A sermon delivered by Randy Hyde, Pastor, Pulaski Heights Baptist Church, Little Rock, Ark., on September 30, 2012.

Psalm 124:1-8; Mark 9:38-41

We’ve all gone through periods of time when things don’t go well for us in life. We’re not on the top of our game, and we can’t help but wonder if there are forces beyond our control that simply… well, have it in for us.

As most of you are aware, I like to play golf when I get the chance. As long as I’ve played, about forty years now, I’ve heard references to the “golf gods.” If the golf gods are smiling on you, you find yourself keeping your ball in the short grass, and somehow your putts tend to run true. My experience is, as I’ve said many times, that there’s no such thing as golf gods. They’re all demons.

There are times – in work, when it comes to relationships, finances, you name it – the cylinders just aren’t clicking and you find yourself out of balance, maybe even despondent about what is going on in your life. If that is true, you, my friends, are not alone.

It has not been going well of late for the disciples of Jesus. It seems that at every turn they’ve said or done the wrong thing and Jesus has had to correct them. Jesus seems to be coming across like a stern school teacher who can’t be satisfied by any assignment his students turn in to him. Following the transfiguration, they were unable to help the boy with epilepsy, and Jesus had to come along and do for the boy, and his father, what the disciples have been unable to accomplish. Then, Jesus catches them arguing as to who was to be the greatest among them. He corrects them by taking a child into his arms, using it as an object lesson. That had to be a rather bitter lesson in humility for his followers, to be compared to a small child in that way.

It is after this occurs that John pipes up; rather nervously, I would think. “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.”

No doubt, John thought somehow this would incur the blessing of his master, that Jesus would appreciate the effort they put forth in making sure that nothing of God was done unless it was done by those who had cast their lot and their lives with Jesus. Somebody needs to right the ship and try to get the disciples back on course. If nobody else is going to do it, he, John, might as well give it a shot.

And, it was important to John, and no doubt the other disciples, that they keep Jesus’ ministry within their own camp. You can’t have vigilante groups popping up from place to place. After all, they were the ones, the only ones, who held the keys to the kingdom. Didn’t Jesus say that? Didn’t he?

Did John say this just to break the awkward silence after Jesus had yet again scolded his followers? Possibly. They’re all a bit on edge, you see, knowing their behavior has not exactly been exemplary. We’ve all been there. We’ve all, at one time or another, been caught at doing the less-than-honorable thing, saying something that is less than redemptive. We know how it is when the things of life just aren’t going well.

When you’re nervous – and the disciples at this point are no doubt quite nervous because Jesus doesn’t seem to have been very happy with them of late – your voice often rises in pitch. John was probably the youngest of them anyway, so we can just hear him, “Teacher, we saw… uh” (lowering his voice)… “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.”

John’s thinking that maybe this will warm the cockles of Jesus’ heart and make him feel better about his disciples… that their ambitions might be skewed somewhat, but their hearts are in the right place and they want to do the right thing. Things have been a bit cool between Jesus and his disciples lately, and this is John’s effort to turn the momentum back in their favor. Surely Jesus will be pleased that they are looking out for his own best interest, making sure that people who are uncredentialed aren’t doing that which only Jesus and his disciples should be doing.

John and his brother James were known as “the Sons of Thunder” because of their fiery tempers. But occasionally he, John, could be a peacemaker. At least he tried. Maybe this was his effort to bridge the gap that seemed to have been growing lately between Jesus and his disciples. Let’s give him credit for trying, shall we?

But it doesn’t work. Maybe it’s his youth and inexperience, but we quickly find out that he’s not very good at this sort of thing. You don’t have to be a psychologist to see that what John is trying to do is change the subject, deflect the discussion from their shortcomings to that of someone else. Psychologists would call that projection. Happens all the time. And it doesn’t take much to see that it doesn’t work.

Or, John may still be trying to jockey for a position of authority in Jesus’ cabinet. This may be his attempt to look big in Jesus’ eye, capable of taking on the responsibility of true leadership. It’s quite possible, that despite what Jesus has said about greatness and how you have to humble yourself and serve the least before you can be exalted in the kingdom, John just doesn’t get it.

There may be a bit of jealousy involved here too. I can understand that. In fact, it’s quite easy to appropriate that understanding in our own situation here in our church. It is no secret that we struggle in our church’s ministry when it comes to growth and attracting new people. It appears that we don’t appeal to the masses, and for that reason our pews are not filled – not as they once were. People don’t automatically go to church anymore, as it seems they once did, so you have to find your own niche, as it were, in order to attract those who would join in on what you are trying to do.

We can’t help but look at other churches in town that appear to be more successful than we are, who have incorporated a different form of worship that does appeal to people, especially young people. We wonder why God seems to be blessing them so, feeling that what they offer may very well be, as I once heard it described in a rather jealous tone, as a “mile wide and six inches deep.”

We feel like the disciples of Jesus who work hard at doing ministry, as Jesus has taught and modeled them to do it, only to see some street corner evangelist casting demons out of people by using the name of Jesus but not joining their group in doing so. He’s capitalizing on Jesus’ name, and using it for his own purposes, but he hasn’t cast his lot with the Nazarene… not like they have done. They’ve turned their backs on professions and family to follow Jesus wherever he chooses to lead them, while this guy simply takes to the street and uses Jesus’ name without bothering to pay his dues. So it was natural that they try to keep him from doing this. He’s not one of them. He lacks the authenticity they carry with them by being the true disciples of Jesus. In telling Jesus about this, John thinks his master will be pleased.

But instead of receiving the favor of his teacher, John is once again corrected by him. “Do not stop him,” Jesus says, “for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. Whoever is not against us is for us.”

There’s just no pleasing Jesus, is there? So much for trying to right the ship.

So what does this mean? Well, evidently Jesus doesn’t need his disciples to be bouncers, people standing at the door to make sure that only the righteous enter. He wants and needs those – anyone – who will seek to do good in his name. It appears, from what Jesus says here, that he will take just about anyone he can get… and on their terms!

A couple of Wednesday nights ago, I told about a deacon in the first church I served. At the risk of repeating myself to some of you, I thought my remarks were relevant to this issue we’re dealing with today. It was a young church to which I had been called as pastor, celebrating its fourth anniversary on the day I began. This particular deacon had come from the mother church, and evidently saw this new, young ministry as an opportunity to start all over again – clean slate and all that – not only for the church but for himself personally. So, he had established the goal of keeping the church membership rolls as clean as possible, and he talked the rest of the congregation into following along. He felt it important that the church not get bogged down with people on the rolls who weren’t serious about being involved in the church’s ministry.

His motivation, I have no doubt, was pure. The process was not.

This was the plan he devised… If someone did not attend or contribute financially in a certain period of time, that person received a letter. If he or she did not respond to the letter, a phone call was made. If the absentee member did not respond favorably to the phone call, another letter would be sent with the warning that he or she was being placed on probation. If the member did not attend or contribute during the probationary period, he or she was removed from the church rolls.

Perfect church, clean and pure.

It didn’t work, of course. There’s no such thing as a clean and perfect church.

But he did have a point… sorta. How do we keep a measure of integrity about who we are and what we do? Is doctrine not important anymore? If we’re going to have “Baptist” in our name, what does it mean in this day and age to be of that particular form of faith? How do we do that without isolating ourselves from others? How do we maintain some kind of particularity about our faith without excluding those we are trying to seek?

I keep finding relevant thoughts in what I’ve mentioned on Wednesday nights of late. I recently observed that there are people who come through these doors obviously seeking something. It may be a particular kind of worship, or a sense of community they’ve not found elsewhere. They may feel their lives have little or no purpose, and they think they might find it here. It could be that some visit us simply because they’re new to town and going to church is what they do, so they’re trying us out to see if it’s a good fit. You just never know what the motivation might be for someone who comes to this place, especially for the very first time.

So how do we respond to our newcomers? We offer them hospitality and friendship, what is often called the Christian hand of fellowship. My observation and experience tells me the only people who are not greeted warmly by this congregation are the ones who don’t want to be treated this way. Occasionally, someone will rush out the door leaving us the unmistakable notion that he or she will not be returning. We shrug our shoulders and tell ourselves that we are who we are and what we do is not for everybody. Again, I point you to the empty places in these pews, and you can’t help but agree with that.

But if some are willing to stay with us, we ask them to join us in the faith journey and walk with us in our ministry. Some accept and become pillars of this church. You know who you are, for that is indeed your experience. However, there are also those who, after being with us awhile, either fall by the wayside or go looking for greener pastures.

What can we do in response to all this? Only one thing: the next time someone new comes through those doors, we once again offer them our hospitality and friendship. We do for them the very same thing we have done before, and we do it again and again and again.

You see, we’re not called to be God’s bouncers, to keep the church clean and pure. We are messengers of the grace that only God can give to those who find it. So we remain faithful to what we have been called to do, seeking to do it in newer and better ways, knowing that with some folk it will stick and with others it won’t. But we don’t give up, and we don’t discourage those who would do the same just because they’re not exactly like us. We remain faithful to our calling, and we leave the rest to God.

Think of that, if you will, the next time you’re tempted to guard the door.

Lord, find us receptive and open to everyone. After all, that is what you do. Through Christ our Lord, Amen.

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