I had just finished playing a round of golf with my three best friends in Tyler, Texas. We had stopped into the 19th Hole, the men's grill at Willowbrook Country Club, for some refreshment following our round. The room was full of people telling lies about their great round of golf, of spectacular shots made and of long putts sunk.
Into that room entered a man I shall call Hugh. Hugh was from central casting as to what a Texas oil man might look like-red-faced, large, and loud. Hugh always wanted you to know that he was in the house. He was a back-slapping, heehawing fellow both on the golf course and in the town. Funny thing was that nobody wanted to play with him because he was so overbearing, so obnoxious. I'll never forgive my friend Dan, who is a much better Christian than I am. He actually felt sorry for Hugh one day and invited him to join our group. For 18 holes, I had to put up with his loud-mouthed antics. It was the most horrible round of golf in my life…the round from hell.
But on this day, Hugh walked into the 19th Hole and was living large, a drink in one hand and a cigar in the other. He came up to my table and started talking loud, the only volume level he had, so loud that the attention of the room naturally turned to him. He bellowed at me, "You Episcopalians don't believe in the Bible, do you?!" Rather than take the bait, I just looked at him and smiled weakly, hoping he would pass on by like an East Texas thunderstorm.
He was referring to a recent decision by the church on some topic that was not to his liking. He went on, "David, I want to go to a church that is Bible-believing. Do you understand me? A place where the preacher is not trying to tippy-toe around the hard lessons of Jesus, a preacher who will lay it on the line, not try to water down the Gospel. I want a preacher who will be bold and put it out there, the full measure of the Bible, not hold back a lick. I want a preacher who will not let sinners slide and will call them out by name. I want the full Gospel. I don't want a preacher to pussy-foot around the message of Jesus."
I do not know where my response came from, but I heard it issuing forth from my lips after taking a long sip from my glass. "You want the full Gospel, Hugh? You mean the part about selling all you have and giving it to the poor?"
A pregnant silence fell over the room, after which Hugh responded, "Well, not that part!"
The room broke up in laughter. Hugh slunk out of the room as quietly as possible. Everyone was high-fiving me for having put Hugh in his place. "Way to go's" from Presbyterians, Methodists, Roman Catholics, Lutherans, and Jews. David had slain Goliath once again, and all was right with the world.
I went home that night particularly proud of myself and proceeded to tell the story to my wife. Mary, again a better Christian than I am, laughed at the story with that laugh that I had grown to love over the past 25 years. But then my partner asked the evident but avoided question: "David, what part of the Gospel do you avoid?"
Don't you think she could have waited awhile? Couldn't she give me the evening to enjoy the thrill of victory? But, no, she had to bring me to an uncomfortable truth. And the truth is that there's a tendency in everyone of us to avoid the hard parts of the Gospel when they are inconvenient to our habits, our lifestyles, our ways of being in the world.
This inconvenient truth is found in our Gospel lesson for today. We are continuing on the road with Jesus following the watershed moment of Peter's confession at Caesarea Philippi. From a literary perspective, it serves as the centerpiece of Mark's Gospel, at which point the Gospel writer makes a downhill run toward Jerusalem, Jesus' passion, and the cross. Last week, we remembered Jesus' call to servanthood to follow him in the way. And we remember that the disciples didn't get it, as they argue about who was greatest among them, with Jesus pointedly reminding them that to be first is to be last, to be servant of all. Tough messages on what it means to be a follower, a disciple, an apprentice in the way of Jesus.
Here Jesus is getting serious with his students. He's using a poetic image of getting rid of anything that gets in the way of your following in his way. If your hand, eye or foot causes you to sin, you're better to cut it off or pluck it out. The image here is powerful: Whatever gets in the way of your discipleship needs to go. It needs to be jettisoned.
I remember growing up in the church and hearing this passage. It was scary to me in that my hormonal changes led me to look with unabashed lust after the beautiful girls that were a part of our youth group. Our youth minister would try to use this passage to keep us on the straight and narrow, but I am afraid a number of us opted to risk blindness. It was only later that I got what Jesus was saying, that it wasn't about sex at all. It was about anything that got in between you and God and needed to be addressed in your spiritual life.
In the immediate setting of the disciples on their way to Jerusalem, it was the issue of competitiveness. Last week, we heard it was competitiveness within the inner circle as to who was greatest. This week it seems to be a competition between other groups that were doing ministry in Jesus' name, but they hadn't paid the proper franchise fee. The disciples seem indignant that these outsiders were doing work without proper credentials, and so they were looking to Jesus to make a ruling that would place the interlopers out of bounds. The disciples wanted judgment, here and now. Instead, Jesus once again issues a statement that's promising: Those that are not against us are for us.
This word speaks directly into our own setting as we see Christian groups positioned against one another because we are not doing it the right way. It's amazing to me to see the embitteredness between and within denominations who declare that their way is the "right way," demonizing people who might approach the Gospel from a different perspective.
I'm reminded of my days in seminary when one of my buddies and I would argue all night long about various theological concepts. That's the bread and butter of seminary life, you know. At the end of our dialogue, he would tip his hand as he would conclude, "Well, Galloway, you just keep believing your way, and I will keep believing God's!"
Such theological imperialism sounds funny until we run into its manifestations within congregations and denominations. Then it gets nasty. It devolves into judgmentalism. It concludes in name calling, and thus the body of Christ is painfully divided; it is rent asunder. The Christ who prayed for the unity of his church must be saddened and, in fact, embarrassed.
Here Jesus gets simple in a wonderfully symbolic image that is suggestive. He who gives a cup of cold water out of commitment to Jesus' way will find the deepest known joy known to humankind, simply because this servanthood is how God designed us to be. When we give of ourselves, even in the simple act of giving a cup of water, we are participating in the divine. We are aligned with God's design of creation. And that sense of doing what God wills fills us with a joy that is beyond mere happiness, fills us with a peace that goes beyond our understanding.
When we get serious about our faith, we have ears that can hear Jesus' call to us to jettison those things that get in the way with this image of servanthood. We may have to pluck out the judgmental way of viewing others that are different from us. We may have to cut off the selfishness that drives our lives. We may have to let go of the resentments that clutter our souls. Anything that gets in the way of us getting in the way of Christ must go. This is what it means to get serious about following Jesus, not just being a religious affiliate in some church or a patron at a museum of religion. Jesus is getting serious about this Gospel thing. That has always been the radical call of Jesus to intentional discipleship. And it still is.
And the good news is that God has gotten serious about us. He is so serious about his love for his creation that he sent his Son Jesus to demonstrate what He intended in creation from the very beginning, and that is for us to be servants. We have this treasure, given to us by the Ultimate Giver. And all we have to do is receive it. To embrace our true identity is to know the secret about ourselves that flies in the face of logic. God loves us as we are. It goes with the territory of being God's creature. This is the grace that is truly amazing. And the ethical corollary is that this is true for all people. It is not dependent on whether or not they agree with my doctrines or concepts. It is not dependent on what denominational stripe they wear. It is not dependent on their ethnicity or gender or the amount of money they have. It is not dependent on how they live their lives. It is what is stated in my Episcopal tradition's baptismal covenant-that we intend with God's grace, to respect the dignity of every human being. No exceptions. We operationalize this spiritual truth by being servants to one another. This makes it real.
So the hope in such a truth would be for Hugh and me to break through to an acceptance of our otherness, first perhaps learning to tolerate one another, but finally to break through to an acceptance and even a valuing of the very "otherness" that on the surface might tend to divide us. My own experience of this possibility of spiritual transformation comes mysteriously when we break bread together and when we share a common cup, when we gather in the community of faith. Here the vision of Jesus' kingdom of God takes on flesh and blood in relationship. It is in the circle of life that knows no exclusions, where we threaten to fulfill the desire of our Lord that we all may be one.
That's a tall order, even for a Texan. But it's the hope for our future in God's creation that now seems so terribly divided. It is a hope that, with God's spirit, we just might catch a glimpse inbreaking into the now.
Let us pray.
Loving God, we give you thanks for the gift of life and for the windfall of birth. We pray that you give us a special sense of our connection to all of your creation, that you allow us to become serious in the following of your Son Jesus, who is our Lord. It's in his name we pray. Amen.