Readings: Psalm 19:7-14Mark 9:38-50
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight O God our rock and our sustainer. Amen.
Over coffee a couple of days ago a friend asked me a very hard question: are we, as Christians, willing to be inclusive even to the point of death? And I was silent – perturbed by what that might mean, not wanting to trivialise by some twee answer, needing time to ponder such a challenging question.
I’ve had a few days – it is still a challenge and the answer is still beyond reach but I would like to share some of the thoughts I have had.
And those thoughts are guided by the reading from today. For Jesus’ response to the news that a man is casting out demons in his name but outside of the community of faith is somewhat puzzling to his followers. The disciples expect action, a shutting down of this danger and are bemused by his lack of action – how could he allow this person to use his name and do his work of healing without their first belonging, their commitment to the way of Jesus through community. And Jesus reassures them – the power of the living God is in every situation where good is done and kindness shared, where Jesus name is invoked and where love is shown. He has, in this one response, broadened the people’s understanding of what it means to be inclusive.
So we begin by thinking about how we use commonly use the term inclusive today – and its supposing antonym exclusive. I certainly talk about inclusiveness in terms of language especially in worship – how it can exclude people in unceasing maleness, how the theology and language of some (older and modern) hymns can sometimes be more harmful than helpful and others are timeless despite their old fashioned language.
We use the word when we question the right of the church to exclude people from leadership and other human rights because of their sexuality, their race, their social standing. We are an inclusive church – we welcome all people is the byword for today. Exclusive means putting boundaries other than faith seeking on those who can join. Exclusive means thinking we have the right to say who God calls to faith and community. Exclusive is dangerous.
But so too is inclusiveness if it means we lose our sense of who and whose we are. If we water down our purpose and knowledge of God to a point where anything goes – then we lose our integrity as the people of God, called to be set apart, to live a radical faith and to engage with the world through the vision of Jesus. In that sense we are exclusive – and need to be so.
But there is a big chunk missing from our understand of inclusive and exclusive– those of you who are ahead of me will realise that the talk so far is all about relationships within the church – how we behave to others within the community and how we treat those who come seeking us. Looking inward in other words. What about looking outward?
And it is this conundrum that faces the disciples. There is someone out there who is using Jesus name and healing people of demons – and he is not a member of the community. They need to shut him down – he hasn’t gone through the proper channels.
And Jesus response points us firmly towards expecting God’s presence to be at work in the world, outside of our enclaves of faith and definitely outside of our expectation of measurable returns. He also says that we are to expect to be fed in that experience.
Some people struggle with this. They struggle with the idea that they might have to be in real relationship with those who are outside the faith community. They struggle with engaging in dialogue with people of other faiths or of no faith, believe that only good works done in a Christian context can be pleasing to God. And yet Jesus tells us whoever is not against us is for us – helping to bring the purpose of God in this world to fruition –to bring healing, justice, mercy and love to all the world.
Why are some Christians fearful of engaging in this way with the world? Because I think it does come mostly down to fear – fear that their faith is not strong enough, fear that they might be hurt, fear of losing control of how it works, fear of the unknown – that their Christian exclusiveness is not about being set apart as God’s people but about protecting what is theirs. No great trust in the immensity of God’s purpose for us and the world one suspects.
There is the story of the Christian Bishop in New York who, immediately after the 9/11 attacks participated in an outdoor service alongside religious leaders from many different traditions – there were those in his diocese who then had him removed because they felt that by participating he was recognising the legitimacy of the prayers of others. Similar to a recent event in NZ? Fear of contamination versus strength of faith allowing us to fellowship with those who are not of our way.
So being inclusive as a church means not just being kind and welcoming to those who walk in that door there, but also facing outwards, engaging with those who are different, of whom we might know nothing and expect even less. And sometimes, yes, that might mean us engaging with those who are potentially a danger to us and our way of life – is this what it means to be inclusive to the point of death.
We put ourselves as disciples of Jesus into a story of today.
What has been our reaction as Christians to the refugee drama that has so connected with people around the globe? Well it has been mixed. And for some Christians, fear of what might be has led to an outpouring of almost hysterical response to keep our doors, our borders closed to keep out the refugees. You can see responses online – where Christian brothers and sisters have posted and resposted comments such as ‘it’s just a plan for Islam to take over the world’ or ‘they’ve got cell phones so they can’t be that desperate’ and the cartoon of a Trojan horse outside the gates of Europe saying refugees on the front and ISIS on the back. Some are just plain dumb – but these types of comment are all over the web, all label themselves proudly Christian and all are horrifying in their lack of understanding of the teachings of Jesus – where hospitality and welcome extends to all no matter who they are and protecting our patch by putting up walls is the absolute antithesis.
So we don’t get to say that we will put up a wall instead of a door, we don’t get to label people in such a way that we don’t then have to care for them, we don’t get to find reasons why they are not our ‘neighbours’, we don’t get to protect our way of life by excluding possible dangers but instead we get to ask how does the love of Christ constrain me and liberate me in this particular situation. Let those be the online posts we get to read about, not this fear filled isolationism.
How we do need to take seriously the thought that we need to be inclusive even to death – strong in our belief as God’s people, firm in our following of Christ’s commandment of love for God, neighbours and self and enemies whilst engaging in relationship with others even when it may hold danger and discomfort. For even if there are people among refugees who are not as deserving, even if there are undesirables among them, even if some might be our enemies, even if life is less comfortable, even if there is a change in our lifestyle with the influx of a very different peoples, Jesus says we are to welcome them, engage with them and be prepared to know God more deeply within those relationships. True inclusiveness means the way of costly, self-sacrificial love – to the cross.
So when the refugees come to this place, when we are asked to engage with those who are different, let us show that we are Christians by our love. Amen.