can’t-quite-get-it-together

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by Deacon Intern Alexandra Benson

Grace, peace, and mercy are yours through our boundary crossing God. Amen.

When I was growing up, my younger sister and I were, shall we say, well-gifted in our abilities to tattle-tale. We had a predictable routine. An innocent round of the board game Life would turn into an all-out yelling match when my sister would casually move an extra couple spaces to get closer to the finish line or would slyly (so she thought) sneak a couple extra $1000 bills from the bank into her money pile. Appalled with a righteous anger, and taking up the heavy mantle of the oldest child, I would have no choice but to run and immediately find Mom to relay to her the horrors of what my sister had done. This type of scene would play out in different contexts over the years: sometimes one of us would be trying out a new four-letter word we heard on the school bus or would show up to school sporting a piece of clothing “borrowed” from the other’s closet without permission. At the first opportunity off the other would run on a mission to tell the nearest parent of the injustice that had been committed.

Maybe we were exactly that, seekers of justice, wanting a wrong to be made right. Or, more likely, there might have been another underlying motive. If my sister was in trouble, surely that meant I would be held in a more favorable light. With the focus was on her sins, I would automatically become the good kid. I would be the one worthy of the most love and favor. It’s as though what I was really saying was, “Mom, look at this terrible thing my sister did. Isn’t that awful? Can you believe how bad she is? But I didn’t do that thing, so I’m good though right?” Sometimes life can feel like it’s a giant game of keeping score.

It seems like the disciples in today’s text fell into a similar trap. “Teacher,” they cry. “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him because he was not following us.” Jesus, look at the thing that man did – without permission, without being in the right crowd, without being as good or as chosen as we are. Tell us that he shouldn’t be doing such things. Assure us that we are in the right, that we are the ones you love and trust with your work in this world, that we are the ones deserving of power and respect.

The interesting thing is that just a few verses earlier, the disciples do have a chance to heal a boy with an evil spirit. And they can’t do it. The crowds press in, and the disciples fail miserably. Jesus steps in to save the day, but the disciples are left confused and probably pretty self-conscious. It is with the shame of this failure in mind, that we drop in on today’s conversation. The disciples are wrestling with their own apparent inadequacy, and here this outsider is casting out demons? Who does he think he is? Here they’ve given up everything to follow Jesus around day after day, and this random guy thinks he can just step in and steal their thunder? I think I’d be a little bit jealous too.

Funny how jealousy works, isn’t it? One minute we’re feeling pretty good, confident in who we are and what we’re about, and then we catch a glimpse of somebody else who, we tell ourselves, is just a little bit better. They’re smarter. Funnier. Better looking. More athletic. A better leader. More confident. More creative. More popular. They seem to have their life put together in a way that we just can’t quite seem to manage. Our thoughts begin to spin, and we start to question whether we are as good or as capable as we thought we were. We are suddenly sure we aren’t actually good enough, can never be enough.

The only thing left to do, we tell ourselves, is to find fault in the other. Surely, they can’t be as good as they say they are. Surely, we can catch them doing something wrong. We must be able to find a way to make them stumble, to make them small, to make them seem less threatening. Maybe it means silencing them, refusing to take seriously their story or experience of individual or systemic violence, abuse, or discrimination. Maybe that means excluding them or making sure they stay firmly on the outside, on the “wrong” side. We throw around labels that are meant to hurt and dehumanize. We divide by race, gender, immigration status, religion, political party. Because, we tell ourselves, there simply can’t be enough room for all of us. The world doesn’t work that way. If life is a competition, we must win. And if we win, it means someone else has to lose.

But, as per usual, Jesus messes everything up. He disrupts our games, our hierarchies, our score-keeping. He turns all of our ideas about power and who’s in and who’s out on its head. And in doing so, he disrupts whatever identities we have created for ourselves, based on our own accomplishments, reputation, uniqueness, popularity, talent as well as those labels that others have created for us.

So, back to our gospel text, here we have the discouraged, anxious, can’t-quite-get-it-together disciples earnestly telling Jesus about this unauthorized outsider who is, well, actually doing a good thing, but in doing so threatens the disciples’ own self-understanding. If everyone can go around casting out demons, then what does that say about them? What is left to make the disciples unique?

But, instead of scolding this “outsider,” Jesus tells his disciples: “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. Whoever is not against us is for us.”

What the heck, Jesus. Whoever is not against us is for us? I don’t know about you, but I have a tendency to assume just the opposite. Sometimes I think, unless I know you’re loyally on my side or that we belong to the same group, you’re the competition. in a society structured around side-taking and individual success, bitterly divided politics, competitions for social media likes, desperate longings to be the most popular or most

successful, these words from Jesus challenge us to embrace a new identity. An identity that actually has nothing to do with us, and everything to do with God. Because when God becomes the center of who we are, we lose track of our individual score keeping, our line-drawing, and our side-taking. Because, when we see God clearly, we begin to see what God sees in each of us.

Beloved.

More than enough.

Beautiful as we are.

There is no need to prove that we are good or right or worthy by excluding others, because God already rejoices in us more than we can imagine.

And when we trust that we are truly loved, deeply and fully, in all of our imperfections and messiness as well as our giftedness, we are freed to see that God loves our friends, our neighbors, and even those we have tried so hard to keep on the outside just as much as God loves us– and that there is more than enough love to go around. Because God’s love doesn’t follow the social rules of this world. God’s love doesn’t depend on our labels, our successes, or whether we are in the right group. And every time we try to limit God’s love and call, Jesus steps across our social lines and challenges us to widen our imaginations more and more. Jesus shows us again and again that the Kingdom of God is a huge, mis-matched, rag-tag, immeasurably beautiful mass of people. Both the people we might choose and those we might not. Turns out the invitation list isn’t really up to us.

Jesus continues with some of the harshest words attributed to him in the gospels. It’s clear that with a love this big, the stakes are high. However, let me be clear. Jesus isn’t actually telling us that it is good to cut off our hands or our feet or pluck out our eyes. All throughout the gospels, Jesus is an advocate for health and wholeness. God has made our bodies good and calls us to care for our own bodies as well as our neighbors’ bodies with love, respect, and dignity.

But Jesus does urge us to ask: Where are our eyes focused? Are they caught up in judging others, or are they focused on God and God’s love for the world? How about our hands? Are they used in service or used to cause harm? Our feet? Are they leading us forth in a mission of love or leading us away from those who need our help the most? Do we trust God’s love for us enough to let go of our pride and jealousy that keeps us from loving God and others with our whole selves, body and soul?

Because when we let our jealousy or fears or pride have the last word, when we try to place a “stumbling block” in front of God’s beloved people by setting out to exclude, hurt, or belittle others to try to stockpile love for ourselves, it is clear that we cause

harm to the whole body of Christ. To deny the Spirit’s work in other people, even those we least expect, actually makes us miserable, forcing us back into our patterns of anxious score-keeping and fear over whether we can ever be good enough. When we deny God’s radical welcome of those most vulnerable in our society, we cut ourselves off from the kind of relationship and transformation that can literally change the world. And, to top it off, we miss out on the ways God might be trying to love us through our neighbors. It would be as silly as denying a cup of water in the hot desert sun because we are simply too stubborn to accept help from the one holding out the cup.

Soon, we will be invited forward to receive communion here at God’s spacious table. It can be a challenging place, this table because it is a place where we lose control of who we eat with. Because this is God’s table, all are welcome, and all who gather bear the name of Christ. Exclusion and labels and competition simply lose all relevance at the altar.

Rachel Held Evans, one of my favorite authors, talks about communion and her experience of God’s boundary-crossing love this way. She says, “On a given Sunday morning I might spot six or seven people who have wronged or hurt me, people whose politics, theology, or personalities drive me crazy. The church is positively crawling with people who don’t deserve to be here… starting with me. But the table can transform even our enemies into companions. The table reminds that, as brothers and sisters adopted into God’s family and invited to God’s banquet, we’re stuck with each other; we’re family. We might as well make peace. The table teaches us that faith isn’t about being right or good or in agreement. Faith is about feeding and being fed.”

We come to the table to receive God’s love and forgiveness in our very bodies – eyes, feet, hands, and all– but when we come, we are also joined with each other in God’s love and mission in this world. A mission that is bigger and wilder and more radical than any of us can dream up on our own. A mission and a love that knows no boundaries and includes the people we least expect. Even each one of us.

Thanks be to God for that.

Amen.