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Message for Sunday 26 September 2021: “The Other”

Mark 9: 38-40 reveals how Jesus’ closest followers (the apostles) complained about outsiders exorcising demons in Jesus’ name. This problem demonstrates how easy it is to think of outsiders as the ominous “other.” Jesus’ closest followers were special but their smugness led to a feeling of separating themselves from people outside Jesus’ inner circle, those who were nonetheless performing similar miracles in Jesus’ name.

Each person of faith has a mandate to spread love and truth, which can help accomplish wonderful things. Whether you call it mission, outreach, or even traditional evangelism, the point is that each of us are privileged to represent love and truth in God’s name. However, Jesus would not tolerate his disciples’ elitist attitude, which is why he said that “[w]hoever is not against us is for us” (Mark 9:40). This implies that we should not make tight boundaries around who and what God can do (or who it is that God works with).

It is not always clear what makes a person “for us” rather than “against us.” Jesus seemed to be saying that anyone who sincerely invokes healing power should not be automatically excluded or dismissed. This means that if people are doing good things, then they can claim to be doing so in God’s name. This is a hard message to accept because it’s tempting to embrace only our flavor of faith and exclude outsiders.

Religion is messy. Some folks lament that there isn’t just one proper explanation of God and all the other stuff that people attach to faith and belief. As tempting as it is to make people feel secure, it’s not a good idea to try and put God in a box. Within Christianity for instance there are many variations of Jesus’ message. This causes problems because the various denominations cultivate incompatible interpretations of who Jesus was, what he did, whether he was man or God, what is the nature of church, etc. Transcending the differences, God’s compassion invites us to embrace the other, those who are still sharing love and truth but who differ from us stylistically or methodologically. A main challenge, therefore, is to discern how love and truth are being shared despite the apparent differences between people.

God challenges us to remain open and humble, resistant to openly cursing or even silently despising outsiders who may only appear as threats but who are just as credible and legitimate as are we. Unfortunately, even Jesus’ inner-circle didn’t always have this understanding. On the other side of the issue, we must also realize that openness to other religious paths doesn’t mean blindness to evils propagated in the name of religion; there can be no tolerance for attitudes that promote evils such as racism, sexism, etc.

People who embrace a life-giving faith have both a right and a responsibility to help others who are trapped in toxic religion. The slogan “I’m okay, you’re okay so let’s just walk away” isn’t always optimal. A disengaging, nonchalant attitude may seem polite and politically-correct but it seldom honors God. Instead, we must navigate a riskier course and call-out anyone and anything that diminishes life or that undermines human rights, civil rights or equal rights.

How can you evaluate a religion and gain insight into whether it is doing more harm than good? Ask yourself if love and truth emanate from a group’s teachings and behavior. Are hope and joy generated and are people empowered to love and to be loved? Are women relegated to an inferior status? Are people from different ethnic groups despised and denied basic rights? Are children abused through a culture of cover-up? Asking these and similar questions will help you evaluate any religion or political ideology.

Amid the messy process of discerning what is and is not morally acceptable is the equally challenging task to not reject someone simply because they are an outsider. Until you get to know someone they can be easily dismissed. The trouble is that you can’t get to know that many people personally, thoroughly. In this case you may need to assess people from afar but you are still obligated to use sound judgment and make decisions based on evidence, not propaganda or so-called alternative facts (lies dressed-up in polite language).

–Reverend Hoxey

 

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