Sermon for the 19th Sunday after Pentecost

Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29
Psalm 19:7-14
James 5:13-20
Mark 9:38-50

So for some reason unbeknownst to me, “law” has become a bad word. It doesn’t simply mean whatever the dictionary tells us anymore, but it has a negative connotation attached to it now. When we hear someone referring to the “laws of the land” it usually means nonsensical rules that don’t make any sense but do make a lot of nonsense. Or when we call the police “the law” it is usually in a derogatory sense but sounds a bit nicer than calling them “pigs”. And even in our Lutheran theology we talk about “law and gospel” as the dichotomy of scripture, where “law” is the confining and oppressive and makes us feel bad about ourselves, but on the flip side “gospel” is the liberating and freeing good stuff, lifting up our burdens and promising us the grace and mercy of God.

So yeah, the term “law” isn’t a good one in our minds. We avoid it when we can, or we break it when we can’t. We feel intimidated by it, we feel shamed because of it, and we feel trapped under it. The term carries so much stigma that our modern bible translations even seems to side step it when it can. Today’s Psalm talks about “teachings” and “statutes” when really the original Hebrew is “law”. But we can’t have that, I mean that would just turn people off, right? Even if it’s the law of God, it’s still law and law, in our minds, is bad.

The Psalm doesn’t actually say that though, although we might initially think it. The Psalm says that the law of the Lord is perfect, restores our souls, and makes the wise simple. I mean, that doesn’t sound that bad, does it? Maybe a bit for the wise as they won’t seem so wise anymore, but that just tells us comparatively speaking God’s laws are way above human wisdom. Putting it that way, it actually sounds pretty good.

The problem is that we often equate “law” with “rules”. And rightfully so, as they are pretty much synonyms. But rules are often things put in place to keep us in order, usually made up by people according to what seems to make sense and not so much nonsense. We have rules in games, sports, and war. We have rules to help us judge who isn’t playing fair and taking advantage of others weaker than them. We have rules to determine what is right, proper, and equal for all people.

Even then rules don’t sound so bad but we in general as people just don’t like to be told what to do. We don’t like to feel like we aren’t in control of our own destinies or call our own shots. Sure, we might obey our bosses, our leaders, or even our spouses, but that’s because we want to, not because we have to. Well, maybe a little because we have to, but even then we don’t like it.

But law is something a bit different, at least how I see it. I see laws like we see the laws of physics and other science stuff. It doesn’t govern the relationship between things per se, but rather it determines what will happen as things meet, interact, and relate. In my head, rules are more like a way to control, trying to make certain that you don’t do a certain thing or else you’ll face the consequences. But on the other hand I see laws not trying to control us, but just informing us that if and when such and such happens, then be aware that the following will happen as a result of it.

Basically, rules tell us what we can or can’t do. Laws tell us what the outcome of our actions will be. So law tells me if I, say, let go of my tablet, it’ll fall to the floor… But rules tell me don’t drop my tablet or it might break and I’ll look like a fool. (or at least I’ll look like a fool regardless)

So seeing law like this, understanding that God’s law doesn’t exactly deserve the stigma that we have around the term, that the law isn’t oppressive as we might think but more informing us and perhaps warning us of the outcomes of certain situations would be, then we can sort of get how it can be seen as perfect and reviving our souls. When we see how the law actually acts in our favour, helping us to be better people not just for ourselves but for others as well, then we might be able to see how the law can actually be a good thing. When we see how the law is actually a gift to us from God, informing us of how to properly interact and relate with each other, then we see how the law isn’t oppressive or controlling but rather the precursor for good and proper relationship and community.

And that isn’t a bad thing.

God giving us the law then is for our own sake, our own good, our growth and development both as individuals and as a community. The law reminds us of what makes sense, how things could/should be, and ultimately, it brings upon the Spirit.

Now when we hear Spirit we think Advocate, we think dove, we think fire. We think Pentecost, we think speaking in tongues, we think different powers that we don’t really experience. But, when we hear spirit, we also think sports teams, we think cheering squads, we think mascots getting the crowd going. We also think dedication, we think commitment, we think passion and loyalty for a cause. We think patriotism, unity, and like-minded people working toward a common goal.

The Spirit that we talk about in scripture and the spirit that we talk about outside of scripture aren’t all that different from each other. In fact they are quite similar as they both bring people together, join them as a community, and motivate them to act. Both instill power in people, rile them up with confidence and hope, and lift them to do greater things together than they could alone. And both… are brought out by God’s law.

Now, I’m not saying that God cares about sports or anything, because I’m quite certain that isn’t the case. But what I’m saying is that the spirit that we speak of outside of scripture isn’t a bad thing either, but it holds a lot of those Christian themes we just talked about, and perhaps that spirit and the Holy Spirit are essentially one and the same, except with a different name that isn’t all that different. Maybe those who don’t claim Jesus as their Lord and Saviour could still be drawn to and by the Spirit for unity, for community, and for service. Maybe those who aren’t exactly like us, cut from the same cloth as us, or express themselves exactly like we do could also be welcomed and included and empowered by the Spirit. Maybe, just maybe, the Spirit works in ways that we might not think of or even approve of. Maybe the Spirit reaches out to more people in more ways than we initially think.

“…we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” Uh what? Why would you stop someone doing something in Jesus’ name? And it wasn’t like firing a gun in a public place or boycotting a funeral or refusing to make a wedding cake. This guy was doing what the disciples were doing, driving out demons, helping people, revealing God’s love… and he was doing it in Jesus’ name. But they needed to stop him? Just because he wasn’t following… you?

Who are you, disciples, to think that people need to follow you? You think you’re the greatest or something? Didn’t we establish that last week? I mean the guy clearly was following Jesus but the disciples didn’t want any of that because he didn’t have a disciple card or a Galilee ID or maybe a glorious beard like we know the disciples all had. He wasn’t part of their elite club so then he must be in the wrong?

Even the most blind people could see how inappropriate and hypocritical that is. Chastising someone for doing the same exact thing as you, even perhaps being a bit helpful so you don’t have to do so much, just because they don’t belong in your little gang? Jesus points out their folly with some wise words of wisdom and puts a little spin on what we and many others and even others parts of the bible hold to be true with the saying “whoever isn’t for us is against us”. Instead, Jesus instructs his disciples that whoever isn’t against us, is for us.

That is novel, isn’t it? Whoever isn’t actively against you is for you. Anyone who isn’t actually and purposely in your way, then they are going in the same direction as you. Those who aren’t directly and pointedly putting you down are actually on your side.

Suddenly our small elite group isn’t so elite anymore, and isn’t that small anymore, and it doesn’t have a huge right to put others down anymore.

Because our group, our community, this kingdom of God is far reaching, stretches where the Spirit leads it, and it determined to grow by and through the law. The Spirit expands and reaches out, reveals to us love and changes us for the better. God’s law wills it, it shall happen, it gives us hope knowing that come what may, our welcome as God’s children, our role in the body of Christ, our identity as called and redeemed citizens of God’s kingdom will never falter, will never change, will never end.

Rather, as we learn more about who we are and whose we are, as we see and recognise more and more God’s hand at work in our lives and in our community, as we live and bask in the love of Christ we cannot help but to be more charitable, more compassionate, more conducive to reflect this love back onto others and yearn to live in community.

So much that we’d be willing to cut off whatever might be holding us back. I can’t see it being a literal arm or eyeball, but perhaps an attitude, or a grudge, or even some material possession that needs to go. We see more what is at stake and are strengthened to let go.

See God’s Spirit resides among us. It blows through us. It brings us joy and peace through the love of Christ shining through us and each other, and motivates and strengthens us to serve.

As we continue through this season after Pentecost, this time of the church year that we think about church growth and nourishment, may we feel the Spirit moving and working among us, that we might be renewed from within and hold to the law of God. Thanks be to God. Amen.

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