Sermon - 18 Pentecost
In the Name...
The story is told of the homeless person who visited a Baptist Church and was given a new suit of clothes to wear. But, he decided it was such a good-looking suit that the next Sunday he went to an Episcopal Church.
Few of us go through life without ever joining, or wanting to join, some kind of group or club. Many people take pride in belonging to a whole range and, for some, the more exclusive the better. In the 1950's, the movie star Victor Mature, known for his leaden romantic leads, applied for membership in a certain country club. When told that actors weren't accepted, he replied, "I'm no actor. Haven't you seen my movies?" Then again, when the comedian Groucho Marx learned that he had been nominated for an even more prestigious society, his famous response was that he'd never belong to any club that would accept the likes of him.
Being in a group, be it religious, political, or social, is a way we meet new people and discover new possibilities for our personal or professional lives. The desire to belong is deeply rooted in the human psyche and important to our identity. Membership is proof of how others accept us and affirming of how we see ourselves. On the other hand, exclusion, rejection, is a clear sign of disapproval and can be devastating to our self-image.
In today's Gospel, the disciples of Jesus are furious to discover a minister who doesn't belong to 'their' club. "Master", John protests, "we saw a man who is not one of us casting out demons in your name." Now, why should they care? What business is it of theirs?
Well, earlier in the chapter, St. Mark describes a scene where a man asks the disciples to heal his sick son. The disciples, however, can't do it and so the man turns to Jesus who, of course, does the deed. Today, the disciples see someone they don't know succeeding where they've failed. Where did he come from? I have no idea. But, they have to put a stop to it.
You see, the disciples feel threatened. Just consider what's been happening to them in this chapter. First, they fail to heal the sick boy and are publicly humiliated. Then, last week, as the argument about who's greatest among them gets to the point where they're barely speaking to each other, Jesus scolds them by saying that little kids have a better attitude to life than they do.
They're not exactly getting a lot of warm fuzzies at this point. But, now, they can suddenly unite around a common enemy. Surely, Jesus would have to agree they're doing the right thing.
Wrong. Jesus commands them to leave the guy alone. "Anyone who is not against us", he says, "is for us."
Our Old Testament lesson portrays a similar scenario. As we heard, Moses chose 70 elders of the community to assist him in providing spiritual leadership. To begin their new ministries, he had them meet him at the Tent of the Ark of the Covenant, which was just outside the main camp. There they would receive, from God, the gift of the Holy Spirit.
Well, the Spirit comes, but for some reason, and we don't know why, maybe they overslept, maybe they had to deal with a last-minute crisis of some sort; two of the chosen 70 were still in the camp. They weren't at the Tent of the Ark with the others. But, God filled them with his Spirit all the same.
And this upset Joshua because this was setting a bad example. People who weren't following the rules were receiving blessings. And what did Moses say? Thanks, Josh, I'll be sure to blast them with a plague. No. Moses told him to cool it. I wish everybody was a prophet, he exclaimed.
There was a little news item not long ago about an African bishop who banned all healing ministries in his diocese except at the cathedral. Parish clergy were forbidden to anoint or lay-hands on the sick. Only the dean and canons can do this. I'm sure God got a copy of the memo.
The underlying issue is that old one of greatness, of exclusivity. If we try to control how God works, if we try to set limits or make conditions, then we're displaying pride. Jesus, however, wanted his disciples to display humility and humility is best displayed through tolerance.
Christian tolerance, though, is not moral weakness or a lazy acceptance of whatever the latest worldly fad may be. Jesus never promoted an 'anything goes' attitude. He spoke of commandments, not suggestions. Christian tolerance is a reverence for a capital "T" Truth that's always bigger than we are. It's a respect for the freedom of God to move in the ways He chooses and an openness to accept it when it happens. Tolerance is recognizing that God may use people I don't like, or agree with, to accomplish His Will.
Many lament that God no longer seems to have a place in our world today. Well, maybe they're looking in the wrong places. Maybe if we look beyond the Tent of the Ark, and beyond those who belong to our group or share our opinions or follow our rules, it might surprise us to see that God is just as active in our world today as He has always been. He may be working with those we regard as the wrong people, and in places we deem to be the wrong places. But, the irrefutable fact is that He's working.
What did that unauthorized exorcist believe about Jesus? Did he consider him the Second Person of the Holy Trinity? Did he accept him as the Virgin-born Saviour of the World? Probably not, since not even the disciples did at that point. Was that exorcist leading a moral lifestyle? Possibly not, since he seemed to be conducting his free-lance healing ministry for personal gain. So, and here's the key thing, can God work through the ministry of an immoral heretic?
Now that's a question. Can God work through the ministry of an immoral heretic? I sure hope so, because I'm not 100% sin-free or 100% theologically flawless. I may think my sins aren't as bad as yours, I mean others. And I may think that my theology is pretty accurate, but, what's the percentage cut-off? 90, 80, 25? And who’s measuring it?
Jesus never expected that there wouldn't be conflict among his followers. He knew conflict would erupt whenever we consider our ways of 'doing church' to be better than everyone else's. He knew conflict would result when sincere people, each believing themselves to be doing his will, would not recognize the sincerity of the other.
But, the fact is that no matter how different we may seem to be to one another, God considers us all pretty much the same. And when we work in the Name of Jesus we're working together.
As a nation, Americans take pride that we have Arabs and Jews, Indians and Pakistanis, Chinese and Japanese, living next door to each other without trying to blow each other up. It's a model other nations envy and aspire to achieve. As a church, as Christians, can we model anything less? Yes, indeed, each one of us is a very special person. God has chosen us to minister in the Name of Jesus. And, here's the really amazing part - we're not the only members of that club.
In the Name...