Millstones

Proper 21 B  – Alston Johnson

            Today I would like to share some words with you from a man named Toyohiko Kagawa, who as a boy wanted to learn to speak English.  In Kobe, Japan, the nearest thing he could find to English lessons were in a Bible class taught by Presbyterian missionaries.  Orphaned as a boy, Kagawa was being raised by his extended family.  Kagawa took to both English and the Bible class to the degree that he became a Christian.  A tragic consequence of his new found faith is that he was disowned by his Japanese family, and was eventually taken in by his new Presbyterian Church family.  

            After studying at the Presbyterian college in Tokyo for a few years, Kagawa discerned a calling to work with the poor in the industrial slums of Japan.  For many years he lived in a 6 by 6 shed in the slums of Kobe, where he invited others to join the Christian family that he had found.  He worked extensively to improve the lives of Japanese laborers, as well as living conditions for the poor.  By the time of his death in 1960, he was considered one of the Christian spiritual fathers of Japan.  This is something that he wrote that I found striking.  Form of a Japanese Haiku.

I read in a book

That a man named Christ

Went about doing good.

It is very disconcerting to me

That I am so easily satisfied

with just going about.  -Toyohiko Kagawa

Throughout this section of Mark’s Gospel, Jesus is visiting with his friends and followers about the death that awaits him in Jerusalem. 

It is becoming evident that Jesus lives in the midst of “double-bind,” a “Catch-22,” situation.  The very attractiveness that Jesus communicates with the crowds, the very force that motivates those who are spiritually hungry and curious, is the very thing that will draw the “powers that be” upon him. 

Naturally there is tension building within the disciples; as they argue among themselves about who is the greatest, who is the real disciple, who is the real Christian.  

Jesus remains constant in his charity and understanding toward those on the fringes, outside of the circle, yet who are hungry to follow his way of life in the world. 

The disciples come across such a follower – casting demons.  He lacks credentialing.  I imagine that there were a number of such improvisational artists on the scene when Jesus came to town.  As we say, there is no greater flattery than imitation. 

When Jesus learns that his friends have rebuked this perhaps well- meaning imitator, Jesus takes the disciples “to school” a bit.  Jesus tells them that should have a bit more generosity of heart, be more accepting; that it would be better if “you hung a heavy millstone around your own necks and threw yourself into the deepest part of the sea,” before causing one of these new to the faith, one of these little ones to stumble; be careful what you presume to say and do in my name.

Essentially Jesus is telling His friends to be very careful about appointing themselves as the resident thought police.  “Whoever is not against us is for us.” 

For Jesus, the rigid lines of distinction about who is, and is not, a disciple remain permeable as He makes His way to Jerusalem; the opposite seems to be true of his friends.  The announcement of his own death and the growing need for a strong discipleship does not limit Jesus’ desire to have an ever growing circle of fellowship. 

What Jesus has to say to the disciples is as “hard” for us to hear today as it was in the first century; it is one of the reasons that we drive past a large number of churches every day.  2000 years following in the footsteps of the first disciples, it seems that we continue to exorcize demons and follow Jesus according to our own unique recipes.  

            It is as difficult an invitation for us to take into our own hearts as it was difficult for the first disciples.  It is easier for Christians, and for this minister as well, to simply “go about,” as Kagawa says. 

We naturally gather with those who are most like us in opinion and culture; those things that we share the most, but which cost us the least.  To “go about” is far easier than to learn the great-heartedness of Christ, and accept that the Spirit of God will move in unexpected ways among unusual suspects.

When we are at our best as denominational Christians, we recognize that proximity to Jesus is not something that we get to own like a piece of property.  We not only accept that other Christians see the landscape differently, we actively seek to work with others in the name of Christ.  

The assurance and comfort that we feel as Episcopalians is not meant to simply be a shield, or wall, behind which we hide from the world.  Rather, the joy and the affirmation of our denomination is meant to become a bridge into the world as a means by which the beauty of Christ’s presence might grow.

There is something larger and more beautiful to gain when we find ways to live and work with our Catholic, Baptist, Methodist, and yes Unitarian; even among our agnostic and atheist brothers and sisters.

Our denominational trappings – our vestments, creeds, liturgy, doctrine, and “way of life,” do not have to become millstones blocks.  But they can become mill stones, if we let them; especially if we find ourselves hiding behind them.  Here is a question that we might ask ourselves,

“How is my life as a {Democratic/Republican/Independent} Episcopalian Christian bringing others to know Christ?”  Where is my millstone we might ask ourselves today?

Am I simply “going about,” or am I on the mission of the Good Shepherd, the Carpenter, the Christ by “going about and doing good?” 

 I believe that Jesus was teaching his disciples about just how large God’s vision might be; certainly larger than their own.

One of the greats in our own Anglican neighborhood was Archbishop William Temple. 

 “The Church is the only society that exists for the benefit of those who are not yet its members.

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