A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church
A new church for a new day, in Fremont,
on Sunday, September 30, 2012, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scripture:  Mark 9:38-41 and James 5:13-20
Copyright © 2012 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

            We walked back down the dirt road we’d driven up to get to the cabin, but before we got to the base of the hill, we turned right and went up an old logging road, long since abandoned.  It wasn’t long before we came to a large meadow, if that’s the right word for an open space covered with low, wild blueberry bushes.  We cut across, no longer on any trail, until we were back into the woods, then we turned left and started uphill again.

            I was probably 7 or 8 years old and it seemed like we had already hike far, but we were maybe a third of the way to the top of Mount William (there really is a Mount William; my made-up home town that I sometimes preach about is named for it).  When we finally got to the top, I felt like we had really accomplished something.  I don’t know if my father could see it in my eyes or if he felt like we had really accomplished something, too.  For whatever his reasons, he told me and my older siblings to collect rocks to build a cairn.

“What’s a cairn?” I asked.

“A pile of rocks,” my dad explained.

So we piled up the rocks, chunks of granite ranging in size from my small fist to rocks my brother and I had to carry together, on the spot that my father reckoned was the highest point on Mount William, a memorial to our adventure in the wilderness and our accomplishment.

Ever since this experience, cairns have been important to me.  I know they can be found around the globe.[1]  They are found on almost every sort of terrain – on mountains (like the one my family built) to moors to barren deserts and tundra to waterways and sea cliffs.  They can vary in size from small stone markers to entire artificial hills.  They can be a loose, conical rock piles to delicately balanced sculptures to elaborate feats of engineering.  They can be painted or otherwise decorated, or left in their natural state.

Cairns are used for many purposes and have significance in many cultures.  Some are used to mark a site or a path.  They can mark physical boundaries.  They can have ceremonial or religious purposes.  They can be burial sites.  They can mark events.  In Genesis, there are instances when the patriarchs build stone altars and monuments to mark experiences and to act as witnesses.

Last weekend, we showed the movie “The Way.”  The basic plot line is that Tom, “an irascible American doctor,”[2] comes to France to pick up the body of his son who died in a freak accident as he began walking the “Way of Saint James,” the path of an ancient Christian pilgrimage from the Pyrenees to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in northwestern Spain, where tradition says the remains of the apostle Saint James are buried.  Rather than immediately return home, Tom decides to embark on the historical pilgrimage to honor his son’s desire to take the journey.  What Tom doesn’t plan on is the profound impact this trip will have on him.

Early in the movie, when Tom decides to take the journey, he is handed a rock by the police captain who has helped him deal with the French bureaucracy after his son’s death.  The police captain tells Tom that he will know what to do with the rock when he gets to a certain place along The Way.  I knew in that moment that I would be seeing a cairn and I looked forward to seeing how this character would react to adding his stone to a pile made by other pilgrims over the centuries.

Reactions to experiences can tell us a lot about personalities.  The disciples have an interesting reaction to someone who offers help.  Immediately before the incident we heard read today, the disciples failed to heal a boy with epilepsy.  Then the disciples argue over who is the greatest among them – especially amusing since we just found out they were failures.  Then we get to today’s episode:  the disciple John complains to Jesus about someone being successful in a healing.  “Jesus, he was healing someone in your name, but we told him to stop because he’s not one of us, he’s not part of our group.”

What tone of voice do you hear in Jesus’ response?  Maybe there’s exasperation:  “Geez, you guys.  So he was helping someone in my name.  Like after he’s successful in helping someone in my name he’s going to turn around and bad mouth me.”  Then he says something that runs counter to conventional wisdom:  “Whoever is not against us is for us.”

We’ve heard presidents tell us the opposite:  If you’re not our ally, you’re our enemy.  Whoever isn’t for us is against us.  It sometimes seems like the common air we breathe teaches us to treat everyone with suspicion until they prove themselves to be trustworthy.  But here, Jesus says, “Whoever is not against us is for us.”

I suppose having a desire to limit the work of God to our hands, our church, or our faith is nothing new.  But Jesus rejects egoism and territorialism from the very beginning.  We need to remember that God’s prophets will not always speak our language, pray our prayers, or look like us.

Jews recognize that God has worked in a group of non-Jews, a group they call “Righteous Gentiles.”  These are people who defended Jews during the European holocaust.  Elie Wiesel once said of them, “Most who cared were simple people who didn’t even know what they were doing was courageous.…  They did it because it was the [human] thing to do.  And I felt then, woe to our society if to be human becomes an heroic act.”[3]

Jesus understood how much it takes to be a full human being.  He saw the need to affirm what was “good” outside his band of disciples and to cut out what was “bad” inside it.  The advice we hear in the Epistle of James echoes with this idea in its call for us to confession our sin to one another and to pray for each other.

When I started thinking about today’s sermon some six weeks ago, I thought I would be talking about how it is important for us, a congregation of Progressive Christians, to recognize that Christians who are not progressive can still be doing the work of Jesus.  And I thought I’d talk about how we need to recognize that the work of Jesus, the work of loving our neighbors as ourselves, is sometimes being carried out by non-Christians as well.

“The number and variety of communities that work in Jesus’ name reveals that there are infinite ways to live and proclaim the good news.  Diversity in itself is not a problem, as Jesus explains – the danger arises when any one of those communities professes to be the only true church and exclusive bearer of salvation.”[4]

But as I’ve sat with this scripture over the past week, I realized that there is a lesson here for me that is much closer to home, a lesson that has to do with the great transition we are going through with the completing of the formation of Niles Discovery Church.

Katelyn was a 16-year-old who teenage years weren’t going so well.  In addition to the typical angst of being a teenager, she had problems with her stay-at-home father and her high-powered, professional, accomplished mother.  She had made some poor choices in her personal and academic lives.  Things weren’t going as well as her parents thought they should be, and in all honesty, I agreed with them.  She seemed to me to be a bit depressed and certainly needed a fresh start.

She had made it through the yearlong Confirmation Class and it was time to make decisions about baptisms and confirmation.  I thought she might appreciate the symbolism of baptism – being dunked under the water, being buried with Christ, and rising to new life, a fresh start, the past washed clean.  She thoroughly rejected that idea.  She said she didn’t want to wash away her past because her past made her who she was.

What she didn’t understand, and what I failed to explain, is that a fresh start need not be a rejection of the past.  It is possible to have a new beginning even as we carry our past into that new thing.  If we divorce ourselves completely from our pasts, we will fail.  Divided, we will fall.

As we unite together as Niles Discovery Church, as we embrace this communal fresh start, we do so as people who come from our pasts.  I realize that’s obvious, but I think I need to say it.  We come together as people who have walked our journeys, who have had our experiences on “the way.”  For many of us, important parts of those journeys have been as part of First Christian Church of Fremont and as part of Niles Congregational Church.  For others, there have been other communities of faith – some that aren’t Christian – that have formed us.

At the beginning of worship, you were each given a stone.  You may have figured out that I am going to invite us to build a cairn here, today.  My thought is that your stone can represent a faith community that has been an important part of your journey, that has helped form you and helped you get to this moment in the journey.  Some of you may want to write something on your stone – a symbol or a word – to somehow mark it, and there are baskets of Sharpies in each room so you can do that.  I’ve asked Jenny to play a little music so we have time to consider what community our rock represents and to write on it if we wish to.

Then, Judy will begin our communion liturgy.  Because we are receiving communion by intinction, we will be coming forward.  I realize it may cause a bit of a traffic jam, but I invite you to bring your rock with you and for us to build our cairn on the Erikson Table in the Guild Room.

It will stand there for a while.  People who are not here today will be able to add to it over the coming weeks.  And at some point, it will move over to 36600 Niles Blvd. – either to be come the foundation on which the foundation of our addition is built, or as a cairn in the memorial garden, or in some other way.

Let this cairn mark who we are as we more fully become Niles Discovery Church.


[1] “Cairn,” Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cairn (30 September 2012).

[2] About the film, The Way, http://www.theway-themovie.com/film.php (30 September 2012).

[3] Quoted in Peter B. Prince, “For … or Against,” Sojourners, http://archive.sojo.net/index.cfm?action=resources.sermon_prep&item=LTW_970949_BProper21&week=B_Proper_21 (30 September 2012).

[4] Michaela Bruzzese, “Divided We Fall,” Sojourners, http://archive.sojo.net/index.cfm?action=resources.sermon_prep&item=LTW_090949_BProper21&week=B_Proper_21 (30 September 2012).