A sermon, based on Mark 9.38-50, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 19th Sunday after Pentecost, September 30, 2018
“Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.”
Usually Peter is the disciple most afflicted with the existential malady of what I call “cluelessity;”(1) a profoundly deeper state of cluelessness. Today, it’s John who exhibits a stubborn obtuseness that cannot comprehend the theological and ethical dimensions of Jesus’ teaching; regarding the latter, what it looks like when one does what Jesus says.
Jesus journeys to Jerusalem not for his do-or-die moment, but rather for his do-and-die confrontation with all who reject his proclamation of the nearness of God’s kingdom of love and justice for all. A dire clash with his antagonists that he knows he will not survive. John, of all times, picks this moment to report to Jesus, at best, with mistaken loyalty, “someone (is) casting out demons in your name,” at worst, with misguided pride, “(who is) not following us.”
Us? The disciples? They who hardly are models of fidelity to Jesus and his gospel?
The same self-seeking disciples who followed Jesus looking for glory, who yearned for a crown, not a cross, thus, for whom Peter spoke when rebuking Jesus for daring to predict his suffering and death?(2)
The same self-centered disciples who thought all blessings and benefits were for them and about whom a father of a sick child complained to Jesus, “I asked (them) to (heal him), but they could not”?(3)
The same self-obsessed disciples who argued about who among them was the greatest, leading Jesus to teach them again that greatness is self-sacrificial service for others, especially the needy, the small, the poor?(4)
Yes, those disciples? And, yes, I confess, also me.
When I look at my life’s record as a disciple of Jesus, both as layperson and as a priest, I have experienced more times of cluelessity than clarity. Moments when (when I am honest!) I needed to cry, paraphrasing that petition of Richard of Chichester: Day by day, O, dear Lord, three things I pray: to see thee more clearly because I don’t and to love thee more dearly and to follow thee more nearly, for, because I don’t see you clearly, I can’t.
So, I take comfort in Jesus’ reply to John: “Whoever is not against us is for us.” How mercifully generous! Jesus includes among his followers those who are for him, all seekers of his word and way, all strivers to do his will. And those who are not against him. That includes the confused and undecided. A group to which, I also confess, I sometimes belong. And the apathetic, the lethargic. Another group of which, at times, I’m a card-carrying member.
For, truth is, my inability to see, love, and follow Jesus most often is less about my confusion and indecision and more about my unwillingness. For I have a good idea of how to deny myself and take up my cross and follow Jesus.(5) And, as for the content of this good idea, I refer you to Matthew, chapters five through seven, Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount where Jesus offers manifold images and actions of what it looks like to follow him. For example, turning my other cheek to an offender,(6) loving and praying for my enemies,(7) refusing to practice my piety before others to win their praise,(8) refusing to judge others,(9) and refusing to worry about my life.(10) Thus, depending on the example, when I don’t do or do these things, it’s not because I understand not, but because I choose not, which is rooted in my sin of self: self-interest, self-aggrandizement, self-attainment, self-enhancement, self-protection.
And that – the sin-of-self whenever we, concerned only for our glory and greatness, our blessings and benefits, prevent another from seeing, loving, and following Jesus – is the point of his harsh, hard-to-hear, but, thank God, metaphorical instruction expressed in the language of self-mutilation: “If our hands, feet, eyes cause us to stumble, cut them off, tear them out.” For Christian life and labor, vocation and virtue are not, are never about us, but rather always about who we and others can become in him.
So, day by day, O, dear Lord, three things we pray: to see thee more clearly, to love thee more dearly and to follow thee more nearly, day by day.
(1) One of my original additions to the English language lexicon.
(2) Mark 8.32
(3) Mark 9.18b; my emphasis and parenthetical emendations
(4) Mark 9.33-35
(5) Mark 8.34
(6) Matthew 5.39
(7) Matthew 5.44
(8) Matthew 6.1a
(9) Matthew 7.1
(10) Matthew 6.25