Pastor Steve Molin
Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost
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Dear friends in Christ, grace to you and peace, from God our Father, and His Son, our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
One of the things I’ve always liked about organized sports is that you can tell who’s who by the color of their uniforms. Stillwater is always red and black, so when they play Mounds View, you learn to love the red and hate the green. In my case, the Black and Gold Kellogg Chargers were always the good guys, and the Blue and White Alexander Ramsey Rams were always evil. In the National Football League, the Seattle Seahawks wear white and the Packers wear Green, and you can always tell them apart…unless you are a replacement referee, and then it all gets kind of blurry.
But this idea of distinguishing friend and foe by the color of their shirts sort of went by the wayside when I became a Lutheran pastor. You can’t tell a Presbyterian by the color of their shirt. And so, as a young pastor I had this perverted sense that pastors of all the other denominations were the enemy, or at least, the competition. Our theology was purer, our training was better, our music was more dignified, our sanctuaries were more worshipful, and our coffee was more tasty. I’m being somewhat facetious, but I was proud of our church and our theology. The other clergy did not wear red uniforms or green uniforms. But I still carried a bias. The Lutheran Church Missouri Synod didn’t ordain women into ministry, so to me, they became the other guys. Literally, the other GUYS! The Roman Catholic Church didn’t allow non-Catholics to receive the sacrament of Holy Communion. Again, the other guys. Baptists seemed to me narrow and legalistic; they didn’t smoke and they didn’t chew, and they didn’t date the girls that do. They were the other guys. I confess that I was closed off to them; I didn’t regard them as colleagues or fellow laborers in God’s vineyard. They were the competition. But let me tell you how that changed for me.
The Billy Graham Association was invited to Sioux Falls to conduct a week-long crusade with Billy as the preacher, and I got to be a part of that planning committee. For 18 months, we met with pastors and members of all the denominations in town so we could come together as a Christian community. And the day before the crusade was to begin, I recall sitting at our final committee meeting with Tom Wilson, our Billy Graham staff person, and this is what he said, “In every city where I have worked with a crusade, I have noticed the division and competition among the churches. It’s like you are all ducks swimming in a pond, but there are fences that separate the Presbyterian ducks from the Methodist ducks, and the Lutheran ducks from the Catholic ducks. But when we come together to plan an event like this, it’s like the water level rises, and for a year, the fences disappear, all the ducks can swim together. For this year, the gaggle of ducks has been one. But when the crusade is over, when the water level goes back down, I wonder if God’s ducks will be divided once again?” At that moment, I realized that the attitude I carried toward my colleagues of other denominations was a sin. And I also realized that I was not the first – nor would I be the last – church leader stricken by self-righteous pride. In fact, when it comes to dismissing the other guys, I’m in pretty good company.
The disciples of Jesus also felt proud of the brand they represented. They were learning theology from the master, their seminary consisted of conversations around the campfire with the Son of God, and they sacrificed everything to be a part of this exclusive fraternity. So when the disciples returned from a mission trip in the region of Galilee, John said to Jesus, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not one of us.” He wasn’t one of the disciples, nor was he among the throng of Jesus’ followers. He was some other guy. But curiously, he was casting out demons in the name of Jesus. We don’t know what his religion was, but somewhere he had heard of Jesus and his tender ministry among the sick in body and mind. “In the name of Jesus, come out of this person!” he would cry. And presumably they would be healed. But the disciples were appalled. “You can’t do that! That’s our job! You don’t have the proper credentials, or the correct theology, or the same cozy relationship with Jesus that we have. So stop acting like your faith is as rich as our faith, and your kind deeds are as gracious as ours.”
That is the essence of what the disciples told the other guy…the one who was healing in the name of Jesus. And Jesus didn’t like it, and he became indignant with his disciples. I love it whenever Jesus gets indignant, because he says things and does things that are radical and without sugar-coating. He leaves little doubt about how he really feels. And today he tells John that they were wrong to prevent this man from doing good in Jesus’ name. “Whoever is not against us is for us, and this man was not against us,” Jesus said. Whoever is not against us is for us. Do you see contrast in that statement with one that our former president once made, “Whoever is not for us is against us.”? One statement draws the circle large enough to include many; the other draws a circle to keep some out. And I am reluctant to quote a former professor from Wartburg Seminary because Pastor Keith and Pastor Ed will crow about it for a month, but Dr. Duane Priebe has said this, "Every time you draw a line between who's in and who's out, you'll find Jesus on the other side."
And that’s the discovery I made within myself when I judged the other guys from other denominations some 30 years ago. Because I didn’t agree with them, they were wrong and I was right. Because we saw life and faith differently, they were out and I was in. And my self-righteous pride convicted me. So now I wonder if this same exclusive posturing continues to divide the church, and the world, and the workplace, and communities. Us against the other guys. For example:
Most of us don’t know what Muslims believe, and many of us probably don’t know any Muslims, so we have this caricature of them as mad terrorists who hate us so we hate them. Is it possible that God loves them, and blesses the good work they do?
Most of us stand on one side or the other of the political divide that is America; we can’t have civil conversations with the other guys, so we settle for lobbing insults and accusations at them. Is it possible that both sides want what they believe is best for this country, and that God loves us all without regard for our political stripe?
Some of us in this room are richly blessed with financial security, and some in this room have humble financial standing. Some of us are the 53% and others are the 47%. And there is resentment on both sides of that equation; we blame the other guys for our frustration. But all of us struggle to know what we should do with what we have. Is it possible that God wants us all to honor him with the way we use the gifts that we have?
If statistics are correct, most people in this country are heterosexual, but some are homosexual. We do not understand it, and we cannot grasp what it feels like to be the other guy. But is it possible that God loves both sides equally, and wants us to live at peace with each other? Jesus does not compel us to agree with all, but he does desire that we would live at peace with all.
What I have just described to you is the broken world in which we live. We choose to gather with like minded people – in church, at work, on the golf course, in book clubs – people just like us, and we define the positions we hold as the right ones. Therefore, we define the positions of the other guys as wrong. And we dismiss them.
The disciples learned a valuable lesson from Jesus that day. They learned that God does not carry the same angst, the same disregard, and the same bias against the other guys that we do. He may not have liked some of the things they did, but he loved them with a passion. And he still does. Is there a way we can restore that sort of respectful discourse in this age? Is there a way that you who are upset with my words today can walk out of here and at least ponder whether God wants us to hate those with whom we disagree? Can we learn to like them…maybe even love them? Because I think that’s what Jesus meant when he said, “Have salt in yourselves and be at peace with one another.” Let that admonition be our calling and our goal. Thanks be to God. Amen.
The post-script is this: Not only do the Red and Black clad Stillwater Ponies dislike the Green and White Mounds View Mustangs, but our Black and Gold Kellogg Chargers did too. But over time, the uniforms are set aside, and allegiances fade, and minds are opened. And here’s the proof; 41 years ago I married a Mounds View cheerleader…I think it’s going to work out!
©2012 Steven Molin