Ash Wednesday 2017

It’s been a year since I posted anything because of a variety of issues, both personal and ecclesial.  I spent a month in rehab last spring, due to drug dependency, and in the ensuing months I had 4 surgeries.  When I was finally able to return to my teaching job, I found a hostile work environment without compassion for anything I had been through.  Worse, the parish board of Holy Redeemer, reacting out of fear instead of information, voted to close the parish and dissolve the corporation.  There are, to be sure, a handful of loyal parishioners who remain and I am still pastor of Grace St. John’s UCC–whose people have been supportive and kind and who decided early on not to listen to rumors and gossip but instead wait to speak directly with their pastor when he returned from rehab.

If I said I wasn’t profoundly disappointed and hurt by the actions of the board of HR, I would be lying.  The parish was founded on the idea that no one was beyond the reach of grace or God’s love, and this brought together a group of people from varying backgrounds and economic situations who genuinely cared for each other.  It was an amazing group of people and I am grateful for the blessings.  I only wish they had had room in their vision of the world for a pastor who was also deserving of grace and God’s love.

Regardless, we move forward as best we can.  Tonight’s combined service with the two congregations marks the 9th year we have traveled the Lenten road together.  Here is my sermon planned for this evening:

On this night, millions of Christians around the world engage in the ancient ritual known as “the imposition of ashes.” This service marks the beginning of Lent, the forty-day period, not counting Sundays, between Ash Wednesday and Easter. The practice of using ashes as a sign of repentance goes back to the Hebrew people and was continued by Christians as early as the 2nd century.

Ash Wednesday begins the forty-day journey of Lent between Ash Wednesday and Easter. It offers us a sobering time of self-examination and conversion, to wait upon and prepare for the renewal given by God’s Spirit in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

I remember working in a parish in Wisconsin and coming into the pastor’s office, where he had placed a container of leftover ashes from Ash Wednesday on his desk.  I joked, “Whose ashes are those?”  And he answered, “All of ours!”

Ashes on our forehead remind us that human life has limits, that it comes to an end, that we will all die, leaving a lot of things unfinished.  We don’t want to admit this most days, so the ashes are offered as a reminder of our human limits and of our deep need for God.  Humility comes from humus, the Latin word for earth. The ashes are symbols of the earth, and a reminder that we are all creatures of the earth.

Ashes remind us of our mortality, but why ashes in the sign of a cross? Why not a heart for Valentine’s Day, or our maybe our initials? Why in the form of a cross?  The cross in ashes reminds us of human sin and the resulting injustice that is part of life. The cross reminds us that our innocent brother Jesus was abused and tortured and executed. Even on a somber evening like this one, the ashes in the shape of a cross remind us that the cross is not the last word—the resurrection lies beyond it.

Why be reminded of our human mortality and sin? To encourage us to fast from those attitudes and actions that drive a wedge between us and God and embrace those which bring us closer to God. The Pharisees had good intentions—to maintain the holiness of the people in the midst of foreign occupation. But their best intentions resulted in still more injustice and judgment against their fellow men and women.  That is not the kind of fasting Jesus intended for his followers.

His ministry was imbued with the prophet Isaiah’s depiction of what is pleasing to God, namely to loosen the bonds of injustice, to undo the leather straps of the yoke, to set captives free, to share our bread with the hungry and to extend hospitality to everyone, especially the most despised among us. (Isaiah 58)

Recently I had a rude awakening of my own in this regard.  I pastored a flourishing parish that prided itself on being open to all, and they loved to sing the hymn “All Are Welcome.”  All of them were for one reason or another, not welcome in any other Catholic parish, so they felt a deep connection to each other.  But then their pastor fell into an addiction and they decided they couldn’t deal with that, so they disbanded the parish and left.  “All Are Welcome” was their theme song, but there was an invisible asterisk and a footnote that said “Some Restrictions Apply.”

Only two of them ever contacted the pastor afterwards to see if he was doing alright, but most lost interest and moved on. This is not the idea of community that Jesus envisions.  In fact, Jesus condemns outward practices of worship that mask arrogant, unaccepting hearts. His disciples are not to wash their hands of the outcast in order to gain acceptance by the powerful. They are not to “give up” things in order to impress others, instead, they are to fill their days with the presence of God.

Lent is really about saying no to some things so we can say yes to others. At the outset of his ministry Jesus was tempted by Satan to say yes to the chance to use his gifts for immediate gratification of his physical needs, to say yes to the enjoyment of material wealth and the thrill of power over others. He said no to these temptations, and headed into the towns and villages to say yes to long days and nights of healing, teaching and feeding.

During Lent we Christians are called to say no to any habit that comes between God and ourselves. It might be an unhealthy physical habit: unhealthy eating patterns, drinking, drug abuse. It might be an unhealthy spiritual diet: the habit of vicious gossip, of jealousy of others’ accomplishments, or of consistently seeing the worst in people and situations. It might be indifference to the condition of the homeless and the lonely in our community. It might be the habit of judging and categorizing others to maintain our sense of superiority. It might be the tendency to see our spiritual lives as limited to one hour of worship on Sundays. It might be the habit of expecting unbroken peace and inward joy without putting in the time to cultivate our prayer relationship with God. It might be the habit of facing life’s challenges without factoring the presence of God into the equation.

When we answer Christ’s call to say no to destructive practices, energy is left to say yes to positive disciplines. We can fill the space and time left by our fasting with some positive disciplines to help us respond to God’s love more intentionally.  They are literally the highways of grace: prayer, searching the Scriptures, fasting, acts of kindness directed at creating justice, as well as regular attendance at communal worship where we meet Christ in Word and Sacrament.

Just as there are lots of things we may need to say no to during Lent, so there are many opportunities to say yes. Maybe I will see something good in a family member I find annoying. Maybe I will be more affectionate to my spouse or lover. Perhaps I will keep in better touch with my extended family. Perhaps I will improve my understanding of issues of justice for the disenfranchised.  Perhaps I will even create a new ministry of caring in my community.

In adopting positive disciplines, even when they are work, we will find new life in Jesus.  As the prophet Isaiah says “Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly” (Is. 58:8).

Starting next Tuesday, we will have Tuesday evening devotions in the lounge.  When you enter the lounge, you will find a large cross in the middle of the room, with one word emblazoned on it: YES. 

The cross in ashes on our skin is our “yes” to the kind of Lent Jesus desires for each of us. He wants us to accompany him boldly, saying “no” to that which would slow our steps and saying “yes” to that which would fill our hearts and our actions with love for him and others. The kind of Lent Jesus desires for us is the kind that prepares our hearts for a Savior who rises from the ashes of death and injustice to bring a new life of justice and joy. That new life begins today.


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Hanging Ten

Living in the so-called “Digital Age”, it’s easy to become distracted and even overwhelmed by the constant influx of information from all sides: scientific studies, breaking news, spiritual teachings, economic reports, campaign ads, etc…  It seems like no sooner have I decided I know something for sure, some new study or book or information crosses my desk causing me to second-guess, effectively undermining what had been a well-researched opinion.  After a while, we may be tempted to dismiss or ignore new information in the interest of maintaining our point of view, and this is an understandable reaction. But make no mistake: it is a reaction.  Instead of closing down our analyzing, evaluating selves, we might try instead to remain even more open, trusting that God and our own intuition will guide us.

As an example, consider the contradictory studies concerning foods that are good for us and the foods that are considered bad for us.  There are abundant studies available to us, but at some point we have to decide for ourselves about how much coffee or tomatoes or fish are good for us—or  not. The answer is different for each individual, and this is something that a scientific studies, news reports and even Dr. Oz rarely take account of.  That means all we can do is take in the information and process it through our own systems of understanding. In the end, only we can decide what information, ideas, beliefs and concepts we will integrate. Remaining open allows us to continually change and shift by checking in with our spiritual natures as well as our intuition as we learn to accommodate the new information. This may sound like a lot of work, but it also keeps us flexible and alert—even though we may sometimes feel off balance. Openness is essential to the process of growth and development.

All of this pertains to our relationship with God as well.  When we were young children, with limited understandings and a much simpler view of the universe, our faith was something solid and there was satisfaction in “knowing” that we had it all figured out. And then life happened to us, and if we were paying the least bit of attention, we had to process a lot of new information as we came to realize that young men we knew could die in wars that made no sense, that babies could die of terrible cancers and AIDS, that people who looked the same could be filled with hatred toward each other.  The most disturbing realization, of course, came with the realization that evil could exist not only in the hearts of the Hitlers and Stalins and ISIS member, but that it sometimes took a place in our own heart. Some of our generation gave up all hope.  Some of our generation lost their faith in God.  Some converted to other religions. Some found meaning in the rituals and beliefs of antiquity; others found it by inventing their own rituals and beliefs. Others, and I include myself in this latter group, found a way to make peace with the idea that we will never figure everything out, that we will always have more questions than answers, that we will forever be challenged by our choice to believe in Order over belief in Chaos.

Throughout our lives we will find very few things that do not change; for the most part we will continue to be confronted by new information along with the choice of whether to integrate it or not. That is life.  That is part of being human. And it is one of the many reminders of Lent. If we see ourselves as static beings in a static universe with God as a distant, unchanging Force, we will surely die of thirst in the wasteland.  But if we choose to see ourselves as surfers riding the incoming waves of information and inspiration, always open and willing to attune ourselves to the continuous movement, we will see how blessed we are to have this opportunity to play on the waves and to actually enjoy the ride.

Wishing you a gnarly week of hanging ten,

Fr. Michel

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Tasting the Victory

We’re coming up on an important celebration in the life of the Church Universal, the Feast of Christ the King, or The Triumph of the Reign of God, and already I’m getting swept up in the powerful statement of faith that this day holds for each of us.  Life is so challenging sometimes, and tragedy and loss threaten to derail us and maybe question whether God is really in charge after all.  But then comes this special Sunday, and we’re drawn once more into a quiet inner place where we simply KNOW that, of course, love will always triumph.

Our lives are created on a moment-to-moment basis. Every one of the thoughts we think, the words we speak, and the actions we take contributes to the complex quality and character of the Reign of God unfolding. It is simply not possible to be alive without making an impact on the world that surrounds us. Every action taken affects the whole as greatly as every action not taken. And when it comes to making the world a better place, what we choose not to do can be just as impactful as what we choose to do.

For example, when we neglect to feed the hungry, recycle, speak up for justice, vote for candidates that share our ideals, or help somebody in immediate need, we deny ourselves the opportunity to be an agent for God’s dream for humanity. And likewise, we withhold something potentially precious for someone else who might then be empowered to make her or his own contribution to the final victory of Heaven. To decide not to do something can, in fact, enable a particular course to continue unchallenged, picking up speed even as it goes along. (Think of the obvious example of Nazi Germany in the late 1930s.) By holding the false belief that our tiny actions make little difference, we will find ourselves deciding not to act more often than we might expect. Alternatively, if we see ourselves as important participants in an ever-evolving world, in an ever-expanding awareness of the impending Reign of God, we will feel more inspired to contribute our unique perspective and gifts to such a proposition.

It is wise to be somewhat selective about how and where we are using our energies and gifts in order to keep ourselves from becoming scattered. Not every cause or action is in the highest or best interest for every person.  However, when a situation catches our attention, and speaks to our heart, that is a sign of the presence of the Holy Spirit.  It’s important that we honor this impulse and determine how to take the action that feels right for us. And it’s not generally going to be something extravagant or dramatic.  It may be offering a kind word to an unpopular student, helping a neighbor rake her leaves, or –God forbid– just taking responsibility for our own behavior. By doing what we can, when we can, we add positive energy to our world, change the trajectory of someone else’s life, and most importantly, advance the unstoppable, irresistible onslaught of the love of Our God. It might just be your smallest act of kindness that finally tips the scales and effects the final victory.

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“He’s Calling YOU!”

In 2011, a national news report detailed the story of an adult man who received his sight back through the wonders of North American medicine. An interviewer asked the man, “What’s life like now? Tell us what does it mean to after all these years suddenly be able to see?” And the man initially said what you would expect—things like colors are amazing and it’s a wonderful gift to be able to see the faces of those that he loved. But the interviewer expected him to say those things. He wanted the man to say something extraordinary, something totally unexpected about how his life had changed since getting his sight back. So he asked him, “What’s the most unexpected thing?” The formerly blind man said that the most incredible thing was watching the leaves falling every autumn. He said, “I know that leaves fall. I know that people rake them and put them in piles and burn them. But I’d always imagined that the leaves would come down all at once, like a blanket. I didn’t know that when leaves fall that they float and glide and turn in the wind as they come down to the ground. It’s beautiful.”

In other words, the greatest beauty he saw was in dying things. The leaves are dying and that’s why they fall to the ground.  And that’s what is happening in this account about Bartimaeus. People are seeing Jesus and they are expecting something from him, something extraordinary. They are expecting him to make their lives easier.  Bartimaeus is here to remind us that Jesus makes ordinary life end. There’s an end of self, an end of what you were before. As a result, everything that was attached to you, including your limitations, are coming to their end as well. So that in the extraordinary life that Jesus is granting us, limitations are no longer liabilities. They actually become the means by which God is going to demonstrate God’s power and love.

If we want to think about the life that Jesus brings us, we just need to find our way through this account of Bartimaeus and see what’s changing. The lifeless ordinary for Bartimaeus begins with seeing more than others: they see a healer, he sees the Messiah and fulfillment of ancient promises. But it’s more than that. Somehow Bartimaeus says Jesus is not just the fulfillment of promise; Jesus also brings the mercy of God, so he cries out, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” He’s destitute and desperate. He knows he can’t help himself, but at the same time he senses that his limitations are going to become part of Jesus’ ministry.

It turns out our expectations can delude us.  When I was first accepted into the diaconal program through the Eparchy of Chicago, I thought to myself, “Well, finally I will become spiritual and all that holiness in the seminary program and just being on seminary grounds will be a holy experience—so it will surely rub off on me!” What I really found was something quite different.  I discovered that my limitations, my lack of holiness, my lack of ability in certain areas were suddenly all the more obvious. Instead of having those limitations disappear, they became all the more obvious to me.  It turned out I was not the best in every subject and by the same token, the atmosphere was often anything but holy.  That’s because others’ limitations were also made manifest. Without faith in Jesus, every one of us might have despaired and abandoned our vocations.

But the realization that Our God, through Jesus, fulfills every promise and gives every mercy we need starts to perolate into our consciousness. And we realize that it’s precisely the limitations that God wants most of all to do something amazing through us. In other words, we come to a place where we not only see more than others, we come to find the courage to risk more than others. Risking is also part of this life Jesus offers us.

It means something for blind Bartimaeus the beggar to call to Jesus as the Son of David. He keeps saying it and the crowd keeps saying, “Shut up! Remember who you are, blindman!  You depend on our charity and assitance, you need our approval.  So just shut up!” So he is literally risking life and livelihood and any future in this village in order to proclaim that this is the Promised One. Just like every one of us has taken some level of risk for the sake of the Gospel.

We’ve taken some big steps by choosing to be part of this congregation/to be a foundational member of this parish. We want to share the love and mercy of God with others, but can we keep doing it even if God expands our view of reality? What if God calls us to reach out to people who will never have money or influence or power? (HR: Would we actually start a church in a place where people need us more than we need them?) Would we believe so much in a God of promise and mercy that we would risk it all for the sake of that call? And what if we realized that all things we don’t like about ourselves, all the things we see as limitations are not, in fact, limitations at all?  What if our vision were opened to the reality that our limitations might be just the things God is looking for so we can be sent by God to fulfill a deeper calling to impact the world—far beyond what we once thought?

Sometimes the greatest comfort comes from paying closer attention to the Scriptures.  At the end of verse 49 when Jesus stops after hearing Bartimaeus crying out, he say’s “Call him.” And the crowd says to the blind man, “Take heart. He’s calling you.” And for all of us, who from time to time are very aware of our limitations, maybe we need to remember that limitations are not liabilities when it comes to building the Reign of God. When we see our limitations most clearly, they hold the potential for us to magnify the greatness of the promises and the mercy of God. So this passage says to each one of us today, “Get up. He’s calling you. Your limitations are not liabilities; they are doors into the victory of Our God if we are still willing to follow.

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God is Still Giving

“And as he was setting out on a journey a man ran up and knelt before him…..” There’s an intensity about this young man because the Greek word used isn’t simply “ran”, it’s “raced up to him.”  This is someone who feels an urgent inner need to be and do better than he has ever done before. And we know nothing about him; we don’t have a name or job title or even a city of residence. Maybe that’s Mark’s clever way of inviting all of us to identify with this guy.  We learn from the conversation that he is a successful person; he’s a good person who has done all the things he was taught he “ought” to do. He has achieved some success and he has some material wealth as a result of his hard work.

At this point, in hearing his story, we realize that although we are separated by 20 centuries, we have some things in common with him. We can totally identify with his working hard to be a success in the world. We can also identify with his interior, spiritual side as well. “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” We carry the same questions about what is of real value in this life, and the longer we are alive, the more questions we have.

Questions of meaning and value are beginning to surface in this guy’s life–the road he’s traveling is beginning to look like I-65 between Merrillville and Indianapolis: nothing of interest to see and no exits anywhere around. The young man finds himself in a crisis of faith, and he has come to wonder about what his race to success really means. I think this happens to most of us, generally after age 40, when we look back and wonder what we’ve accomplished, whether it was all worth the effort and what the remaining years should be spent doing so that in another 40 years, if we are lucky enough to live to that point, we can look back with some degree of peace and satisfaction.

Perhaps we’re coming into a fuller appreciation of the old Peggy Lee song, “Is That All There Is?”  We’ve reached a stable plateau, our kids are either grown and gone or at least they’re less and less dependant on us.  We lose a parent or maybe both. And the prospect of getting older and being unable to do what we want with our remaining years haunts us, especially when we find ourselves getting up for the 4th or 5th time to use the bathroom in the middle of the night.

“Is this all there is?” Where are the rewards I should get for having played by the rules?  Where are the blessings I should be experiencing for having loved God and having kept the bulk of the commandments?  “You know the commandments,” says Jesus, and then he lists them. “I’ve kept these since I was just a kid,” replies the man. And so have we, most of them, most of the time. We’ve been running all our lives by all the admonitions of home, family, church and culture: brush your teeth and don’t forget to floss, say your prayers, work hard, obey the law, get ahead, save for retirement. The young man followed the rules, lived by all the imperatives imposed on him from the outside. So have we. That’s the way we all grow—our parents command, our teachers teach, our church preaches, society imposes its models and definitions on us.

But sooner or later we get to the point where we have to do the deciding and choosing on our own. The running man had reached that point. Mark tells us that Jesus looked at him and loved him, because He understood completely.  “You lack one thing: go, sell what you own, give the money away, and you will have treasure in heaven, then come, follow me.” Throughout the history of the Church there have been those who took those words literally, like St. Francis. Whether we take them literally or not, Jesus is asking us to sever ties with all lesser things and depend only on him.  So often our possessions represent our dependencies.

Jesus was asking the rich young man–and us–to untie ourselve from the things that only provide temporary meaning.   Possessions are one of those attachments, but there are certainly others. Think of the Israelites being held captive by Pharoah.  For generations they believed that it was Pharoah who had the power to either hold them captive or let them go.  It turned out the reverse was true.  They chose to allow Pharoah to hold them captive because it gave them a sense of identity, a sense of a predictable life, and a a sense of assurance.

The theme of surrender emerges in this encounter, and really, isn’t surrender just another word for “dying?” Most of us think of death and resurrection as experiences at the end of life, not as an ongoing cycle of possibilities all the way through this life. It is a daily opportunity if we’re paying attention. As Christians we have to die to many things during a lifetime if we are to experience any new possibility.  Sometimes the Pharaoh in our lives is the role we play. Think of being a parent.  There are certainly enough challenges and satisfactions and disappointments as live more deeply into that role. When our kids are young, we think we can’t wait until they are grown and gone so we can resume our lives. But then the last one does move out, and suddenly the house is very quiet and empty.  We’ve been a parent for so long, we don’t remember anything else—and there is a crisis of identity.

Sometimes it’s the opposite.  Sometimes a parent will cling tenaciously to their role that they will try constantly to control, advise, manipulate and otherwise direct their children’s lives, never letting them grow up.

Daring to risk to die to old dependencies is what resurrection faith is all about. It’s hard to do. When the rich young man heard what Jesus was asking him to do with his possessions, “he was shocked and went away grieving, because he had many possessions.” In reality, his possessions had him. He was so close to finding the answer to his deepest needs, but he wasn’t paying attention to what was being said.  He didn’t really hear what he was saying in his own question: “What must I do to inherit eternal life.” If you’re going to inherit something, this usually means someone has to die first, and in this case, his own words revealed the truth that parts of himself were needing to die. Maybe that’s why Jesus just looks at him and loves him just as he is. It’s the same way he looks at you and me: he just looks and loves us as we are.  But rather than pulling up a chair and resting in that unconditional love, finding new meaning for life in that love, the young man walked away. Just like you and I walk away.

In a few minutes you and I are coming to a eucharistic feast where God takes some possessions—bread and wine, time and talent and treasure and lives we have offered, transforms them, and gives them back to us as something new and different–redeemed to become instruments of God’s power and presence in this time and place. And he gives us his own self.

The God who gave everything gives everything still.

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Sugar, How You Get So Fly??

Humans are so interesting and paradoxical! None of us enjoys the company of those whose attitudes are persistently negative. I have several students who fall into that category and if they should miss a test question, for example, it’s never due to their own lack of studying or preparing, it’s always my fault “for not teaching it to us.”  These are the ones who, alas, will probably carry their negative chatter into adulthood unless they come to see how harmful that is. We are so accustomed to the stream of self-limiting, critical consciousness that winds its way through our thoughts, we are often unaware of the impact these thoughts have on our lives. It is only when we become aware of the power of such thoughts that we can rid ourselves of them and fill up on gratitude and the positive outlook that comes from trusting deeply in the God who made us. If we just take a few minutes to examine our thinking and the way our mind works while are, say, driving home from work, a lot of us might be shocked at how much negativity is lurking within our heads. When we take notice of involuntary thoughts in a non-judgmental way, i.e., without getting down on ourselves and thinking we’re “bad”, we can more easily set these thoughts aside.  Like most healings, this is a process that could take some time.

While the occasional negative or judgmental thought may be seen as having little impact on the overall quality of our life, these things can have a subtle effect on our prayer life, the way we view God, and even cause us to question or doubt the love we have from others. We spend a lot of time worrying about how to “change” external situations when, in reality, we can only change ourselves.  As every Benedictine discovers the first time he reads the Rule, Benedict gives us a lot of meditations and instruction on learning how to listen to and observe the most authentic reality we can ever experience: the Presence of God. When we enter into prayerful silence and become aware of the tone of our thoughts, we can choose to challenge and change them.

A good starting point might be to take a single day when we know we’ll be largely undistracted, and attempt to be conscious about our feelings, opinions, and judgments for that day. From rising in the morning to going to bed in the evening, we could evaluate the messages we are silently repeating to ourselves in our subconscious mind. Try to be objective, considering the situation from a detached distance and simply note the existence of negative, ungrateful thoughts.  Don’t judge yourself and put yourself down, simply observe the flow of your consciousness and keep a record of the number of times you find yourself focusing on the negative or on judging yourself or others.
As we become increasingly aware of our patterns of thought, both positive and negative, we will gradually learn where our resistance to gratitude lies.  Remember that just because a thought or idea passes through your mind that does not mean they are always a true picture of who you are, even though they have the power, if held in mind, to shape you—for better or worse—into someone you may or may not want to be.

In training yourself to be cognizant of your thoughts, you gain the ability to actively engage in prayerful gratitude at all times, which is after all what St. Paul recommends we do. This inner awareness will eventually enable you to create an authentic foundation of real gratitude for all that God has done and is doing in your life right now.

Have a great week!

Fr. Michel

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Who’s In? Who’s Out?

From the earliest days of the church, people have worried and fussed over who is in and who is out and who gets to decide and how they get to decide these things. In the Gospel reading we just heard, from Mark’s gospel, the disciples are disturbed about just such a situation. They go to Jesus to report the problem, “Teacher, there is someone casting out demons in your name. “ Why does this bother them? I mean, what is the problem?  That someone is casting out demons in the name of Jesus? Isn’t that a good thing? Why are they worried? Are they worried about competition? Are they worried because of denominational differences? Are they worried because his theology was too liberal or too conservative? If this other person is healing people and doing God’s work, why is there a problem?

The disciples soon disclose exactly what’s on their mind. “Teacher, this person isn’t following us.” Aha! “…not following us.” Notice they don’t say, “He’s not following you, Jesus. They say, “ He’s not following us.” It’s that old us versus them theology. That was the problem. It was a problem for the disciples as it continues to be a problem in the church universal today. Whenever we slip into “us” versus “them” theology, we are betraying the fact that we have momentarily forgotten our mission. When we practice “gate keeping” (carefully monitoring who can come in and who can’t), we forget why we’re here. When we draw the circle smaller, not wider, we ignore the mission of God. And what is God’s mission? To share and to demonstrate the love of God that we have experienced in Jesus Christ. Many of the mainline churches seem to be arguing constantly over who can serve and who can’t. We discuss and disagree and sometimes even fight about these things at regional gatherings and national conventions—despite the fact that issues relating to who is worthy and who is unworthy to engage in ministry were not an issue with Jesus. Jesus is not terribly concerned about the newcomer casting out demons in his name. He says, “Do even both trying to stop this person because no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able to speak ill of me.”   To me the message is clear: We need to look beyond our theological differences. We need to look beyond our denominational differences. We need to look beyond the color of our skin and beyond the languages that we speak and learn to serve God together and to do ministry together; to work together side by side doing flood cleanup; serving in soup kitchens, collecting donations of food for the food pantry; bringing in shoes and belts for exoffenders, etc…

Christians come in different flavors. We are different and that’s good. We need to celebrate our differences and our diversity, and not worry so much about getting others to conform to our way of thinking and doing things- as if ours was (and is) the only way of doing things. Jesus himself gives us a guideline: “Whoever is not against us, is for us.” There are a great many people who are non-Christian who are just as dedicated as we are to feeding the hungry, to changing social institutions so that justice might become a reality for the marginalized, to being open and inclusive and respectful of everyone.  All of this is about doing God’s work—even if the person doing the work is an atheist or someone who was so harmed by the Church that now she can only feel resentment toward all religion.

Jesus wanted his disciples to take the practice of ministry seriously: he wants us to take it seriously as well.  Our lives are supposed to manifest the living presence of the One who sent us forth as healers and disciples and that’s pretty serious. And then Jesus says something so weird, something that has disturbed me since I was a young boy.  “If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off. If your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off. If your eye causes you to stumble, pluck it out.” What?!  If we took that part of Scripture literally, the world would be filled with footless, handless blind people because just about every sin I can think of involves those things. But Jesus isn’t suggesting that we actually do these things; he’s using HYPERBOLE.  He uses exaggerated language to make a point: you and I are supposed to assist, aid, nurture and otherwise help others in their journey of faith. We were never called to hinder someone’s journey or to interfere in her or his experience of God.

In the 2,000 plus years of the Christian movement there has been one consistently large obstacle to people following Jesus with their whole heart and mind.  Can you guess what that is?  It’s the fact that there are Christians in the world and how we treat each other. It’s shameful and embarrassing! Why would anyone want to become a Christian, when on any given day we can find Christians badmouthing each other, badmouthing their pastors, their neighbors and friends. This negative behavior has the potential of undermining everything else we do, even the noble, self-less things. When we do these kinds of things, when we insert ourselves into another person’s faith journey and actually get in the way of grace or what God is trying to accomplish with and through that person, we cause real harm to someone else.

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