This, for me, anyway, has been a fascinating week. An enormous amount of energy, focus and press has surrounded the historic visit of Pope Francis I to the United States, so much so that it has been hard not to be caught up in or at least curious about the travels, the speeches and the activities of the head of the Roman Catholic Church.
If your week found you having to travel in the direction of Washington, D.C., New York or Philadelphia, or anywhere else along the Northeast corridor, you may have found yourself in “deep doo-doo” as my mother used to say. It simply isn’t easy to move millions of extra people into and out of our cities.
While I wasn’t able to be personally present or even to observe firsthand the broadcasts of Francis’ speeches and activities, I have read reports and some transcripts of what the pope said, followed, of course, by the endless commentary about everything he did – commentary which heavily weighed in the positive, I must say.
Since he was elected to the papacy on March 13, 2013, the appeal and the fan base of this pope has grown far beyond the reaches of the Roman Catholic Church. I was not alone this week as an “outsider” who was listening, watching, and weighing the words of the pontiff.
Leaders and members of many other world religions and Christian denominations have watched his movements as have political leaders from across the globe. Along with the masses who have thronged his appearances, I have watched with growing respect and appreciation the consistent message the pope delivers regardless of his audience.
Francis has built up quite a fan base, to the extent that without the careful planning, added security detail, and massive crowd control employed this week, we might have faced a disaster similar to that which faced pilgrims to Mecca this week, where people were trampled and hundreds were killed.
Instead, millions of people crowded the cities and millions more gathered around television sets around the world to watch history being made. Yet, as poet John Lyndgate once said, in words later adapted by President Lincoln, “You can please some of the people all of the time, you can please all of the people some of the time, but you cannot please all of the people all of the time.” The pope has his detractors, too.
For as much good and positive press the pope has garnered, there are also those who don’t like him, who question his decisions and teaching, who find him too radical and too honest and too convicting in his opinions. Yes, there are those who would like to give him the boot right out of the Vatican and back to Argentina.
As we know from the gospels, Jesus received the same kind of positive and negative attention and response during his lifetime. As we have read from the gospel of Mark over the past few months, Jesus has been traveling all around Galilee. And as his ministry has grown, his reputation for shining a new light for God’s people and new hope on those who truly walked in darkness, those who were so long waiting and yearning for just such a word, the crowds grew. So did the determination of his opponents.
People wanted to hear more from this Nazarean. They brought their diseased and disabled for healing. The poor came to be fed. Everyone was looking for a little something from him. People came out of the woodwork and as other gospels testify, even out of the ceilings to touch and be touched by him.
Watching the frenzy which surrounded Francis this week, I could only imagine what it might have been like for Jesus during his own travels around Galilee, followed by crowds from which there was no escape.
Jesus’ ministry had grown to such a point that like Moses in our first lesson this morning, disciples were chosen to help and then himself Jesus sent them to teach and preach and heal in his name. He appointed them to this ministry and made them part of the vast work of sharing God’s love and mercy in the world. But then the inevitable happened. They began to think of themselves in competitive and exclusive terms.
Like Joshua in the Old Testament text, the disciples were afflicted with forgetting – yet again – that God’s call and anointing comes in many forms to those whom God chooses.
In the gospel just before today’s story, upon hearing Jesus’ second passion prediction, some of the disciples distracted themselves along the road by arguing which of them was the greatest. Jesus had to remind them that to follow him means to take up one’s cross. Jesus he told them those who are the “last” among us will be the “first” – in God’s eyes and in God’s kingdom.
It’s part of the problem with humankind, with all of us, isn’t it? Sooner or later, no matter how pure our motives and intentions to follow in the way of Jesus, we set up walls – barriers which separate us from one another.
We create lists of who is on the inside and who is on the outside, who is in the right and who is in the wrong, who has power and is deserving, and who is powerless and undeserving, who is the greatest or most important and accomplished, and who just doesn’t matter quite as much, who is “one of us” and who is “one of them”.
The disciples come to Jesus complaining that someone who isn’t “one of us” is casting out demons in Jesus name.
But Jesus sets the record straight. “No one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me.” Or, as The Message translation puts it, “Don’t stop him. No one can use my name to do something good and powerful, and in the next breath cut me down. If he’s not an enemy, he’s an ally. Why, anyone by just giving you a cup of water in my name is on our side. Count on it that God will notice.”
Even among the Christian denominations we struggle with Jesus’ words here, because you know, there are the Evangelicals and the Charismatics; There are the Conservatives and the Moderates; There are those who read and understand the Bible as the literal, historically factual and inerrant Word of God and those who believe that the Bible is the authentic, living, and inspired Word which must be read contextually. There are Reconciling in Christ congregations who not only welcome but desire to help heal the hurts of the LGBT community and individuals and there at congregations which adamantly shut them out. And we fight one another and disregard the legitimacy of the faith of the other.
The thing is that Jesus tells us that he welcomes all who believe in him. Jesus calls many from different walks of life, from different backgrounds, cultures, and social strata to serve him. The kingdom of God is inclusive not only of whom it serves but in whom it calls to serve.
What is it that has people today talking about and following and listening to the man who was at the center of the news cycle this week? What is it about Francis that draws both crowds and praise but also deep criticism? And let me set the record straight. Unlike Jesus, Pope Francis is neither saint nor divine. So what is the draw?
Is it that he, through word and deed reflects the teachings of Jesus and in so doing is giving people who hunger and thirst for good news the hope which is for them both precious commodity and life-giving good news? Is it the down-to-earth manner of a man whose every action is scrutinized, weighed and judged by the world yet seems to be pretty consistent with the Jesus who places love and mercy ahead of politics and agenda? Is it that the man who now has our attention and is seen by so many as being radical somehow reflects the humble walk Jesus commands of all his followers as they take up their cross to follow, but which we find so challenging?
Is it the ways in which he is reaching out and urging unity and acceptance of diversity in this kingdom life and kingdom work as Jesus does in our gospel today?
In his address to Congress, Francis said, “In this land, the various religious denominations have greatly contributed to building and strengthening society. It is important that today, as in the past, the voice of faith continue to be heard, for it is a voice of fraternity and love, which tries to bring out the best in each person and in each society. Such cooperation is a powerful resource in the battle to eliminate new global forms of slavery, born of grave injustices which can be overcome only through new policies and new forms of social consensus.”
We confess that the kind of cooperation of which Francis optimistically speaks is the kind of cooperation that the disciples struggle with in the text today and is the kind of cooperation that can be a struggle for us, each and every day.
Yet the grace of God, experienced through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus is God’s way of stripping away barriers, and it encourages us to look at one another through the lens of this gospel.
Through the incarnation of Jesus, the enfleshment of God’s own spirit for the kingdom of God, the dividing lines, the barriers that separate people and disadvantage those who are seeking, struggling, and searching are removed, knocked to the ground, and obliterated.
What does it mean to really believe that God works through all denominations?
What does it look like when cooperative ministries unite in common cause for the sake of people in need?
I suppose it looks something like hundreds of people having their homes rebuilt and life restored by a wide variety of faith groups, working cooperatively following a disaster like Superstorm Sandy as we saw happening just down the road almost three years ago, or a hurricane like Katrina or so many disasters since which have found various faith groups working cooperatively to restore lives and communities.
I suppose it might look like an Interfaith Hunger Coalition providing food for scores of people right here in Easton; I suppose it might look like a homeless shelter served by volunteers from the Jewish temple alongside members of the Quaker Meeting house, in partnership with members of Grace each and every month. These are but a few of the large network of partnerships and ministries serving the needs of this kingdom of God.
The good news of God in Jesus Christ comes to us not through the group, denomination, class, race or gender we belong to nor through the particular call that Christ has called us to, but is made manifest in God’s creative, redeeming, inclusive love for all, which draws us together, working and serving God’s kingdom.