to define that. And if you don’t, why not? The challenge from the gospel is moving us beyond our comfort zones, to reach out to others in relationships. There are plenty of opportunities right here in our congregation to do just that. We are involved with the Druid Hills Night Shelter, the Interfaith Outreach Home, AMIS and befriending an international student, supporting the Knauerts as they live and work in Brazil. Let’s be clear: it's not about what we do for them but about what we do together as we learn more about each other and come into relationship with those that we might think are against us. The truth is that we have just drawn lines in a place that Jesus doesn't necessarily agree with.

I also want to be clear to say: if you're feeling lonely, you’re not the only one. What we can see from this text, from those who have been put on the outside, is that God wants to hold you close; Christ wants to walk with you. Is that too abstract? If we know anything about Jesus, he wants us to make it real and tangible. He wants us to give those cups of cold water, to remove stumbling blocks. So if you feel that this applies to you, this is not a time to be self-reliant; instead, it is time to reach out. Pastor Tiffany and I are here to listen to you, to be with you. Maybe you have to have a friend or a counselor, someone you know that has been reliable in the past, maybe it's time to reach out to them again to let them know how you’re hurting.

Friends, Christ is with us. Christ includes us. Christ takes us into his arms and heals us and says, “Follow me.”