A recent book on the present and future church says most church members think faith is important, but can’t say why. Think about it. Is it easier for us to talk about Aaron Rogers or Jesus? Okay, yeah I get it. Yet if you get motivated to speak up for Jesus this week, please don’t start with today’s gospel – demons, exorcisms, and hell, “Let me tell you what I heard in church this week.” I don’t think that connects with people these days in a way that will inspire faith in God. Tell others, “Jesus is more welcoming, inclusive and committed to us, than we are to him or each other.” Let them know you don’t have to get everything right to be on Jesus’ team. His followers – meaning all of us – will be stumbling blocks to his cause, sometimes. We won’t realize when we are. Jesus loves us, and is with us anyway. He’s more interested in our faithfulness than our success. That’s all you need to know from today’s difficult gospel. So there’s your sermon – done – NOT. Sorry.
Earlier the disciples have failed to cast out a boy’s demon. Now they meet an exorcist who’s not in their club – who succeeds at what they have failed to do, just by saying Jesus’ name. They try to stop him. Jesus tells them to let it go. He’s on their team, doing what Jesus is doing. Competition and jealousy have no place with Jesus. More clergy need to get this. This fellow’s not a problem. The disciples are becoming one. Their attitude hinders Jesus’ mission. The church can do the same with squabbles, name-calling, judging others, those we don’t like. Many say God so loves the world, but you’d never know it by the way they live and treat others. Pope Francis on the other hand seems to get it right as speaks to the world’s powers, Congress – the UN. He’d rather visit with children, feed the hungry rather than eat with Senators or court the media. He mingles with wheel-chair bound, disabled teens, prisoners – Muslims, Jews, gays. His life resounds in humility – and a passion to share God’s love for the world. I don’t always agree with him, but I sure listen carefully to him. I hear humility and God’s love for all.
As I said, today’s story is not for literalists, skeptics, inquirers or Biblical newbies. I know you are highly educated students – some are graduates of EfM. You know and tell others about your faith, and communicate the biblical story. I don’t worry about you. You know strange stories really show Jesus’ powers over evil and disease, power to heal and draw us into God’s love that can flow through us. You know that people watch us to see if we live by faith or we cover and protect ourselves and our interest. They’re interested in how you treat them. As his followers we know that Jesus doesn’t literally want you to drown yourself, rip off a hand, foot, or poke out your eye so you can avoid hell. He’s letting us know that welcoming and loving those he does matters. It’s not easy to love those who make us uncomfortable. And hell is not eternal punishment, but living apart from God. As his followers we ask God to exorcise our personal evil and demons, our own inner hell – when we do as we want rather than what Jesus wants.
The church – its leaders, members and clergy – can especially be hindrances in our witness of Jesus to the world. We can become so inwardly focused – we miss the other. A guest once attended a church service and luncheon at the invitation of a friend who the church is honoring. After the luncheon, the visitor joins church members in helping put away the tables and chairs – actually having fun and chatting with folks – until a woman storms his way, pointing a finger, “That is NOT how we put away the chairs here!” Do you think she’s a stumbling block to Jesus?
Sometimes God uses stumbling blocks – not to change them, but to bring something good out of the mess they make. A seminary classmate’s wife died of pancreatic cancer last Monday. She was a pioneer in joining social work and Christian theology. As dean of the School of Social Work at our seminary she created a world class school – until a new seminary president arrived who thought Jesus opposes social work. He immediately blocks tenure for her faculty, fires Diana, and dissolves a highly-respected religious graduate program. I think even though he acted as a stumbling block, God uses his attitude and actions for good. Diana and David could have become bitter and just walked away. A year or so later, both are invited to join a world class university and a seminary where David becomes President. She brings her ideas to the small social work school there, becomes its dean and adds Masters and PhD programs. Before she died Baylor University named the social work school for her. Did God work around a stumbling block and bring good out of evil? I think so.
This week I have thought about the hell Diana and David went through. They refused to live apart from God. When Joseph forgives his brothers, he says, “Even though you intended to do me harm, God intended it for good.” When we are inspired to do good, not harm, that is God’s Spirit at work. When we simply love as Jesus loves, that’s God’s power at work in us. One day all evil will be transformed into good. God will heal us stumbling blocks. As old Yogi Berra would say, “It ain’t over until it’s over.” In God’s reign, not even then. David and Diana manifest that truth. Jesus says, “Be at peace with one another,” so we won’t make God have to work overtime. Paul says, “No matter what I say, what I believe, and what I do, I’m bankrupt without love” – the fount of God’s love flowing through us. So in words that I take to heart from this past week, I humbly ask – “And don’t forget to pray for me.” I would add, “and for each other – and for our church – and the greater church, our witness to Jesus.” My friends that is who we are. We are to live in God’s power – and none other.