Date: October 4, 2015
Title: “Bring in the Elephants!”
Preaching: The Rev. Donna M.L. Pritchard
Scripture: Mark 9:38-50
Today is “World Communion Sunday”. In a week where violence has once again surprised us here in Oregon, and a week where violence has continued to be the norm in so many parts of the world, disconnection, isolation and fear seem much more prevalent than community. And yet, we come together today, with Christians around the world, to celebrate our communion.
James Cleland tells a communion story I like so much I think it bears repeating. (If you were here three years ago on World Communion Sunday, you may remember me tell this once before). Cleland writes:
The memory I have of my childhood communion is one of hope – an utterly absurd hope – due to my misunderstand the minister’s enunciation of one word. About halfway through the service, the minister would announce “During the singing of the communion hymn, the Elders will bring in the elements.”
Now “elements” was the word which created my boyish hope. I thought the pastor said “elephants”… and in amazed anticipation I awaited the entry of the great beasts. I could not begin to imagine where they had been stabled, or what use could be made of them in the worship service. But I kept hoping that one day, the elephants would appear.
It is an absurd hope, to imagine elephants parading down the center aisle. But perhaps it is no more absurd than the notion of God’s love flowing out our doors, or of Christ’s Spirit uniting the world in peace. It is no more absurd than the hope of our whole human family finally moving beyond our propensity to categorize, marginalize and exclude people who are different from us.
Mary Oliver puts it this way in her book of poems entitled Thirst:
Let me keep my distance, always,
From those who think they have the answers.
Let me keep company, always, with those who say
“Look!” and laugh in astonishment,
And bow their heads.
And I say, “bring in the elephants!” Bring into this moment, into this room, and into each of our hearts, the kind of absurd hope that says with God all things are possible. With God, categorizing and marginalizing and excluding just does not happen. With God, isolation and frustration, disappointment and fear do not morph into murder, and gun violence is not simply grieved again with “thoughts and prayers” for victims and families torn apart, without doing something to end the pain. With God every life matters, and every life counts.
Christopher Horvath tells the story of a rabbi who once asked his students how they could tell when the night had ended and the day had begun:
“Could it be,” asked one of the students, “when you see an animal in the distance and can tell whether it’s a sheep or a dog?” “No”, answered the rabbi. Another student asked, “Is it when you can look at a tree in the distance and tell whether it is a fig tree or a peach tree?” “No,” answered the rabbi. “Then when is it?” the students demanded.
The rabbi answered, “It is when you can look in the face of another human being and see that this person is your sister or your brother. If you can see this, the day has begun. If you cannot see this, it is still night.”
Apparently it is still night at the beginning of today’s Gospel lesson. The disciples come to Jesus whining about some unknown outsider, casting out demons and doing their work of healing in Jesus’ name. This guy did not have the right credentials – he had no disciple membership card, no educational degree, no authority they recognized – he was not one of them. And the disciples fully expected Jesus to get behind them, to join them in their indignation, to “tsk/tsk” with them about that guy. They are stuck in the darkness of their own superiority complex – or maybe just their own insecurity.
You see, those disciples have been on a bit of a losing streak when we come to this story in Mark’s Gospel. They have just finished arguing about who among them was the greatest disciple, something Jesus did not take very kindly. And they have recently failed in their own attempts to heal people and cast out demons. And even now James and John are cooking up a plan to ask Jesus for special positions of glory. They are stuck in the night of their own making when Jesus causes the dawn to break.
Jesus says “let the healing go on” because whoever is not against us is for us. Jesus insists that worrying about place or position is not what life is all about. Rather, life is about being kind to a child, or offering hospitality to a stranger. Life is about sharing resources generously, and acting with forgiveness in the face of wrong. According to Jesus, life is about practicing compassion with those who are ill or hurt, confused or lost, or just downright annoying. Because whoever is not against us is for us.
Whoever is not against us is for us. That is the opposite of what we usually hear. We are so used to hearing it the other way around, we might miss Jesus’ inflection if we do not listen carefully enough. But if we hear it – if we understand that whoever is not against us is for us, that changes the way we see the world, and the way we understand ourselves in it. It enlarges our field of allies, it opens up a world of possibilities, and it brings to fruition the wildest of hopes. And it can begin in something as small and seemingly insignificant as one cup of cold water.
Jesus seems to suggest here that the bar is placed incredibly low when we understand faithful living as synonymous with acts of generosity. One cup of cold water – just one cup – is enough for wholeness, redemption and shalom. But look what happens to that judgment bar when faithfulness is equated instead with perfection! All of a sudden it is raised to heights we cannot possibly scale, as Jesus says “don’t get too attached to anything you think is yours… your hand, your foot, your eye…hack it off, pluck it out. If you are trying for perfection, if you are equating faith with sinlessness, you may never be free.
We can look at the world around us and go through life with lenses what tell us whoever is not for us is against us. The problem is if we do that, we may be prone to reach for an ax to hack off everything that seems wrong to us. Or, we can reach instead for a cup of cold water. We can offer grace and generosity. We can choose to see anyone who is not against us is for us.
I spoke with my daughter Kate in Harlingen, Texas this week, who told me a story about one of her clients, a thirteen year old boy who had hitch-hiked, bussed and walked from Guatemala to Texas all by himself – just hoping to find a cup of cold water and a chance for life beyond violence. Kate said they were talking about families, and about hope, and this 13-year old young man said:
I have dreams right now…but I think when I have a family, my dreams will grow and they will become more beautiful. Because then I will be dreaming with other people.
You may have thought it strange that we should be baptizing two children this morning, when we already have a full worship service with communion and all. But there is a reason why today is the perfect day for Lexi and Zander to be baptized. They have given me permission to tell you a little bit of their story, and the dreams they have been dreaming. You see, Lexi and Zander have recently been adopted into the Scott family – and they just could not wait to be adopted into God’s family as well!
This is a family where dreams will grow and become more beautiful. When we learn to dream together, we understand that with God all things are possible. Which is why I say bring in the elephants! There’s plenty of water to go around! Thanks be to God. Amen.