Sunday Sermon-Sept. 30, 2012

September 30, 2012 “ 18 Pentecost, Proper 21B

Numbers 11:4-6,10-16,24-29; James 5:13-20; Mark 9:38-50

Robert C. Wisnewski, Jr.


How do you measure up at this point in your life and what are you using to measure yourself?

During the spring semester of my senior year in college I walked into a philosophy class to find  a copy of a paper I had just turned in sitting on every desk in the classroom. Some of my classmates were beginning to read it. Some were congratulating me on gaining the professor’s approval. Some seemed a little irritated and ignored me. The professor entered a few minutes later and led us through a rather ordinary class. My paper wasn’t mentioned. Just like with every paper, he walked around the room and handed our graded papers to us. With no extra attention he handed my paper to me. There were a few interesting comments written on the paper but oddly there was no grade on the paper. I looked at the beginning and turned to the back page. No grade anywhere. But surely, if he liked it enough to give everyone in the class a copy of it, surely it was an A, wasn’t it? But I didn’t know and it continued to bug me that nowhere on the paper was that A. Over the next few days a couple of classmates commented to me on the paper.  Even for an obsessive-compulsive, competitive type that should have been enough but I couldn’t let it go.

One afternoon a couple of weeks later I decided I would just drop in to the professor’s office and ask him about the paper. He greeted me and said he was glad I stopped by. The school I went to was

very small and I had taken at least a half-dozen classes from this same professor over the four years. He told me he had enjoyed having me in those classes and would miss me after graduation. He knew my plan was to go to seminary and asked how that was all working out. After a bit, I  broached the subject. So, that paper, there wasn’t a grade on it. Oh, there wasn’t? Hmm. It was a good paper, maybe the best one you’ve written. Thanks. So, was it an A or not? He gave me a wry smile and said, It was good. I really enjoyed reading it. I began to realize he was trying to teach me a little lesson. I thanked him for his time and left feeling like a schmuck. And I began to come to terms with the fact that what that professor thought of me was way too important for my own good, and ultimately not worth very much at all.

How do you measure up at this point in your life and what are you using to measure yourself?

There’s a little jealousy going in our gospel lesson this morning. John tells Jesus that they saw someone not from their group using the name of Jesus to cast out demons. We knew you wouldn’t like that so we told him to stop. Jesus’s reply chastens the disciples a bit. He seems to approve of the strange man’s actions even though he isn’t an official follower of Jesus.

The Old Testament lesson has a similar event. Moses has told God he needs some help so God sends out his spirit on seventy elders chosen by Moses. They all begin prophesying. But so do two others, Eldad and Medad, not among the seventy. Joshua says, My lord, Moses, stop them! They’re not with us. And Moses says, Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets.

In both the Gospel lesson and the Old Testament lesson, the inside group seems to be afraid that if the outside group has some success the inside group won’t be as important.

Wanting too much to be better than everyone else can be a problem. Wanting to be better is one thing, a good thing. If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off¦.If your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off¦. If your eye causes you stumble, tear it out. It is better to enter the kingdom of God with just one of those than to have both and not be in the kingdom. If salt has lost its saltiness, it’s no good. Jesus encourages us to work hard at being better, improving, rooting out the things in life that hold us back. But there’s a difference between trying to be better and just trying to be better than everyone else.

Immediately before this passage in Mark, Jesus has told the disciples that he is going to suffer and die. And the disciples’ reaction is to get into an argument over which one of them is the best as compared to the others, which one of them will be the greatest. Jesus tells them that being first isn’t the point in the kingdom. The point is actually to be last, to serve others, rather than try to prove how much better we are than the rest.

We may think that the world can be divided into those who are trying hard and those not trying hard enough. But Jesus seems to say that the real problem is not that some measure up and some don’t. The real problem seems to be that we measure ourselves by the wrong standards. We use each other to measure ourselves. If I just compare myself to you, I’m going to reach one of two conclusions. I’m bound to conclude that either you are better than me or that I am better than you. You’re ahead of me or I’m ahead of you. You’ve got the approval or I’ve got the approval. You’re in or I’m in. You’re blessed or I’m blessed. You’re right or I’m right. You’re sinful or I’m sinful.

And such is not to take nearly seriously enough the difficult work that God gives to each of us, or our great need for grace. If all I’m trying to do is beat you, I’m stuck with a pretty prideful and fearful lifestyle. It’s like we’ve reduced life to a bear chasing the two of us. I don’t have to outrun the bear; I just have to outrun you.

Jesus offers a totally different perspective. Faith in Jesus Christ involves letting go of trying to separate myself from you and realizing that the great separation is between me and God. I am sinful. I am broken. I cannot measure up on my own. I need help. Maybe I can outrun you but I can’t outrun the bear. I need something in my life that I cannot provide by myself. I need grace. I need the love of Christ.

Faith in Jesus Christ involves the admission that I don’t measure up more than it involves all my efforts to measure up. And once I know that, the division between God and myself is gone. And gone is my need to divide you from myself so that I’ll look better in comparison. As I admit my need for the Savior Jesus Christ, the Savior enters and brings me home. None of us measures up but each of us is offered the Kingdom of God through Christ Jesus.