Title: “Pilgrims against the Status Quo” Text: Mark 9:38-41
The following text is part of the Gospel reading for this Sunday as provided by the Revised Common Lectionary. This means, I did not choose it. The Lectionary provided it. But I think in the course of my words, you will see how well this text suits our special occasion today. For me, it is just one more piece of evidence that the selection of the Lectionary readings has providential quality.
I read from the Gospel of Mark, chapter 9, verses 38 through 41. Listen for the Word of God.
John said to Jesus, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” But Jesus said, “Do not stop him; 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. For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.”
Pastor: This is the Word of the Lord.
People: Thanks be to God!
Friends, I must say it: Thank God for anniversaries! This may be a cheesy exclamation; but without anniversaries, we might lose sight of the importance of being on a journey. Anniversaries are the milestones of our memory. Without them, it would be harder to remember that we are traveling, that our faith needs to develop and our character needs to grow in insight and broadness of understanding. “World-openness” is the new word, and God has us on the journey to achieve this goal.
Thank God for the anniversaries! Without them, what little conviction we may claim as our own, would be ground up in the statics between “having faith” and “not having faith”. Without the possibility of journeying through the various oscillations of a life-time of faith, who among us could be saved?
There are, of course, the diehards of the status quo. Doug Adams summarized the classic position of “I’m-not-moving” in his immortal “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy Series”, I quote:
“Many were increasingly of the opinion that they’d all made a big mistake in coming down from the trees in the first place. And some said that even the trees had been a bad move, and that no one should ever have left the oceans.”
The perspective here may be grand scale, but it’s still parochialism par excellence. This is an ancient and wide-spread phenomenon. It seems that even the Lord Jesus himself had to struggle with this attitude among the disciples. John, the son of Zebedee, nowhere else in the Gospels recorded to have said anything, had to throw this monkey wrench:
“Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.”
Why did John say this? To protect a perceived monopoly on casting out demons? Or did he see the identity of the band of disciples threatened when the stranger invoked the name of the Lord? Perhaps, it was even the stranger’s success that had made the disciples around John jealous. After all, just a few verses earlier in the chapter, the father of an afflicted boy had complained to Jesus:
“I asked your disciples to cast it out, but they could not do so.” (Mark 9:18)
Whatever had caused John to speak up; I doubt it had come from selfless motives. And so the Lord corrected:
“Do not stop him; 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.”
And thus he freed the cause of the Kingdom of God from the petty brokerage of protectionism. He allowed the passing of the cause from the temporarily ineffective disciples to a more successful stranger. That must have hurt! But staying in the oceans or on the trees was, obviously, not an option, as far as the Kingdom was concerned.
Similar things can be said about First Reformed Church and the story of why the current church building was built. The former building is known to have seated 900 people; the current one is designed for 1,100 – even if later interior changes diminished that number by half.
Now we can ask, did the increase of 200 seats from the old to the new church justify the new construction? Probably not! Given the fact that they tore down the old building and erected a completely redesigned one, the increase in seating capacity seems insignificant. And yet, the drive to engage in the new construction was so intense that even the beloved Pastor Dr. Ira Condict seems to have seen the necessity – despite his apparent inability of coping with the situation emotionally. As we know, he passed within days of the destruction of the old church.
This, perhaps, exposed Rev. Condict as a true disciple of Christ. Had Jesus not challenged the attitude of John, the son of Zebedee over against the other exorcist? Subsequently, one of the newer commentaries on Mark concludes from the scene:
“The call to discipleship requires us to examine our innermost motivations and lay aside all self-centeredness for the sake of serving Christ and serving others in a cause that makes our own sacrifices inconsequential.”
I understand Rev. Condict’s presence during the demolition and reconstruction in this way: a sacrifice in the service of Christ.
But how was the reconstruction of the new church a cause of Christ? Apparently, it was not the number of seats! What then made the change so necessary?
Let me introduce the idea with another quote from Douglas Adams’ “Hitchhiker’s Guide through the Galaxy”:
“For instance,” he wrote, on the planet Earth, man had always assumed that he was more intelligent than dolphins because he had achieved so much – the wheel, New York, wars and so on – whilst all the dolphins had ever done was muck about in the water having a good time. But conversely, the dolphins had always believed that they were far more intelligent than man – for precisely the same reasons.”
Well, we are human beings after all and not dolphins. We cannot but move on. And if it was not the seating capacity of the former church building, it must have been our ancestors’ desire to keep up with the times.
World-open Christians will always have to go with their time. You’ll find facets of this truth even in the most remote monastery. It does not mean to sell out to any surrounding culture. It does, however, imply to be faithful in our presence and not to withhold ourselves in the safety of the holiest of holy. If we are sent to love our neighbors, we cannot desert them but meet them where they are. Thus, we have to keep up with the times.
For our ancestors this meant surrendering the pre-revolutionary old church. Do you remember the features of that building? You will quickly see my point.
The old church was an introverted edifice. Built over 100 years after the takeover of the British, its architecture made no attempt to serve the wider society. Instead, it displayed the traditional features of an ethnic church, constructed to preserve the enclave of survivors in a land that was not their own: Square in its floor plan, with a humble spire in the center, so that outsiders could not even tell the back from the front of the building. It was typical Reformed architecture, to be sure, but on the eve of its demolition its message had outlived itself.
The new church, by contrast, was to express the spirit of a fledgling nation – a courageous approach in the tragic year of 1812! Designed in the federal style, it was to be an extraverted building, the product of a congregation not afraid to invite the community by employing a variety of architectural features, including the later steeple and the town clock therein.
Survivors of a ceded colony would never have built like this, but for the citizens of a new nation it was a natural move. The status quo would have been a betrayal of the Christian duty to be a presence in the new era.
I am sure not everybody liked it. To say it again in the marvelous irony of Douglas Adams:
“In the beginning the Universe was created. This has made a lot of people very angry and been widely regarded as a bad move.”
John, the son of Zebedee, might have argued like this. It would have been the same negativism that later criticized Jesus for announcing, I quote from the commentary, an “unbrokered kingdom in which none have prerogatives over others and the grace of God is available to all – children, women, Gentiles, the poor, and the outcasts.”
We would, however, threaten our integrity, if I concluded my remarks with this delineation of the historic reasons for the new church. We cannot close our eyes against the reality that the journey continues. We know, therefore, that even the radical changes of our past have not created an eternal status quo. I mentioned already that later changes required the diminishing of the seating capacity of the new church.
New times require new responses. We are a new generation of church members, and we have to define for ourselves where the fine line runs between keeping up with the times and not betraying our historic identity by selling out to the surrounding culture.
A glance into the later history of our church can give us some examples of new dangers sprouting along the congregation’s path as it moved into the new era:
• Who was allowed to join and who wasn’t?
• Who made the decisions and who didn’t?
• Why was our famous Sunday School segregated for decades during the 19th century?
• Why did our spiritually otherwise so sensitive pastor Dr. Samuel How address General Synod in 1855 from our pulpit with a sermon entitled “Slaveholding not Sinful”?
• And what does this have to do with our General Synod’s attempt to make church support for gay and lesbian people a disciplinable offense?
I am not saying these things to make us feel bad, but to caution against the impression that our journey could be over anytime soon. In this life, I doubt that Christians can ever proclaim “Mission accomplished!” Every epoch of human history has shown: Our world is too ambiguous for that.
The latest possibility of reconfiguring the current church building once more provides only another attempt of faithfully responding to the challenge of a new time period. Whether it will really happen or not; the plans to house victims of domestic violence in parts of our sanctuary portray our congregation’s continuing quest to follow God by being open to the world.
To quote Doug Adams one last time,
“There is a theory which states that if ever anyone discovers exactly what the Universe is for and why it is here, it will instantly disappear and be replaced by something even more bizarre and inexplicable. There is another theory which states that this has already happened.”
This may be as it may be. It’s just another way of saying we have our work cut out for us, and the journey will continue.
As Christians of First Reformed Church, we will therefore stay on course. That’s why John, the son of Zebedee, accepted the Lord’s criticism. That’s why Rev. Condict suffered the decision of rebuilding the church. John became one of the primary authors of the New Testament. Dr. Condict is remembered as one of our most beloved pastors. Their journeys were not in vain.
Neither must we be discouraged when we are facing the cost of change. We know the emotional toll as well as the sweat of the legwork involved; but God has called us nevertheless to be the congregation of First Reformed Church. And so we continue to widen the circle at the Table and invite others to serve with us, without narrow-minded discrimination. May God continue to sustain our world-openness in the years to come!
The Scripture quotations contained herein are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright, 1989, by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. Used by permission. All rights reserved.