Sunday, September 27, 2009

For or Against?

For or Against?

copyright © 2009 Robert J. Elder, Pastor
26th Sunday in Ordinary Time

September 27, 2009 Mark 9:38-50

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.

Anyone familiar with the story that precedes our reading for today will find the disciples’ words here toward the end of the ninth chapter of Mark unsurprising. In the passage just before ours, they had been debating on the road as to which of them was the greatest. This self-aggrandizing conversation followed Jesus’ second prediction of his passion and death, showing that even for the disciples of Jesus it was possible to miss the point by a very wide margin.

Not only that, but in the story preceding their debate on greatness, they had failed in an attempt to cast a demon out of a boy. Is it any wonder that they were put off by the fact that some independent contractor was out there successfully exorcising demons in Jesus’ name when they, his own disciples, couldn’t do it?

The critical issue behind this passage, and passages like it, has to do with the phrase, “in Jesus’ name.” Note that the only mention of this in the disciples’ mouths has a negative connotation. This outsider was “casting out demons in your name.” So of course, they tried to stop him “because he was not following us.” Who is more faithful at this very moment, the independent exorcist who calls on the name of Jesus to heal, or the disciples, concerned with whether he was following them? Aren’t we all supposed to be following Jesus? Was their phrasing an inadvertent slip of the tongue, or were they possessed of a misplaced hope to build their own following?

I remember when video cassette recorders first came on the consumer scene in the 1980s. It seemed like a miracle! You could record a program and watch it later at your own convenience! Imagine! I know that most video tape systems are now crowding landfills in favor of the latest computer disc technologies, but that’s not really the point I’m after. I’m remembering that no sooner had that early, new technology appeared than folks with a significant stake in the old system raised their voices in complaint. All that recording for viewing later – which is still going on of course, but with the likes of Tivo and other means of ever-advancing technological sophistication – all that recording and viewing later means a significant loss for advertisers, whose ads are easily skipped by viewers. The question of property rights over all this video content continues to be asked.

These are but the latest chapters in the centuries-long history of human conflict over ownership of copyrights and trademarks, which is really nothing more than a modern expression of an age-old desire to control one’s own good name. We might all be tempted to ask, with Shakespeare’s Juliet, “What’s in a name?” but our answer comes to us, as it did to her, that although a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, it was still the names Capulet and Montague that kept Romeo and Juliet from being a light-hearted comedy.

The answer to the age-old question, “What’s in a name?” is: plenty! Names do have significance. Try opening your own new store in town and calling it “Nordstrom” and see how long it takes for the department store people to initiate a lawsuit about that name. To take someone’s name is to take more than a word, it is to steal what they have spent their lives building. It is what makes personal endorsements such a powerful advertising tool, and it is what makes public personalities so touchy about tabloid journalism.

When the disciples came to Jesus and said that they had encountered a man casting out demons in Jesus’ name, and that they had forbidden him to do so, since he was not a believer, we can understand what they meant. What is the point of following Jesus around the countryside day after day, if any old Tom, Dick, or Bartholomew can run off into a neighboring town and merely use his name to work some magic tricks? No wonder the disciples were concerned; we would likely share their concern if we found a non-believer organizing church school classes without authorization from the Session. In our church, we reserve the right to use that name to those who are followers of the One who bore it.

But Jesus turned the tables on the disciples. He said to them, “Don’t forbid him; for no one who does a mighty work in my name will soon after be able to speak evil of me.” I don’t know about you, but this is definitely not the answer I had anticipated.

As we approach the celebration of World Communion next Sunday, this is a good time to remember that Jesus’ name is there for the whole world to have, it is the name above all names, even our own, even the name Presbyterian, or Methodist or Baptist or Word of Truth Church or any other name we can name. Whether other Christian people are following “us,” are part of our in-crowd, is really of no concern to Jesus. He was not interested in creating a community of people to follow the disciples. Of much more interest to Jesus is the presence of someone – anyone – who calls on his name for help.

As Jesus told the disciples not to forbid the unnamed, non-denominational exorcist from his work, the key to the passage is in this phrase: “in my name.” At the very least, this helps us to remember that in our own “authorized” ministries, we are not to take credit for anything that is accomplished. There is no credit to be had. It’s Jesus’ kingdom, not ours. “Being a minister is not a vocation merely to help people. We are called to help people in the name of Jesus. And that’s the rub. In fact, we are not called to help people. We are called to follow Jesus, in whose service we learn who we are and how we are to help and be helped.”[1]

As often happens in Jesus’ teaching, the last line of the first part of our reading turns everything upside down. “Whoever gives you a cup of water because you bear the cup of Christ will not lose their reward.” Those who are struggling to do Christ’s work are, first and foremost, recipients of mercy themselves. We must never forget that. If we do, we may become ministers – which is to say servants – of something, but not of Jesus.

“[vs. 41] reminds the disciples of the conditions of their mission. [‘whoever gives you a cup of cold water to drink...’] They are to depend on those among whom they work. Therefore, they must trust others to provide the basic necessities of life ... Jesus seeks to draw the boundaries between those who are ‘with Jesus’ to include as many people as possible. He came for sinners, not the righteous. The disciples fall into the trap that snares many religious groups: They want to restrict salvation to their group alone.”[2]

It is apparent from Jesus’ words that the work in which we are engaged as Christian people will find us gathered in odd alliances. The word of Jesus presses us to realize that the kingdom of Jesus may be bigger than we thought. Is it possible that someone may side-step a byzantine process of formal ordination to ministry and still be a believer who is as important to the work of the kingdom as the person loaded up with degrees, certificates, and framed credentials? The answer has to be yes, doesn’t it, or else the church devolves to an association only for the professionally credentialed.

The second part of the reading travels down the difficult road of hyperbole and metaphor, with severed body parts littering the landscape. Many of you may know that when a pastor is going through trials for ordination, there comes a time when we must stand before the gathered Presbytery and answer any question the presbyters – elders and pastors – see fit to ask. It can be a terrifying occasion. One age old question, sometimes asked, comes right from our reading. One bright day a young candidate for ministry was asked it, “Would you be willing to maim yourself for the glory of God?” after suffering the pompus, self-aggrandizing questions of a few members of presbytery assembled there, he replied smartly, “Sir, I would be willing for this whole Presbytery to be maimed if it would glorify God!”

When Jesus says it would be better for some terrible thing to happen – that an arm or an eye should be lost – than to miss the opportunity to be part of the new kingdom that is dawning, the emphasis is meant to be on the glory and not on the amputation. To know the love of Jesus is wonderful, so wonderful that a person would sacrifice extravagantly in order to know him. When one of our friends says, “I wouldn’t miss my son’s graduation for anything,” we don’t usually follow up their claim saying, “Really, would you give up your house? Your family? Your career?” We know they are speaking hyperbolically. The point is not that our friend will arrive at the graduation ceremony destitute and in rags. The point is that they think it would be one of life’s not-to-be-missed moments.

Next week, on World Communion Sunday of all days, we may remember this from today’s gospel, which reminds us all of the surpassing glory of knowing Christ, ministering in his name, and seeking the fellowship of others who come to him as pilgrims seeking the light of the world.

[1] William Willimon, Stanley Hauerwas, Resident Aliens, Abingdon, 1989, p. 121.

[2] William Willimon, Stanley Hauerwas, Resident Aliens, Abingdon, 1989, p. 121.