Exorcisms, the Pope, and Radically Inclusive Healing Love. A sermon on Mark 9:38-50

Mark 9:38-50

38 John said to Jesus, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” 39 But Jesus said, “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. 40 Whoever is not against us is for us. 41 For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward. 42 “If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea. 43 If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. 44 45 And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell. , 46 47 And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell, 48 where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched. 49 “For everyone will be salted with fire. 50 Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.”

I have to confess that never during my years as an ordained pastor, nor in any time before ordination, have I been present for an exorcism. No one has invited me to one, and I haven’t stumbled upon one, either. Now, I’m sure our advances in scientific understanding have contributed to the infrequency of demons getting cast out of people in our culture. I expect the Church’s tendency to let others, perhaps to a fault, take the lead in healing work has as well. But in any case, I have to believe that if I saw something so powerful taking place, I would not get in the way of it. I can’t imagine that I would say, “Stop all of this great work of healing and wholeness!”

So as hard as it is for me to intellectually grasp the possibility of an exorcism, the reaction of the disciples in this passage is even more unbelievable. How did it go? One day John and some other followers of Jesus happened to notice a crowd of villagers celebrating around one of their neighbors who had been restored to health miraculously. They came closer and discovered another man at the center whom everyone held responsible for the healing, though he himself gave all credit to Jesus. Then the disciples, who were just coming off a failed exorcism attempt of their own, it should be noted, instinctually shut it down. Apparently they were successful at this, stopping the man. They got the outsider to quit healing people, to quit setting people free from evil powers before they reported back to Jesus, bragging about what they had done. And they expected Jesus to commend them? That’s what sounds so impossible to me.

We have heard Jesus teach quite clearly the past few weeks—so I assume they heard it, too—that winning is not the real goal. You gain your life by losing, Jesus said. Serving others is what true greatness looks like. Don’t hope for fame and glory for yourself. Take as your role model in life a little child instead, for in welcoming such a child you are living out your true purpose. But right after hearing all of this, they came back to Jesus and seemed to say, “Thanks for all the nice things you’ve been saying about self-emptying discipleship, but aren’t you proud of us for stopping this other guy who isn’t on our team?”

Flannery O’Connor once insightfully commented that in the land of the nearly blind, you need to draw really big caricatures. So if this Gospel passage seems to make a caricature out of John and the other disciples, maybe that’s because we ourselves have such a hard time seeing. No, I’ve personally never prevented a successful exorcism and I doubt you have either, but I know there have been times when I have defined too narrowly where and through whom God might perform healing work. For instance, do I rejoice as much with the person who found healing in a Buddhist meditation as the one who discovered similar peace in Christian centering prayer? Maybe, but maybe not. Or, to use another example, am I quite as ready to celebrate with the Baptists in what they have been doing to put an end to harmful payday lending practices as I am with our own efforts and the efforts of the coalition we have worked so hard to form. It’s different somehow, isn’t it? But if healing is the goal, then why does it matter who performs it? If liberation is what we seek, why would it matter who the liberator is?

Today Jesus reminds John and any of his followers who might get overly excited about themselves that he isn’t interested in gathering the best disciples into his tribe like a player trying to draft the best fantasy football team. This is not a competition with other healers and other servants of the common good. Quite the contrary, the Bible reminds us that God’s imagination for what the world can be like is typically much more inclusive than the imagination of God’s people. As one theologian put it, “Whenever you want to draw lines in order to mark who is outside God’s vision and who is inside, always remember: Jesus is on the other side of the line! Jesus is always with the outsiders!”

The first task of a disciple is to be where Jesus is, so prepare to be surprised.

This week we’ve seen Jesus in Washington, which might be surprising enough. Now I’m not suggesting that Pope Francis is any kind of Messiah. You and I might have significant differences of opinion with him on a whole number of issues. But how can we as followers of the Jesus described in Mark’s Gospel not respond with enthusiastic prayers of thanksgiving when we hear his clear call to welcome the immigrant, to seek economic justice, to protect and nurture the earth, to put an end to war and militarism, to show mercy to all who are hurting. These are the kinds of issues Christians should be known for at least as much as, say, salt is known for making your popcorn taste better. The work of service, healing, liberation, and justice—all of that is just the church being church. It is who we are. Those few dramatic verses at the end of the Gospel passage today are not to be taken literally but are a hyperbolic way of telling us to get serious about our priorities. We know that preserving our body’s wholeness is important to us; wholeness of a community that serves everyone, including the most vulnerable, should also be so crucial.

Last week, a small group of Holy Trinity members got together to begin dreaming about the future of our children, youth, and family ministries here. There’s a lot of excitement around recent growth in this area. Sue Megrund from Interserve Youth Ministries has been working with us in this dreaming, and she asked us in that meeting last week to name some important values that we share in this congregation. What are our priorities? Ministry with young people should arise out of the overall ministry of this place, so what’s important to us? People named inclusivity, justice, community, hospitality, tradition, creativity, learning, and activism. There may be others, but you probably would name some of those, too. They are important values of Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, and they are values that should consistently guide our decisions as a congregation on everything from committee projects to building renovation, as we’ll discuss later today. But there was another part to this conversation last week. A couple of people said that while service and social justice have long been important values of this congregation, they sense some nuance to that recently. That is, they believe the congregation has begun to recognize in a new way that we are called both to serve and to be served. We have much to give others, and we have much to receive from others. We have much to teach, and we have much to learn. We can offer a cup of water, but we will need such hospitality offered to us, as well. In other words, many of us are recognizing more and more the reality of our shared vulnerability as human beings in this world, and I believe Christ is powerfully present in our acknowledging it. We are all in need of healing of some sort or another, which is why God chooses to include all of us in a ministry of healing. We are bound up with one another, and any attempts to build walls between us just diminishes God’s liberating work.

At the Youth Gathering in Detroit last summer, one of the speakers we heard from in Ford Field stadium was Rozella White, the ELCA Director for Young Adult Ministry. She is a talented leader who speaks and writes powerfully about Christian faith and a number of social issues. She describes herself as a 33year-old, divorced, Black, Puerto Rican, 3rd generation Lutheran. She said to the Gathering that she also lives with depression and anxiety. She takes 40 milligrams of Prozac, .25 milligrams of Xanax, and Vitamin D supplements daily, medications which are for her non-negotiable. She said if she doesn’t get 8 hours of sleep a night, things start to unravel. If she does not see her therapist regularly, her mind goes to dark places.

As she told her story, she also described her participation in Redeemer Lutheran Church in Atlanta, Georgia. “This church,” she said, “is responsible for loving me back to life. They cared for me in my deepest and darkest hours.”

During her talk that night, Rozella White broke the chains of stigma that so often surround mental illness and can therefore prevent healing. She said, “I still have difficult days. I still have moments of despair. I still wonder if my life is worth living. But I am actively in the process of seeking healing and wholeness, and I am committed to make sure that everyone I encounter knows that they are loved and that they are worthy and that they are enough.”

Hearing her describe her life and ministry was for me a powerful reminder not only of the multiple sources of healing but also of how someone can at once be getting healed and a healer. You can’t make clear lines of distinction. In fact, given the urgency of the needs in our world, we don’t have time for squabbling about who is who, who’s in and who’s not, who’s the doer and who’s the receiver. Christ meets us in the fullness of who we are, each of us, so that all may be made whole. Would that all people were prophets of God’s healing love.

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