September 27, 2015 – The 18th Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 21B
© 2015 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon can be heard here.
I’m not sure you’ve noticed, but a guy named Francis has been in the news lately for having made his first-ever trip to the United States. Thousands and thousands of people have flocked to see him—even if only to get a glimpse of his Fiat motorcade as it buzzed down the highway. And those of us who haven’t left our homes to try to get a peek at the Bishop of Rome have seen video clips of him laughing with the President and addressing Congress and the United Nations and stopping his car to bless a disable child on the side of the road. All of us seem to love him. It doesn’t even matter whether you’re Catholic or even Christian. Our whole nation has caught Francis Fever.
Perhaps that’s because, in a refreshing sort of way, Francis seems to transcend the politics that usually dominate our media coverage. And he does so by making everyone happy and everyone angry all at the same time, ensuring that no one is able to claim him as their own. To the delight of liberals and the fury of conservatives, he regularly calls for an end to human-caused climate change, for a solution to the refugee crisis, for the redistribution of wealth to benefit the poor, and for the abolition of the death penalty. And, to the delight of conservatives and the fury of liberals, he refuses to legitimize same-sex relationships, to revisit the role of women in the church, to accept the remarriage of divorced persons, and to loosen the church’s position on abortion or birth control. In short, he’s managed to infuriate both Rush Limbaugh and Gene Robinson, and that’s saying something. And, given that he’s the successor of St. Peter, the rock on which our Lord built his church, maybe it shouldn’t surprise us that Francis sounds as hard to pin down as Jesus himself.
If ever there was a gospel lesson that portrays a Jesus who is kind, gentle, and accepting and, at the same time, stern, harsh, and condemning, it’s this one. It starts with John—yes, John, our patron saint—who gets all upset that someone else is using Jesus’ name to cast out demons. Perhaps those of us who call St. John’s our church home can identify with our namesake, who wasn’t about to let an outsider get away with using his master’s reputation for his own exorcizing purposes. “Teacher, we tried to stop him,” John explains, “but he just wouldn’t listen.” But instead of intervening as John had hoped, Jesus looks at John and said, “Why does that make you so upset? No one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. If he’s not against us, he’s for us.”
What a remarkable and unexpected philosophy for a religious movement: whoever is not against us is for us! John, on the other hand, embodies our instincts, which are exactly the opposite. Those of us who have walked with Jesus as his disciples expect others to do the same. If you want to call yourself a Christian, you’d better be a follower of Jesus—like us. Who do you think you are using the name of Jesus, which is to say our brand, to suit yourself? Stop wearing that cross necklace just because everyone else is. If you want access to Jesus, get in line with the rest of us. People like us know what it really means to be a Christian. You can’t just do whatever you want; you’ve got to do it our way.
But Jesus says no. His movement isn’t exclusive. You don’t have to do it his way. He refuses to stop anyone who’s having success. He refuses to turn anyone away. He isn’t worried that someone will misrepresent who he is and what he stands for. He trusts that anyone and everyone who encounters the power that he represents will be transformed by that power. It’s as if Jesus is saying, “Sure, try it your way. If it works, great. If not, try something else.” It’s that kind of openness and accepting spirit that makes the Jesus movement distinct.
But don’t confuse “if it works, great” for “anything goes” because, when it comes to following Jesus, those aren’t the same thing. Jesus might not mind it if you find him by your own path, but, once you’ve found him, he has pretty high expectations for what your life should look like. “If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off…If your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off…If your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God [maimed or lame or blind] than to be thrown into hell.” Those aren’t the words of a gentle teacher who lets his pupils get away with whatever they want. They’re the words of a prophet who means business.
Jesus might welcome anyone into his company, but that doesn’t mean that his company is for everyone. Anyone is welcome, but that doesn’t mean that anything goes. Jesus has such a high understanding of God’s kingdom that, instead of letting us adapt it to fit our lives, he forces us to shape our lives completely according to the principles that the kingdom represents—principles like sacrifice and humility and holiness. On these he is uncompromising. The bar for admission is as low as the ground itself, but the standard for participation is through the roof. Many are called, but few are chosen. Everyone is invited, but only a handful belongs. I remember Jesus saying something about it being easier to squeeze a camel through the eye of a needle, but maybe he was just joking.
But with Jesus, it’s always good news. The good news is that God welcomes everyone into his kingdom. God loves everyone—the whole world—unconditionally. No matter who you are or what you believe or what you’ve done, God loves you perfectly and completely. But the rest of the good news is that God isn’t going to leave you where he found you. Jesus said, “No one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me.” Jesus knew that there is irresistible power in his name. Anyone who comes into contact with that power must be transformed by it. The same power that grabs us wherever we are transforms us into full citizens of God’s kingdom. The same power that rescues us from our life’s dead end recasts that life into one befitting God’s kingdom.
The good news is for everyone. If you’ve never heard that God loves you no matter what, let that unconditional love fill you from top to bottom. And, if you’re familiar with that good news but recognize that it still needs to reshape you into the disciple Jesus is calling you to be, then submit again to the power of Jesus’ name. Call upon him and be transformed. Give yourself again to Jesus and let him shape you into a child ready for the kingdom. No matter where you are, God is calling you. And, no matter where you are, God isn’t going to leave you there. God has bigger plans for all of us.