Lines in the Sand
It was the final hours of the siege of the Alamo. General Santa Anna of the Mexican forces was flying the red flag of “no quarter,” meaning that no prisoners would be taken when the Alamo was captured. All opposition would be killed. On our side of it was Colonel William B. Travis who assembled the men under his command. It had come to the final hour, the final push. All would be determined by what happened next. Colonel Travis stepped out into the sand of the Alamo’s courtyard, drew his sword and, with it, etched a long line in the sand. Then he turned to his men and told them that the only men he wanted to cross that line were those who were willing to face certain death if they failed. According to the history which is told of that day, the legendary Jim Bowie, who was bedridden from a wound he had previously received in the same battle, said to his men, “Gentlemen, I appear to be on the wrong side of the line.” Then he asked them to carry his cot over.
Drawing lines in the sand. It is something which we feel compelled to do as Christians today – especially in a world in which there is so much which is not acceptable. Parents draw lines in the sand for their children. You cannot stay out past (whatever.) You cannot go on this website. As people who understand something of Christian decency we draw lines in the sand: You will not use that kind of language in my presence. I will not laugh at those kinds of jokes. Most of us have lines we draw and most of us are pretty good about keeping on the right side of them.
At first glance, it would seem as if Jesus is reinforcing this kind of Christian moral line-drawing with those difficult words we heard in today’s lesson from Mark: “If your hand causes you to stumble, cut if off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. 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 be thrown into hell. 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…”
Most of us her those words as a clarion line-drawing call to Christian morality. Don’t let your hand do things like stealing. Don’t let your feet take you places you shouldn’t go. Don’t let your eyes look at things they shouldn’t be looking at. Indeed, those are daily morals every Christian ought to live by. But we would be missing a larger point here if we didn’t consider those words in the context of the larger picture. There is another meaning here Jesus is putting across – a message in a different dimension. Let’s go back and consider what led up to this sort of gruesome passage about cutting off body parts.
The disciples had run up to Jesus all excited and out of breath, gushing, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” It was as if the disciples were offended because they hadn’t given anyone else permission to do good things in Jesus’ name. They hadn’t licensed anyone else. In their eyes, the organizational chart was clear. Jesus at the top. The 12 disciples next. And below them any that the disciples interviewed, hired, and trained. This was the box in which they thought. In their way of thinking, there wasn’t room for anyone outside the box – even if they were teaching, preaching, and healing in the name of Jesus. There was “the organization” And, if you weren’t part of “the organization” you were on the wrong side of the line!
To this Jesus says, in effect: Don’t draw lines. My kingdom is meant to be INclusive, not EXclusive. He told them not to stop the man who was casting out demons in his name. He said, “Whoever is not against us is for us.” He said, “Even one who shows you hospitality by giving you a cup of water because you are Christian – even that person is doing a Christlike thing.” “Don’t put that person on the wrong side of your line.” Then comes those familiar words about not putting stumbling blocks in front of little ones who believe in him.
What I think he is saying here is: Look, some people grow into their Christianity. Some are just starting out, and may not have the mature understanding (as you do) about what things are about. People who make things difficult for these young and growing Christians ought to have millstones hung around their necks and they should be thrown into the sea.
Now we can approach the amputation passages with a clearer understanding. If there is any part of your community, Jesus is telling them, who makes it difficult for anyone else to come to me or follow me, cut it off. If you hand is drawing a line in the sand, cut it off. All that you do should be done to bring people to me.
And here I think he is driving a hard lesson home for the church. He’s saying, “Here’s a newsflash, folks: It’s not just for Lutherans! Here’s a newsflash folks: It’s not just for people who know and like the traditional liturgy. Here’s a newsflash folks: Loosen up! Be salty people – be people with some seasoning to you. Be creative. Be inclusive.
Our Evangelical Lutheran Church in America has quit drawing one line in the sand and I, myself, am beginning to not only get used to it, but embrace it. Time was, when we sent in our annual report to churchwide, that we would have to take inventory and make an accounting of our membership. In order to be a member, you have to be baptized. So we would count baptized members. In order to be a confirmed member you would, of course, have to be confirmed. In order to be an “active” member by the ELCA definition you would need to have both communed and contributed in the past year. So we would count all these categories and report back. Those were lines in the sand. If you want to be a member you have to be on the right side of the line.
But now, the one question on the form is this: “How many people are active in the life of your congregation?” Now, that let’s us count people who come, but haven’t joined yet. And it lets us NOT count people whose names are on our rolls but who we haven heard from since the first Bush was president. We can count people who maybe aren’t baptized yet. We could even count Jews or Muslims if they were, somehow, active here. “How many people are active in the life of your congregation?”
Oh, our own constitution still draws those membership lines to determine who is or is not allowed to vote on critical matters, but the church at large is interested more in all who worship with us or serve meals with us or study with us. The church at large feels that figure gives them a more accurate picture of a congregation’s health. I tend to agree.
In 2016 our church council made a commitment to a synodical evangelism effort called New Connections. Part of the commitment we made to New Connections was to set a growth goal for ourselves. So, we set a goal of 15 over a three year period. Not 15 members. But to grow by 15 people active in the life of our congregation. We’re not there yet, but I’m happy to report that we gained 9 in the first year. So we are well on our way. I like not having to draw lines in the sand.
Let me close by asking you to help us meet our goal. It takes the pressure off when you don’t need to get people to take a pastor’s class, recite the Small Catechism, or know how many thesis Luther posted on the door of the Castle Church. All you need to do is to invite people to be active with us; in worship, in study, or in serving. They don’t have to have a particular IQ, a particular income, or be of a particular race. We are not drawing lines in the sand.
Text: Mark 9:38-50