Readings for this Sunday:
Esther 7:1-6, 9-10; 9:20-22 | Psalm 124 | James 5:13-20 | Mark 9:38-50
I hope you’ve had some opportunity to pay attention to the visit of Pope Francis this past week. I have to tell you, I am really drawn to this Pope, and every indication is that many others are as well, and our youth and young adults in particular. Watching some of the events and reading some of the stories this week has me convinced that there’s something afoot, a new sense of possibility, a rekindling of faith of all kinds as a way to get where we need to go, a way of preserving our present and restoring our future.
There’s been a lot of talk about the so-called optics of the Pope’s visit—of his resistance to the formality that would keep him from being close to the people he is here to see, of his insistence on simplicity wherever he can find it. He arrived at Andrew’s Air Force Base and was welcomed by the President and his family and other dignitaries. The red carpet was there for him. A band played. Protocol carefully enacted. But most striking for me was watching him drive off, stuffed into the back seat of a little black Fiat 500, windows down so he could see and wave to the massive crowd that had gathered for his arrival. As the car drove off it was engulfed by a sea of massive black SUVs the size of tanks. I wondered if he was actually able to see anything of the trip so surrounded in the bubble of protection.
After his address to a joint session of congress, he declined an invitation to a lavish lunch with politicians and dignitaries at the capitol, instead making his way to St. Patrick’s Catholic Church, a plain parish church on G Street in D.C., where the St. Maria’s Meals program serves a hot meal to about 300 people every Wednesday, possibly, as Stephen Colbert reasoned, because he wanted to eat a meal with people less likely to beg him for donations.
“I want to be very clear.” Pope Francis said, as he addressed the gathering at St. Patrick’s, just before the meal.
We can’t find any social or moral justification, no justification whatsoever for lack of housing. We know that Jesus wanted to show solidarity with every person. He wanted everyone to experience his companionship, his help and his love. He identified with all those who suffer, who weep, who suffer any kind of injustice. He tells us this clearly, ‘I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me.’
Here’s the thing: It is the face of gentleness and vulnerability that has the power to change us, to bring out in each of us our better angels. It is that gentle, clear, truthful word, backed up by a life that preaches that most exposes the futility of our hunger and thirst for power and prosperity, and the hatred and violence that is its fruit. And Francis’ presence has shown this powerfully over the last week and in some of the most divided and political locations that we know. Although it was fleeting, even in congress there was a softening of those hard edges. It was just different. Humility backed up by a life of devotion to our common good, and a deep sense that we belong together—this is what can actually change the world. And watching the Pope this week, we could believe it!
Whoever is not against us is for us, Jesus tells the disciples after they try to stop someone from doing good things that it turns out, the disciples were unable to do. Don’t stop them. We are in this together.
Francis, a child of immigrants, began his address to congress by reminding them that we are a nation of immigrants. This is our story, but even more, genuine faith bends to those whose lives are most in danger, and toward what puts us there. We have no right to destroy the earth because the earth itself has rights and because we are dependent on our earthly home:
“A selfish and boundless thirst for power and material prosperity leads both to the misuse of available natural resources and to the exclusion of the weak and disadvantaged,” he said... “The poorest are those who suffer most from such offenses, for three serious reasons: they are cast off by society, forced to live off what is discarded and suffer unjustly from the abuse of the environment. They are part of today’s widespread and quietly growing ‘culture of waste.’”
It was a stunning week that demonstrated the power of simple faith—the kind of faith that is offered to all of us. Lives lived gently, with loving-kindness and humility, lives that listen deeply to others—they have the power to change everything.
And it is really the crux of what Jesus is asking his disciples and us to do in these texts. The word for stumble that Jesus uses in the Mark reading is a strong word—to scandalize, to trouble, to so horrify someone that they can no longer move forward. Everything stops. Surely we know the feeling.
We will look more closely at the roots of this next week, and particularly why he uses it in relationship to little ones, to children, to our family systems. The seeds of our culture of waste are planted there—in our children—only to establish roots and grow into the conflict and disregard that seemed for just a little while this week to diminish.
And that is what is so important for us to take note of today. It takes so little to change it. Kindness is so much more powerful. Gentleness has the capacity to break down all forms of resistance. Generosity and self-giving rooted in the deep understanding that we belong together, that we need each other, that we are all children of God and members of an incredible and fragile creation—these are the things that change everything. This is where God’s salvation lives.
It takes so little to change everything. It is astonishing to see how one small act of selfless courage can lead to another and then another so that the arc of history is shifted. This is the story of Esther, after all. Courage small and great. Deep listening and clarity of action has the power to catch history on fire in a book in which God is never even mentioned.
James chimes in: Prayer, rather than us longing for our agenda, is at its best, about listening for God’s. Francis spoke to congress of “the image and likeness fashioned by God on every human face,” so that, “human beings can’t be exploited or abused without defacing the divine.”
And this is exactly what Jesus seems to be getting to in Mark. Our salvation is found in our attention to the littlest ones, the weakest ones, the marginalized ones who bear the image and likeness of God. And we have all that we need to make the way clear for them, to ease suffering, to build understanding, to grow in grace.
Francis, a child of immigrants, reminded his listeners at the St. Patrick’s meal, that Jesus was born into homelessness: The son of God knew what it was like to be a homeless person,” he said, “What it was to start life without a roof over his head.”
Beloved of God, our work is not complicated. It is exceedingly simple, and we know it, don’t we? Live lives of humility, lives that do unto others as we would have them do to us. Be generous and kind. Protect those who are weak.
Live salty lives, and our world will catch on fire. We can only control what we can do, but it is more than enough.
St. Andrew Sermons