A Sermon at Trinity Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York
September 27, 2015 18th Sunday after Pentecost
We saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.
Today’s gospel lesson is a continuation of last week’s gospel. And it’s not just the next scene—it’s part of the same message. Last week we heard about how the disciples were arguing about who among them was the greatest. Jesus teaches them that being the greatest doesn’t matter at all, and he shows them a powerless and neglected child who is the real example of how to welcome God. It’s not about winning, it’s about serving and welcoming.
I can sort of hear the disciples trying to defend themselves: “But Jesus, there was this guy … he was casting out demons. We told him to stop, because … because he wasn’t with us!” Basically, Jesus says, “No.” Not only is it NOT the most powerful and prestigious person who is first in the Kingdom of God, but that Kingdom is not brought by some winning team—even though it’s okay for some people in the Bronx to hope for the Yankees to win the playoffs and play the Mets in the World Series this year. There was this man that they didn’t know who was casting out demons. I have said at other times that I believe that there are indeed demonic forces abroad in this world—those forces of hurt and hate that nobody will take responsibility for. Everyone looks the other way and shakes their head and says, “That’s awful.” But no one sees themselves in those awful things that happen, even though the suffering is human suffering caused by human society. Casting out demons is essential work in healing this world. It is not easy work.
So this man in the Gospel reading was unknown to the disciples, a stranger, and they didn’t trust him—how could he be casting out demons in the name of Jesus? The disciples knew how special Jesus was, and they felt pretty special being his followers. John, one of the inner circle, says that he took it upon himself to put this guy in his place, after all, it was Peter and Andrew and James and John who were called by Jesus, not this exorcist. John looked to his special relationship with Jesus and saw it as a reason to forbid the man from healing.
We live in a world much in need of healing. If God is to heal the conflict in our country and our world, it will take far more than our intelligence, or teaching, or effort or opinions. Salvation of this world will come from more than one team, or one set of interpretations. Prayer is powerful, it changes things and it heals. But it is not just the prayers of one person that God uses, but of all of creation.
Let’s go back and remember the part of this reading that we heard last week, it’s right before this week’s reading in the Gospel of Mark: “Jesus sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, ‘Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.’ Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, ‘Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.’” It is the care and healing of those who are powerless, neglected and ignored that Jesus cares about. He’s still holding the child when he says to the disciples, “If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea.” Gentle Jesus, talking to his friends and followers; not the Pharisees or his rivals. Being a Christian is not about being on the winning team, it is about being humble enough to serve. But when I say humble, I don’t mean looking down at your shoes and doing whatever those that are more confident, powerful or privileged say. Christian humility is having the confidence to stand for the gospel of service, of honest generosity in welcoming Him who came for us and gave his life for us on the cross.
This week, Pope Francis has been in our country, indeed in our city. He has a very big and high-profile job. He does a pretty good job of it and he gets a lot of attention. Anybody in that job would get a lot of attention when traveling around the world, but that’s not important. What he is good at, is modeling Christian humility. On Thursday, he spoke to Congress and challenged them to “Heal the World’s Open Wounds” as the New York Times headline said. To quote the Religion News Service description of the speech:
Francis carefully laid out a vision of political cooperation for the common good — one that highlighted economic injustice as a chief threat to family life, that stressed the moral imperative to care for the environment, that denounced profits “drenched in blood” from the arms industry and that forcefully argued for America to welcome, not reject, immigrants.
So, he spoke some words that needed to be said to those with legislative authority and power in this country and then he went and had lunch with some poor and homeless people. His job and his power are not what is important—what is important is that many can see what we mean by living a life of Christian humility in what the Pope has been doing. I say it this way, because he is not being a special hero, doing things that no one else can do—what Francis is doing is what we should all do: speak the truth humbly and confidently and serve those who this world regards as the least.
We follow Christ. And Jesus is not interested in who is in control—he is interested in the healing of this world. “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. For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.”