Oh my gosh, what's a preacher to do with a collection of scripture passages such as we have before us today? What are they even about? The beauty of the lectionary, the lectionary is the proscribed set of bible passages that we hear each week, the beauty of the lectionary is that we don't get to ignore the parts of the bible we don't like, we must at the very least listen to hard passages, and at our best, deal with them. Today I am somewhere in between listening to them and dealing with them.
So, I'll begin with a little about myself today. I had the amazing opportunity, along with Rick, and our adult children, to go to Norway. I grew up attending Monson family reunions, for a long time we got together every year. I heard my Monson family story. It's a story that has formed and shaped who I am today.The paternal branch on my father's side came from a farming community in the west of Norway, near a little town called Stryn, in a green valley called Nesdahl. The family lived in a small farmhouse in that valley, until the day an avalanche destroyed it. Only one of the sisters was injured, but after that, my great grandfather Jacob, came to America and ended up in North Dakota. There he married Anna Braaton, and they began to have children. Eventually moving to the cornfields of central Minnesota. This story formed my identity. When I was 23, right out of college, I took off and traveled to Norway to meet my relatives, and see this land upon which they lived. And then recently, at our latest family reunion, we heard another part of the story. This was the story of the maternal branch of my father's side. This family, the Braaton's, Anna's family, farmed much closer to Oslo, in the beautiful Hallingdal Valley. And in the summer of 2013, we went to Norway to be in the land of our ancestors, to walk on the land that our ancestors farmed. It was a profound experience. We stood high up on the mountainside which was the farmland, it was no wonder it was subsistence farming and that many of them came to America.
The point of all this is that these stories form much of my identity. And I wonder if what we have before us is about identity, the disciples identity as followers of Jesus, our identity as followers of Jesus.
This passage appears to be about Jesus admonishing his disciples to lighten up, to stop worrying about others who are following him (but not, apparently, to the disciples’ satisfaction) and instead focus on what matters or, perhaps even more, on avoiding those things that can cause one to stumble and stray from the narrow road.
Scholars tell us that this particular section reflects some conflicts between early Christian communities. Mark is framing this part of his narrative, in other words, to address some of the problems his folks are having with other Christians. Apparently the early Christian church wasn’t all united in their beliefs, sometimes clashed with each other, and occasionally even berated one another over differences in practice. Sound familiar? In other words, Mark was trying to help his congregation answer the question of who they are. Will they, he asks, define themselves over and against other Christians or will they discover their identity in their attempt to follow Jesus, to care for the vulnerable, and to avoid those things that are destructive to self, neighbor, and community.
Who are you? How did you come to your particular answer? Do you define yourself by your accomplishments, or your history, or particular critical experiences, or your relationships, or some combination of all of this? What is the story you tell about yourself?
The disciples were trying to figure themselves out by not being like their neighbors. "Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us." The disciples were complaining because these other people were not playing by their rules or following their lead. One of the funny things about this passage is that it follows on the heels of the passage where Jesus admonishes them because they were arguing about who would be the greatest. These disciples are as slow as we are sometimes!
So Jesus says to the disciples, and to us, you are God's beloved, and with you God is well pleased. This is our story, this is the story we must live and tell about ourselves. This is our identity. You have been claimed as God's hearts desire, you are marked as God's own forever. There is nothing you can do to rub that indelible mark off, there is nothing that you can do that would make God not love you.
And the reality in which we live and move and have our being tries so very hard to dissuade us of that truth. So much tries to convince us that we are not worthy, that we are not pretty enough, smart enough, rich enough, sexy enough, good enough. So much tries to tell us a story that we are so guilty, or bad that we are beyond the possibility of God's love. But that is not the story Jesus' life, death, suffering, death, and resurrection tells, that is not the story we tell.
The story we tell, the story of who you are, is the story that indeed Love wins on the cross. It is the story of Jesus, who could have hardened his heart with retribution and revenge, but instead whose last prayer was "Father, forgive them, they do not know what they are doing."
We do indeed identify with this story, because we too are broken, in need of being put back together. We try so hard to do this on our own, but until we fall on our knees and lay down the burden of perfection, or control, or wealth, or whatever it is that keeps the pieces of our heart from being whole, our heart will never be whole, and soft, and perfect.
Our identity as God's children, as God's beloved is what heals us. And our identity as followers of Jesus is what gives us the courage to do what we are called to do. To feed the hungry, to clothe the naked, to house the homeless. Our country has been host in these last days to the leader of the Catholic church, the leader who holds before the church and our nation, four people who lived their lives courageously as followers of Jesus. Abraham Lincoln, who struggled with the right thing to do with God's people. Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. whose life was given so that all God's children may be equal. Dorothy Day, who fed the hungry and housed the homeless. And Thomas Merton, who taught us about this spiritual journey and discipline.
Who are you? How are you called? What is your identity?