Sunday, September 30, 2018

19 Pentecost

The relics of "St. Incognito" from the book Heavenly Bodies
September 30, 2018

Numbers 11.4-6, 10-16, 24-26; Mark 9:38-50

+ Come, O Holy Spirit, come!
Come as the fire and burn,
Come as the wind and cleanse,
Come as the light and lead.
Increase in us your gifts of grace.
Convict, convert and consecrate us, until we are wholly yours.

Tomorrow is a very momentous day in my life. Ten years ago, on October 1, 2008, I officially became the Priest-in-Charge of St. Stephen’s.  
I am, this morning, very grateful to God for these ten years. They have been wonderful. I’ve said it before. I will say it many times again and again:  I love being the Priest of St. Stephen’s.
But I will say that, on the whole, these past ten years have been difficult years for me personally. In addition to losing both of my parents, I have also had to struggle at times with the larger Church—capital C. And doing so has been unpleasant at times. I’ll get into that in a bit.

First, in this morning’s Gospel, we find one of Jesus’ chosen inner circle coming to him and complaining about someone—an outsider, not one of the inner circle of Jesus’ followers—who is casting out demons in Jesus’ name.  We don’t know who this person was—we never hear anything more about him. Possibly it was one of those many multitudes of people who were following him around, observing all that he had done. Possibly it was someone who was trying to be like Jesus.  More likely it was a genuine follower of Jesus who simply had not—for whatever reasons—made it into the inner circle of Jesus’ followers.

However, the apostles do not like it. They are threatened by this person—this outsider.  And because he is an outsider, they want it stopped.  So, thinking he will put an end to it, they go to Jesus. You can almost hear them as they whine and complain to him about this supposedly pretentious person.

But Jesus—once again—does not do what they think he will do.  Jesus tells them two things: first

“for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me.”

And the big one—the most obvious one (you would think)—

Whoever is not against us is for us.”

Now, it’s a great story. And we have some very powerful characters in this story. We have, of course, Jesus, who is, as he should be, the center piece of this story. We have these apostles, who complain and whine.

But, the one I want to draw your attention to is that outsider. For the sake of continuing to call him an outsider, let’s just call him another name. Let’s name him Saint Incognito, the wannabe apostle.

Now, I will be honest this morning. It is certainly St. Incognito I feel the closest to in this Gospel story. I relate to him.


Because I am him.

Yes, I know: I am a uniform wearing ordained minister of the Church. But never once in all of these years I’ve been ordained, have I ever once felt like I’m some part of the inner circle of the Church. I have always felt sort of like St. Incognito, out there on the fringes, following Jesus from afar, trying to be a faithful disciple, but never feeling like I’m one of the “chosen few.” And I know several of you have felt this way too in your journey of following Jesus.

Now, I’ve shared this illustration with you before. But when I was in graduate school the first time, getting my Master of Fine Arts Degree, I wrote my thesis on the two perspectives of literature, in my opinion. All writers have either one of two perspectives to their writing, I argued (and still argue).

Those who are on the “inside” looking “out.”

And those on the “outside” looking “in.”

Perspective is everything in literature. And certainly also in life.

Many of us feel like we’re either on the outside or the inside of life or society or the Church (capital C).  And for me, I have always seen myself on the outside, looking in. St. Incognito is the patron saint of all those outsiders.
Now the apostles say to Jesus, “…we tried to stop him because he does not follow us.”

That may be true. He is not following these apostles. But…he is, it seems, following Jesus in some way. He is aware of Jesus. He is casting out demons in Jesus’ name (and the demons,  very importantly, are actually being cast out, if you notice). He is following Jesus in what he has observed and what he does.
But…he is not following in the way these apostles think he should be following.  He is following from afar.

And as a follower of Jesus, it’s not always a pleasant place to be.  It’s actually a very hard place to be.  It’s hard to follow Jesus under any circumstances. But it is especially hard to follow Jesus when one is not part of the “inner group.” It is hard to follow Jesus from afar. And it’s hard to be one who is shunned by those inner few.

Luckily the one who doesn’t shun St. Incognito in our reading for today is, of course, Jesus. Now, you would think that we—the Church—would have learned from this story. You think we would have been able to have heard this story and realized that, if we are all working together for the same goal—for the furthering of the Kingdom of God in our midst—then, we are all working together in Jesus’ name.

But the fact is, we have not quite “got it.” There are still Christians—ordained and not ordained—who still strut around, proud of the fact that they figured it all out.

We’re right, they say.

We’re orthodox—we’re right thinking.

And everyone else who isn’t…well…here’s the shoulder.

Here’s the backside.

Here’s the shun.

Let’s face it, the Church—capital C—is an imperfect structure.  It has the same faults and failings of all human-run organizations—no matter how blessed it claims to be by God. I will admit one thing to you—and for those of you who have come to know me in these last 10 years at St. Stephen’s, this comes as no great surprise—but, I have a love-hate relationship with the organized Church.

Now, I want to be clear: I truly love the Church. I love serving God’s people within the structure of the Episcopal Church and I definitely love serving here at St. Stephen’s. I love the Church’s traditions.  I love its liturgy.  As I’ve mentioned many times here before you, I love being a priest.

And, on really good days, I am so keenly aware that the Church truly is a family. We are a family that might not always get along with each other, but when it comes right down to it, my hope is we still  do love each other .

And I have never seen that more keenly than here at St. Stephen’s. Certainly, we here, at St. Stephen’s, are very much a  family.

Now I know St. Stephen’s has a reputation. It has a reputation of being an upstart congregation, a congregation that protests, that stands up and says no to injustice and hypocrisy.  It has a reputation of being a thorn in the side of some people.

But even so, I will be just as honest that there are many days in which I find being a member of the Church—capital C— a burden. And being a member of the Church who is often viewed as an outsider of that Church is definitely a burden sometimes.  The Church—as most of us know—can be a fickle place to be at times. It can be a place where people are more interested in rules and dogmas and a right interpretation of scripture and of church law than a place that furthers the love of God and of each other.  It can be a place where people are so caught up in being orthodox, so caught up in being right, in being smart and clever, that they run rough-shod over people who truly need the Church and who truly long for and truly serve God.

Sometimes people are shocked to hear that I—an ordained priest—would even dare profess the hate side of my love-hate relationship with the Church.  And it definitely boggles their minds that I—a collar-wearing priest—would be one of those outside the “inner circle” of the Church.  But not being honest about it only helps perpetuate the hypocrisy the Church so often is accused of.

When I look at the Church at its worse right now I can honestly and clearly hear the voices of those disciples of Jesus in this morning’s Gospel.  I can hear their statement as one of anger and one of frustration and one of jealousy. 

On the other hand, I see people in the Church, at times, as making a real solid effort to be what Jesus wanted it to be.  If I didn’t believe that, I wouldn’t be in the Church.

One aspect of the Church that I have always loved is the belief—and the fact— that there is room here for everyone in the Church—no matter who they are. I feel there is room for people who have differing views in the Church. Not everyone has to agree.  But we all do have to make room for each other here.  
The Church however doesn’t always see itself in such a way.

Like the disciples in today’s Gospel, the government of the Church likes to claim that only it knows who can and who cannot do God’s work in the world. When an upstart—when a person marginalized by society—comes along and tries to do God’s work in Jesus’ name, the Church very often tries to put an end to it.

Look at our recent history in the church.  Forty, fifty years ago, the issue was women. Can women be priests?  A lot of people said, “absolutely not.” And people were mean and petty in their opposition.

Ten, fifteen, twenty years ago, it was ordaining Gay and Lesbian priests.

“This will be the end of the Church,” we heard proclaimed. Like Henny Penny crying out in the children’s story, the sky will. Well, guess what? The sky didn’t fall.  And  the Church hasn’t fallen apart.

We’re still here and, I personally can’t help but believe we’re a much better place for allowing women and LGBTQ people to serve us as priests and deacons and bishops.

As Anglicans, I have loved the fact that there has always been room for everyone. There is room for people who challenge us and provoke us and jar us out of what can very easily devolve into self-righteous complacency and moral pettiness.  

As Scot McNight says in his delightful book, Embraced by Grace:

“In God’s equality, difference is maintained and loved.”

I have said it before and I will say it again:  Who are we to judge who God calls to serve? God decides these things.

Our job as Christians is simply this: we must love each other and do what we can as Christians as followers of Jesus. As Jesus says in today’s Gospel,

“Whoever is not against us is for us.”

This Church that I love is a wonderful place to be at times. And I think it is a place from which everyone can benefit. Like those disciples, none of us is perfect. All of us are fractured, sinful people at times.  Because we are fractured sinful people, isn’t it wonderful that we have a place to come to even when we’re fractured and sinful, a place where we are not judged, a place from which we are not shunned or excluded or left feeling like an outsider.  A place where we are welcomed for who and what we are. A place in which there are no more “outsiders” looking “in.” This is the ideal of the Church.

This is the place God intended it be.  It is place in which the Spirit of God rests on its people, just as the Spirit of God rested on those elders in our reading from the Book of Numbers today.  That resting of the Spirit of God is important for us to take note of.  And to be open to right now in our own day.

That Spirit of God puts all of us on common ground.

That Spirit of God makes us all equal.

That Spirit of God eliminates those fringes of society, those marginalized places and makes us all part of the inner circle.

That Spirit of God reminds us that there are no “outsiders” among those on whom that Spirit rests!

We—all of us—are followers of Jesus and Spirit-infused children of a loving, accepting God, no matter who we are.

So remember, the Church is not an exclusive club.  It is not a club for everyone who believes exactly the same thing, doing the same exact thing.  The Church is a place on which God’s loving Spirit rests.

Following Jesus means making room for the person we might not agree with.
Following Jesus means walking alongside someone whom no one else loves or cares for.  Following Jesus means making sure no one is left outside our “inner circle.” Following Jesus means making sure we don’t lose our saltiness, as Jesus tells us today.

We must, as followers of Jesus, be salt of the earth. This is what, I think we are doing here at St. Stephen’s.

All of us, in our own ways, are attempting to follow Jesus here.  The same Spirit which rested on those elders in the desert in the days of Moses rests upon us this morning.  We should rejoice in that fact.

See why I am so grateful on this Sunday. See why I am so grateful on this tenth anniversary of my time with you as your priest.  Together, here, we are doing what we care called to do.

So, let us, together, continue to do just that together.  When we do, it is that we make a real difference in the Church and in this world.  Amen.

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