Doing Good, Large and Small

As you prepare to preach the Word of the Lord this week, I want to share a little piece from this week’s Pulpit Resource. For some time now, I have written this weekly resource to help encourage, support, and enable the work of preachers like you, tasked with the awesome burden of proclaiming the Gospel. 

I hope this helps you with this week’s text, as I work with the lectionary’s assigned Gospel Reading from Mark’s Gospel. If you would like to receive Pulpit Resource regularly as a part of your preparations, you can subscribe HERE.

As always, your partner in ministry,

You will note that in this Sunday’s gospel Jesus is moving out into the world. Of course, that’s what Jesus has been doing throughout the gospel of Mark, moving out into the world. But Jesus is not just traveling, rather he is moving into the world doing good – preaching, teaching, healing, exorcising demons, and opening the eyes of the blind.

Jesus’ disciples move with him. They have learned quite quickly that if they are going to follow Jesus they have got to follow him throughout the world doing good. If any of you have genuinely, sincerely tried to do good in the world, you know that doing good is not just a matter of good intentions. We are not called simply to do good work on behalf of others in need, but we are to do good work in Jesus’ name. 

We are to do good in the name of Jesus, that is, in the spirit of Jesus. And the disciples of Jesus, in today’s gospel, find out that can be a challenge.

“What are you doing to fight mass incarceration in America?” the speaker asked the evening meeting. “We have more people in jail—two million—than any other country in the world, civilized or uncivilized, democratic or not. America puts more people in jail, many more people, than the Chinese dictatorship. What are you doing about it?  We are here this night to get organized, to do all the things we need to do to become a force for good in this community.”

A couple of congregations in town had representatives in the meeting. The speaker, a community activist, was not a church member, not even a self-identified Christian. 

Someone had asked, “Are there no Methodists who are working in this area?  We ought to find one of our own to guide us if we want to work on the problem of mass incarceration.”

“But this guy is the leader of the effort in our community. Who cares where he goes to church or does not go to church?  The main thing is that he is boldly confronting this problem and he can help us to do the same.”

So, we went to the meeting where he asked rhetorically, “What are you doing to fight mass incarceration in America?”   

In the ensuing discussion after the speaker’s stirring remarks, one of my church members—a retired school teacher said, “What are we doing about this terrible mass incarceration problem?”—well one thing we are doing is some friends and I make cookies—chocolate chip cookies—for the young men at the young corrections institution outside of town. Whenever one of them has a birthday, we give him a little batch of cookies tied with a bow. I have seen huge, hulking young men fall to the floor in tears when we give them those cookies—first birthday present anyone has ever given them. It’s a little thing, but it’s something that can mean a lot, and it’s something we can do.”

The speaker, the expert on mass incarceration replied, “Lady, I’m glad that you are baking those cookies and I’m sure the guys appreciate them but I’m sorry, that’s not going to do much to impact the problem of mass incarceration. In fact, it may make some people think it’s OK to put these young men in jail as long as they get a few cookies once a year.” “What are you doing to fight mass incarceration in America?” 

Now in that evening, and in that brief exchange, I think you have something roughly analogous to at least two aspects of this morning’s gospel. Jesus’ disciples come to him saying, “Master, we saw this unknown guy casting out demons in your name and we told him to stop because he wasn’t one of us.” 

And Jesus responded, “No, don’t forbid him to do his good work. Even if he is not part of our little band of brothers he’s doing good and that’s good enough for me.”

Our church partners with many organizations and individuals that are not part of our church. Jesus has commissioned us to address social ills in our community and we find these groups to be allies with us in obeying Jesus even though they don’t worship Jesus.

Sometimes, in working with these allies, we find that their good work makes our good works pale by comparison. Sometimes we have the opportunity to tell them about our church, to witness to the Christian faith because of relationships we have made with them.

Demon possession seems to have been so widespread in Judea that Jesus appreciated any help that others, even unknown exorcists, could give him in responding in compassion to such a big problem. 

Jesus is not just concerned about the needs of those closest to him, or the troubles of those who have self-identified as one of his disciples. He came to save the whole world. He is concerned, not just with what’s troubling our hearts but also cares about what’s troubling our world. When we work on the world’s problems, when we think big and tackle the challenges posed by systemic injustice and structural oppression, we are signaling Jesus’ larger, cosmic, global concerns. If we are not in some way mixing it up with the demonic, we are not engaging in ministry in the name of Jesus.

In today’s gospel Jesus moves, rather surprisingly, from a debate with his disciples about what to do about an unknown exorcist who, though he does good work in exorcising the demonic, “is not one of us,” to mention of the cup of water given in response to the needs of “little ones.”  

There are some spectacular encounters with demons in Mark’s gospel. As we have noted in Sundays past, in going head-to-head with the demonic, Jesus shows that he is in touch with the most mysterious, perplexing, and powerful forces of evil. Jesus does not just minister to individuals and their personal needs, he engages and overcomes evil and oppression in whatever guises they present themselves.

Jesus also calls his followers to engage in less dramatic acts of mercy – the cup of cold water offered to a thirsty person, the considerate phone call, the thoughtful text sent to someone who is having a rough day. We are not to disparage these small but essential acts of kindness. 

There’s a heap of loneliness in our culture. We put a high value on individualism, autonomy, and self-help. No wonder lots of people feel isolated and alone. In this sort of culture otherwise small acts of kindness can mean a great deal, particularly when they are offered in the name of Jesus.

A person mentioned to me the other day that when there is a death in her congregation, she always flips her calendar ahead and notes the anniversary of that bereavement. Then, on the date of the anniversary of the death, she calls those who are mourning the loss of that person, telling them, “Something made me think of you this day. Just want you to know that I’m remembering your loved one today and know that I am there for you if you need any help as you continue to mourn your loss.”

“Something made me think of you this day,” probably ought to be phrased, “Someone made me think of you this day,” – that someone is Jesus. In his name we do our part in the cosmic, national, community struggle against injustice. In his name we attempt to be thoughtful, kind, and considerate in offering the cup of water. Large or small, our acts of goodness show that we are trying to play our role in Jesus’ loving move into the world.

Some of us are good at organizing and working in the large areas political, governmental, social activism. Others us have gifts for the smaller, more intimate, and personal gestures. Whatever gifts Jesus has given you to help others, use them for his glory as a sign, a signal, a witness to his coming reign.

Let us go forth in his name to do his work in the world. Amen. 

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