Preached Sunday March 8, 2015 at the First Congregational Church of Dudley, MA on behalf of an Ecumenical Lenten Service for the Dudley, Webster & Oxford clergy association.
Sometimes jealousy creeps up on you. Yesterday, I went into our local coffee shop in Boston- the kind of place full of young families and urban empty-nesters that any local church pastor would give her right arm to have in the pews on a Sunday. There, near the soy milk and the raw sugar, a post-card caught my eye. Beautifully designed with an image of the very building I was standing in, the postcard said “A New Church in the Neighborhood You Love.” And now the confession: I did not think to myself, “Oh good, a new church in the neighborhood! This is wonderful, since so many people here don’t go to church!” No, I thought, “Shoot, this postcard looks good and is well placed. My church needs to put our postcards here too.” But Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever is not against us is for us.” Let us pray…
Oh John. St John here says what we all sometimes think, and for this, I am deeply grateful to the Gospel writer Mark. If you want to make like Baptists and actually open your pew bibles to read along with me, look back in Mark 9 on page_____. From Mark 9:14-31, we get an complicated story about the disciples trying, and then failing to heal a child tormented by an unclean spirit. Shortly after this, we get our passage beginning at verse 38.
Somewhere in Capernaum, the disciples and Jesus sit down for a chat. And, John, dear John says to Jesus in verse 38, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” It’s appropriate that John calls Jesus “Teacher,” because this sounds most like one student ratting out another one for doing unauthorized good!
Lent is a time to get honest about our lives. Lent is set time to examine what in our lives has become unmanageable and overgrown, and prune it back. Lent is when we take the time to examine whether our assumptions about ourselves hold up in the light of the Gospel. And so here, together in Lent, it is appropriate to talk about Christian jealousy. Here, in Lent, it is safe to name that nasty, sneaky, niggling little tendency we have to compare ourselves to one another and plaintively cry, “Jesus, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.”
There in verse 38, John gives voice to all our Christian anxiety and jealousy. John says what we were all thinking. John says aloud, hey! Someone else is taking all the credit! Someone unauthorized! Someone from another denomination! Someone we don’t know!
In Boston, our anxiety and jealousy has shown up in the form of old lawn chairs and garbage bins. Maybe this is not as much a problem outside the cities where you have more space, but in Boston, this winter has brought out our worst anxiety and jealousy. We simply have too few shoveled parking spaces for the number of cars. It’s an adult game of musical chairs, but nobody is having any fun, and the last driver is left trolling the block to find a spot to park their car for the night. Last week as I was walking home from the T stop through my neighborhood where the snowbanks still rise above the roofs of cars, I saw a note on a car with out-of-state places. The note read, “You didn’t shovel this.” In our very real anxiety about the lack of parking, we’ve taken to using “space-savers,” old chairs and garbage pails to mark our turf. Mine. Mine, Mine, Mine. Except it’s all a public street. And there’s plenty of space if we all shovel out not just our own spot but our neighbor’s too. Can’t you hear John saying, “Teacher, I shoveled it out, but someone else is parked in my spot!”
It’s no coincidence that shortly before St. John speaks to Jesus about who is in and who is out, the disciples are struggling. Look back to Mark 9:14- the disciples tried to heal a child with a demon and couldn’t do so. And what’s John worried about? Other people casting out demons! When we get anxious, we get small. When we feel like there isn’t enough to go around, we get concerned that someone else might have gotten more. If you grew up in a family where there wasn’t enough food, you know this anxiety. If you live with the sense that there’s not enough money, you know this anxiety. We get anxious and then we get small.
Our churches get anxious and then they get jealous. We don’t talk about it much, but I hear it. It creeps in. We get anxious because we see our numbers decline and think we are the only ones. We get anxious when another church is in the news and we aren’t. We get anxious because what used to work ten years ago doesn’t work any longer. We get anxious as the cultural privilege once afforded to the Church is crowded out in an increasingly secular world, as hockey practices competes with Confirmation Class. Upon hearing that the church next door has hired a really good preacher who might just draw new parishioners, no pastor has thought to himself “Oh that’s great news!” With a mindset of scarcity, we get anxious, and then we get jealous. We look longingly at the new furnace in someone else’s basement. We secretly count the number of cars in the parking lot at that other parish as we drive by. We see that other church’s growing youth group, and feel badly about our own. We look at the slick new postcards advertising another church in our local coffee shop and think, “Shoot. I should be putting my church’s advertisements here too.”
The strange reality of the Church in Massachusetts is this: we are all marginal now. Massachusetts is the 5th least religious state in the nation. According to a 2014 Gallup poll, only 28% of MA residents attend any religious service at least once a week. That leaves 72% of our neighbors not attending any of our churches. The competition isn’t the church down the street! It is not a zero-sum game, where if the Episcopalians increase then the Congregationalists must decrease. You can almost hear John complaining, “Someone else is liberating the people! Someone we don’t know is relieving their suffering! Someone unfamiliar is participating in the reign of God and they are not from our denomination!”
In the disciples’ quest for exclusivity, they betray their real concern: not did whether or not someone was healed, but who got credit. Notice that the disciples want to curtail someone outside their tradition doing good!
The disciples are looking to bring judgment on this outsider not for what he or she has done, but with whom they are affiliated. Jesus says, “Do not stop him,” or in a more modern interpretation, Jesus says “you do you.” Worry about your self. Focus on your own behavior & heart. Don’t worry about them, because anyone doing good in my name is with us: an alternative version of Christian unity.
John is concerned about who gets credit; Jesus is concerned about who gets healed. To John’s question about unauthorized ministry not from “our” people, Jesus responds in verse 40, “whoever is not against us is for us.” It’s wildly inclusive- as long as you’re not against us, you’re with us. Everyone on the same team! Jesus takes the maximally inclusive stance. But we are more familiar with the opposite. We think, “whoever is not for us is against us.” Just two days after 9/11, then Senator Hilary Clinton said, “Every nation has to either be with us, or against us. Those who harbor terrorists, or who finance them, are going to pay a price.” And lest you think I’m just picking on Democrats, seven days after Senator Clinton said so, then President George W. Bush declared to a joint session of Congress on September 20, 2001 “Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.”
Our inclination is to divide the world into us and them, black and white, those who are with us and those who are outside our tradition. But Jesus, sweet Jesus who upsets all our divisions and draws the circle even wider, proclaims, “whoever is not against us is for us.”
On the 50th anniversary of the March from Selma to Birmingham, President Obama said, “Selma shows us that America is not the project of any one person. Because the single most powerful word in our democracy is the word “We.” We The People. We Shall Overcome. Yes We Can. It is owned by no one. It belongs to everyone. Oh, what a glorious task we are given, to continually try to improve this great nation of ours.” Maybe part of our Lenten discipline is to reclaim a sense of unity, a sense that we are in this together- to resist dividing the world into those who are with us and those who are against us, Democrats and Republicans, Protestant and Catholic, male and female, gay and straight, slave and free. Maybe it doesn’t matter so much as to who gets credit but that all get made whole.
We serve a God of abundance. It can be so hard to remember this especially when the snow rises higher and the resources seem fewer, but we serve a God who is bigger and wider than anything we can imagine. We serve a God who promises not just life, but life abundant. St Paul says to the church in Rome, he says “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” Church, I say to you, do not be conformed to this world that would divide us into winners and losers. Take this Lent to renew your mind, to recall the promises of God. Recall again the promises of God in 1Peter “you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of Christ who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.” May we proclaim so together today. Amen.