A hectic week crammed with writing for a project, it has seemed barely possible to think about a sermon.
Sermon for 26th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Gospel: Mark 9:38-50;
A week ago I was at our Diocesan Synod and the privilege of such gatherings of our church is that we are given an overview of the church, and sometimes we see all too clearly that our church is like the fabled ‘Curate’s egg’, good in parts! We live in anxious times and it seems to me that the problem with anxiety is really what it does to us.
To read the pieces that comprise our gospel this Sunday feels like reading fragments from a manual on the dangers of the spiritual life – and that is certainly one aspect of a gospel’s work – we need to be warned of the hazards and the mess we can make of faith. That said, this part of the gospel does not make for edifying or inspirational reading. Here it seems that we are down in the messy area of our spiritual journey where it is hard work and we keep making mistakes.
|The Last Judgement Triptich, Hans Memling, c.1473|
Take that first section, for example, the disciples appear like so many pupils keen to curry their teacher’s favour: they rush to tell Jesus how firmly they dealt with someone who, though a successful exorcist and one even who used the name of Jesus, was not one of Jesus’ followers. Even a superficial reading of this passage makes you uncomfortable, it feels so immature and the thought of disciples behaving like religious enforcers is uncomfortable. Jesus’ rebuke deflates the disciples and to read it now should make us very cautious how we act to others.
There is a recurring problem in the spiritual life: for instance, we see the disciples wanting attention and affirmation. They want Jesus to endorse what they have done. Is this enthusiasm the product of love or is it driven by anxiety? From the beginning of Christianity to the present, a lot of denominational sniping (and much worse) turns on this one question. Denominations like to think that they have got faith ‘right’; they invest a lot of energy into promoting themselves – think of the big flash sign boards and expensive advertising; think of the punishments ‘believers’ dish out to those who don’t ‘toe the line’. Is such behaviour the product of love or anxiety? Behind this of course is the really big question: does God care? I doubt that God cares about any of us getting our faith ‘right’. Can we ever get our faith ‘right’? The more you think about it, the sillier we can look: can we fit God around our beliefs? Is what we think about the Trinity likely to trouble the creator of this still unfolding universe? The notion is absurd! God is always far more than any of our constructions – a point I remember making during the visit of the Dalai Lama a few years ago.
These are not easy days for leaders in the church but the real leader has to be someone who is prepared to see the bigger picture and who looks beyond protecting the denominational brand or a religious franchise, or even the details of the Creed – and instead looks for the activity of God and the ways the Spirit of God may be working in the world. Today perhaps the most prominent example of a religious leader doing that would be Pope Francis – who again and again has withheld condemnation and judgement on matters that have besieged the church.
For me one of his boldest, almost off the cuff statements,was in a sermon based (I think) on our gospel today: he said something along the line that the atheist who did good may well be found in heaven. That may sound daring, certainly coming from the Pope, but there is a strong theological argument to support him: if God is the source of all good, then the one who does good cannot be far from God. Pope Francis follows the logic. He also seems to follow our Lord’s words in our gospel this morning.
The next section of our gospel reading is truly alarming: this is when our Lord talks of anyone who puts ‘a stumbling-block before one of these little ones who believe in me’ and the judgement that may be expected. Is Jesus talking about children, or vulnerable people, or simple believers? It’s not clear but I certainly read it as a warning to the church community about how we treat one another. Faith can be difficult but there is nothing more damaging to anyone’s faith than believers behaving badly to one another. It was a problem in the early church and is still today.
But I also see this gospel fragment pointing further, beyond any religious frame: I’m thinking of the refugee crisis that is swamping Europe at the moment and the immense suffering refugees experience. In the TV news one sees the most vulnerable, the little children and elderly: but the little ones especially; many weeping and frightened, utterly exhausted. I keep asking what effect this trauma is having upon these children; what are the fears and terrible memories that will remain with them? How will they trust the West; or even just trust fellow humans after such experiences? Think of the stumbling blocks that have been put in their way.