Now I’ve always liked Mark’s gospel for a lot of reasons, but the main one is that this gospel gives me the most hope because it shows Jesus choosing a bunch of men and women to follow him who were the most unlikely prospects for future success.
And yet, as we all know now, these early followers did succeed in helping to spread Christ’s good news.
Sure, they needed a lot of coaxing, they got things wrong again and again, and they needed multiple second chances, but don’t we all.
Don’t we all need a little extra helping hand when it comes to life in general and specifically living a life of faith.
I know I do.
I know I struggle with what it means to be a follower of Christ every day and I would bet most, if not all, of you do too.
We struggle just like the disciples struggled.
Now, last week, as you may remember, the disciples were arguing about which of them was the greatest and Jesus took them to task by reminding them that “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”
But Jesus also did something else when “He took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, said to them, ‘Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.’”
Well, today’s lesson picks up right at this point.
You see Jesus is still sitting down with that child in his lap when some of the disciples, probably still smarting from being reprimanded, try to pump themselves back up by putting someone else down.
And how often do we do the same thing?
How often do you find yourself having a rough day at work and then coming home to take out your frustrations on your spouse or your children?
And then what do they do?
Maybe they go kick the dog - the dog which then in turn pisses on the floor either out of fear or as the only response short of biting back.
But Jesus, when the disciples try to change the subject and start complaining about some “outsider” healing people saw it for what it truly was.
Jesus saw such behavior as yet another stumbling block getting in the way of everything he’s trying to teach them.
Getting in the way of being in community and lifting up the good in each other.
Getting in the way of people experiencing the love and grace Jesus is trying to model and share.
And most importantly, getting in the way of Jesus reforming and reframing the way all people are to see God at work in the world and their own individual lives.
And so Jesus tells the disciples to back off as, “Whoever is not against us is for us.”
Basically, Jesus is telling his followers to just shut up and find a little joy knowing that God’s work is being done regardless of who’s doing it.
So who cares who drives demons out of people as long as the evil ailments are being removed and those who were broken now have found wholeness?
Likewise who cares how a person today comes to know Christ as their savior as long as they’re able to reach that point where the Holy Spirit grabs a hold of their heart?
Now this past Wednesday in confirmation we talked a little about who wrote the Bible.
We talked about how it’s the inspired word of God and that even though there’s lots of different translations of the Bible, and scholars have not always agreed on how to translate every word and phrase, still I’ve got to believe that every Bible translation is truly inspired by God.
And you know what else I believe?
I believe every Christian denomination is probably inspired by God too.
Now don’t get me wrong, I’m a tried and true Lutheran down to my very core.
I’m all about the distinction between law and gospel, proclaiming a theology of the cross, and doing whatever I can to share the freely given gift of grace as Luther understood it, but I don’t live in a vacuum.
Rather, I have friends and acquaintances, good faithful Christians all of them, who are not Lutherans.
They may belong to Presbyterian, Methodist, Pentecostal, Evangelical, Baptist, Catholic, or any of the other hundreds if not thousands of different churches that claim Christ as their Lord and so they’re all my brothers and sisters in Christ too.
And so, I think we need to be reminded regularly that there’s other faithful Christian churches out there besides our own.
We need to be reminded from time to time that Christ didn’t come to start a church or a new religion, but to bring everyone who comes to believe in him as God salvation.
We gotta remember that Jesus was born, raised, and died a Jew.
Remember that Jesus’ earliest followers were all Jewish.
And remember it was only much later when these early followers began coming together to live out “The Way” of Jesus that what we now might call the church emerged.
And this early church was not some idealized “Kum Ba Yah” type of gathering, but a gathering at its core and in its inception full of factions and disagreements over what the church is and should become.
Unfortunately, these factions and disagreements – these stumbling blocks - are still with us today.
And what’s more, our factions and disagreements are not only keeping people from hearing the good news of Christ, but are also driving way too many people who were once a part of a church running for the doors.
You see this all around nowadays with the growing apathy, and sometimes even downright hostility, being directed towards organized religion that seems to be growing stronger day by day.
And, like it or not, this view is probably warranted as for too long the church has turned a blind eye to the sexual abuse our leaders have inflicted on way too many innocent victims.
For too long, the church has refused to stand up, denounce, and actively work to end racism, economic disparity, and environmental dangers.
And for too long the church has forgotten that God has continually called on us to execute justice for the orphan and the widow and to love strangers.
And yet, we still turn away orphan children at our borders every day.
And yet, our widows often are forgotten and left to fend for themselves in nursing facilities where too often they’re taken advantage of and the laws seem more concerned with safeguarding profits rather than people.
And yet, rather than love the stranger in our midst we instead demonize them and use them as scapegoats for our own insecurities.
Yes, the church is failing miserably in a lot of ways and so it’s no wonder people are leaving or never coming in.
And that’s sad because at its best the church is needed and maybe today more so than ever.
Now I’m a huge fan of Pope Francis because I find his honesty refreshing and I believe that he truly embodies both the humbleness of a servant and the conviction of a believer sent out to proclaim God’s grace.
You see, Pope Francis never seems to shy away from addressing the big issues that Jesus himself spoke out against 2000 years ago, but he always does so out of compassion and with an understanding heart.
And so from him we constantly hear about the need for the people of the world to step up and do a better job of caring for creation.
We hear about the need for people to step up and start doing something about income inequality, poverty, immigration, and social justice.
And above all, we hear a call for all people of all nations to step up and just begin looking out for one another and the common good of all.
Now, a few years ago when Pope Francis was visiting the U.S. he gave what just might have been one of the best Law and Gospel addresses I’ve ever heard.
It was a classic message that simultaneously was able to remind me of everything good about America and also reflected for me some of our deepest and most ugly shortcomings if I’m strong enough to admit it.
And what Pope Francis said at the time was,
“A nation can [only] be considered great when it defends liberty as Lincoln did, when it fosters a culture which enables people to “dream” of full rights for all their brothers and sisters, as Martin Luther King sought to do; when it strives for justice and the cause of the oppressed, as Dorothy Day did by her tireless work, [and when] the fruit of a faith…becomes dialogue and sows peace in the contemplative style of Thomas Merton.”
Similarly, I believe if the church is to stay or once again become relevant in the world today than every church along with every Christian must heed the Pope’s warning for our nation and claim it as their mission for the church and in their individual lives.
Because only then will the church bear fruit, only then will the church be healthy, and only then can the church become relevant once again.
As Jesus sat with a child on his lap talking with his disciples he goes out of his way to stress how important it is to watch our actions and words around children because what they observe and hear will influence how they grow up living and acting in the world.
Jesus warns both the disciples and us hearing these words today to not put stumbling blocks in their way.
Rather, we must go out of our way to remove every obstacle blocking a child’s view and our own view of God’s unending and relentless love for us.
A love poured out every day, but especially poured out when we gather together in Christian community remembering that we’ve not only been claimed and adopted by God through the waters of our baptism, but we’ve also been fortified to go out and do something big.
Something big for the sake of the gospel; a gospel of good news everyone deserves to hear and to experience first-hand! Amen.