a sermon for the 18th Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 21)
The disciples tried to claim Jesus as exclusively their own. But Jesus knew that would only trip them up.
Did any of you watch any of Pope Francis’ visit over the past few days? Hasn’t it been amazing? He certainly has charisma. I watched as he came to the Whitehouse in motorcade. There were two police cars up front and two ambulances in the back. And there were eight huge black SUV’s. (I used to have one of those big SUV’s. They get about 9 miles to the gallon). And there, in the middle of the motorcade was the Pope in this little, tiny, dark grey, Fiat. And he was sitting the back seat!
The thing about this pope is that he seems to be so filled with love, everyone wants to claim him just for themselves.
A friend of mine who is a Lutheran Pastor said that he thought the reason why so many people like Pope Francis is that he’s not a traditional Roman Catholic. “He sounds more like a Lutheran,” he said.
The very next day, another friend of mine, an Episcopal priest, said that he understood where the pope was coming from. “He’s a nice guy, genuine, holy, sweet. Willing to take on big issues that the richest nations of the world don’t really want to face: income inequality, poverty, climate change, unrepentant capitalism. Willing to practice what he preaches in serving the poor, the hungry and the forgotten…Just the issues I care about.”
Meanwhile, the news was full of members of congress saying how much the Pope was only saying the same things that they’ve been saying all along. Maybe they liked what he said on abortion, or climate change, but not what he said about marriage, or capitol punishment. So they’d pick and choose the parts the liked and say, “He’s just like us!”
And by that they meant, “not like those other guys.”
People are funny that way. We tend to like putting things in nice, neat simple boxes and sticking a label on it.
Republican – Democrat. Liberal – Conservative.
Legal – Illegal. Black – White – Brown.
Gamecock – Tiger.
Oh, but what kind of tiger? Clemson. LSU. Auburn. Sewanee!
When I was a boy, I went to Camp Weed in the Diocese of Florida.
(Not Camp Gravatt. Not Camp St. Christopher. Not Camp McDowell.)
There I learned a song that went:
There are no Episcopalians down in Hell (Hell No!)
There are no Episcopalians down in Hell (Hell No!)
There are Baptists, Roman Catholics, Presbyterians and Methodists.
But there are no Episcopalians down in Hell (Hell No!)
We were proud of who we are, which of course meant that all the other guys had to be doing church all wrong.
Which brings us to the Gospel reading we just heard. You see, Jesus WAS an Episcopalian…. It says so right here in this book! One day, while he was walking along with his disciples, John come running up and says, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.”
In other words, those guys aren’t like us. (They must not have been Episcopalians.)
Of course, Jesus didn’t see things quite the same way. Jesus knew that as soon as we start putting people into different boxes, nothing good was going to happen. He told his disciples that this “Us versus Them” way they were thinking was nothing but a scandal, a stumbling block, getting in the way of spreading the Gospel.
One of the interesting things about this passage is that word, “stumbling block.” In the original scriptures, that word is skandalon. It’s where we get the word “scandal.” A scandal is something that involves some moral defect.
Maybe the scandal is that whenever we choose to separate ourselves from Christ, we are lost.
Because when we draw lines between us, we usually find that Jesus is on the other side of the line. These lines that separate us from loving someone else, also separate us from Christ. Because no matter where we draw a line between Us and Them, Jesus will always be on the other side of the line. Whenever we exclude someone, Jesus is with Them. Whenever we shun the poor, or those who think and live differently from ourselves, Jesus is on their side of the line. Whenever we think we can claim him as our own, he reminds us that he is one of Them.
Is it any wonder why the fastest growing political party is Independent, and the fastest growing religious denomination is “none of the above?”
This is why it’s so important that we set aside our boxes and labels, our categories and distinctions, and follow Christ. Christ calls us all to set aside our political parties and affiliations, our religious distinctions and denominations, and live a life dedicated to prayer and service.
Prayer and Service – according to scripture, these were the spiritual gifts of Jesus closest friends, Mary and Martha, sisters of Lazarus. And while I’m quite sure that we can all spend a lot of time and energy debating whether is better to be a Mary or a Martha, let me just say this: they are two sides of the same person. Prayer and service are two sides of the same coin.
Now, it’s only natural that some of us see ourselves as more inclined to prayer while others are more inclined to service. In fact, let me ask you a question. By a show of hands, how many of you think your natural gift is service, and how many, prayer?
Ahhh. Another stumbling block.
Our prayers, both personal and corporate, draw us nearer to God. And as we draw closer to God, we draw closer to one another. When we come together as a body in prayer, when we are nourished in the Eucharist, we are strengthened to perform acts of service to all around us.
But more importantly they define who we are. We are not Marthas or Marys, not Republicans or Democrats. We’re not even Baptists, Roman Catholics, Presbyterians, or Methodists. And certainly not snarky Episcopalians. (In fact, I don’t believe that even God can tell the difference between a Baptist, a Roman Catholic, or an Episcopalian.) We are, all of us are, followers of Jesus Christ. And as his disciples, we’re all in the same box, as common as table salt, sent out to heal the world through our prayer and our service.
This is why so many people like this pope. He, too, is a man of prayer and service. In an interview last year, he said, “You pray for the hungry and then you feed them. That is how prayer works.”
And this, my friends, is how the Gospel is spread; through prayer and service. This is the heart of evangelism. This is how the Church will grow, when we stop drawing lines and start including all the world in our circle of love for one another. This is how we spread the Good News – prayerfully, worshipfully, and in service to the world as the result of our love for Jesus Christ.
This is how we complete our mission to restore all people to unity with God and each other through Christ.
Thanks be to God.