We must begin within, 17 Pentecost, Proper 21 (B) – 2006

October 1, 2006

(RCL) Esther 7:1-6, 9-10; 9:20-22 or Numbers 11:4-6,10-16, 24-29; Psalm 124 or 19:7-14; James 5:13-20; Mark 9:38-50 

“No one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me”  (Mark 9:40).

You may be familiar with an outfit called the Church Ad Project. Started some years ago by a dynamic Episcopal priest with an interest in evangelism and church marketing, it got some of the best brains in the advertising world together to donate their time and talent to produce catchy, if somewhat offbeat, ads for the Church.

One such ad – a favorite – highlights the Episcopal Church’s acceptance of women in the ordained ministry. Above a photograph of a very traditional-looking altar reads the caption “Where Women Stand in the Episcopal Church.” The message is clear and simple. Women have indeed been accorded their full and equal share in the grace and responsibilities of ordained ministry in our Church. Some are now even serving as bishops, including our newly elected presiding bishop.

Perhaps this popular ad or poster could be revised from time to time to highlight where others stand in the Church. Pick a marginalized or out-of-favor group, and somewhere in the Episcopal Church you will find them accepted and fully integrated into the life of their local worshipping community. That is where they stand in the Episcopal Church. Our Church has tackled some of the toughest issues of our time in order to make all people feel welcome in its ranks. After all, “The Episcopal Church Welcomes You!” has been our motto for many years. No matter who “you” may be.

In today’s Gospel account, the disciples come to the Lord troubled about someone, an outsider without standing in their community, acting in his name to cast out demons. Scripture does not record who this someone was, so we can only speculate. It may have been a religious zealot with his own agenda. It could have been a genuine believer not yet fully integrated into the circle of Jesus’ disciples. It may have been an imposter or fraud. We will never know for sure. But the disciples certainly do not put out the welcome sign for him. Like overeager corporate attorneys defending their company’s trademarks in the marketplace, they act quickly to protect their exclusive franchise on the use of Jesus’ name and authority. They want this outsider stopped. And they take the matter right to the top, confident that Jesus will get the point and lower the boom.

It does not work out that way. Jesus is not concerned that others are acting in his name. He probably knows that his world – just like ours today – has more than its fair share of evil spirits: war, violence, hatred of those who are different, and greed, to name but a few. Casting out such demons – no matter who is doing it – is bound to be a good thing. “No one who does a deed of power in my name,” Jesus tells his anxious disciples, “will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me.” He reminds them, and us, of what should be an obvious truth: “Whoever is not against us is for us.”

Jesus’ tolerance for those not of his following is astonishing for his troubled times. But it is more than just tolerance. Jesus does not simply put up with those who do not belong to his circle, as if they were an annoying but harmless irritant, like summer bugs at a picnic. He welcomes them. They are the disciples to come. Those who do not now belong will soon enough have a full share in the reward of the very kingdom he has come to proclaim. Whoever bears “the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward,” says Jesus. All are welcome to work wonders in his name. Casting out demons is not the personal prerogative of the disciples. It is the challenge for all.

Our world is scarcely less fearful and frightening than that in which our Lord lived so long ago. People are still afraid of those who do not belong, of the exile and refugee, no matter what “deeds of power” they may demonstrate. We see this played out every day in distant lands and in the corridors of power in our own country. Our prejudices remain a stumbling block to our common life and to world peace. We remain too ready to perceive enemies everywhere at work against us. We are as much as ever in need of Jesus’ reassurance that all will be well. We still need to be reconciled, one to another.

Reconciliation is of course the definitive “deed of power” that drives out the demons and evil spirits of any age. It requires that we see the other in a new and different light – as the neighbor in the next village and as the distant relative who shares our bloodline. Only this kind of change of heart can bring an end to suspicion and bloodshed. But it takes hard work and patience, both of which are in short supply.

Too often, like the people of Israel described in our first reading, we complain when things do not go our way. We want instant answers and immediate gratification. We think back to good times that probably never were. We grumble. God must sometimes be as exasperated with our demands and grievances as he was with those of the ancient Israelites. But the problem is not with God.

As always, the problem is our own fear and lack of trust, our inability as individuals, churches, and societies to live by faith, to be reconciled, to see in the good deeds of others the reflection of the love of our common Father in heaven. Perhaps the Lord needs to send seventy elders into our midst today, as he did among the people of Israel in the wilderness, to prophesy to us and bring once again order to our chaotic lives and compassion to our hardened hearts.

The Lord is still able to cast out demons. The welcome signs in front of our churches are a constant reminder to each of us that no matter who we are or where we come from, we are all capable of unimagined “deeds of power” if we but call upon the Lord’s name as did that someone in our Gospel narrative. That is where we stand in the Church today. There are plenty of demons left in the hearts of each of us. In the name of Jesus, we can cast them out. But we must begin our work with humility and reconciliation. We must begin within. For as the comic-strip character Pogo said decades ago, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”

 

— The Rev. Dr. Frank Hegedus is priest-in-charge of Saint Alban’s Episcopal Church in El Cajon, California. 

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