And it is NOT easy. In their own way, the disciples are trying hard. But Jesus’ vision is radical in a whole host of ways.
Two weeks ago, Jesus reminded them—and us—that all people are beloved children of God. Last week, Jesus reminded them—and us—that we thrive only when we dedicate ourselves to serving others.
The issue in our reading for this morning builds on those lessons. The issue for this week is boundaries. Who is in, and who is out? Who counts as “us,” and who counts as “them”?
Every community that stands for anything needs boundaries of some sort. As Christians, we are committed to a particular vision of the world, a vision defined in Scripture and embodied in Christ’s life, a vision of God’s kingdom of peace and justice and love.
Not everyone shares that vision. To people who try to resolve conflicts with violence, who seek their own wealth and power by any means necessary, who neglect or oppress their neighbor, we have an obligation to say, “That is not God’s way. We are a people with a different vision.” That is establishing a proper boundary.
In our reading for this morning, the disciples are trying to do that. Typically, they do not do a very good job.
The disciples see a strange man casting out demons in Jesus’ name, and they worry. This man is not following them. Who knows what this man might do or say? This man might dilute or corrupt the Jesus “brand.”
The disciples decide to stop him.
And once again, they have botched it.
The disciples are drawing narrow boundaries. The disciples include in their circle only themselves and the people with them. The disciples assume that anyone not with them is by definition against them. People not with them are outside the Christian circle. Strangers are presumed hostile until proven friendly.
Jesus challenges them on this. Jesus draws a much bigger circle. Jesus says, “whoever is not against us is for us.” For Jesus, strangers are presumed friendly until proven hostile.
And Jesus maintained that inclusive attitude even as he headed towards Jerusalem to be betrayed, arrested, tortured, and killed. For Jesus, loving outsiders was a way of life, no matter what.
It is a simple point. And, like so much of what Jesus teaches, it is much easier to say than it is to do.
Too often we follow the disciples’ lead by drawing our own circles pretty narrowly.
So take the approach of the disciples in Church life.
That is to focus exclusively on our own parish. If a new Church opens up in our area, or an established Church experiences a surge of growth, that is bad news for us. We might lose market share. So we try to stop others from acting in Jesus’ name because other Churches seem like a threat to our well-being.
When Christians take that perspective, Churches compete, and we all suffer.
Jesus’ approach is the opposite. We should give thanks to God that others are acting in Christ’s name. Other Churches are not against us; they are for us. They are our brothers and sisters in Christ.
But it is more than that, too. When any Church thrives, God’s kingdom becomes a little more visible. When any Church struggles, God’s kingdom becomes a little harder to see. And since our mission is to make God’s kingdom visible on earth, our fortunes rise and fall with our brothers and sisters in Christ, not against them.
We see the same two options in politics.
We might view opposing candidates, or the opposing party, as against us, as hostile to our interests, as a presumed enemy who must be silenced. The result is gridlock; childish bickering; and widespread alienation from the political process.
Again Jesus offers a better option. Jesus does not have a specific political program, of course. But Jesus would surely encourage our leaders to remember that we are all on the same team, part of the same community, part of one big circle. Even if we disagree on important details, we all want the same thing: a prosperous, just, and free nation. Jesus would surely encourage us, the electorate, to remember that wise and courageous leadership is possible and to vote accordingly.
But the place where Jesus’ inclusive vision can be most difficult to sustain is considerably more intimate than national politics. The most difficult place is often our own families.
I just finished a book about emotional cutoff. In its most extreme form, cutoff means refusing all contact with a family member. Cutoff can take milder forms as well. I rarely have contact with many members of my extended family. I do not even know how to contact some of them. That is cutoff, too.
In the book, different authors talk about their efforts to overcome cutoff in their families.
My favorite chapter was by a man who had never met his aunt or her children, but had grown up hearing negative stories about that side of the family. Eventually he decided to contact them, and he found them quite different from the stories. His aunt in particular turned out to be warm and welcoming and funny.
The man who wrote that chapter is not religious. But one way or another, he learned the lesson Jesus teaches in our gospel reading for this morning. Having grown up defining his family circle narrowly, having grown up assuming that the other branch of the family was not with him and so was against him, the author made a conscious decision to change. He chose to expand his family circle to include people who had been excluded.
What most inspired me about this story was the result of his efforts. Developing a relationship with estranged members of his family released a burden he did not even realize he was carrying. His other family relationships improved as he lived into the reality that they were all on the same team, that they could all be for each other.
Defining the circle narrowly, as the disciples do in our gospel reading, as we sometimes do in our Church life and our political life and our family life, shrinks our community, and it shrinks our souls.
Expanding the circle, seeking alliances with people across religious or political differences, bridging cutoffs in our families, does the opposite. It expands our community, and it expands our souls.
Of course, it is not easy to do. Our potential allies, our cutoff family members, may not welcome our efforts. Jesus himself was crucified by the very people he came to save.
We cannot control how others will act or react to us. But we do well to heed the warnings in our gospel reading. Our task is to make sure that we do not put stumbling blocks in the way of our brothers or sisters. Our task is to cut out the sin in our own lives. After that, we can and must leave the rest to God. And God’s will will be done.
In the name of the one who came to make us all brothers and sisters, and who strengthens our efforts even when we fail. Amen.