Sami Johnson, Andalucia, Spain

Warm-up Questions

  • Briefly describe a time you received help, kindness, or support from someone you didn’t expect.
  • Have you ever had the chance to offer help, kindness, or support to someone who didn’t expect it from you? Why did you do it?
  • How does our faith factor into your decision to serve others, especially when it involves people with whom you do not share a close or warm relationship?

Mission First

The stories about the evacuation of American citizens and allies from Afghanistan have been heart wrenching. My feeling of helplessness drove me to discover signs of hope. As Mister Rogers invites us to do in a crisis, I felt compelled to “look for the helpers.” I discovered that there were all kinds of people scrambling to arrange private flights to evacuate Afghan allies. Universities, faith-based groups, advocacy groups, veterans of the war in Afghanistan, just to name a few, were working together to try to arrange non-military flights out of Afghanistan. Their work was remarkable and courageous.

What caught me by surprise is that the people cooperating in this effort likely wouldn’t have agreed on much outside of this work they shared. Typically, they’d be divided by partisan politics.  Many would never be found in the same church (or any church) on a Sunday morning.  But they were willing to unite for the sake of this vital mission.

This mission hit home for me personally. The US and Spanish military community here at Naval Station Rota, Spain had the privilege of welcoming almost 3000 evacuees from Afghanistan. Evacuees arrived over the course of about two weeks and stayed here for about 5 days on their way to the US. The effort to welcome them, care for them, and protect them became an all-consuming task for service members and civilians alike. I got to witness firsthand unity and cooperation among the volunteers who came together to aid in Operation Allies Refuge. Neighbors, whether Spanish or American, military or civilian, friends or strangers, came together with hearts broken open for the sake of those who needed our help in the midst of this tragic situation.

Discussion Questions

  • How has the news coming out of Afghanistan impacted you? What has helped you cope with what you’re feeling?
  • Have you ever witnessed this kind of radical unity for the sake of a common goal?
  • Have you ever seen a goal fail because people let their differences get in the way?

Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29

James 5:13-20

Mark 9:38-50

(Text links are to Oremus Bible Browser. Oremus Bible Browser is not affiliated with or supported by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. You can find the calendar of readings for Year B at Lectionary Readings.)

For lectionary humor and insight, check the weekly comic Agnus Day.

Gospel Reflection

The reading begins with a critical misunderstanding by John, one of Jesus’s disciples. John thinks he is in the right when he catches someone casting out demons, pretending to be Jesus’ follower.  He tells this exorcist to stop. John doesn’t explain why he is doing this but we can imagine that he might be trying to preserve the integrity of Jesus’ ministry. Maybe he is worried that the imposter is trying to jump on the bandwagon of Jesus’ popularity for selfish gain. We cannot know.

We can be sure of the intent behind Jesus’ response. He corrects John’s misconception of Jesus’ priorities saying, “Do not stop him… Whoever is not against us is for us” (verses 39, 40). In this moment, Jesus models grace in the form of unity and cooperation against John’s fundamentalism, which has no place in Jesus’ world-changing mission.

The next section might get our attention, with all its gory dismemberment and threats of unquenchable flames, worms, and hell, but that is not the whole story. It would be a shame if the reader overlooks the fact that Jesus is also reminding John of the mission that guides everything Jesus is doing. This mission is to bring near the kingdom of God here and now. However this message gets shared, whatever gets the world one step closer to looking like God’s kingdom is a-okay with Jesus.  Whether or not the person doing the healing, proclaiming, or other neighbor-loving work is a card-carrying member of “Team Jesus” already, with all the proper training and credentials, seems unimportant to Jesus.

Jesus punctuates this teaching in plain language at the end of our reading, as if to make sure we do not miss the central message amid all the shocking hyperbole of verses 43-48. He finishes with this pleading command, “be at peace with one another” (verse 50). This sounds to me as much like a prayer and a blessing as it does a command. “Be at peace with one another.”

We need this command/ prayer/ blessing today as much as John and his fellow disciples needed it in the First Century. It is too easy to get caught up in cutting others down to build ourselves up. Divisive cliques, political parties, or religious factions drawing lines in the sand is not what Jesus calls us into. Most of all, it falls far short of what Jesus empowers us to do. Jesus’s way peace is both a gift and as a calling.

Discussion Questions

  • What is an issue in your community that deserves a boundary-busting effort? What is the value or mission that could unite people from different backgrounds?
  • How might you faithfully respond to someone who has a belief you think is wrong, especially if their faith is not as mature as yours?
  • There is an old African proverb that says, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” How do you think this relates to the goal of Christian unity?

Activity Suggestions

Consider how you can demonstrate a warm welcome to evacuees from Afghanistan whether or not they are being resettled in your community. (You can find some ideas here at Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service.)

Closing Prayer

God of peace, you call all of us together, using our gifts to share the good news with the whole world. We pray for your grace to keep your mission first in our minds, over disagreements that would cause us to stumble along our way. In Jesus’s name we pray. Amen.