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October 1, 2006 (Sunday 26 • Time after Pentecost)—“Do Not Forbid Them”
Interim Pastor Steve Jensen
A friend in South Dakota recently e-mailed me this story going around the internet. “Thank God for Children Saying Grace...”
Last week I took my children to a restaurant. My six-year-old son asked if he could say grace. As we bowed our heads he said, “God is good, God is great. Thank you for the food, and I would even thank you more if Mom gets us ice cream for dessert. And Liberty and justice for all! Amen!”
Along with the laughter from the other customers nearby I heard a woman remark, “That’s what’s wrong with this country. Kids today don’t even know how to pray. Asking God for ice cream! Why, I never!”
Hearing this, my son burst into tears and asked me, “Did I do it wrong? Is God mad at me?”
As I held him and assured him that he had done a terrific job and God was certainly not mad at him, an elderly gentleman approached the table.
He winked at my son and said, “I happen to know that God thought that was a great prayer. “Really?” my son asked. “Cross my heart,” the man replied.
Then in a theatrical whisper he added (indicating the woman whose remark had started this whole thing), “Too bad she never asks God for ice cream. A little ice cream is good for the soul sometimes.”
Naturally, I bought my kids ice cream at the end of the meal. My son stared at his for a moment and then did something I will remember the rest of my life.
He picked up his sundae and without a word, walked over and placed it in front of the woman. With a big smile he told her, “Here, this is for you. Ice cream is good for the soul sometimes; and my soul is good already.”
When my father died, people were often uncomfortable with my grief or knowing what to say to me. In some cases I simply acknowledged odd remarks with a thanks for caring about me. I must admit, however, that some comments went beyond unsettling. More than one person said, in effect, “If you were a real Christian, you would not grieve. You would celebrate that he is in heaven with Jesus.” Those were hardly words of comfort and I found myself wondering about the relevance of their faith in times of crisis or joy in their own lives. I certainly didn’t want any part of such a belief system. I thought for certain I remembered Jesus himself weeping on at least two occasions....
We are all too aware of various leaders of the faith—pastor, priest, televangelist, council president—who in recent years have made national and sometimes international headlines for their actions that cause people to question their faith, turn from God, or be manipulated and mislead in the name of God. Of course, any Christian who violates a trust can cause others to wonder about the faith we profess.
While sweating through the course work and church assignments in seminary, we were chagrined to encounter someone in town who had simply sent in $10 for an ordination certificate and opened shop. It was a way to make a living, and he spent no sleepless moments concerned about those who were attracted by his charisma and fed religious “pabulum.” In frustration, we, too, sent in $10 and upon receiving certification for our newest ordained member, put a clerical collar on our campus pet Shuppiuliuma. In all these instances people have been so wrapped up in themselves, they have caused others to at least stumble in their faith walk and are among those Jesus addresses in the Gospel today.
Perhaps the disciples had experienced some who professed to believe in God or speak on his behalf but were not doing so with a right spirit at best. There is evidence that false prophets of the day had other personal agenda as well.
And so when the disciples see a man casting out demons in Jesus’ name, they forbid him because he was not following them. He was doing what they were trained to do and had done well—better, in fact, than many of them had done. But he was not with them. He was not an insider. He was not a member of the right group. So they had to stop him.
They were thinking of themselves as an institution with a fixed and registered membership. This man has not asked for institutional certification. If just anybody can start preaching in that way, we will have anarchy!
That’s exactly the same argument the scribes and priests used against John the Baptist and Jesus, and later against the early church. Who authorized you to preach? If you don’t give us a sign from heaven, then either submit to our system or be silent.
The disciples were limiting the grace and power and presence of God to their very small, very human ways of understanding. Jesus was leading them to embrace the world. They had trouble embracing their neighbor. Jesus was including all people in the realm of his healing power. They were excluding from the same power. You and I make that same mistake of privatizing the Gospel whenever we believe we have a monopoly on the proper understanding of scripture; we alone have the proper way to worship; we have nothing to learn from the Baptists or Jews or Roman Catholics or fundamentalists.
One author suggests we have a “Back to Egypt” committee in many of our congregations and personal lives that gives up God’s promise in favor of the false security of slavery. It wants to keep things small and stuck. It wants to go backward instead of forward. It wants to go back to the way things used to be. It wants to keep the church a family affair instead of God’s love affair with the world. Among God’s people there is always blindness to the grace and power of God working in mysterious and mighty ways—blindness that stands in the wilderness surrounded by manna from the hand of God and says, “We have nothing to eat!”
To them and to us, our Lord says: “Do not stop him; for whoever is not against us is for us.” Surely he will not soon be among those who will cry, “Crucify him! Crucify him!” Forget about trying to corner the market in my name. Remember your brothers and sisters in the faith. Your relationship with them is so significant, so vitally important, so holy, it demands the costliest of sacrifices. That which causes you to sin, that which separates you from these brothers and sisters, that which prevents or destroys or breaks or interferes with the holy relationship begun in me is better cut off, cut out, cut away.
The message I get is that you and I need to change. Life together in the family of faith is different from life alone in the world. Discipleship demands a changed lifestyle in which relationships are more important than success, people are more important than power. The baptized people in Christ are called to live like the “died for” people we are.
While such change is difficult, it is possible. It is possible for us to embrace our races and cultures and creeds in the name of Christ. It is possible for us to embrace the poor and the pompous, the homeless and the helpless, the vicious and the victim. It is possible for us to change in ways we have not yet begun to imagine.
It was time for the closing prayer in the first-grade Sunday school class full of eager and enthusiastic young children. They loved their wise and experienced teacher and excitedly looked forward to their weekly ritual before heading into church. It was the finger play you may remember from your childhood: “Here’s the church, here’s the steeple, open the doors, see all the people.”
The children had each begun putting their hands together and repeating the familiar rhyme when the teacher noticed their first-time visitor who had sat quietly with her hands in her lap. The little girl had only one hand. Despite her compassion and concern, the teacher panicked. Momentarily frozen, she was relieved to see a little boy lean across the table and reach his own hand over to the little girl and say, “Here, let’s make a church together!” Let’s make a church together!
This is the life giving call of Christ’s Gospel. Let us not stop others from using their God-given gifts and a heart full of love to preach and teach and live the Gospel. Let us reach out to each other despite our personal limitations and embrace the world in all its brokenness, as we ourselves have been embraced in our brokenness by Christ. He has made us whole. Jesus gives us the power and the opportunity to help make others whole as well. Let’s make a church together!
Copyright © 2006 Steven Jensen
Comments welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org