I Do Not Pray for a Sandwich

Mark 9:38-50

38 John said to him, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” 39 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. 40 Whoever is not against us is for us. 41 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.

42 “If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea. 43 If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. 45 And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell. 47 And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell, 48 where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched.

49 “For everyone will be salted with fire. 50 Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.”

Sermon

Good morning! I don’t know how many of you pay attention to my sermon titles, but if you do, I’m sure at least one or two of you are thinking, “come on, pastor, I bet you’ve prayed for a sandwich or two.” Now maybe I have and maybe I haven’t. That’s a different conversation.

My title this morning is actually a quote from His Beatitude, Fouad Twal, the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem. “What’s a Latin Patriarch?” you might ask. It’s the fancy name for the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Jerusalem. You see, in the Holy Land, the Roman Catholic Church is referred to as the Latin Church. I learned this when I visited Israel and Palestine in 2012. I was part of a delegation of students and faculty who traveled there on a mission trip. It was amazing.


The trip was billed as a pilgrimage to the Living Stones—the purpose of the trip was to meet Palestinian Arab Christians, to learn about them and their lives, and to see how we, as American Christians could help to work for peace in the Holy Land. Are you with me? I ask you this because sometimes, when I talk about this trip, people stop me in the middle of that first sentence.


The conversation goes like this:

Wait! What? Palestinian? Arab. Christians? Huh?

Yes. Palestinian Arab Christians.

I thought they were all Muslims.

No. There are still many Christians living in Palestine.

Are you sure?

Yes. I’ve met them. Many of them.

Really?

Yes, really!


The short explanation is that there were Arabs in Palestine since before the time of Christ. No doubt, many of the first Gentile converts to Christianity were, in fact, Arabs. There have been Arab Christians for as long as there have been, well, Christians! That’s why the trip was billed as a pilgrimage to the Living Stones. These Arab Christians in Palestine are part of the oldest tradition in Christianity! They are the Living Stones, the foundation of the Christian faith.


So, I jumped at the chance to see the Holy Land and meet these brothers and sisters in Christ. We met some of the most important leaders of the Christian community in Palestine. I’ve already mentioned Archbishop Fouad Twal. We also met the Rev. Mitri Raheb, a Lutheran pastor, and Father Elias Chacour, a Melkite Archbishop. Both of these men have written extensively about the conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians, and the role of Christians in the midst of this conflict. But even more importantly, on this trip we met everyday people—Palestinian Christians who were busy living their lives in the midst of challenging situations.


In our audience with Archbishop Twal, someone in our group asked him how he dealt with the conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians, and two sides that just don’t seem to be able to make peace. He said, simply:


I pray. I pray to God to change the things in my world that I cannot change on my own. I do not pray for a sandwich. If I am hungry, I can get up and make myself a sandwich. I do not need God to do this for me. I pray for the things that only God can do.[1]


It was an amazing conversation. This isn’t a sermon about geopolitics or religious conflict. This is a sermon about prayer and reconciliation


In today’s Scripture reading, James is offering advice to Christian communities everywhere. And it’s pretty straightforward advice. If you are suffering: pray! If you’re happy, sing songs of praise. If you are sick, pray. If someone else is sick, pray for that person. If you have sinned, pray to God. Also, confess your sins to one another. Do these things and your sins will be forgiven.


As your pastor, it’s my job to help interpret the Scriptures. But I gotta tell you: sometimes it doesn’t take a seminary education to explain the text. Pray. Always. Pray all the time. Pray when you’re happy; pray when you’re sad. Pray. Can it really be that simple? Yes. It’s that simple.


If I can add anything at all, any bit of interpretation, it’s this: James isn’t writing to us as a collection of individuals. He’s addressing Christian communities, then and now—he’s addressing us as members of a caring community.[2] James reminds us that “in the community’s exercise of prayer the very promise and power of the resurrection remain not just some future hope but now impinge on, recreate, and sustain a living and active community of faith.” That means that when congregations pray together—when we pray together—we participate in the resurrection and the grace that is offered by God and we are sustained as a community when we do so.


The idea that we are actively participating in Christ’s resurrection and God’s grace may seem like a stretch, but I think it’s something we already understand, sort of. We already know we’re supposed to pray to God when we’re happy and pray to God when we’re sad. We already know we’re supposed to pray for healing when we’re sick and to pray for those in need of healing when they’re sick. And we already do these things. Right here. We began worship by collectively offering praise to God. Then we confessed our sins as a group.


Then the worship leader assured us that we were forgiven. And then we share the Peace of Christ with one another, as a reminder that we are all reconciled to God, and also in the hope that we are reconciled to one another. We understand all this, up to a point.

In the adult Sunday school class last week, we spent a lot of time talking about making peace. This was in response to our study of the Letter of James, and the following verses, in particular:


A harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace. Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you? (3:18, 4:1)


In our discussion, I asked the class what peacemaking looks like. Several people mentioned holiday dinners. For them, peacemaking meant keeping the dinner conversation away from politics. Peacemaking meant avoiding fights and conflict at the table.


We do this in church, too. We have families who worship together, but won’t speak to one another, because there’s a long-simmering feud between them. It’s not the Hatfields and the McCoys, shooting at each other. It’s more like the Mitchells and the Johnstons are mad about something that happened on the finance committee or the Christian ed committee—something that happened ten or twenty years ago—and they’re tired of fighting. They worship together, but they still don’t speak to each other.


Beloved, that’s not peace. That’s a cease-fire.


Peace isn’t the absence of conflict, it’s the presence of love. Peace, love, and reconciliation are all kinda the same thing. They all go together. The are all present in the beloved community that we are called to build; that is, the kingdom of God. And when we are not completely and fully practicing that inside of our churches, then we are much less effective at practicing it outside of our churches.


Beloved, I know that there was a lot of conflict in this congregation in the years before you called me. My impression is that much of Pastor Nancy’s work with this congregation was about implementing a cease-fire agreement and maintaining the peace. And it worked. You’re still here, and those of you who remained are really committed to being a community. That’s part of why I accepted your call to serve this congregation. I understand that there were people on the Pastor Nominating Committee who were on different sides of that conflict, but were able to come together to serve on the committee. But the work isn’t done.

Beloved, I don’t want to dwell in the past, but I believe we must be a community that strives to reconcile with one another—a community that makes peace with one another, rather than a community that simply lives out a cease-fire with one another. I know that’s not easy. Jesus doesn’t call us to the easy tasks.


In this morning’s Gospel lesson, John says to Jesus: “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” I think this gets to the heart of conflicts within many of our churches. John sees other believers and tries to stop them because they’re not following Jesus’ disciples. But they are casting out demons in Jesus’ name; they are believers. Jesus reminds them: “Whoever is not against us is for us.” He’s saying, you’re all on the same team. Make peace. He’s speaking to us, too, telling us to make peace with one another.


Beloved, we have to practice reconciliation inside the church, just as we have to work for the reconciliation of the whole world. What we do in here is what we do out there. This isn’t easy, but we have to do it. We have to work to fix the relationships in this congregation that have been damaged. We have to move from having cease-fire agreements to having peace treaties and good relationships, in which we truly love one another. And I know that you’re all capable of this because I’ve experienced your love. I know you’ve got it in you.


I also know that in any group, there are people who manage to avoid serious interpersonal conflict. So, if you don’t have relationships that need to be repaired, forge new relationships in this congregation. Even better, walk with some of the people who need to repair relationships. Listen to their stories and help them heal the old wounds.


The first step in this process is always prayer. Pray for a change in your own heart. Pray for an opportunity to start a conversation. If it helps, invite other people into the conversation. This is what happens marriage counseling—the counselor is a neutral party who can hear each person without being sucked into the conflict. Counselors will often ask the couples they counsel: Do you need to be right or do you need to be loved?


Beloved, we are here in church because we need to be loved. We are here because God loves us and we love God. In and through that loving relationship, we are called to love one another, just as God loves each of us. Our work inside of these walls is to build and maintain the loving relationships among one another. We do this because we’re called to do it here, and we do it because we’re called to do it in the world outside. Let’s commit to work actively on our relationships in this place, here and now. Thanks be to God. Amen!


Benediction

Now, beloved, as you depart from this place, remember that we are called to go forth and be instruments of God’s peace and love and reconciliation. Do not return evil for evil to any person, but know that we are all loved by God, and that we are called to reflect that love to everyone we meet. In the name of Jesus Christ, our Lord, let all God’s children say, Amen!

[1] These are the Patriarch’s own words, as I recorded them in my journal.


[2] James Boyce. Commentary on James 5:13-20. Retrieved from: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2652



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First Presbyterian Church of Freehold

732-462-0234

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118 West Main Street

Freehold, NJ 07728

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