During my seminary years, a couple of classmates of mine and I would often poke fun at the number of Episcopal priests who quoted Dietrich Bonhoeffer in their sermons. (Bonhoeffer was a pastor in the Confessing Church in Germany who opposed the Nazi Regime. Bonhoeffer was also involved in a plot to kill Hitler. He was found out and put in a concentration camp where he was later murdered by Nazi Germany.) We’d joke, “We’d be rich if we got a dollar for every time we heard the name Bonhoeffer used in a sermon.” And as newly ordained priests, we were quite proud of the fact we never quoted Bonhoeffer.
At some point along the way, we actually started reading Bonhoeffer. Slowly we began talking to each other about his work. We all came to the same conclusions, “He’s really good.” So, now that I have given you my full disclosure statement, a quote from Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
In his book Life Together, Bonhoeffer writes, “Those who love their dream of a Christian community more than the Christian community itself become destroyers of that Christian community even though their personal intentions may be ever so honest, earnest, and sacrificial.” In case you were wondering, we would be up to $8 by now if we were in my seminary preaching pool.
This quotation from Bonhoeffer describes perfectly the difficulty the disciples find themselves in today’s passage from Mark. Our lesson from Mark begins with the disciples reporting a copy-cat exorcist to Jesus. Using church lingo, Jesus’ disciples think they are the liturgical police, and they’ve caught someone breaking the rubrics in the prayer book. I can see the disciples patting themselves on the back for catching this renegade exorcist red handed.
The last shall be first teaching still hasn’t sunk in. While their intentions might have been honest, earnest, and sacrificial, the disciples miss the mark. They fail to understand that Jesus is more concerned with loving relationships than he is with religious traditions. And Jesus lets the disciples know it.
At first, Jesus is rather mild. He tells the disciples to give a cup of water, which is a gesture of encouragement, to those doing the Lord’s work. Jesus tells the disciples to support others in the work of ministry even if they do that work differently.
Perceiving the disciples still don’t get what he is saying, Jesus hurls a few provocative images their way to help get their attention. He says it would be better to hang a 1,000-point weight around your neck and jump in a ditch than it would be to put a stumbling block in front of a new follower. Then Jesus gets on with the whole business of looping off limbs and throwing them to the place where the worm never dies.
Once Jesus sufficiently makes his point, he concludes his teaching, “For everyone will be salted with fire. … Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.” Our formation in the kingdom of heaven doesn’t depend on the advancement of our great ideas or dreams, our formation in the kingdom of heaven doesn’t need on our rigid attention to religious customs.
Rather, our formation in the kingdom of heaven relies on our willingness to be salted with fire, on our willingness to be transformed by the power of the Holy Spirit who takes us beyond our petty differences. For us today, in this Christian community, are we willing to let go of our short-sighted dreams and let the purifying love of Jesus open our eyes to God’s dream for community. Are we willing to let go of our way of doing things and let the love of Jesus add flavor to our life together?
The formation of authentic Christian community begins and ends with love – the details of how that community is formed is worked out somewhere in between. Bonhoeffer said (that’s $10), “The person who loves their dream of community will destroy the community, but the person who loves those around them will create community.”
While I am still in full disclosure mode, I have another confession. I am a seven on the Enneagram. I am an Enthusiast and according to the Enneagram, a seven is prone to love ideas more than people. Therefore, today’s sermon is intended for me just as much as it is intended for you.
Through this scripture, Jesus is reminding you and me that loving relationships build authentic community, loving relationships give rise to ideas that we didn’t know we could even dream. Even more, our all loving God already has a dream in mind for his beloved community – a dream God spoke into being through Creation, a dream fulfilled in Jesus.
God’s dream looks like all the people of the earth living in peace with one another. And in a world that is severely torn and broken by sin and death and tribalism, that dream of peace is realized through a love that is concerned not with surrounding itself with the people who think and act alike but a love that is concerned with finding healing, reconciliation, and restoration among those who differ from us the most.
When we pursue healing, reconciliation, and restoration, we put love of people before love of ideas and agendas. When we pursue the peace that God intends, our eyes our opened to just how dangerous love of ideas before people is.
Because when we love our short-sighted version of the way the world should be before we love the people around us, we shut down the possibility of dialogue with those who think and do things differently than we do, we shut down the possibility of relationships that extend beyond likeminded people, we shut down the possibility of being able to listen without a predetermined agenda.
Ultimately, when we put ideas before people, we shut down the possibility of healing, reconciliation, and restoration. We close ourselves off to peace, to the dream of God – a dream that gathers a diverse group of people with a love that is meant for us all in the way of Jesus. And this way of Jesus calls us to trust that love covers a multitude of sins. This way that Jesus calls us to trusts that love of God and love of people is where authentic community is born and nurtured.
During the search process, I was asked, “What would be the first thing you would want to do if you became Rector at Ascension?” Being a seven on the Enneagram, a flood of ideas rushed to my head. However, I recalled my first days as Rector of St. Paul’s. A list of about twenty things floated around my desk for about the first year.
The more I got to know the people at St. Paul’s, the more I listened to their stories, the more I learned about the parish, the more I got involved in the community, the more irrelevant my list of ideas became. Finally, I tossed the list in the trash can. If I remember correctly, only one of those twenty ideas ever gained any legs. Instead, by the grace of God, my list of ideas became our list of ideas, ideas born out of relationships, ideas that revealed God’s dream in our time and place.
With that being said, the first thing I want to do as your Rector is to get to know you, get to know this parish, get to know the needs of the larger community. Like I wrote in the newsletter, I want to know why you are here. What about Ascension excites you about participating in the dream of God? What about this place makes you feel like you belong to the community of God?
It is my conviction that through this process of getting to know each other and our stories, God will reveal his dream for this community in this particular time and place. Like anything else we do in community, this process will take time. This process will require us to be intentional and mindful and discerning – a lot of listening. This process will require personal and communal prayer. Above all, this process will require us to love each other despite our differences of opinion.
For at the end of the day, our individual opinions, my opinions included, do not shape Christian community. In fact, individual opinions often destroy community. Rather, the truth of Christ in God, which is discerned by the entire community in worship, gives shape to authentic Christian community.
Friends, as we discern God’s dream for this community, may we never lose sight of the most important part of living in community, that is may we never lose sight of the truth that it is through God’s love alone, through God’s unwavering commitment to be in relationship with us that any of us find ourselves here today. Amen.