Look for the Commonality, Pentecost 19 (B) – September 30, 2018

Proper 21

Pentecost Episcopal Sermon


[RCL]: Esther 7:1-6, 9-10, 9:20-22; Psalm 124; James 5:13-20; Mark 9:38-50

In today’s gospel, we hear the intriguing story of Jesus’ disciples trying to stop a man who had been casting out demons in Jesus’ name. They seem to have become especially upset because the offender was not one of them. In the eyes of the disciples, he was not part of the inner circle, and he was acting differently from what they considered to be the norm.

As soon as Jesus heard about it, he turned the tables on his closest followers and rebuked their blind, unbending exclusiveness. He told them not to stop the man, because whatever good is done in Jesus’ name would put him in a situation of not speaking evil of the Lord. And tellingly, Jesus concluded, “Whoever is not against us is for us.”

Jesus made it clear that he and his disciples were not a little clique, working in a corner of life, fenced off from others. His world view, his God’s-eye view, made him well aware that God’s actions are not limited to the forms with which his disciples were familiar.

What is the lesson in this for us? Don’t Jesus’ words ring true as a rebuke of our often blind and unbending exclusiveness, our arrogant assumptions that God’s action among us is limited to forms with which we are most comfortable and most familiar?

What Jesus taught his disciples is equally a lesson for us. Christians cannot fence themselves off from others who have different ways of following Jesus and of finding God. The one who is not against us is for us. The one who is not against Jesus is on the side of Christ.

In this, our Lord gives us a model for a broader view. There is an issue of tolerance. Doesn’t Jesus’ message to the disciples help us stop short when we fall into the all too common trap of thinking in terms of “us” and “them” – seeing life only from the perspective of our own groups?

Intolerance of the other is certainly an attitude that Jesus rejected in today’s gospel reading. Possibly, he realized that the disciples considered the man casting out demons as a threat to their inner-circle status. He was an outsider, so they tried to stop him. Jesus rejected this by making it clear that only in a more narrow sense can one be an outsider.

What was true for the disciples has been true throughout history. The world and the church have fought for centuries in such a fence-building frenzy. The stories of the past schisms and divisions are legion. And living out the tendencies of the same human nature, we still act this way in our time, don’t we?

Standing against this, Jesus’ words remind us that Christianity is not the preserve of a privileged few. He reminds us that no one seeking to do the Lord’s work is an outsider. He reminds us to welcome all people who are willing to join the journey, following our Lord. Over and over again, Jesus’ words remind us to be including – not excluding. Over and over again, Jesus’ words rebuke us when we turn against others because they are different. Over and over again, the life Jesus lived and the way he taught his first disciples remind us of the scandal of our divisions.

There is another side to this, of course. Sometimes, conscience and practicality dictate that we separate ourselves from others, but the message here, at the very least, is not to do so lightly – not to draw a line in the sand except as a last resort. Jesus helps us work against the subtle temptation to think that “for me to be right, anyone who disagrees with me must be wrong.”

Jesus seems to be telling the disciples something like this: “Look for the commonality. Recognize that there are many among you who might work or think differently, but don’t jump to the conclusion that that makes them against you – or against me.”

He warns us against simplistic solutions to complex problems. He causes us to see that truth is always bigger than any one person’s, or any one group’s grasp of it. Jesus cautions us against inflexibility of thought or deed. He helps us embrace tolerance of a variety of actions and viewpoints. He helps us re-learn what is so easy to forget: that diversity is not only good; it is absolutely essential for the health of the Body of Christ.

Today’s gospel reinforces a belief that what we need in the church is less “either/or” and more “both/and.”

Where do we find commonality? Why not begin by looking to our earliest roots? Those who can declare that “Jesus is Lord” are not against us, and therefore are for us, and for Christ. Those who can follow the steps of Jesus, taking up their crosses and denying themselves for the sake of God and God’s children are not against us, and therefore are for us, and for Christ.

The story of today’s gospel is about the disciples’ attempt to draw a circle around Jesus and themselves – shutting out the one who was casting out demons in Jesus’ name. Perhaps a concise, powerful poem by Edwin Markham can help us remember that Jesus ordered the disciples not to exclude that man and to recall that those who are not against us are for us.

In his poem “Outwitted,” Edwin Markham writes:

“He drew a circle that shut me out –
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But Love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle that took him in.”

This sermon, written by the Rev. Ken Kesselus, originally ran September 27, 2009.

Download the sermon for Pentecost 19 (B).

Bible Study: Proper 21(B), September 27, 2015

(RCL) Esther 7: 1-6, 9-10, 9:20-22; Psalm 124, James 5:13-20; Mark 9:38-50

 “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.” (Mark 9: 40-41)

Esther 7:1-6, 9-10; 9:20-22

One of the most joyous occasions in the Jewish calendar is the festival of Purim, when the Jewish people remember the story of Esther. Esther is one of many stories where the Jewish people faced a mortal threat, yet were delivered by God through a chosen emissary who would thwart the powers that threatened their lives. In this story, Queen Esther is that emissary.

Out of resentment toward Mordacai (Esther’s cousin and adopted father), Haman (the chief minister of the Persian king) convinces King Ahasuerus to order the genocide of the Jewish people. The origin of Haman’s evil desire is pride, as he resents Mordacai for not bowing before him outside of the palace gate.

Mordacai tasks Esther (Ahasuerus’s new queen) to convince the king to delay this order and to spare the Jewish people. Although Esther is anxious about this task she sets out to complete it, and this is where our reading begins. In the end Haman is hung from his own gallows and the Jewish people are spared from attempted genocide.

To this day, Jewish people around the world celebrate God’s deliverance as told through this story with costumed festivity, food and wine, the giving of alms, exchanging gifts, reading the story of Esther, and offering prayers of thanksgiving to God. I once heard this and many other Jewish holidays that commemorate their history in biblical tradition this way: “They tried to kill us, we won, let’s eat!”

  • In what ways do we commemorate the saving works of God?
  • How can we, beyond celebration of the Holy Eucharist, joyously celebrate some of the beloved stories from scripture that have become important to our tradition?
  • How does the story of Esther speak to you?
  • What tasks have you been anxious about and how has God strengthened you to perform them?
Psalm 124

This psalm is appropriate for following a reading from Esther. With beautiful poetry that likely was used liturgically as a call and response prayer, perhaps with some liturgical drama, this psalm praises God for always standing with God’s chosen people through hardship. This psalm acknowledges that we can do little without God’s grace; that without God, the people of Israel would have been defeated by their enemies. But because God is good and remains with the chosen people, they have been delivered from destruction. While it is possible that this psalm is post-exilic, this language suggests that the psalm may have been written prior to the exile, as psalms written during the Babylonian captivity are often psalms of lament and post-exilic psalms, while giving thanks to God for deliverance, do not share the same triumphalism that is expressed in Psalm 124.

  • What hardships has God gotten you through?
  • How have you noticed God’s presence with you in the midst of challenges or conflicts?
  • How do you give thanks to God for remaining with you through the good times and the bad?
James 5:13-20

In this portion of his letter, James writes about the goodness of God experienced through the power of prayer. Those who suffer should pray, those who are cheerful should praise God, those who are sick should have the community of the faithful pray for them while anointing them and laying hands of healing upon them. Through all this God will hear and answer their prayers in God’s own way with holy wisdom. James says that the prayers of the righteous are both powerful and effective; they work. God hears us and responds. But sometimes it might not be the response that we expect.

  • How do we deal with unexpected answers to our prayers?
  • Does that challenge our faith or make us more aware of the mystery of God?
  • We know that God’s ways are not our ways. How do we bring that knowledge into our prayer life?
  • How can these experiences develop wisdom?
Mark 9:38-50

“Whoever is not against us is for us.” The Gospel admonishes us not to set up stumbling blocks in another’s path to God. This is the well-known, macabre-sounding reading about amputating our hands and plucking out our eyes when they cause us to sin. Of course one way to interpret this is as a metaphor for eliminating behaviors and practices from our lives that lead us toward sin. When a novice brother or sister in Anacmhara Fellowship, one of the Episcopal Church’s new dispersed monastic communities, is being clothed in his or her Habit, the aspiring novice as asked to prepare a list of distractions, habits, and behaviors from their past life that he or she wishes to leave behind when entering the new life as a religious. These are behaviors or practices that inhibit us from living most fully in relationship with God, others, and ourselves.

  • What behaviors or practices do you wish to leave behind today?
  • What are some stumbling blocks you have run into – either those that have been set up by others or those that you have set up in the way of others?
  • How do you live into Jesus’ statement that whoever is not against us is for us?

Download the Proper 21(B) Bible Study

 

Written by Brother Paul Castelli from Bexley-Seabury Seminary.

Paul is from the Diocese of Michigan, is a senior M.Div student at Bexley-Seabury, and is working on an STM at Trinity Lutheran Seminary. As a vowed brother of Anamchara Fellowship, one of the Episcopal Church’s dispersed monastic communities, Paul serves as the prior of the Columba Priory in Ohio.

 

Careful Seasoning, Proper 21(B) – 2015

(RCL) Esther 7:1-6,9-10; 9:20-22; Psalm 124; James 5:13-20; Mark 9:38-50

Lest you think you’ve inadvertently stumbled onto yet another cable television cooking show, remember that Jesus himself brought it up: salt.

Salt is essential to human life. The National Academies of Science recommend that each of us, on average, take in about 2400 milligrams of sodium daily. That’s about eight-hundredths of an ounce, or roughly a teaspoonful.

If you eat a whole lot less than that, your cellular electrolytes may become unbalanced, resulting in an increased risk of heart attack, stroke, and cardiovascular disease. Yes, that’s right—for most people, low sodium intake is dangerous.

And if you consume a lot more than the average, you can take on extra weight or become at risk for high blood pressure. Excess sodium can also be toxic. So, high sodium intake is also dangerous.

So—salt is essential to human life, but having either too little or too much is fraught with risk to our health, safety, and even survival. Hey, maybe this is about cooking, after all: too much salt, and the dish is ruined; too little salt, and the dish is tasteless.

Jesus’ metaphoric use of salt deserves some deconstructive analysis. It’s a complex metaphor. You’ve heard the old expression, “He’s the salt of the earth,” right? That indicates that someone is dependable, decent, and trustworthy. Jesus uses that very expression in the Sermon on the Mount—“You are the salt of the earth.”

Yet salting the earth is a destructive thing. This was the “scorched earth” tactic of warfare before Agent Orange was devised. According to the Book of Judges (9:45), Abimelech sowed his own capital of Shechem with salt after quelling a revolt. He killed all the people, razed all the buildings, and then salted all the fields—assuring that no one would forget who was the boss.

Salt, you see, is itself neither good nor evil—but it can be used for good or for evil, to sustain life or to prevent it, to regulate the body’s electrolytes or to induce a stroke.

You can take something with a grain of salt, thereby making it more palatable; or you can rub salt into a wound, thereby increasing the pain.

Add to this that in the Roman Army, salt was a regular part of a soldier’s compensation. If a solider was “worth his salt,” if he had performed well, he’d be paid accordingly. And, before refrigeration and freeze-drying and chemical stabilizers, salt was the best preservative known to humankind.

Salt is so powerful a symbol that Mahatma Ghandi was able to use it to topple the British colonial rule of India. In 1930, the British levied a tax on salt, as they had a monopoly on the salt trade. Ghandi decided to walk some 240 miles to the sea coast, a journey lasting 23 days. And the procession following him grew until it was 200 miles long. Upon reaching the ocean, Gandhi raised a lump of mud and salt and declared, “With this, I am shaking the foundations of the British Empire.” He then boiled it in seawater to make the commodity which no Indian could legally produce—salt. Historians consider this event a turning point in the movement for the independence of India, something that was not finally achieved until 1947.

Something remarkably similar happened with tea in Boston harbor, you may remember—a turning point in the movement for American independence.

The British in 1930, it seems, had very little appreciation for their own history, and thus were destined to repeat it. And, they did not understand the importance of salt.

Jesus, of course, does not underestimate the power of figures of speech, or images, or allegories. And so his discourse on salt is just jam packed with meaning, and nuance, and symbolic value.

And, although many paths present themselves, there’s just one particular direction for us to go with this sodium-soaked sermon: a discussion of religion in contemporary society.

We are all familiar with over-salted religious organizations and sects—radical fundamentalists, extremist ideologues, that sort of thing. You can almost feel the severely high blood pressure in the veins of most television evangelists, can’t you? This kind of religion clearly suffers from a surplus of salt, for when their bodies naturally try to expel the excess, they try to rub the salt in other people’s wounds. As if to punish people for being wounded.

This kind of religion is very dangerous—and it is always focused on demeaning and degrading others, because they are not living up to some fictive standard of behavior. I call their standards fictive, because they are always based on human interpretation, not true divine inspiration. Women must obey their husbands, men should not sleep with men, men must not marry the daughter of a foreign God—all these are abominations in the sight of God; that’s what our holy Scripture tells us.

And these folks, who are condemning these few things as Holy Writ, go off and eat their shellfish, or shed innocent blood, or sow discord in a family, or tell lies, or dig into that delicious pork tenderloin (or any meat that was killed more than three days ago)—and, you know what? All these are abominations, too.

This is the danger of over-salting religion. While we see more and more of it around us, fortunately we Anglicans are more delicate in our seasoning. We’re too careful in the crafting of our language, too shy for emotive outbursts, too reticent in our outward expression. And don’t get this wrong: these are all good things! We rarely suffer from too much salt.

But we more often risk the other danger—too little salt in our religion.

For this, there is inspiration not from the Holy Spirit, at least not directly, but from J. Edwin Bacon, Jr., the Rector of All Saints Church in Pasadena, California.

In a sermon, Father Bacon expresses concern that the preaching from pulpits in this country has become too neutral—less salty, if you will. And, as a result, religion becomes more and more of a problem. “Jesus proclaimed that religion too frequently is not a part of the solution. Too often is not only a part of the problem. It is the problem.” Like salt that has lost its flavor.

The Revelation to St. John (chapter 3)—quoting Father Bacon again—“speaks of the Church … that had become so bland, so ineffectual, so callous to human suffering, so cowering before the saber-rattling of the empire of the day, so lukewarm, neither hot nor cold, that God said, ‘I will spew you out of my mouth.’ That is exactly what happens to churches and other faith communities that do not stand up, speak up, and act up when human beings are not treated with the dignity and honor due those who bear the image of God.”

It’s easy to see the over-salted religious zealots and say, “That’s not us!” But what of the diet of bland spirituality served at so many altars?

Salt is essential to human life, but having either too little or too much is fraught with risk to our health, safety, and even survival.

Finding the balance is a life-long journey. It includes taking risks, being willing to allow failure, making mistakes, and trying new things. And it includes turning around, going back to what works, avoiding hazards, and steering clear of danger.

It’s a never-ending, constantly changing, and life-consuming crusade. And the only way any of us has even a glimmer of a chance of success is because God’s wills it so.

Here, among the faithful, we find the strength to persevere. Here, among the faithful, we heed the warnings to avoid pitfalls we might otherwise suffer. And, here, among the faithful, we find the motivation to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God.

So, here we are, friends:

  • A place where we have never put too much salt on our liturgy.
  • A place where you do not need to check your conscience at the door.
  • A place where our worship can serve to transform the people of God, empowering us to daring action on behalf of the oppressed.
  • A place where every part of you is welcome, and every hurt can be healed.
  • A place where salt is used liberally—but not to excess.

It is here, in the carefully seasoned assembly of the faithful, that we will find the strength, the wisdom, and the inspiration to use the gifts God has given us to transform ourselves and the world around us for good. Amen.

Download the sermon for Proper 21B.

Written by The Rev. Dr. Barrie Bates who is interim rector of St. Peter’s Church, Essex Fells, New Jersey. He welcomes your comments, questions, and challenges (revdocbates@gmail.com).

 

Salted with fire, 18 Pentecost, Proper 21 (B) – September 30, 2012

Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29; Psalm 19:7-14; James 5:13-20; Mark 9:38-50

What starts out with the disciples trying to score points with Jesus for stopping someone who is doing the work of the kingdom – healing and casting out demons – ends with Jesus telling us all to be salted with fire! In between there is all this talk of stumbling around and lopping off limbs, tearing out eyeballs and being thrown into “hell”: all in all, a fun day with Jesus on the road to Jerusalem.

This is all a part of a longer section of Mark’s gospel concerned with discipleship – faithful discipleship. That is, What is expected of those of us who would call ourselves Christians? This really is a question about what it means to be human. We are to be spiced up, healed and purified by fire and salt. Oh yeah, and stop stumbling around.

Fire in the ancient world was used to purify things. Still is. Get rid of that deadly E. coli bacteria with fire, lots of fire. Just as we were all eating our spinach fresh and loving rare hamburgers, now we are told to boil the spinach to death and go back to well-done burgers.

Which bring us to salt. Salt was used to preserve foods, extend shelf life if you will. It was also used to spice things up. And finally, salt was used medicinally.

Altogether these sayings on fire and salt suggest several things. Healing within the community of Christ is necessary to be a disciple of Jesus – especially healing that is reconciliation rather than division and challenging one another’s credentials. (We might note the vast difference in meaning between Jesus’ “Whoever is not against us is for us,” and the more popular, “You are either with us or against us.”) Further, the salt that flavors us distinctively as Christ’s own people is meant to keep us from blending in with the surrounding culture. This distinctiveness implies eliminating – lopping off – those things that cause us to stumble (skandalon in Greek) – things that get in the way of being good and faithful disciples so that we can all do the work of the gospel. The contribution of Christians to the health of the world depends on our own wholesomeness. The life of the world depends on us.

Another metaphor for all of this might be pruning. We need to prune away those things that block us from following Jesus and fulfilling our Baptismal Covenant so that we can grow in those ways that make us more human. The Christian life is a life of following and pruning – pruning and following. This pruning is not so much for our sake as for the sake of the gospel.

Most of what needs to be pruned away is a modern world that teaches self-centeredness and self-reliance,  independence, as the key to the fullness of life. Whereas Jesus calls us to be those people who dare to say that the secret of life – and death – is giving oneself away: reaching out to others, to the world and to God. It is a call to a radical dependence on God. God has gifted us with himself – the Word became flesh and dwelt among us – and if we wish to achieve fulfillment, we, too, must give ourselves away. Moral progress comes only as we learn to acknowledge life as a gift – not earned or achieved – but given.

To be wrapped up in ourselves, self-centered and autonomous, says Jesus, quite simply is hell. In the text, the word is actually “Gehenna” – which is a place. Gehenna is a valley outside Jerusalem, which to this very day is a burning, worm-infested garbage dump. It also used to be the site for human sacrifices to the god Molech. There is always fire smoldering in this valley, and over time it became a geographic metaphor for what happens to those people who have little regard for others, the environment, and the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Jesus.

It is interesting to note that Gehenna is a product of our own creation. People go to the edge of a cliff and toss all their personal refuse over the cliff. We are guilty of this – dumping our personal stuff on others, on the earth and on God. This dumping is sin. Sin, says our Baptismal service, is those things that corrupt and destroy the creatures of God, including God’s creation.

Sin is related to temptation. So, when gas is cheaper we think we can go back to pouring even more pollution into the earth’s atmosphere and pay less for the privilege. Hell, it turns out, is of our own creation and is determined in the here and now. Hell is not some future destination. We manufacture hell every day for those who are hungry, those who have no health insurance, those who suffer from disease fostered by toxic pollution, and with our the capability of nuclear arms to destroy this planet.

And hell is not a condition that affects just the individual; hell exists collectively in human society as well. Hell is the drive toward self-reliance, self-autonomy, whether of individuals, communities, churches, governments or nations. The Anglican priest and poet John Donne said it best some 360 years ago: “No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.”

So, the answer to the question, Why is Jesus talking about hell and cutting off limbs and plucking out eyes? To impress upon us the importance that what we are doing right here and now matters. That all that we do and all that we say has eternal consequences.

We can choose to create hell, or to become purified by fire and seasoned with the salt of Jesus. We can squabble over who is the greatest and who can or cannot heal and cast out demons, or we can welcome everyone who does the work of Christ who has already redeemed the whole world on the cross. We can be those people who hold on to all we have, or become those people who give ourselves away. We do this not for our sake but for the sake of the gospel, for others and the world.

We do this to become people of fire and salt. As we read in today’s gospel, “Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.”

 

— The Rev. Kirk Alan Kubicek has served as rector and assistant in a broad variety of parishes over the past 28 years. He is currently chaplain and teaches at St. Timothy’s School for girls, the diocesan girls’ boarding school in the Diocese of Maryland, where he teaches World Religions and IB English. His sermons are archived at www.perechief.blogspot.com.

Look for the commonality, 17 Pentecost, Proper 21 (B) – 2009

September 27, 2009

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

In today’s gospel, we hear the intriguing story of Jesus’ disciples trying to stop a man who had been casting out demons in Jesus’ name. They seem to have become especially upset because the offender was not one of them. In the eyes of the disciples, he was not part of the inner circle, and he was acting differently from what they considered to be the norm.

As soon as Jesus heard about it, he turned the tables on his closest followers and rebuked their blind, unbending exclusiveness. He told them not to stop the man, because whatever good is done in Jesus’ name would put him in a situation of not speaking evil of the Lord. And tellingly, Jesus concluded, “Whoever is not against us is for us.”

Jesus made it clear that he and his disciples were not a little clique, working in a corner of life, fenced off from others. His world view, his God’s-eye view, made him well aware that God’s actions are not limited to the forms with which his disciples were familiar.

What is the lesson in this for us? Don’t Jesus’ words ring true as a rebuke of our often blind and unbending exclusiveness, our arrogant assumptions that God’s action among us is limited to forms with which we are most comfortable and most familiar?

What Jesus taught his disciples is equally a lesson for us. Christians cannot fence themselves off from others who have different ways of following Jesus and of finding God. The one who is not against us is for us. The one who is not against Jesus is on the side of Christ.

In this, our Lord gives us a model for a broader view. There is an issue of tolerance. Doesn’t Jesus’ message to the disciples help us stop short when we fall into the all too common trap of thinking in terms of “us” and “them” – seeing life only from the perspective of our own groups?

Intolerance of the other is certainly an attitude that Jesus rejected in today’s gospel reading. Possibly, he realized that the disciples considered the man casting out demons as a threat to their inner-circle status. He was an outsider, so they tried to stop him. Jesus rejected this by making it clear that only in a more narrow sense can one be an outsider.

What was true for the disciples has been true throughout history. The world and the church have fought for centuries in such a fence-building frenzy. The stories of the past schisms and divisions are legion. And living out the tendencies of the same human nature, we still act this way in our time, don’t we?

Standing against this, Jesus’ words remind us that Christianity is not the preserve of a privileged few. He reminds us that no one seeking to do the Lord’s work is an outsider. He reminds us to welcome all people who are willing to join the journey, following our Lord. Over and over again, Jesus’ words remind us to be including – not excluding. Over and over again, Jesus’ words rebuke us when we turn against others because they are different. Over and over again, the life Jesus lived and the way he taught his first disciples remind us of the scandal of our divisions.

There is another side to this, of course. Sometimes, conscience and practicality dictate that we separate ourselves from others, but the message here, at the very least, is not to do so lightly – not to draw a line in the sand except as a last resort. Jesus helps us work against the subtle temptation to think that “for me to be right, anyone who disagrees with me must be wrong.”

Jesus seems to be telling the disciples something like this: “Look for the commonality. Recognize that there are many among you who might work or think differently, but don’t jump to the conclusion that that makes them against you – or against me.”

He warns us against simplistic solutions to complex problems. He causes us to see that truth is always bigger than any one person’s, or any one group’s grasp of it. Jesus cautions us against inflexibility of thought or deed. He helps us embrace tolerance of a variety of actions and viewpoints. He helps us re-learn what is so easy to forget: that diversity is not only good; it is absolutely essential for the health of the Body of Christ.

Today’s gospel reinforces a belief that what we need in the church is less “either/or” and more “both/and.”

Where do we find commonality? Why not begin by looking to our earliest roots? Those who can declare that “Jesus is Lord” are not against us, and therefore are for us, and for Christ. Those who can follow the steps of Jesus, taking up their crosses and denying themselves for the sake of God and God’s children are not against us, and therefore are for us, and for Christ.

The story of today’s gospel is about the disciples’ attempt to draw a circle around Jesus and themselves – shutting out the one who was casting out demons in Jesus’ name. Perhaps a concise, powerful poem by Edwin Markham can help us remember that Jesus ordered the disciples not to exclude that man and to recall that those who are not against us are for us.

In his poem “Outwitted,” Edwin Markham writes:

“He drew a circle that shut me out –
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But Love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle that took him in.”

― The Rev. Ken Kesselus, author of John E. Hines: Granite on Fire (Episcopal Theological Seminary of the Southwest, 1995), is retired from full-time, active ministry and lives with his wife, Toni, in his native home, Bastrop, Texas.

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.