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Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost Proper 21




Saint Margaret’s Anglican Church Budapest Hungary Esther 7:1-6, 9-10; 9:20-22; Psalm 124; James 5:13-20; Mark 9:38-50 Whoever is not against us is for us.” Some years ago, church signage in the US Episcopal Church was in a sense standardized. You could order a sign in other words for the church door or front garden from the headquarters of the Church in New York City, and it would arrive with the name of your congregation proudly displayed and any other information you might wish to convey, such as the address or times of the Sunday services; but also with the uniform message, The Episcopal Church Welcomes You. Other parts of the Anglican world may have something similar. I always liked the message and the sign. I am not sure if it is still in use or not in the United States. But the message was unconditional. There was no asterisk with small print explaining that we welcome you “but” or that we welcome you “except for.” There was no required dress code nor vaccination card. You did not have to make a financial pledge. It seemed to me to express well the mission of the Church: To welcome others. It could perhaps only have been improved, in my opinion, by explaining that “Christ welcomes you to the Episcopal part of his one Church,” but then that would have been a bit wordy I suppose for the Church’s marketing experts. In today’s Gospel account, John comes to the Lord troubled about someone, apparently an outsider without standing or portfolio in their community, acting in the Lord’s name to cast out demons. Casting out demons meant essentially healing of course. Scripture does not record who this someone was, so we can only speculate. It may have been a religious zealot with his own agenda. It could have been a genuine believer not yet fully integrated into the circle of Jesus’ disciples. It may have been an imposter or fraud. We will never know for sure. But the disciples certainly do not put out the welcome sign, or welcome mat, for him, whoever he was. Instead, almost like overeager corporate attorneys defending their company’s brands and trademarks in the marketplace, they act quickly to protect their exclusive franchise on the use of Jesus’ name and authority. They want this outsider stopped, and stopped now. And they take the matter right to the top, confident that Jesus will get the point and lower the boom. It does not work out that way. Jesus, no doubt to their consternation, is not concerned that others are acting in his name. He probably knows that his world – just like ours today – has more than its fair share of evil spirits: war, violence, hatred of those who are different, fake news, and greed, to name but a few. Casting out such demons – no matter who is doing it – is bound to be a good thing. “No one

who does a deed of power in my name,” Jesus tells his anxious disciples, “will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me.” And then Jesus reminds them, and us, of what should be an obvious truth: “Whoever is not against us is for us.” According to some historians, by the way, this was also the rallying cry of the Kádár regime here in Hungary after the 1956 Revolution. Whoever is not against us is for us. This apparently helped to set Kádár, surely no saint, apart from the fanaticism and cruelty of the prior Rákosi regime. Sometimes it is better not to ask too many questions. Sometimes even the corrupt unbeliever can stumble upon the truth. And the somewhat obscure Book of Esther, from which our first reading this morning is taken, is a tale of prejudice and its consequences in religious and racial persecution. Esther defends the rights of her people, the people of Israel, and so overcomes great obstacles. And Haman, the villain of today’s passage, ultimately pays for his intrigues with his life. Curiously, this is one of only two books in the Bible which makes no mention of God at all. Perhaps the underlying message is that human rights are universal and not dependent upon any religious ritual or belief. Esther lives on to celebrate her achievement and is remembered today in the Jewish holiday of Purim. Jesus’ tolerance for those not of his following is astonishing for his troubled times. It is shocking still in many parts of the world today. But for our Lord it is more than just tolerance. Jesus does not simply put up with those who do not belong to his circle, as if they were an annoying but harmless irritant, like mosquitos after an autumn rain. He welcomes them. They are, one can almost imagine him thinking, the disciples to come. Those who do not now belong will soon enough have a full share in the reward of the very kingdom he has come to proclaim. Whoever bears “the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward,” he concludes. All are welcome to work wonders in his name. Casting out demons is not the personal prerogative of the disciples. It is in fact the challenge for all of us. Our world is scarcely less fearful and frightening than that in which our Lord lived so long ago; or for that matter the world of Esther even longer ago. People are still afraid of those who do not belong, of the exile and refugee, of those whose skin-colour is different from their own, no matter what “deeds of power” they may demonstrate. We see this played out every day in distant lands and in the corridors of power in our own home countries and here in Central Europe as well. Our prejudices remain a stumbling block to our common life and to world peace. We remain too ready to perceive enemies everywhere at work against us. We are as much as ever in need of Jesus’ calm reassurance. We still need to be reconciled, one to another. Reconciliation is of course the definitive “deed of power” that drives out the demons and evil spirits of any age. It requires that we see the other in a new and different light – as the neighbour in the next village and as the distant relative who shares our humanity. Only this kind of change of heart can bring an end to suspicion and bloodshed. But it takes hard work and patience, both of which are in short supply in our world today. As always, the problem is our own fear and lack of trust, our inability as individuals, churches, and societies to live by faith, to be reconciled, to see in the good deeds of others the reflection of the love of our common Father in heaven. The Lord is still able to cast out demons, if we let him. And alas, there are plenty of demons left in the hearts of each of us, in the world around us. Queen Esther rejoiced in the overcoming of Israel’s enemies, in the overcoming of the demons of hatred and prejudice, and she celebrated with feasting and gladness. For us as Christians today, casting out demons in Christ’s name remains the challenge

we all face. Perhaps we can begin by ourselves ordering a welcome sign and hanging it at the gate of our heart. We welcome you. The Episcopal Church -- the Anglican Church -- welcomes you. Christ welcomes you. Amen. The Rev Dr. Frank Hegedűs



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