Proper 21(B): Textual Indigestion
By: The Rev. Marshall A. Jolly
Occasionally, when I find myself staring at a blank screen during sermon preparation, I’ll take a few minutes and pull up past sermons I’ve given on a particular text in order to get a sense of where I’ve been and where I’m going (or at very least, where I SHOULDN’T go!) This is my third pass through Year B of the Revised Common Lectionary since my ordination, so when I read this difficult and rather obscure text, I breathed a small sigh of relief, confident that my trusty sermon archives contained at least a few words of wisdom. But to my surprise, I discovered that in 2015, I elected to preach on the Epistle and in 2012, I elected to preach on the Old Testament! I have never preached on this passage before!
Given the fact that I’m the editor of this blog, I could have farmed this essay out to someone else; and I could have even broken my own rule and offered some thoughts on the non-Gospel readings for Proper 21. But if I’ve learned anything at all about preaching, it is that the preacher should always pay close attention to the texts that give you exegetical indigestion—even if that means wrestling a bit.
The first thing that troubles me with this text is just how much it sounds like me. My younger brother and I are five years apart, and the two of us are the youngest of five cousins—all of whom grew up within either walking distance or a short drive from our house. Somewhat predictably, there was lots of horseplay, scapegoating, and tattling. I can vividly remember many occasions when either my brother or I would run to our parents and complain, “Mooooooommmmmmm, Marshall sprayed the cat with the water hose…” or “Daaaaaaaaddddd, Christopher isn’t sharing the popcorn…” Of course, neither of us really cared about the damp cat or the hogged popcorn (although I do love me some good buttered popcorn!) Instead, we were concerned with proving how perfectly innocent we were by pointing out the misdeeds of the other.
“John said to [Jesus], ‘Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.’” Now, by all accounts, casting out demons is a good thing. And, truth be told, I don’t think that the disciples were upset about the demons being cast out. They were upset because they were being cast out by someone who wasn’t them. They had the corner on this whole Jesus movement, and if someone else was casting out demons, that’s a threat—nevermind the fact that demons are being cast out!
When my Dad taught me to play chess as a kid, he’d say, “Look at the whole board, not just the individual pieces.” The Disciples made the same mistake that I did. They were so focused on the individual pieces that they couldn’t see the whole board.
How many times has this happened to you? After a vibrant, glorious worship service, a parishioner meets you at the door with a complaint about the symmetry of the candles, or the positioning of the flowers. As if we could bring in the Kingdom if only we could properly adorn and accessorize the worship space! Every congregation needs to be reminded about the importance of charity and generosity towards others from time to time. This might be a good occasion for such a sermon.
In the same way, every Christian—and every Christian leader—needs reminding that there is more than one model for being Christian and being the Church. Big screens and praise bands may make some people’s skin crawl. But for others, the ancient liturgies of the Church have a way of stifling or snuffing out the fire of the Spirit. The best sermons are the ones the preacher most needs to hear her/himself. This might be a good occasion for a sermon rooted in humble introspection.
Although it’s rather subtle, there is yet another important word of wisdom here. Jesus says, “Whoever is not against us is for us.” In other words, Jesus is saying, “We’re all in this together!” There’s a lot of Kingdom to build, and there’s more than enough work for everyone! In a world that can sometimes feel like everything is falling in on itself, what a welcome breath of fresh air to hear that, no, in fact, the whole world does not depend on me. We are all in this together!
Thanks be to God!
The Rev. Marshall A. Jolly was elected the 26th rector of Grace Episcopal Church in May of 2015. A native of Paris, Kentucky, Marshall earned a BA in American Studies at Transylvania University, and a Master of Divinity and Certificate in Anglican Studies at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, where he is currently completing doctoral work in Biblical interpretation. Marshall is also the editor of ModernMetanoia.org. Most important and life-giving of all, he is Elizabeth’s husband.