September 30, 2018 – The 19th Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 21B
© 2018 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon is available here. Video of the sermon and the entire service is available here.
This morning, we pick up right where we left off in last week’s gospel lesson. Jesus is sitting with his disciples in a house in Capernaum, and he’s holding a child in his arms. The disciples had been arguing with each other about which one of them was the greatest, and Jesus had used the child to teach them what true greatness looks like in God’s eyes. “Whoever welcomes a little child in my name welcomes me,” he had said to them, “and whoever welcomes me welcomes not only me but also the one who sent me.” As Fr. Chuck preached last Sunday, Jesus had been challenging the stereotype that greatness comes with physical strength or wealth or other expressions of earthly power. “No,” Jesus had taught them, “if you want to bring the fullness of God’s power into this world, you must begin by making space in your midst for even a little child—for the forgotten, for the ignored, for all of those whom the world would rather brush aside and stick at the kiddie table.
But, in today’s lesson, John wants to be sure that he understands what Jesus has in mind. Welcoming a child is one thing. Children are mostly harmless. They might require your attention or make a mess or drive you crazy (at times), but children can be endearing, too. It is one thing to make space for a little child, but what about a rival? What about an imposter? What about someone who is using the name of Jesus to perform his own miracles but who isn’t interested in becoming a disciple? What about someone who claims to have access to Jesus’ power but who hasn’t spent even a moment following him? “Teacher,” John says to his rabbi, “we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” In that moment, I like to imagine Jesus looking at John and then at the other disciples and then at the child he is holding in his arms and then back at the disciples with a loving smile on his face before saying, “Why would you want to stop him? 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.”
As human beings, we are natural born discriminators. Is this bright red fruit tasty and nutritious or bitter and poisonous? Is that animal in the bushes something I can eat or something that is about to eat me? Will the person I am with join me in making a fruitful, life-long partnership, or is our future together one of unending struggle? Are you friend or foe? When you reach quickly into your coat pocket are you likely to pull out a bouquet of flowers or a firearm? If you’re my spouse or my child or my friend, a scary thought like that never enters my mind. But what if I don’t know you? And what if you don’t look like me? And what if I associate the differences between us with something threatening? Can I be trusted to make that instantaneous judgment? And what happens if I get it wrong?
Several years ago on Good Friday, someone played a prank on me and switched out the water in my glass with vodka. After reading the longest gospel lesson of the year, I lifted the glass up to my mouth and took a big sip. Instantly, I knew that something was wrong. Processing the surprising information as quickly as possible, my brain received the signals from my mouth and thought, “Danger! What is this? It is not water. It might be cleaning fluid or another poison. Quick, spit it out!” So I spit it back into the glass. A half of a second later, it occurred to me what my colleague had done, and I wish that my brain had been faster so that I could have downed the whole glass and make him nervous about how the sermon might end up. We all make split-second decisions. Not all of them are life or death decisions, but sometimes they are, and we use the power of discrimination to keep ourselves and others safe. That’s how we work as individuals and in community. We use groupings like family and clan to make those decisions easier, trusting those with whom we identify and holding at a distance those we do not know. But what happens when we approach all of those relationships and the decisions that they bring not from a place of fear and suspicion but one of confidence and trust?
Jesus says, “Whoever is not against us is for us.” That is an invitation to begin from a place of faithfulness instead of fear. With those words, Jesus is encouraging us to start with trust, to begin by believing that every person, regardless of how much we have in common or how much we disagree, is on the same side. That’s a radical approach to humanity, and it’s risky. It means throwing out all that we have learned about who we can trust and who we need to keep an eye on. It means being vulnerable to strangers emotionally, spiritually, and physically. How would the world change if everyone began from a place of trust instead of suspicion? What would happen to our politics? What would happen to our economy? What would happen to our church?
Maybe a more important question is to ask how it could ever be possible. How does Jesus expect us to look at a rival, a competitor, an imposter who has infiltrated our community and who threatens to pull us apart and make space for that person in our midst? The answer is love. Jesus says, “No one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me.” Jesus knows that the power associated with his name is love. Love is what gave that pretend-disciple the power to cast out demons. Anyone who would set another person free from the burden of being ostracized by society knows the power of unconditional love. And you cannot know that power, you cannot encounter it and tap into it and reflect it out into the world, without having the walls of separation and exclusion and discrimination begin to fall down. Unconditional love knows no limit, no boundary, and unconditional love—the love that God has for the world in Jesus Christ—has the power to strip us of our exclusivities and embolden us to be vulnerable to others so that we might make space for them in our midst.
Sometimes we describe our church as if it were a family. In some ways, that’s true. This is a safe place to be authentically you. You can be honest and open and vulnerable, and you will be loved by this community no matter what. That’s who we are. That’s what it means to be a part of this church. But the term “family” can also impart an unintended sense of exclusion. To a newcomer, a congregation that calls itself a family might feel closed and guarded. One might wonder what one must do in order to become part of a church family. People don’t join families. They are born into them or they are adopted by them or they marry into them. Families know their own. They know who belongs and who doesn’t. But that’s not the kind of family we have here. The only way this “family” will work is if we decide to let our guard down and welcome anyone and everyone into the fold as if they have always belonged here. We must be willing to be real and authentic with everyone and let them be the same with us, and we must do that from the very start.
That’s a risky approach to building a church. It means sharing authority with newcomers. It means making a place at the family table for someone we haven’t even met. It means confessing our shortcomings and articulating our deepest hopes in the company of strangers. That’s risky, but the results are beautiful. And the only way it ever happens is love. We must let God love us until we are able to love everyone else in the same, unconditional way. We must let love take down the walls that separate us. And we must take that love into the world until the world knows the power of that love, too—until the reign of God’s unconditional love is complete.