Sunday, September 27, 2009

Tearing Down Fences in the Name of Jesus

Seventeenth Sunday of Pentecost (Proper 21) – Year B (RCL)Numbers 11:4-6,10-16,24-29; Psalm 19:7-14; James 5:13-20; Mark 9:38-50
Sunday, September 27, 2009 –
Trinity, Redlands

As many of you know, I grew up in a military family. I was 16 when my father retired from the Marine Corps and we moved to Riverside. It may seem kind of strange, but one of the things that I particularly noticed in my transition from military life to civilian life was fences. In most of the places I had lived, on military bases and in various places in the South and the Midwest, fences were not all that prevalent, at least not for homes. On bases, the yards were not fenced. And in other places, about the only time you saw fenced yards was if someone had a dog they wanted to keep in. And there are lots of fences out in the vast rural expanses of Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas – fences to keep animals such as cattle and horses, confined. But when we moved to California, it seemed as if virtually every house had a fence.

I guess what struck me most was the purpose of those fences. Some definitely had the purpose of keeping something in – usually dogs or children. But most seemed to be there out of the sense of exclusivity – purely for the purpose of keeping something, or someone, out. And unlike most of the household fencing I had seen as a child, which tended to be chain-link, most of the fences I now saw were wood, block wall, or masonry. They seemed to serve an even more important purpose than just keeping something or someone out. They serve to protect privacy, to protect and preserve a personal sense of identity.

More often than not, fences in our society, particularly in our urban and suburban environment, are boundaries with the specific purpose of maintaining and insuring exclusivity. They are boundaries to keep others out, and to protect our privacy, even our identity. We humans love our sense of exclusivity, in its various forms. And it’s one we’ve been struggling with for millennia. In fact, both our Old Testament lesson from Numbers and our Gospel lesson from Mark both deal with the subject of exclusivity.

In the lesson from Numbers, we have the people of Israel grumbling as they make their way through the wilderness on their way to the Promised Land. Moses is fed up with it and seeks help from God. God tells Moses that he needs some help in dealing with the people and suggests that he select 70 of the elders to fill the job. God’s spirit is then given to the 70 to assist them in doing their job. The 70 begin prophesying, indicating to the people that these were chosen by God to help in the administration of the traveling band of Israelites. To the amazement of some of the people, two additional men, Eldad and Medad, who were not among the 70, also begin to prophesy – indicating that they, too, have received a call from God and have been given a share of God’s spirit. Now this really upsets some of the people. Seventy elders have been specifically chosen to be the inner circle – to be an exclusive group among the Israelites – and here are two more men engaging in activity reserved for the 70 alone. Eldad and Medad are perceived as challenging, even breaking, the boundaries of exclusivity the people presume to be set by God.

Similarly, in today’s Gospel lesson from Mark, we see John, one of the Twelve, getting all upset because he observes someone casting out demons in Jesus’ name. And this guy is not one of the Twelve, not one of the inner circle. After all, Jesus had commissioned the Twelve, specifically giving them authority over unclean spirits. John perceives that only those in the inner circle are authorized to do anything in Jesus’ name, particularly something as significant as casting out demons. This guy is encroaching upon the boundaries of exclusivity presumed to have been set by Jesus.

In both the Old Testament and the Gospel, those upset by “outsiders” breaching the boundaries of exclusivity complain to the boss. In both cases, it is one of the inner circle who complains about the actions of those outsiders, of those pretenders. Joshua complains to Moses. John complains to Jesus. Both Joshua and John are hoping to appeal to the notions of hierarchy and authority, to get Moses and Jesus to intervene and set things right, to restore the boundaries of exclusivity. Both Moses and Jesus patiently listen to the complainers, and then both give the same response. “Someone from outside the inner circle is doing what you think is reserved for you alone? So? Just get over yourselves.”

That’s where the Old Testament lesson stops. But in the Gospel lesson, Jesus takes it one step farther. Jesus moves from the issue of exclusivity, broadening the concept by looking at the flip side of the equation, to looking at the issue of inclusivity. While he doesn’t specifically say so, Jesus is implying that in the actions of the community, there needs to be a balance between exclusivity and inclusivity.

Exclusivity is important, to a degree. Part of exclusivity is maintaining a sense of unique identity. If a group or community is going to be able to stay together and to function effectively, there needs to be a clear definition of who the group is, of what it is meant to do. Certain standards need to be upheld. Otherwise, you run the risk of developing an “anything goes” attitude, of embracing any whim that might come along, and of spiraling into anarchy as each member of the community goes about doing whatever he or she thinks is right. So, you do need some boundaries.

But there is a difference between having boundaries and building fences. Boundaries provide for a clear definition of identity, of standards of behavior. Fences, while allowing for the maintenance of identity and acceptable codes of conduct, also serve to keep others out. Fences prevent others from coming in and testing out the community, to see if it is right for them, to see if it might be what they are looking for to add meaning to their lives. Boundaries are permeable. Fences are not.

For us humans, tension between exclusivity and inclusivity brings with it the balance between retaining power and giving up power. When operating under strict exclusivity, authority is centralized and maintained within the group. Without some semblance of boundary, authority is dispersed. Clashes may then occur over what should be done, what is acceptable. And in the extreme, authority deteriorates.

But what Jesus is implying in his rather cryptic analysis of community and individual, of exclusivity and inclusivity, is that he is concerned not so much about identity, not so much about power. If anything, Jesus is really saying that exclusivity, while maintaining human, earthly power, is actually counter to heavenly power – attempting to maintain power through exclusivity actually serves to deny divine authority. God is the ultimate authority. Jesus Christ is the ultimate authority.

No, for Jesus, it is not about authority, at least, not human authority. It is not about earthly identity. It is not about who is inside and who is outside the inner circle, the chosen elite. What Jesus is really about is serving, about meeting the needs of others. This is particularly exemplified in the Gospel lesson. A person had a demon. It needed to be cast out. What difference does it make if it is cast out by one of the Twelve, or by someone else? The only real criteria is that what is done be done in the name of Jesus.

We see what this means through the life of Jesus. His is the ultimate example of humility and service. His entire life, from start to finish, is about humility and service. That is the whole reason God became incarnate in the form of Jesus – out of love for and to be of service to humanity. During his life, this service took the form of teaching, healing, helping, befriending the marginalized. In his death, this service took the form of forgiveness, reconciliation, and salvation, of proving and imparting God’s unlimited grace upon all of humanity.

As Jesus demonstrates, therefore, the key to providing the balance between exclusivity and inclusivity is through humility and service. Humility is dying to self, putting aside our own needs and desires, for the sake of others. Humility leads to service.

As I said earlier, exclusivity has its place. It provides us with certain boundaries, with a certain identity, that allow us to develop a sense of humility, that allows us to, out of that humility, to move into a place of service. But what Jesus is telling us is that the sense of exclusivity needs to be redefined, to be broadened. To allow for humility and service, our concept of exclusivity, of identity, cannot be so limited, so restrictive as to presume that the way we do things at Trinity is THE way to be a Christian. Or that the way The Episcopal Church does things is THE way to be a follower of Christ. Don’t get me wrong. Those things are important on a personal level. For those of us in this room, Anglicanism is the expression of Christianity that works best for and speaks to us. Being members of Trinity Parish in Redlands fills a need and provides that expression that speaks to us in terms of worship and mission. But at a broader level, it is not what we do in the name of The Episcopal Church or what we do in the name of Trinity Parish that truly matters. What matters is what we do in the name of Jesus. What is most important is how this place called Trinity operates in the name of Jesus, acting in a manner consisted with Jesus’ character, acting on behalf of Jesus, being the hands and feet and heart of Christ in the world.

Moving from a place of exclusivity to appropriate levels of inclusivity, not that anything goes, but rather, that all are welcomed, all are served in the name of Jesus, is something that every church struggles with. It is an ongoing process. We are seeing this process unfold through our strategic planning process. When we started the process last spring, the focus of people’s comments centered around what goes on within our own walls, around concern about how to get more people to come to Trinity. But the purpose of the planning process we are using is to focus not so much on what goes on in our own walls, but rather what we are doing outside these walls. Through the process, we have seen a slow and steady shift in perspective. The focus is more and more becoming, what is our mission? How do we serve those outside this place? How do we do service not in the name of Trinity, but in the name of Jesus?

This is humility. This is dying to self. This is dying to our own perceived needs. And as we do that, we are assured of new life. For we know that death leads to resurrection and new life. As we die to self, to our own perceived needs, we will be reborn to something new and glorious, to what God is calling this place to be in the name of Jesus.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

1 comment:

Yard[D]og said...

In the name of God, Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer, AMEN