Fall Theme: Discipleship Camp
September 27, 2015
William G. Carter
The middle of the Gospel of Mark has two stories of Jesus healing a blind person. In between those stories, the twelve disciples can’t see a thing. It’s my opinion that Mark sets up his Gospel this way to offer a manual of discipleship. It’s almost as if he points to the first disciples of Jesus and says, “Don’t be like those guys. Don’t do what they do, don’t say what they say, don’t think how they think.”
In other words, this section of the Gospel of Mark that we will hear for the next six weeks offers instruction on how not to follow Jesus. Welcome to Discipleship Camp! And one of those stories goes this way:
John said to him, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” But Jesus said, “Do not stop him; for 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.”
When I moved to town, my friend Bob London gave me a word of orientation. He said, “When you read the morning paper, don’t be surprised to see the Bishop of Scranton on page one or page three. Every day you will read an article or see a photo. Here is the Bishop running in the 5K run. Here is the Bishop flying an airplane. Here is the Bishop enjoying a popsicle with the kids from the parochial school.” I asked Bob why this was so. He said, “A lot of people think the Roman Catholics are the only show in town.”
Some would say that’s why it is front page news that the Diocese of Scranton sent 54 buses to the papal mass this weekend in Philadelphia, although if the truth be told, I think I would have liked to have gone too. And maybe it was simply an honest mistake that, the last time the national moderator of the Presbyterians came to town, the newspaper forgot to run the article. Who knows? One of my Presbyterian buddies was so offended. He thought we were the only show in town.
But it’s the notion of exclusivity that Jesus takes on. Today we overhear John the disciple, one of the inner circle from Galilee. He is reporting to the Boss with pride about what he has done. “Teacher,” he says, “we saw an exorcist who didn’t have a union card. He was casting out demons in your name, but he wasn’t following us. So we told him to stop!” In other words, John thinks he himself belongs to the only show in town.
Now, we know Jesus is going to take him on. I think about how I might do. I would probably react like Leroy Jethro Gibbs when one of his NCIS workers says something stupid – just pop him on the head. Redirect him. But Jesus is as gracious as Pope Francis addressing the United States Congress. He chastises the opinion by speaking to the best capacity within his own misguided followers. The Lord says, “Don’t stop him. Anybody who does a deed of power in my name will be unable to speak evil of me.”
Then he cuts to the chase: “Who’s not against us is for us.” That unnamed exorcist wandering around out there by himself is really part of a bigger work. Imagine that: that there might be people out there who are doing the same work and pursuing the same purposes. In fact, we are already on the same team. Call it “Team Jesus.”
I like that word “team.” I am old enough to remember when churches worked together on matters of common concern. The two high rise apartments in our town began when religious leaders agreed that our senior citizens on limited incomes needed affordable housing in this community. The pastors worked together, the churches worked together. Can you imagine everybody working together?
These days, so many churches are struggling even to keep their doors open, so they find themselves only with survival. They grow only by stealing sheep from other flocks, and call it “evangelism.” Or they continue to stand apart from others, as if they are the only true believers, declaring in word and deed, “We are the only show in town.”
There is an alternative, of course. Jesus hints at it. You know what it is. It’s called team work. What do you know about team work?
Somebody asked me the other day about team work. What was my experience of sports, and being on a team? Well, I played high school football for three seasons. Actually I sat on the bench for two and a half season, while the superstars were out on the field. The coach put me in for a game in the third season. He had to be desperate. First play of the game, I was triple-teamed and they carried me off the field with a busted knee. That was my sports career.
But I thought about it: team work. What is that like? I stepped outside the church for a minute, and realized for the past twenty-three years I have played piano with a jazz quartet. In that kind of situation, you don’t have a front line blocking for you. No, you have to work hard to keep up with one another. It requires trusting one another, which takes a leap of faith. The work is collaborative, and collaboration always takes time and communication. That’s why some people prefer doing everything by themselves.
But if you are part of a band, you have responsibilities to the other members. You have to be honest with your fellow musicians, yet willing to accept their criticism. When one of you is in trouble, the rest of you offer all the support you can. When somebody does something well, you bless what he or she does and encourage more of it.
All of this shared work is in service of the greater purpose. It’s in service to what you are here to do. If you are in the band, your purpose is to make music together. If you play a sport, you play the sport together as competitively as you can. And if you follow Jesus, you do the very things that he does, both together with him, and with the others who are doing his work.
“Teacher, we saw somebody casting out demons in your name, and we told him to stop because he wasn’t following us.” Sounds kind of hollow, doesn’t it?
That’s especially hollow in the Gospel of Mark! In this Gospel, the predominant image for the work of Jesus is exorcism. The very first thing Jesus does, after his baptism and a retreat in the wilderness, is to cast out a demon. It’s not a Hollywood stunt. No, he takes on some wild, unruly force that is damaging a human being.
The first time it happens, it’s in a synagogue, in a holy space, where a man starts yelling at the Lord. He hollers, “Jesus, I know who you are. Have you come out to destroy us?” The Lord stares him down and says, “Get out of him! Go away!” In that confrontation, the tormented man is made well. That’s the ministry of Jesus. It is the active force of God’s Spirit in him, repairing what is broken, healing what is ill.
One page after another, Mark wants us to know that this is why God sends his strong Son into our midst: to do an exorcism on the world, to heal one person at a time. That’s what Jesus has come to do: to make all things well. He confronts the evil that destroys, and he ushers in the healing power of God. The Jews have a phrase for that: “tikkun olam.” It means “to take the world in for repairs.” It is to restore all that is broken and to build shalom . . . peace, balance, integration, wholeness.
This is the work of the Christ. If you’re not against it – and who would be against it? You would have to be out of your right mind to be against it, and that suggests Jesus will be coming to you, to make you well. – If you are not against it, you are for it.
And if we’re not entirely for it yet, I do believe the work of Christ is powerful enough and enticing enough to invite all of us into the deep gladness of his well-being. A world that was ill enough to crucify Jesus has to contend with him returning again in his resurrection, working persistently to heal and restore everything that belongs to God. If you are not against it, you will be for it.
“Do not stop him,” says Jesus. Do not impede the counselor who cures souls but does not belong to your church. Do not stop the physician who replaces broken knees or the deacon who brings prayers and floral arrangements to heal your broken spirit. They are all part of God’s salvage operation.
Don’t stand in the way of any church or community of faith that welcomes people into the embrace of God. And for God’s sake – for God’s sake – don’t insist that you are the only one who does it right. Do not deny the outcasts who can’t believe that anybody might love them. Don’t turn away the person whom you might lift higher. Put a muzzle on your superiority and replace it with encouragement. Love requires us to put others first, to tend to their wounds before our own. This is how we drive out evil, and welcome the Christ who wishes to heal all.
And maybe that’s why Jesus says what he does: “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.” Imagine that – you are not only one of the healers, you are the recipient. The truth is all of us drink from the water of Christ’s mercy. All of us. That’s why we need to work together.
Did you hear the story that John Boehner told about last Thursday night? It was the night before he quit as Speaker of the House of Representatives, and he describes a brief moment that gave him the peace and courage to move ahead with his decision. Mr. Boehner is a Roman Catholic, and it was largely his invitation that brought the Pope to address our elected representatives in Washington.
“He came right here, right here,” said Mr. Boehner. “We had a quiet moment together, just the two of us. He said kind words about my commitment to education and my concern for kids. Then the pope puts his arm around my left arm. The pope says to me, ‘Please pray for me.’ He said, ‘Please pray for me.’ The pope wants me to pray for him.’ Who am I, to pray for the pope?” He paused for a minute, wiped a tear, and said, “But I did.”
It’s a powerful story. Because all of us need prayer. Because all of us need a cup of water to drink. Because all of us are invited to join Jesus in his resurrection work of healing and restoration. All of us. There is something every one of us can do to carry the love and joy of Christ into his beloved world.
There’s something every one of us can do. And it’s too important to do it alone.