Sermon delivered by the Rev. Cristina Rathbone
38John said to him, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” 39But Jesus said, “Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. 40Whoever is not against us is for us. 41For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.
42“If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea. 43If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. 45And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell. 47And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell, 48where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched.
49“For everyone will be salted with fire. 50Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.”
Whoever is not against us is for us
Peter Feltman Mohan was ordained a priest in Christ’s church yesterday morning. A group of us were there, and I think we all agree that it was both a beautiful and also a very moving service – not least because Peter himself was so moved throughout it.Jenny Greg, who many of you know, preached at the service and she spoke movingly about the power of being named and of being seen, and how that power resides with us all, which is true. And then she said these words which she has given me permission to repeat now:
“Peter…your ordination to the priesthood comes at a crossroads in the life of the church. We stand on a threshold after a year and a half of heartbreak, of constant changing containers and forms in all aspects of our lives, wondering what will be. We look behind us and wonder if we will ever return to what was, or if we even want to. We look before us into an unknown future. None of us are the same. We all have been changed. And as we stand here collectively, there is much within that asks, God, where do we go from here? God, who are you calling us to be to this hurting and broken world? What new containers are to be born as we listen deeply to your Spirit’s moving?
Very powerful, and very true, Jenny’s words – especially because as I heard them I knew they applied as much to us here at Grace as they did to Peter in the first few minutes of his priesthood – don’t you think? I mean here we are, still, after a year and a half of the pandemic’s raging, stuck on the endless cusp of hope and frustration that is our current reality, exhausted, many of us, and strained, and uncertain about way more than we are certain about, so that many of us too: “…look behind us and wonder if we will ever return to what was, or if we even want to.” And in us too as we “stand here collectively, there is much within that asks, God, where do we go from here?”
You have all been so courageous for so long — stepping out from behind the walls of the way things have always been, and opening your arms to the world around you. And you didn’t stop any of it through even the worst days of COVID. You continued to worship, of course, but you also continued to work with and in the broader community through Gideon’s Garden and the Lee Food Pantry and through all your partnerships you’ve long sustained with social service agencies and advocacy groups across the Berkshires. Is incredibly beautiful the way you are church together – dazzling really. And while it’s tempting to think of the way Grace is as some kind of new or innovative way of being church, I am hoping today to bring you rest and peace by highlighting the often overlooked fact that Grace’s two fold desire — to worship Jesus with each other in this space, and to find communion with people who do not worship with us, and perhaps do not worship at all — is not new at all, but in fact very old and deeply, deeply orthodox too, dating as it does all the way back to the teachings of the head of the church himself, Jesus.
Our gospel today starts rather abruptly when one of Jesus’ disciples asks about this other guy out there – someone who none of them knows — who says he is doing the work of Jesus without ever bothering to come and check in with Jesus himself, or with his real followers about how and when and where he should go about doing things. ‘What should we do about him?’ John asks, clearly peeved. And Jesus’ response, is very clear: “Whoever is not against us is for us,” he says. They might do things differently. They might have different priorities. They might like to worship in a different way, they might dress differently, or talk differently, or follow a set of beliefs that on the surface at least sound quite different from ours, but if they are speaking of love and of mercy and of the freedom from shame that God has already blessed every one of us with – well, then they are ‘with us’.
And so all the way back then, our community expanded, and the potential for real meeting and sharing and healing in love became limitless. Not in fact a refuge for a group of folks who think and act just like we do, as it so often seems, the church as it was originally conceived, was to be both a home and a school for all people of good will: those who profess some kind of authorized and sanctioned Christianity and those who go at it in their own way too: citizens and immigrants, community organizers and artists, farmers and cooks, kids and students and folks working in all kinds of ways to support those struggling with addiction and with mental illness and with the ever growing struggle to find a safe and affordable place to live …. All these people, all of them and more, everyone in fact, as long as they are not actively in opposition to the work of love in the world…. Well, according to Jesus at least, they are with us, part of us, one with us… And not one with us by adopting our ways and beliefs and traditions; not one with us, in other words, by becoming us, but by becoming themselves.
Be like salt, Jesus says. Which seems to me to mean: don’t pay too much attention to your own qualities, or preferences, or style, or language. Salt isn’t about itself, after all, but about what it does for and with that which is not salt.
Another way of saying this is: Rather than assert the rightness of your way — give that way over to enhance another’s becoming. It’s what Jesus did through his life and through his death too, and as his followers — or at least as people united deeply in our desire to be worthy to be called his followers — we too are called to find our deepest purpose, our real purpose, not in enhancing the fullness of our own lives, but in reflecting back to others the gorgeous truth that is within every one of them: the eternal truth of love and beauty and goodness which is God.
And again, it seems to me that, in its own small way, this what Grace church has been doing, without faltering, through this past terrible year and a half. And with God’s help, this is what I know we will all go on doing: making room for God and for one another without asserting too much our own gripped portion of the truth, in the real and secure knowledge that as we reach beyond the walls of what so many have come to imagine the church is, we are doing so with Christ. And this means that Christ himself is with us — so closely — and that we can therefore rest and breathe and lean on him and as we continue our work together step by step, day by day, gathering here to sing and pray and break bread, and gathering on the farm to harvest or plant or deliver fresh produce, and gathering at The Lee Pantry to sort and share, and gathering at the Latino Festival, and gathering in restaurants, and gathering in each other’s homes and in the homes of those we do not yet know and long to know, and will….
All of this we can feel sure of – even now, when so many of us feel sure of so little. Because all of this is Jesus’ own work, and always has been, and so it is drenched with him, through and through. So as we work and meet and talk and laugh and cry and walk we will draw closer and closer to him, and gain strength not lose it, find energy not spend it, and grow in life and hope and joy – and even in ease – as we continue to follow Christ himself deep into the heart of this hurting and broken world, hand in hand with He who never dies, and never leaves us alone, and who holds us close in the palm of his loving hand, in church for sure, and also in the world outside of the church — which is his also.