Scripture Reading: Mark 9.38-41
“A Holiday Blessing”
The Rev. Dr. Fred G. Garry
John said to him, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” But Jesus said, “Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterwards to speak evil of me. Whoever is not against us is for us. For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.”
Bill Maher is not a usual suspect for sermon inspiration. Maher is a well-known despiser of religion, all religion. His television show is rife with jokes in poor taste and open ridicule. So I was surprised when I thought of Maher not only for a sermon, but a sermon in Advent.
Yet, what he said at the end of his last season, a farewell until January, was a very good thing to say right now. Maher gave advice to his audience as they approach the holidays. His advice was very straightforward: from now until January, during this time when you gather with family and friends, talk about nice things. Puppies. Talk about puppies. Share a funny cat video. Offer words about the great joy you take in pie and ice cream. Give an amusing anecdote from the innocence of your childhood. Talk about nice things.
And then, he explained his motive for his advice: resist the temptation to talk about politics. Take five weeks off. Don’t give in to the temptation to convince your uncle or your second cousin that their view on walls or tariffs or climate or the electoral college system is wrong; don’t be tempted to speak of these. Resist the impulse to see such talk as helpful at Thanksgiving or Christmas dinners. Just don’t, he said. Talk about nice things. This is not a time for dialogue across ideological spectrums. This is a time for eggnog and the glorious haze of tryptophan.
The exchange between Jesus and the disciples in our reading today made me think of Bill Maher. I find a strange delight in considering that the most irreligious man in America might be embodying the truth of the gospel. But our teaching today and the advice of Maher are close. Don’t waste energy on the need to be more right than others. The desire to be more right than others is not only a big part of our culture today, being more right others is also a big part of what is wrong with our culture. It is no longer acceptable to respect differences. To hold a differing opinion is no longer a matter of perspective. Now it is a matter of character. If you disagree with me, then you are not just a person with a wrong idea, you are also a wrong kind of person.
Frank Bruni of the New York Times ran an article this week about liberal/progressive types debating. There was a twitter feud over whether to offer respect to President Bush as he is laid to rest. His critique of the feud is important: we have lost the ability to hold divergent opinions within ourselves. We seem unable to respectfully disagree, to differ without disdain. No matter the persuasion, we are getting pedantic in our need to be always more right.
Listening to Maher, reading Bruni, and pondering Jesus I was taken back to my childhood. As a child I was given a great gift that continues to save me. The gift of holiday gatherings in my childhood has proven a deep salvation. These gathering give me a power so I can take Maher’s advice; I can hold opposite thoughts within me; and, I am completely uninterested in being right, let alone more right than others.
The gift of my childhood holidays is born of having to spend the day at two places. Each was a family gathering. First my mother’s family; then, my father’s family. Let me paint you a picture and perhaps the gift will come clear.
We always began at my Aunt’s house. Upon entering you are met by a kitchen counter covered with dishes ready for the taking. It was serve yourself; eat if you are hungry. Just beyond the kitchen, there is the dining room and the dining room table covered in poker chips as the ladies were all involved in a high stakes game. Around the corner is the television room where men watched the Lion’s game with the rapt attention only a large wager provides.
As a young boy there were three options. You could risk standing next to the poker game and be sent packing if you spoke or breathed too loud. You could stand and watch the football game but you must be prepared to be sent to the kitchen continuously to replenish beverages for the men. And then, you could join your cousins running wild through the streets. I choose door number three.
We would stay at my aunt’s house for a few hours. Once the obligation was met my father would track me down and then motion my mother to make an exit. Gathered at the door trying to quietly leave, my grandmother would offer her traditional Holiday Blessing: “Good Lord, Jim. Leaving all ready. I haven’t even had a chance to offend you yet!” It is not a well-known Holiday Blessing but it was ours.
From there we traveled an hour north to my grandparent’s home. Jim and Mary Garry’s home was tastefully decorated with retro rococo furnishings and large mahogany china hutches. The table was set with fine china, crystal, and silver. A large linen cloth covered the Queen Anne table. In the kitchen my grandmother directed the ladies in a well-choreographed effort to deliver all dishes as hot as they should be hot and cold as they should be cold. The men sat around the same Lions’ game as was being watched at my aunt’s house, only no one had a bet on the game and beer was replaced by a single highball that was nursed until dinner was ready. Where there had been shouts, quiet exchanges were now offered instead.
Here there was only one option. I was the only child. Carefully I would make my way about the house watching, listening. I can see my grandmother approving of the whip offered to the potatoes or the polite query my grandfather gave to his son, “how’s work Jim?” To which my father emptied out his heart with the reply, “good, good.” Perhaps it was to keep me occupied and thus quiet at the table, my grandmother always placed a crystal dish of pitted black olives in front of my seat. Each year I ate them all and never disturbed the dining.
The gift, as you might guess, is that I don’t see one way; I don’t have a set definition for love, for joy, for satisfaction. I loved the wild abandon, the poker table, and the Holiday Blessing; and, I loved the china, the gentle clink of the highball glass and the brilliant olive strategy that kept my youthful mouth quietly chewing. Each had its flaws and failures. Perhaps had I been older when I was introduced to such dichotomy, perhaps I would have seen the tensions or the dynamics more clearly. But what I saw at six was possibilities of joy as rather complex.
In our first church, many moons ago, when I spoke of this dichotomy in holiday cheer, I received a very terse response from a parishioner. Helen, Helen didn’t like the picture I painted and she told me so. “My family is not like that; I don’t know families like that. That was terrible to describe this as a good thing in a sermon.” With that she huffed off deeply offended. Before I could stew on this reproach the next person in line took my hand and pulled me close. “Helen’s family is crazy but no one has the heart to tell her so.”
Our reading today from Mark may not have a great resonance at first. Chances are good none of us have ever debated about competitive exorcists. And we live in a culture of such diverse religious expression that the idea that we could control or determine what other churches or other denominations or other faiths would do seems a remote idea. Most churches today are struggling to find agreement within their own members let alone have the energy to direct members of other congregations.
This is true. Yet, it is just as true that we are struggling today with disagreement and with the ability to allow others the benefit of the doubt, the possibility of disagreeing with dignity. Sometimes I feel like there is a decision to hold on as tight as we can to our disagreement and never blink. Bill Maher’s advice was born of this predicament. It is as if he was calling for a holiday truce, a ceasefire for the sake of turkey and “stockings hung by the chimney with care.”
In the early church where Mark’s gospel was born, they too had deep divisions and schisms and other “isms” equally as troubling as ours. Some people liked the gentiles, some didn’t; some liked the idea of women in leadership, some didn’t; some hated riches, others found such disdain offensive. The list goes on and on. If you read the letters of Paul it seems like he is playing theological wacamole with the endless possibilities of disagreement and disdain.
When Mark wrote his gospel, it was as if he needed to remind the church of peace, of civility, of embracing difference instead of offering disdain. You can read Mark’s gospel as a moment of saying, let’s be quiet for a time and just listen to Jesus. Like Bill Maher’s call for nice conversation, Mark is offering the teachings of Jesus as a kind of pause in the rancor, a moment of respite in the fighting. Even more importantly though Mark seems to be saying the church not only needs a break, needs peace, the church also needs to be the peace; the church needs to be the break in the hold of hate and what drives us apart.
A year or so ago I sat with my grandson Dmitri. Dmitri was watching a television show. The show is called Dinosaur Train. The premise is built around a group of young, colorful dinosaur friends who travel from place to place on a train and overcome obstacles and learn life lessons as they explore the world together. Good show. Interesting, engaging. But something didn’t sit right with me so I asked, Dmitri, “Dmitri, how do dinosaurs travel on a train?” Dmitri looked up at me and with a sigh said, “gramp, it’s complicated.”
True words. It’s complicated. Our lives together, our politics and divisions, our votes and protests, our shouts and rants. They are complicated. Not quite as sophisticated as dinosaurs on a train but complicated for sure.
I appreciate what Bill Maher suggested. We need a deep breath, a pause in our rancor. President Bush made some mistakes, but God rest his soul. We will continue to struggle and to fight to see who is more right. Our divisions are deep and wide. Yet, I cling to the memories of the holiday blessing and the olives, the food strewn on counters and the food placed in fine china. I cling to those so to navigate the complexity.
Life can be better or worse, but it has always been and will always be complicated. So to stand in this tension I trust the simple gift I received: love both, love all. Those who are not against are for us. We find the power of this call when we see all people as within the reach of love, the place where we treat all with dignity. We can all be for compassion.
The demons are many and darkness prevails. It is likely that we can determine who is more wrong than we can tell who is more right. It’s complicated. Love offered in humility, where we talk of puppies instead of politics; love offered in humility doesn’t solve the complexity; love offered in humility abides and finds joy in the poker game and the olives well placed.
I hope my holiday blessing hasn’t offended. I hope you find the joy of abiding with each and all. Be the peace you give; be the peace you receive. Amen.
- Esther 7:1 - 4
- Mark 9:38 - 41