Drawing the circle, drawing them in

Where are the boundaries of God?s community?

Who draws the lines which decide who is part of God?s realm of justice and joy?

Our Gospel reading this morning takes up from the gospel readings that we have had over the last couple of Sundays. The disciples are squabbling. They don?t seem to have been a very nice bunch really. Last time they were falling out over who was the greatest. This week, they are trying to deny that God is at work in someone who was not immediately part of their circle.
Someone was going round healing people – and remember that often in those days, healing ? oil, prayer, laying on of hands, exorcism etc was not an adjunct to medical intervention, it was all people had. And the person who was offering hope and healing to people was doing it in the name of Jesus but was not one of the group of disciples. He was not one of them, so they tried to stop him.

How exasperated the Lord must have been at that. Perhaps that explains his outburst about cutting out eyes which cause us to sin and cutting off arms that cause us to stumble.

If the Lord was exasperated then at the jealousies which exist amongst his followers, then how much more must he be exasperated that it still continues today.

The disciples were simply jealous that someone had been able to heal people whom they had been unable to reach. The same kind of petulant pettiness infects God?s people even now.

And so we get

? Turf wars between parish churches
? Bad blood between sister denominations
? War between God?s Islamic children and God?s Christian Children
? Liberal Christians jealous of the apparent success of evangelical congregations.
? Evangelical churches jealous of any liberal who comes to power or prominence (eg Rowan Williams).
These are all the same kind of thing. Petty petulant jealousies about which the Lord has rather strong words.

He says ? ?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?

Sometimes people have thought that this is about children ? particularly, over recent years when the terrible child abuse scandals have hit the churches, this verse has been much quoted.

I don?t in fact think that that is what it is about at all. All through this passage, Mark has Jesus using some pretty sophisticated figures of speech.

In this one, the little ones are, I think, the ones who are new in faith. The word that Mark uses for stumbling block is skandalian the word from which we get scandal. And the scandal is the very behaviour of the disciples. They refused to accept that the alternative healer was really on Jesus?s side. And Jesus is saying that this is a scandal which will affect those who are young in faith.

How true.

And yet still people want to draw lines around God?s activity. Still there are those who want to say that God?s activity can only be found with their clique, group, denomination, faith group etc. They draw a line around themselves and believe that they have Jesus Christ the Lord within their boundaries.

It was a scandal to the Lord then and it is a scandal to the Lord now.

And he adopts typical Jewish hyperbole in his teaching. (It is common for this kind of teaching to overemphasise for effect). None of this is literal teaching. We know that not least because of the bit about salt loosing its saltiness. Salt does not ever loose its saltiness ? chemically is cannot. Jesus is using another figure of speech, as he does throughout this paragraph.

Over-emphasis was the way in which teachers taught in those days.

The key to this is that Jesus new that God was at work outside the immediate sphere of his disciples.

And he knew that partly because he was steeped in stories from the Old Testament, like the book of Esther.

Where is God at work in this story? Amongst the people? In the hidden Jewish life of Esther the Queen? In the Gentile King Xerxes? You will find that if you look carefully, there is little mention of God in the story of Esther helping to free her people from persecution. The assumption is, that God is there, because God?s people are there. God is in the midst because God?s people are present. And you will find that freedom, liberation, hope and justice can be found in the actions of the Esther the Jewish queen. (which is what we might expect). And God?s actions can be discerned in the collective will of the people being the salt in their society. (which we might hope for). And God?s justice can be discerned in the Gentile King Xerxes. (Which we might not expect at all).

Being salt in our society means joining in with the will and action of God wherever God is at work. And accepting that God is at work where God wills. Accepting that the winds of the spirit of God blow wherever they want, not wherever we think. Accepting that if we get involved in the pettiness of drawing lines between God?s people and trying to decide who is in and who is out of the will and works of God, then God will whoosh on. Others will find themselves being used to bring about the freedom, liberation, hope and justice which are the distinctive signs of the new realm of God.

Jesus wanted his people to work together to bring in the kingdom by working together to make it happen. And he seemed unable to recognise as real the things which divide us.

Let me end by misquoting a small poem. (which some of you might have heard Richard Holloway use ? it is something which he misquoted often).

There are far too many people drawing lines in the sand these days and pretending that the one true God lives only with themselves.

This little rhyme is about the inclusiveness of love, the driving force of the new kingdom of God that Jesus himself came to proclaim.

They drew a circle that shut me out–
Heretic, a rebel, a thing to flout.
But Love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle that took them in!

(Edwin Markham)


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