Hannah Truxell, Kent and Cathy’s oldest daughter, is an attorney. But she doesn’t do criminal defense in public courts. She doesn’t handle injury cases, like the folks we see advertize on tv. She doesn’t do wills and estates, she doesn’t handle divorces. She’s not even employed by a large corporation or business to handle their legal matters. None of the above. Rather, she works for the Presbyterian Church (USA) in their headquarters in Louisville. This denomination has a system of courts, where various church disputes are resolved.
We might think, really? Courts? Why would the church need courts? We Disciples of Christ don’t have courts, but we do have committees, of course, and “ministries” and various procedures for resolving problems. And like the Presbyterians, we do have our disputes and issues to deal with.
For example, if you go to the 1978 Yearbook of the Christian Church, which contains the official listing of Disciples congregations and ministers formally connected to our denomination, you will find a James W. Jones listed as a minister in good standing. In the congregation section you will find him listed as the minister of his congregation – Peoples Temple, in Redwood Valley, California. Ring a bell? This is the Jim Jones who had moved his followers to South America and on November 18, 1978, after some of his people shot and killed a U.S. Congressman and four others, oversaw the mass suicide of over nine hundred supposed followers of Jesus.
That was pretty much when we Disciples decided we needed to do a better job monitoring ministers and that we needed a way to remove standing – a way to take your name out of the Yearbook. Nowadays we can do that. Every year Ann and I have to send a form to apply for renewal of our standing, which has to be granted by the Commission on Ministry – I think that’s the name – of the Christian Church in Virginia. As far as I know every region of the Christian Church is doing the same.
I knew a minister who knew Jim Jones in Jones’ earlier days in ministry. The report I heard was that he did good things, that he was very involved in his community, promoted racial harmony, that sort of thing. But somewhere, somehow, he obviously went off the deep end. And somehow, we Disciples of Christ lost track of him and what he was doing. These days, if I decided to start a commune in South America and a thousand or so of you decided to join me there, I’m pretty sure our regional minister would find out about it. And I’m pretty sure there would be some questions about my standing.
Not everybody who’s doing something in Jesus’ name is doing Jesus’ work. Unfortunately, people who are outside the church often have no way of distinguishing who’s being faithful to the way of Jesus and who’s not. All they know is that someone has attached the name “Christian” to what they’re doing or someone says they are following Jesus, and outsiders have no way to test that claim. That’s why Ann and I have to send in a form every year. That’s why we in the church need to be able to point to the phonies and say, nope, they’re not with the program.
Sometimes that’s not hard to do. If someone is espousing racism and saying they are somehow superior or more favored by God than others, we can quickly and easily point them out and make a pronouncement that they are not following the Jesus we know. And it may be that we need to do that more often these days.
But as is the case with so many facets of life, there are often gray areas. Many times we may not see eye to eye with someone who says they are Christian, but where do we draw the line? When do we say, no, we don’t agree on everything, but we’re still both trying to carry on Jesus’ mission?
That’s the question that has arisen in today’s reading from Mark. The apostle John comes to Jesus and says, hey, there’s this guy who’s using your name to cast out demons from people. You want us to rough him up a little and make him quit? Might as well, Jesus replies… No, he doesn’t. He says, “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.”
There’s an old expression that politics makes strange bedfellows. Maybe so, but so does religion. Maybe especially Christianity. We Christians have always struggled to figure out how to get along, and who’s in and who’s out. As early as the book of Acts, in the first decades of the life of the church, we are told that there are at least two groups, the Greek-speaking Christians and the Hebrew-speaking Christians. Down through the years and the centuries the church has at times said, nope, your views are too far out in left field. And at times, as in the case of Jim Jones, we should have said it sooner.
Still, we know that we at Timberlake Christian are not in the following Jesus business by ourselves. We know we have several thousand other Disciples congregations working with us. We know we have various partnerships and relationships with other denominations and churches. We know that there are many who are doing good works in Jesus’ name, and that “Whoever is not against us is for us.” In fact, today we have two good examples of what that looks like.
First, within our denomination, today is the first of two Sundays when we focus on the Reconciliation special offering. In the Disciples of Christ we have six special offerings during the year, four of which support various units of our church, our region, higher education, new church establishment, and our general units. Two, the Week of Compassion and Reconciliation, undergird those particular programs.
Reconciliation is our anti-racism program. Not too many years ago I remember thinking, I wonder if we still need a program devoted to combating racism. After all, we as a denomination and as a nation have made a lot of progress since Reconciliation was begun in 1968. But we have seen what has happened, as close as Charlottesville, more recently. Sadly, we still need to support the Reconciliation ministry. Here’s one of their latest efforts. It’s called “One Bag of Tea, One Conversation, One Relationship”. It grew out of Minister of Reconciliation Rev. April Johnson’s own experiences. After ten years of offering anti-racism trainings, Johnson saw that many participants had never talked about racism in any intentional way. Moreover, trainings were often held in groups of people who had never met or worked closely with each other. She sensed a need for a new kind of entry point into reconciliation work. “Racism is a very emotional topic, so we can’t enter into that conversation with people we aren’t in relationship with,” Johnson says.
As she thought about how best to start those kinds of conversations, she was inspired by tea. Johnson knew that in various other cultures, tea represents more than a beverage, but its own activity. On a trip to Kenya, she remembered being invited to “take tea,” which served as an invitation to sit and visit without distraction.
The idea developed as Johnson asked herself, “What if we were to invite people we don’t know to sit down and have tea and an intentional, structured, dialogue?” She, along with Reconciliation Program Minister Rev. Bere Gil Soto, developed a set of questions to guide a conversation that progressively deepens and leads to action. This structure mirrors Reconciliation Ministry’s training program, which ends with calls for participants to take next steps in their communities.
That sounds like something that can make a difference in people’s lives. So I encourage you to give generously to the Reconciliation offering today or next Sunday.
Also happening today, not just in the Disciples of Christ, is Bread for the World Sunday. Bread for the World is a Christian citizens’ lobby. Unlike most lobbying organizations, however, the staff and board and members are not lobbying for themselves. They are at work on behalf of hungry people in the United States and around the world. And Bread for the World includes Baptists and Catholics and Methodists and Presbyterians and Disciples of Christ folks and many others.
Today we have the opportunity to sign letters which ask our members of Congress to support things like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, SNAP, and tax credits for low income working people. Bread for the World is not affiliated with the Democrats or the Republicans. It sees hunger as a people issue, not a political issue. Unfortunately, helping hungry people is a part of our political process. That’s why Bread for the World exists.
Fortunately, we have all those Baptists and Catholics and other Christians working with us to say to Congress, we Christians, we who follow the way of Jesus, don’t want people to go through life hungry. We know that Daily Bread and Gateway dinners and PCIO backpacks are important in fighting hunger, but so are SNAP and tax credits. So I encourage you to sign three letters today.
The good news is, “Whoever is not against us is for us.” The good news is, God works through all sorts of folks. Amen.