Sunday sermon for September 30, 2012
Text: Mark 9:39-51
Given at Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church, New York, NY
(On occasion of receiving the David H.C. Read Preacher/Scholar Award)
I’m not entirely sure how I got here. It’s kind of shocking. I realize there’s no way to say that and sound genuine at the same time, like the guy who wins “Best Supporting Actor” and is “totally shocked!” to be up there and also has a prepared speech on a folded-up piece of paper. Which means that there’s no possible way to start this morning except by way of a word of thanks. I have spent many years trying to walk something of a narrow path between the world of academic scholarship and a life of public engagement, at times veering off to one side or another, often lamenting that the great emergent chasm between the academy and the so-called “real world” seems to leave little room for those of us with our feet firmly planted in both. In the world of ministry this chasm seems as vast as ever, and so for those of who believe as I do – for those of who us who hold to this rhapsodic dream that the life of the mind and the life of the spirit are and should be mutually entangled – surely there are few more inspirational figures than the namesake of the award that brings me here today, the longtime pastor of this congregation and longtime scholar in his own right, David H.C. Read. So I thank you: but not just for the honor of the award itself, but rather I thank you for being such powerful stewards of his legacy, and thereby helping to promote the kinds of scholarly imagination and pastoral proclamation that give me hope.
So I’m not sure how I got here but in different ways I’m even less sure how you got here. And by that I don’t mean to doubt that you could navigate through Manhattan to this place, though I do have the latest iPhone software so we’re lucky I didn’t end up at a supermarket or Giants Stadium. No, I’m not sure how you got here because you had so many options. You could have gone further uptown to Brick Presbyterian, or down to 5th Avenue. You could have walked two blocks to St. James’ Episcopal or across the park to St. John the Divine. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg, of course: you could have gone Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Hungarian Baptist, Korean Methodist; 6,000 churches in the New York area; you could have found storefront congregations, laser-light shows, prayer circles, soapbox preachers, maybe a Starbucks with a book group. Heck, you could have just stayed home and logged on, to the first church of Facebook or Twitter, or you could just pick up the remote control and find half a dozen Sunday services broadcast directly to your couch. What I’m saying is, you had options.
Maybe. Or maybe some of those other Christians make you a bit… nervous. A bit… uncomfortable. You could turn on the TV, but all you’d find are televangelists and hucksters. You could go wandering through the streets, but that soapbox preacher is spouting the worst kind of vitriol; that book group is reading the Left Behind series; that laser light show could just be a front for the most conservative sexual politics; I mean, there are some crazy Christians out there, and even some real fanatics, burning textbooks, screaming “God hates Fags,” making trash like “The Innocence of Muslims” and inviting the scorn of the world. Why is it that when Christians show up on the evening news I’m almost always on the other side of the issue? It’s like that joke about America and Britain being two people divided by a common language: maybe now we’re just two religions divided by a common Savior. And those other Christians have done such damage both to the world and to what the world thinks of Christians and so when I say I’m not sure how you got here this morning, it’s because there’s a battle going on in those streets over what that word “Christian” means, over who Jesus Christ is, and I think it takes incredible nerve to walk through the streets of the American city on a Sunday morning – I think it takes incredible nerve to walk out your door in your Sunday best and so declare to the world, “I am going to church; I believe in this story; I believe in this man Jesus Christ; I am Christian!” With the usual caveat, of course: “Don’t worry – I’m the good kind.
How did we get here? Of course a historian could give us one kind of answer, and it might be tempting to think that this turf war rode in on the wind of some historical force and so could just as easily ride out again: it’s the decline of Christendom, or it’s just the result of American pluralism; or, as my Catholic friends might suggest, that’s what you get for having a Reformation in the first place, and history will move along and politics will change and some day we will figure this out, or we won’t, either way. But text Gospel text for today tells a different story, a story in which our little turf war has its roots in the very nature of what it is to be followers of Christ. That’s what the disciples are doing, of course, literally following Christ through the Gospel of Mark. Mark has this particular interest in the supernatural, and so on several occasions the disciples have seen Jesus cast out real demons. And then on this day, the disciples come across somebody else, some other anonymous wandering rogue preacher, and he’s casting out real demons in the name of Jesus Christ.
Well, this is scandal of the first order. For any of you who are genuine rule-followers, any of you who like instructions and crave directions, any of you who have ever looked on in judgment while somebody else broke the rules and got away with it, and I’m one of you, here’s our moment. I don’t know if any of you followed a few months ago the Internet conversation about the difference between an Order Muppet and Chaos Muppet – if you didn’t, ask a friend after the service – suffice it to say that in this moment we are the Order Muppets, and the disciples have our back: “Jesus, you said to take up our cross and follow you, and we followed! We’re not always good at everything, but we’re following! You have to give us that much! And that guy, Chaos Muppet over there is throwing your name around like it was nothing, not listening, not following directions, not following you.”
And maybe they are right, but they’re also jealous, because it’s working. He’s casting out demons! In Mark, only Jesus has this kind of power – not two pages back, another man asked the disciples to cast another demon out of his son, but they couldn’t do it, they couldn’t make it work, and in today’s text, it doesn’t say he’s “trying” to cast out demons; he just waves the name of Jesus around and it works. In ancient Greek thought the name is the seat of power; to know a man’s name, to speak a god’s name is to wield kind of authority over them, to compel them to appear, to have them do your bidding; and here’s this guy just throwing Jesus’s name around like it was so much magic pixie dust, like he can just say the words “Jesus Christ!” and the demons disappear. It just works. It’s no wonder the disciples are angry: “It didn’t work for us, and it makes us look bad, and we’re supposed to be the good ones.” And so it’s no wonder that we get angry about those other Christians: they do these unspeakable things in the name of Jesus, and it works! You know, it used to be us: we built cathedrals, monuments, vast empires – but these days, they just say the magic words and “Voila.” Never mind that they’re misreading Scripture; never mind that it’s bad theology; never mind that there’s no accounting for history. They fill the pews. They make the headlines. They bring in the big money. Never mind that they break all the rules.
Angry? Jealous? John runs back to Jesus: “We found this man casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he wasn’t following us!” And that car just kind of drives itself off the road. I mean, “following us” is not what I would like for him to have said. “Following you” is surely the correct answer here. “Following us” betrays something quite a bit more uncomfortable, something underneath the anger and the jealousy, something quite a bit more like pride, like ego. The disciples were supposed to be the rule-followers, the real followers, you know, the good kind. I really wish he hadn’t said “following us,” because it lets slip a truth we would prefer not to admit: that those of us on this side of the turf war have long confused acting in the name of Jesus Christ with acting in the name of our own self-interest, have long confused following Jesus Christ with following our own ambitions. We built cathedrals, monuments, vast empires — but to whose glory? And for whose purposes? Our intentions have not always been so pure. The problem with being a rule-follower is that inevitably you have not perfectly followed the rules; the disciples may be following with their feet, but in their hearts, they follow only themselves.
And so now we’re just officially stuck. There’s a battle going on out there, and if you have come into this sanctuary seeking to understand how we got here, in this text you will find entirely too accurate an account: that from the very beginning none of us have ever followed with our whole hearts, that what we call Christian discipleship has always been this dirty alchemy of real faith and relentless self-interest, that even the best kind of Christian is still flawed and broken. But there’s a big difference between knowing how we got here and understanding what we’re supposed to do now. Just because the disciples get stuck in their pride doesn’t mean that the other guy is off the hook: he’s still not following, and if you want to tell a story about how other Christians get it wrong and don’t follow directions, it’s right here, packaged and ready to go. But in our little turf war you can just as easily tell this story the other way around: that we rule-followers are so threatened by the thought of losing our own power that we can’t imagine that anybody else could ever have a claim on the name of Jesus Christ. So if you have come into this sanctuary seeking ammunition, seeking something that will once and for all prove that the other Christians are wrong and we are right, look elsewhere. Scripture may afford you many examples. But in this particular text you will find nothing but a Rorschach test, a chance to see again whatever it is you already believe, a long hard stare into the abyss until finally it stares back.
But perhaps you have come into this sanctuary seeking something else, seeking hope. If you have, then bear with me yet one moment more, because we haven’t even listened to Jesus’ answer. The disciples tried to stop this man, but Jesus says “Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me.” Just a minute ago, we said that, in Biblical times, to speak a man’s name was to have this power over him, but here it begins to flip on its axis: do something in Jesus’s name, and then you won’t be able to speak evil; the name of Jesus Christ begins to assert itself; the name itself begins to take control. The disciples and the other guys are all pretending like Jesus’s name is this magic pixie dust, something to be so casually sprinkled over their own desires, but Jesus’s subtle answer reminds them, and reminds us, that the name of Jesus Christ is not a weapon in our armory but rather a force unto itself. The name of Jesus Christ is not how we mark the world but how God marks us – “whoever gives you a cup of water because you bear the name of Christ” – because it marks you, as it marks all of us, rule-follower and rogue alike.
And as we fight it out over who is right and wrong in the name of Christ, this text reminds us that the name itself is more powerful than any of us who try and wield it. The name wields us. So if you have come into this sanctuary seeking hope, find it here: the battle outside rages, but the name of Jesus Christ, the name first whispered at the dawn of Creation, the name spoken on the lips of prophets, the name sung by the choir of heavenly angels in days past and in days yet to come; the name of Jesus Christ is God’s promise of something far beyond ourselves, of some peaceful dawn far beyond this temporary battle, of some joyful day when we will no longer be the so-called good kind and that bothersome other kind but rather and altogether the broken and beloved children of God, humankind gathered for the feast.
For now, the battle still rages. When you leave this place today and walk back out into the streets of the city, listen carefully – the battle still rages. The headlines remind us in no uncertain terms: there are other Christians out there doing things in the name of Christ that we would oppose at the top of our lungs: they scream hatred and the judgment of a vindictive God and their voices thunder across the landscape. Surely we are called into this fray: to speak as humble witnesses to God’s grace and mercy, to speak as broken prophets of the Spirit of truth and understanding, to speak as wandering followers of this Prince of Peace. The world will do unspeakable things in his name, but by the power of the risen Christ his name can yet speak for itself. So as you leave this place, and as the sound and fury of battle set upon you, before you speak, listen carefully.
Listen carefully, and you will hear it: the name of Christ still echoing across God’s creation. The name of Christ that marks each of us as children of God’s covenant. Just outside these doors, in the great cathedrals of the city, the name of Christ echoes as the sound of God’s promise. In Sunday morning congregations of every shape and size, the name of Christ echoes as the sound of God’s faithfulness. In storefront churches and Starbucks book groups, in prayer circles gathered around soapbox preachers, in the far corners of the city, to the far corners of creation, the name of Christ echoes as the sound of God’s providence. From the dawn of the first day the name of Christ has echoed as the sound of hope, hope grounded in the knowledge that we are wielded for a purpose far beyond ourselves. It may be in these fractured times but a bare whisper, but even in that whisper is the promise of the trumpet itself, and even when we wander, and even when we are broken, it will surely lead us home, and we who have been divided against ourselves will at last sit at table together, side-by-side with our common Savior. Amen.