From Many Paths, Embracing our Differences, Finding Our Story Together
An Open and Affirming Congregation
"After Sunday worship I feel refreshed and ready to start a new week. Worship calms me and makes me want to be a more giving and forgiving person."
"I am here to share my soul, body, and mind with our bigger family who shares our worship to God and the entire universe. This is my worship experience at church."
Worship at FCC Essex follows a traditional liturgy, but God still speaks to the world today from these ancient words and rituals as if they were new. Music and spirit and art and words and silence center us and inform us. Our style of worship brings comfort, soothes the spirit, challenges the mind, strengthens our love of each other, and empowers us for doing good in the world.
Other special services of worship are celebrated throughout the year during Advent (Christmas) and Lent, as well as ecumenical events with other churches in Essex and within the UCC.
September 26, 2021
Eighteenth Sunday After Pentecost
Esther 7:1–6, 9–10, 9:20–22
Reflection on Mark 8:27-38
By Rev. Dr. Cheryl Lindsy
This passage opens with an admission from John that he and the other disciples were rather busy not minding their business. Apparently, someone observed Jesus or heard about him and decided to try ministering in the name of Jesus. I’m struck that John identifies the disciples’ objection to this action that this person was not following “us.” He doesn’t say that the person wasn’t following Jesus; it seems obvious that the person was following Jesus even if their journey was different from the way that John and the other disciples followed him. I can only imagine this same spirit of gatekeeping showing up in our current faith communities. We too have gatekeepers. Attire and other aspects of physical appearance may signal the gatekeeper to object to affirming ministry in the name of Jesus. For others, it might be the language that someone uses that is not acceptable. Some might take issue with political party affiliation or activism.
Perhaps the most alarming part of the confession is that John doesn’t seem to be making one. For him, it’s more of a report. This is how I hear this conversation: Hey Jesus, we just want to keep you in the loop that someone was healed of their torment but we had a problem with the source of their deliverance so we tried to stop it. Imagine objecting to someone becoming free because their breakthrough came without your permission.
Imagine deciding to put a condition of reducing childhood hunger by attaching indiscriminate requirements on parents. Imagine asking for proof of income before distributing a bag of groceries to the food insecure. Imagine limiting leadership positions in your faith community to a small group of people that you determine are acceptable.
As I consider this action, it seems to be a failure of imagination at best and a jealous possessiveness at worst. The person, unidentified by name, is doing what Jesus did. The disciples themselves had previously been sent out to minister in Jesus’ name. It wasn’t as if they did not know that Jesus delegated that authority; they had been recipients of that responsibility. They either lack the imagination to believe that someone, not in need of healing themselves, would come to believe in the transformative power of Jesus and join in that ministry and mission. Imagine holding a deep faith in God and not going to church. On the other hand, their objection could be to not being the only ones singled out. They are used to being special and value the privilege of being part of a limited number of disciples.
It’s also possible that they were being protective of Jesus and the use of his name:
In antiquity names were believed to carry the power or character of their owners (see Mark 3:16, 17; cf. Gen 32:22-32; Exod 3:13-14). The use of divine names to force those deities’ cooperation was a standard procedure in magical incantations (cf. Mark 1:24-25; 3:11-12; 5:7-13). What is to be made of someone who, without authorization, uses Jesus’ name to cast out demons (cf. 6:7, 13; 16:17)? The answer was not obvious to early Christians.
C. Clifton Black
That approach characterizes so much of evangelism in the modern era. There’s been so much focus on fire-and-brimstone condemnation that the grace and mercy of a loving God who enters into creation as Companion gets forgotten. Yet, so much of that behavior has been justified by evoking the admonition of this passage about being a stumbling block. In order to understand the fullness of that warning, it needs to be placed in proper context with bookended statements: “Whoever is not against us is for us” and “Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.”
“Ascribed to Jesus is a broad-minded attitude toward those outside the disciples’ circle.” (Clifton C. Black) This response addresses the disciples’ concern but goes further as Jesus “stresses gracious reception of anyone whose action, dynamic or modest, genuinely conforms to Jesus’ name and character.” (Clifton C. Black) Jesus gives permission to follow his will and way without invitation or license. Recently, a number of beloved colleagues have moved forward in the ordination process. I’m excited for them, but I recognize it as a recognition and public affirmation of what God has already done by the community in which the ordinand is placed. I also remember after my ordination reflecting that my ministry barely changed. When you minister in the authority of Jesus, validation by other believers is wonderful and celebratory, but it pales in comparison to the blessing of the work itself and the approval of the divine.
I am sure that the person who was casting out demons kept doing the work because the disciples did not have the power to stop them. They never operated out of the disciples power and were not called to follow the disciples. They followed Jesus, not by hanging around and asking questions, but by living in the realm and reign of the kindom of God. Jesus has to expand the disciple’s understanding. I find myself often reminding members of the congregation who lament those who have not returned to in-person gathering that there are plenty of members of our faith community who prefer worshipping online. Just because they chose a different means doesn’t make their experience and path less meaningful or less faithful. And, whomever your choice to align yourself with another disciple does not determine if you are following Jesus. Pastors, chaplains, spiritual directors, and other faith leaders may point us toward Jesus but cannot replace or supersede Jesus.
Our focus passage is situated in a larger discourse about discipleship in which the gospel writer presents a new vision of inclusion in faithful community. Clifton suggests that this framing parallels the Sermon on the Mount found in Matthew’s narrative. Racquel Lettsome amplifies the vision of servitude articulated by Jesus:
Discipleship is not for the fainthearted; no one finds it easy (Malbon 1983, 29). Defined primarily in terms of servanthood, discipleship runs counter to a social structure that advances persons with access to wealth, power, authority, and even purity to the highest levels of the social order. Those without access to this social currency remained at the lowest levels. Thus the way of Jesus reverses the honor-shame codes that structure the cultural world in which Mark’s audience lives (St. Clair, 109–64).
Racquel S. Lettsome
Gatekeeping does not follow Jesus. Gatekeeping creates stumbling blocks.
Those stumbling blocks hinders the one who places them as well as those who encounter them:
In Mark 9:43, 45, and 47 the refrain of hypothetical stumbling recurs, here with the self as apparent victim. Yet the context (vv. 42, 49c) and content of the aphorisms suggest social responsibility: one may trip up oneself through conduct that harms others.
Clifton C. Black
Finally, Jesus turns to the notion of salt. “For everyone will be salted with fire.” What does it mean to be salted? The other day, I made pasta, and I almost forgot to add salt to the water. As a cook, I know what salt does to the food I prepare. It changes the boiling point of water. It has a flavor of its own, but it also enhances the flavor of other foods. Salt, when used in sufficient quantities, will preserve some foods. At the same time, excessive amounts of salt will make some meals inedible. Too much salt may lead to health challenges; too little salt presents other problems. Salt is naturally occurring in different forms, but has these distinct characteristics that make it instantly recognizable.
And Jesus says, everyone will be salted with fire. Everyone. In the same way that virtually all food contains some level of salt within it, human beings are going to go through some things. We are seasoned by the circumstances and situations of our lives. “Salt is good.” Being salted is a good thing that can occur within a trying thing. Queen Esther was salted in confronting her husband the king as she risked her privilege and her safety for the good of her people. That salt was good. Moses was salted in the wilderness as he led a people with a propensity for complaint. God provided additional leaders to share the burden. That salt was good. James recounts Elijah’s persistent prayers for rain that took 42 months to be answered in the affirmative. Nevertheless, he persisted. That salt was good.
Following Jesus does not manifest in expected ways. Most of us have a testimony that has roads that were unfamiliar and paths that were unwanted. Some of us would not have necessarily chosen our pilgrim partners. We may have encountered numerous stumbling blocks, or we may have erected some ourselves. Sometimes, the salt may seem more like a curse than a seasoning. Sometimes, the fire may seem all-consuming rather than refining.
Still, we have salt. We have within us the ability, in the name of Jesus, to change the nature of a situation and be carriers of peace. We can alter the texture of our environment. We have agency to be good stewards of creation, our sibling. We have the capacity to enhance the gifts that others bring. We have salt. That’s good.
First Congregational Church in Essex
United Church of Christ
6 Methodist Hill
Essex, Connecticut 06426