Mark 9: 38 “Teacher,” said John, “we saw someone driving out demons in your name and we told him to stop, because he was not one of us.”39 “Do not stop him,” Jesus said. “For no one who does a miracle in my name can in the next moment say anything bad about me, 40 for whoever is not against us is for us. 41 Truly I tell you, anyone who gives you a cup of water in my name because you belong to the Messiah will certainly not lose their reward.42 “If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them if a large millstone were hung around their neck and they 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 with two hands to go into hell, where the fire never goes out.  [b] 45 And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than to have two feet and be thrown into hell.  [c] 47 And if your eye causes you to stumble, pluck it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell, 48 where“‘the worms that eat them do not die, and the fire is not quenched.’[d]49 Everyone will be salted with fire.50 “Salt is good, but if it loses its saltiness, how can you make it salty again? Have salt among yourselves, and be at peace with each other.”
This event just might have been another great big temptation for Jesus, like when Satan tempted him in the wilderness to turn stones into bread, or that night in the Garden of Gethsemenae, when he struggled in prayer with his hope for a Plan B. Now one of his disciples comes to Jesus and says, “We saw someone whom we don’t know from Adam driving out demons in your name, so we stopped him.”
Now, why did they stop the unknown exorcist? Was it just because they wanted to corner the market on Jesus and his ministry? Or was it because of the risk that this unknown exorcist might be a loose cannon who will do them more harm than good? Jesus knows from his own wilderness temptations just how seductive and tempting the darker side of spiritual power and authority can be, such that one might use it to mislead and abuse even, “one of these little ones.” That’s terrible and tragic enough. But to add insult to injury, they might do it in Jesus’ name.
Foresighted, prescient words when the church of Jesus Christ worldwide is still trying to get a handle on the full extent of clergy sex abuse scandals.
For that reason, part of me would have liked for Jesus to say, “Good for you. Same goes for anyone else you see driving out demons and healing the sick in my name. If they haven’t had my rigorous training, if we haven’t had the time to check them out, if we can’t keep an eye on them 24-7, then by all means put a stop to them.”
But how? And there’s the rub. If twelve disciples showing up doesn’t stop the man, maybe they could send Louie. Louie would flex his shoulders, crack his knuckles, and say, “Nice house and barns ya got here. Nice sheep and camels and fig trees, too. So while yer drivin’ out demons and healin’ the sick in Jesus’ name, it sure would be a cryin’ shame if somethin’ bad were ta happen to dem, yaknowadImean?”
Or three lawyers could show up, open their brief cases and say, “We’re from Corporate, and we’re here to serve a lawsuit, for Patent and Copyright violations, plus Trademark Infringement and unlicensed commercial use of our brand. We’ll see you in court. Or have your people call our people to schedule negotiations. Its up to you. Oh. And here’s a letter of receipt to sign that shows that you got these documents.”
But solutions like these could prove at least as bad as the problems. Still, that may be another major temptation for Jesus, to use his power to take control and prevent his name from even the slightest risk of being misused. In which case, we wouldn’t even be here. In which case, we might as well all go home. Because the risk did not end with that unknown exorcist. Since then, people in the name of Jesus Christ have marched off to war in the Crusades, carried out inquisitions and massacred Indian villages and entire tribes in Central America, they show up at the funerals of AIDS sufferers, soldiers, or at Pride Parades with the most hateful, hurtful posters, and some have even abused their power sexually, spiritually, and financially. Many is the time that I wished Jesus had indeed intervened miraculously to prevent such things from happening, especially in his name. And I believe he was there in those terrible moments of abuse in his name. But he was there, I believe, with the victims and as the victims. And he’s with them still, as their friend, healer and liberator.
But Jesus respected the freedom of that unknown exorcist to use or misuse his name, and ours as well, even when the acts themselves are unworthy of respect. In fact, he even gave this guy a thumbs up, when he said, “Whoever is not against us is for us.” So be gracious, cut the guy some slack, don’t be so quick to jump to negative conclusions. Jesus has given us a ministry, not a monopoly.
Whoever is not against us is for us: That’s a good word for us in our partnership with Christians of other denominations and persuasions, who may not be on board with us about everything we believe, but who profess the same Lord, the same faith, if not all the same doctrines. Its a good word for us as we discern our way through some thorny issues and serious disagreements within our churches and denomination around matters of sex, politics and power. We may not agree on everything, but don’t be in a hurry to expel or reject or exclude. Wherever and whenever we can work together, let’s do so.
Or even when it comes to different religions. With our Muslim friends and neighbors, we have some undeniable and very serious differences about Jesus, among other things. But our first task is to love people, and that includes telling the truth about Jesus from his own lips. But if they don’t agree about that, we can still find other things to agree upon and do together. And hopefully our friendship will continue to be a good witness for Jesus, as well as a blessing just for friendship’s sake.
But from all that gracious talk about cutting the unknown exorcist some slack, we suddenly go, in today’s reading, into some very scary talk about hell and lopping off hands and feet, about millstones around our necks while we sink in the sea. Now I absolutely positively have to say that Jesus is not talking literally here. Cutting off hands and feet will not solve a problem that Jesus locates in the heart. For an abuser of “these little ones” to amputate a hand is to become a one-handed abuser. Rather, this language tells us just how serious the danger and the damage of misusing our spiritual authority can be. As terrible as amputation sounds, it is preferable to “causing one of these little ones to stumble,” if amputation were what it took to stop the trauma, abuse and offense. But it isn’t.
Because such trauma, abuse and offense are the stuff of which hell is made. Its not just that for doing such things, and not repenting of them, one might go to hell. We must also ask, How will one get out of the hell they are in, and the hell they are creating, for themselves and others? The hell of bondage to sin, of guilt, greed, shame, denial and self-delusion? The hell of trauma, depression and shame for the victims? Its possible, with sincere and serious soul-searching and repenting if one is to lay hold of the forgiveness which is always and already there and available to us. But that will require sacrifices that feel just like an amputation, or the loss of an eye.
I hope that’s all I have to say about my least favorite subject.
Still, its what I want the warlords of Sierra Leone, Uganda, Congo, Somalia and Central America to hear, who put automatic rifles into the hands of children and youth and send them to kill, and to get killed. But they aren’t here, are they?
Its what I want the traffickers in the bodies of children and youth in the sex and pornography trade to hear. And the makers of increasingly graphic and gory violent video games, who are getting people hooked on increasing levels of fantasy violence. But I don’t see any of them here, this morning.
Its what I want the gang lords in this very neighborhood, who are corrupting our youth with drugs, guns, and a vicious codes of silence, honor and revenge to hear. I’m not aware that any of them are here, either.
But we’re here. And in today’s gospel passage, Jesus goes from talking about them, or him (the unknown exorcist), to talking directly to us, his disciples, about ourselves. Its on the well-known principle that whenever we point our index finger accusingly at someone else, there are still three other fingers pointing back at ourselves.
Which leads me to something else that this passage reminds me of. It will sound at first like a distraction, like I’m running down a side-track but you’ll see how it fits in just a minute or two.
Many of you know that this fall I am taking a congregationally-based CPE program. CPE stands for clinical pastoral education. It focuses on pastoral care and counseling, crisis care and the pastor’s own inner spiritual work that he or she must do in order to be most effective in pastoral care and counseling. I spend every Thursday over at the Center for Changing Lives with seven other pastors, seminary students and chaplains going over our questions and cases of pastoral and crisis care. I’ve always wanted to do a CPE, but until recently, I thought that all such programs were in hospitals, hospice care and retirement homes, with chaplains, and usually for three months at a stretch, full time. I even thought of doing one in a hospital or hospice center for sabbatical. But I figured that after a sabbatical like that, I would need another sabbatical just to get over my sabbatical. But now for this CPE program I get to use my congregational practice as the setting for my growth and reflection. Of course I ran this by the church council and the Pastor/Congregation Relations Committee before I signed up. And I will keep the strictest confidentiality.
One of the resources we are using for better knowing ourselves and sharpening our practice is the Twelve-Step program of Alcoholics Anonymous, Cocaine Anonymous, and other such self-help groups. Here, projected, is a specifically Christian version of the twelve steps:
- We admitted we are powerless over sin and that our lives have become unmanageable.
- We came to believe that God could restore us to sanity.
- We made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God.
- We made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
- We admitted to God, to ourselves and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
- We were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
- Humbly asked God to remove our shortcomings.
- We made a list of all persons we had harmed and became willing to make amends to them all.
- Made direct amends to such people whenever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
- We continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong, promptly admitted it.
- We sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God, as revealed through the person of Jesus Christ, praying for the knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.
- Having had a Spiritual Awakening as a result of these steps, which is the revelation of Jesus Christ, we try to carry this message to others and to practice these Biblical principles in all our affairs.
I find these twelve steps quite gospel. They remind me in some ways of The Beatitudes. Now, once addicts have started the Twelve Steps, sobered up and stayed clean for some time, their recovery is not over; its just beginning. Because if they drift back into the habits of an other-directed life, in which anger, fear, wishes or resentments toward other people are filling our lives and driving them, not only do they risk drinking or using again, they become what AA folks call “dry drunks.” Drunk in every respect but the bottle. An addict in every sense but the drug. Then you have what are called the twelve steps of insanity, that someone once sent me by email:
1. We admitted we were powerless over nothing. We could manage our lives perfectly and we could manage those of anyone else that would allow it.
2. Came to believe that there was no power greater than ourselves, and the rest of the world was insane.
3. Made a decision to have our loved ones and friends turn their wills and their lives over to our care.
4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of everyone we knew.
5. Admitted to the whole world at large the exact nature of their wrongs.
6. Were entirely ready to make others straighten up and do right.
7. Demanded others to either “shape up or ship out”.
8. Made a list of anyone who had ever harmed us and became willing to go to any lengths to get even with them all.
9. Got direct revenge on such people whenever possible except when to do so would cost us our own lives, or at the very least, a jail sentence.
10. Continued to take inventory of others, and when they were wrong promptly and repeatedly told them about it.
11. Sought through nagging to improve our relations with others as we couldn’t understand them at all, asking only that they knuckle under and do things our way.
12. Having had a complete physical, emotional and spiritual breakdown as a result of these steps, we tried to blame it on others and to get sympathy and pity in all our affairs.
Now, what do these twelve steps of sanity, or insanity, have to do with today’s Gospel passage? Well, when the disciples come to Jesus and say, “Lord, we saw someone else not of us casting out demons in your name and we made him quit,” which set of twelve steps were they practicing? The second, the twelve steps of insanity. They could be acting like dry drunks, intoxicated with their own spiritual authority, and fixated on other people and their shortcomings.
Because addiction is all about being driven and controlled by people and things outside of ourselves. Its always about the addicting substance, and about how other people and life drive me to drink or to drugs or to worry or to fear, resentment, hatred and violence. Its always their fault. Its always alcohol’s fault. But in order to heal, addicts must turn their attention inward, toward themselves, and do the kind of internal house-cleaning that they’re so often trying to do to others.
So, Jesus turns the disciples’ attention from outward, at someone who is getting their goat, inward, toward themselves. Why is this guy getting their goat? Probably because of their own power issues.
Yes, there’s a great risk that this unknown yahoo’s self-directed fly-by-night ministry could indeed become the stuff of hell and damnation, for himself and others. So there’s every good reason for voluntary covenants of accountability, like ordination, or our membership vows next month.
But the same could be said for us and the disciples, if we are primed and ready to go off running after every problem and person outside of ourselves. We could then be creating more hell than we’re preventing. So, when someone at an AA meeting says, “My boss’ nasty attitude is making me want to drink again,” someone else may say, “Your boss is doing some terrible things, alright. But are you giving him the power to ruin your life, to the point that you fixate and obsess on him, like that? Is there something about yourself that you’re avoiding, or projecting upon him?”
Don’t you just hate questions like that? Especially when they bear some element of truth? But “everyone will indeed be salted with fire,” Jesus says. Salt and fire burn and sting. But they also cleanse and purify. So don’t be surprised when life’s school of hard knocks, in the crucible of truth and consequences, cracks open our inner motives and reveals our own innermost secrets to us. We can either go along with the spiritual house cleaning, or we can go hunting up other people’s dirty laundry.
The only power and responsibility you have in this matter of the unknown exorcist is within yourselves, Jesus is saying. Let’s not presume to teach, while we still have homework to do. Let’s not be too quick to weed our neighbor’s garden. Sprinkle the stinging, cleansing, preserving salt first, “among yourselves,” or “within yourselves,” as some translations put it, and be at peace with others. Its in the same vein as what Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount: “Before you take the speck of sawdust out of your neighbor’s eye, take the telephone pole out of your own.” St. Peter echoed it when he wrote, “Judgment begins in the household of God.” Or as an old AA saying goes, “If I’m focusing on you, I should focus on me. If I’m focusing on me, I should focus on God.”
Yes, we have a responsibility to speak truth to the world, especially about the One who is the truth: Jesus. Yes, we have a calling and a responsibility to do good and to help where we can in the world. But before we would condemn or convert the world, the disciples of Jesus must convince each other and covenant with each other to do what we tell the world it should do. That we’ll do again at our annual membership covenant renewal service next month. And as we can convince and covenant with each other, we must also attend to our own conversions. I don’t know about you, but that should keep me pretty busy for a while.