When you watch a series on television there’s often a brief
introduction which brings you up to date with the main parts of the plot. I
think we need that this morning to help us make sense of the Gospel reading.
Last week we heard that Jesus took his disciples on retreat and tried to teach
them about his impending death and resurrection. But they didn’t get it. We are
told, “They did not understand what he meant and were afraid to ask him about
it.” (Mk 9:32) The idea that after all this he was just going to die was so
inconceivable to them that they couldn’t wrap their brains around the words he
So they started to argue about which of them was the
Jesus has just told them for the second time that even
though he is the Son of Man he is not going to lead them victoriously against the
Roman occupying forces, and in fact he is going to let himself be killed. He is
trying to teach them about the path of non-violence, the path of the reign of
God, and what is their response? They immediately revert to the path of the
world – who has the greatest power. Jesus responds by telling them that the one
who wants to be powerful must be a servant, and then he takes a child in his
arms, and says “Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name
That’s where this morning’s reading comes. John blurts out
“We saw a man driving out demons in your name and we told him to stop because
he was not one of us.” We told him to
stop because he was not one of us
. Time for another quick flashback…
earlier in this very same chapter the disciples had been very embarrassed
because they could not cast out a demon. Now they’re telling someone who can do
it to stop because he’s not one of them.
So the disciples responded to Jesus’ teaching about his
death and resurrection first by getting into a power struggle and secondly by
trying to exclude someone and keep God’s grace just for themselves.
Jesus responds, “Anyone who gives you a cup of water in my
name because you belong to Christ will certainly not lose his reward.” A cup of
water in my name. A simple gesture but potentially a life giving one. Jesus is
continuing his teaching about the path of discipleship.
You may have noticed that doing something in his name has
just come up three times; the man casting out demons in his name is bookended
by Jesus saying, “Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name
welcomes me,” and “anyone who gives you a cup of water in my name..” The
disciples are drawn to the power being exercised by an outsider, but Jesus
brings them back to the humility of a little child and a cup of water.
We want to have power. We want the showy stuff whether it’s
the newest iphone or the splashiest spiritual gift. We want to matter. And
Jesus gently reminds us that it’s really about living a simple, generous, open
life. A child is defenseless and has to be protected by his parents, a child is
open to new possibilities, a child has not yet learned to put other people down
or to indulge in cynicism. That is the life to which Jesus is calling his
disciples, not the life of violence and aggression, of taking care of number
one and watching out that you don’t get stabbed in the back.
The next part of the reading is full of horror movie
imagery. Jesus is either getting very worked up or he is using grotesque
imagery to get his point across.
Stop coming up with excuses, he says. Stop saying, well my
hand did it, or my ear heard, my eye noticed. Take responsibility. What could
be more important than the reign of God? What could be more important than
living the life that God has called us to? Whatever it is, get rid of it. When
you hear gossip you don’t need to pass it on; when someone you see makes you
lust it isn’t the fault of the beautiful person nor the fault of your eyes, but
a cleansing of your heart that’s needed. When your hand takes one more cookie
out of the cookie jar, don’t just say you couldn’t help it; get rid of the
cookie jar, or failing that cut off your hand.
This life of discipleship is not about getting riled up and
going to war. No, it’s about the complete opposite.
This life is about giving a cup of water to someone who’s
thirsty; it’s about making sure that every being on earth has clean water to
drink. Which means using less yourself, conserving what you have so that you
can give generously; it means fighting pollution of every kind whether that’s
trash from packaging, or the heavy metals in your last iphone; it means giving
money to support those who are digging wells and creating local water sources; those
who are building better sanitation facilities in order to protect water sources
around the world.
This life of discipleship is about what the Pope calls
“humility and sobriety” which I might translate as simplicity and discipline.
It means putting God’s reign first and everything else second. It means finding
the path of contemplation and spiritual development which enables you to
develop an inner serenity that can withstand all the difficulties that will
come your way. It means living simply; using less resources, not wasting, being
able to really enjoy the moment because you’re not caught up in the past or
worrying about the future, or taking care of your stuff. It means living a life
poured out in service to others. And that may be doing exactly what you do
already but doing it with a gracious heart of blessing.
Joann Rusch and I had many conversations about this,
especially as her health declined. She longed to have quietness and time to
write but she was dedicated to creating a fairer world, and worried that she
should be writing letters to the editor rather than poetry, and that she should
be going to activist meetings rather than enjoying the estuary and the company
of friends. When you ask, God will show you what to do in order to be a
blessing; the Holy Spirit will guide you into the paths of the reign of God.
You will find what is yours to do, and what is yours not to do.
But it may not be splashy and big. You may not be asked to
cast out demons in public. You may have to wrestle with your own demons in
private. God may not send you a text or write a sentence in the sky. Because
the reign of God is in a small child and a cup of water. It is in a flower and
in writing letters. It is in being God’s blessing to all beings, living a life
of spirituality, simplicity and service.