September 27, 2015
A former parishioner and dear friend just recently retired after many years as a kindergarten teacher. One time she explained to me a lesson she taught her students at the beginning of every school year. Most of the children started kindergarten already understanding that a tattletale was not a cool or accepted thing to be. A tattletale was the persona non grata of the playground. But what should they do if something really bad was about to happen?
So my friend taught them that there were two different kinds of “telling.” The first kind was reporting. If Cindy Lou saw Billy Bob about to do something dangerous and harmful, such as jumping off the top of the swings or getting too close to a busy street, then it was important to tell an adult. That was being a reporter. Being a reporter was an important job. Being a reporter was a way to keep their friends safe. Cindy Lou reported what Billy Bob was doing so that he would not get hurt.
However a tattletale was altogether different. If Jimmy Jack’s friend, Buster, was playing with another friend rather than Jimmy Jack, and Jimmy Jack didn’t like this and told the teacher; that was tattling. It all came down to motivation. Were you reporting to a teacher because you were afraid someone was about to get hurt? Or were you tattling on someone because you were mad or jealous? That was the difference between being a reporter and being a tattletale; motivation.
What do you think John’s motivation was when he told Jesus about this other person casting out demons in Jesus’ name? Was he reporting or was he tattling? My instinct tells me that it was the latter.
John and the other disciples saw an unnamed person exorcising demons in Jesus’ name. This other person was successful at casting out demons else I suspect the disciples would not have tried to stop him. We don’t know anything about this other person, this other disciple. One of the Biblical scholars I refer to commented on this and said, “We don’t know this disciple’s name, so let’s just call him Bob.” In fact, my original title to this sermon was “Bob, the Disciple,” but I chickened out about using it at the last minute.
Why would the disciples have been so upset about Bob casting out demons? I think the first answer is that he was doing something that they were unable to do. They had tried to cast out a demon already and failed. But Bob the disciple did what they could not do. That must have irked them, to say the least.
Another reason Bob bothered the disciples is that he was not one of them. They were the disciples. They were the ones Jesus called to follow. No one knew anything about Bob. How could he be a disciple if Jesus had not called him? How could he do the work of a disciple if he was not in the in-crowd? There is an aspect to this exchange between John and Jesus that I had not noticed before. When John complained to Jesus about Bob the disciple casting out demons, he didn’t say, “We tried to stop him because he was not following you.” John said, “We tried to stop him, because he was not following us.”
Jesus did not question John about using us instead of you. In fact, Jesus responded in the plural. “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.”
Whoever is not against us is for us.
John may have been presumptuous in asserting that he and the other disciples were to be followed same as Jesus. But Jesus didn’t seem to have a problem with John’s use of the collective as much as he did with them trying to stop Bob. Whoever Bob was and however he heard about Jesus, his work in Jesus’ name was legitimate. He was not against them, so he was for them. Even though he was not one of them, he was still for them. He was still for Jesus, and his deed of power in Jesus’ name was not to be dismissed.
This is yet one more misunderstanding of Jesus’ message, mission and purpose by the disciples. This follows immediately after our passage last week when the disciples argued among themselves about who was the greatest, and who carried the most status as a disciple. Their argument was preceded by Jesus telling them for a second time that he would undergo great suffering, death and resurrection. Jesus even went so far as to embrace a little child so they would understand his words about the first being last, the last first, and the greatest of all being the servant of all. But the disciples don’t get it.
They don’t get it, and their lack of getting it comes out in jealousy and insecurity over Bob the disciple. Here was this unknown person doing what they were not yet able to do. So they tried to stop him. When they couldn’t, they tattled to Jesus about him. But Jesus knew that what was more important was that anyone who was not against them was for them. Bob the disciple was for them, and that was all that mattered.
I suspect that most of us would agree with the point Jesus made. It doesn’t matter how we go about the work Jesus calls us to do just as long as we are doing it. That is our priority. Do the work we are called to do. Whoever is for Jesus is for us and us for them.
But that message seems to get lost in translation when it comes to our denominations, our styles of worship, our liturgies or lack thereof. Our priorities seem to get turned upside down when we compare our music and the way we pray. Interpretation of scripture from one denomination to the next can be so radically different, we wonder who is right and who is wrong? We may mouth the words Jesus said, “whoever is not against us is for us,” but when it comes to our actions – and our other words – I think we really believe that whoever is unlike us is not only against us, but doing it all wrong.
Isn’t that really what John said to Jesus? We saw Bob the disciple casting out demons in your name but we tried to stop him. He was doing it wrong!
He was doing it wrong. I hate to admit that I feel like this, but I know I do. I know that I am guilty of this. I know that I get jealous over others who I think are doing ministry wrong, but seem to be far more effective than I am. I know I’ve spent many a Thursday afternoon after I’ve left the ecumenical Bible study I co-lead thinking, “They are doing it wrong!” How I would love to go tattling this to Jesus, “Jesus, those other so-called disciples are doing it wrong!” Yet, Jesus made it clear to the disciples and therefore makes it clear to me that whoever is not against him is for me, and for us.
In case you haven’t heard, Pope Francis has been visiting our country this week. He addressed a joint session of Congress. He ate with homeless brothers and sisters. He stopped a procession and called over a little girl who broke through the security barriers. I have heard over and over what a profound impact he has made on the people who have listened to him, spoken with him, experienced his compassion and kindness.
I have also heard people who have complained bitterly about his message. Pundits of all varieties have commented that he is not doing what a pope is supposed to do – getting people to heaven. Beyond that, he needs to keep the church in its place and get his nose out of policy. I greatly respect Pope Francis. I do not agree with everything the Catholic Church advocates for, but I am still greatly moved by his genuine kindness and grace. In my eyes he is mercy and gentleness personified.
But would I be this accepting of him if he were a representative of a different kind of Christianity? I’m not so sure. I think I would be more likely to roll my eyes and dismiss a religious leader more evangelical or conservative than I am.
In the movie, The Apostle, Robert Duvall plays that second kind of pastor: the kind of pastor that makes me uncomfortable. He preaches a lot of hellfire and brimstone. He focuses solely on saving souls for a life after this one, and doesn’t seem to care too much about people who are hungry and hurting now. He doesn’t dig deep into the scripture, offering a well-reasoned interpretation with a beginning, middle and end. He shouts. He cajoles. He exhorts. He paces. He calls the people to be saved, to repent, to give their lives to the Lord. He does everything I don’t do. But there is one moment in the movie when he is standing on a bridge over a river and sees a priest across the water blessing people. I don’t remember the apostle’s exact words, but looks at the priest and smiles, saying something to the effect of “We may be going at it in different ways, but we’re working for the same goal, the same reason, the same One.” This man, this minister – so different from anything that I am and from anything that I want to be – watches this priest and acknowledges that truth which tends to stick in my throat; whoever is for Jesus is for us.
Whoever is for Jesus is for us. They are not doing it wrong. They are doing it differently. But we all do what we do, minister the way we minister, worship the way we worship, in the name of Jesus and for his sake. Isn’t that what is important? Isn’t that what ultimately matters? May we remember that about others, and may others remember that about us. Whoever is not against us is for us; even Bob the disciple.
Let all of God’s children say, “Allelua!” Amen.