This week I heard a very funny description of our denominational differences. A guy is pulled out of the gutter by the Methodists, who love good works. Then he is washed clean by the Baptists, who love to baptize by immersion. After that he is educated by the Presbyterians, who love to teach doctrine. Finally, he is socialized by the Episcopalians, who love cocktail parties. Which means that he has to pulled out of the gutter again by the Methodists, who love good works!
Another favorite is the joke that teases Episcopalians for our scant knowledge of Scripture and our fear of the evangelizing. Q) What do you get when you cross an Episcopalian and a Jehovah’s Witness? A) Someone who knocks on your door and has absolutely nothing to say!
Enough of that. But we do see the seeds of denominationalism in today’s gospel reading. The disciples see someone casting out demons in Jesus’ name. They assume he is a kind of unauthorized exorcist, somebody from another sect, so they try to stop him. He’s not one of us, they tell Jesus. Maybe he is doing things differently. Maybe he is saying things in a slightly different way. The disciples seem to be ready for Jesus to thank them for their theological and doctrinal diligence.
Yet, Jesus responds with one of his great grace phrases – “Do not stop him…. whoever is not against us is for us.” We tend to circle the wagons pretty quickly and pretty tightly – often out of fear. Jesus is widening the circle – whoever is not against us is for us. He could have quoted the Edwin Markham poem called “Outwitted.”
“He drew a circle that shut me out -/ Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout. / But love and I had the wit to win: / We drew a circle and took him in!”
But before we talk about who and what is for us, let’s think about what is against us. After all, the unauthorized guy is casting out demons – the name for the forces that are against us – that corrupt and destroy the creatures of God, to use our baptismal language. Frontier people in the Wild West had to circle the wagons, because there were all kinds of threats to their safety – many kinds of people and animals were against them.
Perhaps a better metaphor for the For vs. Against category is that life can feel very much like a courtroom, in which you are on trial. Dave Zahl said last week that the subtext of much of our conversation is our trying to prove how great and important we are. In the same way, so much of our conversation is an attempt to prove and defend ourselves against accusation – real or imagined.
You know exactly how this works on the day-to-day level. When you are asked, “Did you remember to look into such and such? Or, Did you really just say what I think you did?” And then they say, “I’m just asking.” For one thing, nobody is ever “just asking”, nor or they ever “just saying.” Just asking and just saying are loaded with accusation against which we feel we must defend ourselves. And in the same way, anytime you say, “Look, I’m really not trying to defend myself, but…”, well then of course you are trying to defend yourself.
I’m talking about life as a courtroom. You also know the feeling you immediately get when you see the name of that person on your email. All the fight or flight reactions are in play in a split second. You also know the feeling of being with someone or some group of people where you feel you must be so well-defended, always making your case, forever proving yourself that you come home exhausted.
The problem with life as a courtroom is that the court is never in recess, even when you are exhausted from the trial and slink into bed. The comic strip Pearls Before Swine captured this so well in a strip from 2 Sundays ago. A little rat is tucked into his bed with a glass of warm milk on the bedside table. He says, “I am not going to have trouble sleeping tonight. I had some warm milk. I read a relaxing book. I have the room temperature perfect. I have a mask for my eyes. I have my white noise maker. I have comfy sheets. And now I can turn off the light and get a good night’s sleep.”
He clicks the light off and the next panel is dark. Then the light is clicked back on by a ghost. “Who are you?” the rat asks. “I’m the ghost of all the things that can go wrong tomorrow.” “But I have my warm milk and comfy sheets!” The ghost chugs the milk down and says “Move over. I have lots to tell you.”
In the world which often feels like a courtroom and you are on trial, the person that must be for you is…well, you. But most of us feel like we have to defend ourselves from ourselves! I suppose there is a very good reason that it is never a good idea to act as your own defense attorney in court.
It just isn’t enough for just you to be for you when you so identify with the Avett Brothers song called “Shame.” “Shame, boatloads of shame / Day after day, more of the same / Blame, please lift it off / Please take it off, please make it stop.” Well, this, of course, is where we return to Jesus Christ, our only mediator and advocate.
There are two great messages of Christianity. The first is that God is with you. This is what we celebrate at Christmas time. And no doubt, that is a powerful message – you are not alone. But trumping the power of God is with you is the second great message of our faith – God is for you. So much so that St. Paul has the audacity to say, “If God is for us, who can be against us?”
Jesus Christ is for you. When Jesus says, “whoever is not against us is for us”, He is referring to the itinerant exorcist. Yet, He is also talking about Himself. He is for people. Specifically, He is for you. You do not have to be for you, because Jesus is for you.
Just as you do not want to be your own defender in court, you also do not want to be doctor. There is a powerful scene in British writer Helen Macdonald’s new award winning book called “H is For Hawk.”
She tells the story of how she trained a goshawk in an attempt to deal with the devastating grief of her father’s death. Goshawks are fierce birds, violent hunters, prone to isolation. We’re not talking about a puppy here. At one point, Macdonald realizes that she was so completely over identifying with the hawk – going weeks at a time without human contact. Realizing that something was very wrong with her, she finally went to see a doctor.
“I have scared myself. I go to the doctor. I drive there with no hope of rescue, but I can’t think of anything else to do. The doctor is a man I have not seen before; small dark haired with a neat beard…. “Hello. What seems to be the trouble?…. I say I think I might be depressed. My father died.”
“I’m so sorry, he says” Then Helen starts talking about what is wrong but doesn’t feel she is really expressing herself well, as if she’s done it wrong. But then the doctor leans across the table. “I see his face. I turn away. It is too unbearably kind. ‘Helen, we can help you,’ he says in a low voice. ‘We really can.’ There is a kind of tingling astonishment when I hear his words. It’s something like hope. I start to sob.”
With all that is against us, Love had the wit to win. Jesus stretched out his arms of love on the cross to widen the circle to take you in. He has shown up and has something to say to you – I can help you, I really can. Through His cross, the shame, the blame is lifted off.
The ghost of all that might go wrong might have a lot to tell you, but Jesus Christ has more. No matter what or whom you perceive to be against you, the word for you today is that Jesus is for you, and you cannot stop Him. Martin Luther King once said, “God is the Supreme Court beyond which there is no appeal.” So if God is for you, who can be against you?
- Mark 9:38 - 50