Do Better/Try Harder

Mk. 6:7-13
Pent 5

Do you still have your elementary school report cards? My mother saved mine. You were rated as follows: Unsatisfactory, Should Do Better. Excellent. My parents were attentive to my progress and supportive, but even when I occasionally got an “Excellent,” the overall message was “Do better. Try Harder.” Now that is not a bad message. It worked well as a motivating factor in my life. It certainly fit the Protestant Ethic of my Midwest upbringing, and it seems to dominate much of the corporate world. “You increased profits by 20% this year? Good. Next year increase them by 22%. The year after by 25%.” “Do better. Try harder.”

Two Sundays ago I preached that “You Are Preapproved!” By that I meant that as Christians we believe in a creator God, in whose image we are made, and who created the good earth. We also believe in a redeemer God who is compassionate and personally concerned about each one of us. Last Sunday I preached about “Movin’ On.” ÊFor the Christian, history is linear and our lives are always on a journey of faith, or a pilgrimage. The Church’s task is to prepare us for the next stage in our life. As you know, my summer sermons are usually a series around a theme. My theme this year is “Living The Christian Life.” The clues to this topic are from the lectionary readings. Today’s lesson from Mark makes three suggestions about what to do as you and I move along on our faith journey.

The tendency in preaching is, I think, to say, “Do better, Try harder.” I fear sometimes that that is all that I have said in a sermon, and I try to avoid that. Oddly enough, that seems to be the moral teaching of some clergy as well. Within a three day span The New York Times ran an article on Anglican Bishop Michael Ingham, Vancouver, Canada, who is learned and is quoted as saying, “We have no reason to suppose that any one religion is truer than the others.” Well, thank you very much. I would certainly not put tree worship on the same level as Islam or Christianity. If all religions are equal then the best that can be said is, “Do better. Try Harder.” The Anglican Church is a confessional denomination (has creeds), a liturgical denomination, and a sacramental denomination (places high value on the sacraments.) If you don’t think any of it matters or fits a definition of “true,” you are free so to do. Just go work for somebody else. If you don’t think Chrysler is a good car and that Ford is just as good, go work for Ford.

Three days later in The New York Times an article appeared about a Lutheran pastor in Tarbaek, Denmark, Thorkild Grosboll by name. He does not believe in Christ or the resurrection, in an afterlife, the Virgin Mary or a physical God (one who created the physical world). His flock adores him, as do the townsfolk. But in the last analysis what does he offer for the Christian Life but “Do better. Try harder.” The Lutheran Church is a confessional church with creeds and a high value placed on the Word and the Bible. Pastor Grosboll would make a good Unitarian. Why should the Lutheran’s carry the freight? My take is that both of these men are sincere and good sociologists. I question their Biblical analysis and dogmatic (doctrinal) theology.

The commission given by Jesus in Mark 6:7-13 to His disciples is to 1) face the unclean spirits, 2) urge people to turn around from the direction they are going (repent), and 3) to cast out demons and anoint and heal the sick. The disciples are told to take very little with them. Now much has been made about the difference between “plain” and “fancy.” The Puritans wanted “plain” and the traditionalists wanted “fancy.” Cromwell wanted “plain” and James I wanted “fancy.” The roundheads were for “plain” and the “cavaliers” were for fancy. Mennonites and Quakers were on one side, Roman Catholics and Greek Orthodox on the other. Each side had to deal with this passage. Frankly I don’t think the passage is about the number of socks you take on your Christian Pilgrimage. It is about facing the forces which are evil/destructive and seeking healing. It is about getting people to stop giving into false gods and spirits and instead accepting the positive presence of God in Jesus and trying to cure physical and spiritual illness.

So here is the bottom line. To live the Christian life is to 1) face unclean spirits and demons, 2) encourage others to repent, and 3) heal. You and I, as disciples of Jesus, are empowered by Jesus to engage in these tasks. In fact, we are told so to do and He promises to back us up. That is a lot different from “Do better. Try harder. You’re on your own, bud.” To oppose evil and to seek to heal are pretty simple injunctions. The living out of them, the unwrapping of them, is very very hard. Let me sketch out some assumptions. First of all there is the assumption that the world and reality are really complex. We know that through art, through metaphor, through intuition as well as through reason and empirical science. There is such a thing as evil, or the demonic. Look at the killing fields of Pol Pot, Ruwanda or Aushwitz. Look at a Jim Jones or a Charles Manson. We can describe what happened in sociological and scientific terms, but to do so misses the total atmosphere and impact of what happened. Many atheists and agnostics will agree that evil exists and must be resisted.

Secondly, people are possessed by unclean spirits. We use different terms, but the end result is close, if not the same. When I was a child and did something wrong, my father would say, “Whatever possessed you to do that? It could have been anger, envy, fear or jealousy. We don’t use the term, “possessed,” much any more. But aren’t we sometimes “possessed by our possessions?” Some of the states are psychological or pathological. I’m currently reading about a pathological egotist Ð one who is so self absorbed that he is narcissistic and constructs his own world. When my mother had a “bad hair day,” her black moods were high octane. Ninety-five percent of the time she was fine. It was the five percent that you feared. So when the Bible speaks of unclean spirits and of demons, the world of the temple, the synagogue and of Jesus is not so far away.

Thirdly it is possible to heal people and even to cure them. Medical practice is becoming more open to the relationship between mind-body, spirit-body than it has in the past. Turn up the stress level and you can knock someone into a psychotic state or a stroke or a heart attack. Is it so hard to believe that if you bring some peace, grace, compassion and reconciliation into someone’s life that their psyche might not be better, their blood pressure less, their stress factor down and their ulcers quieter?

So Christian living means in your own corner of the world facing those things that are destructive, divisive and debilitating. For some it is drugs, for others alcohol, mental illness or greed. For some it is resentment, bitterness or shame. You can parse that out. Your task is to seek healing and cure through your thoughts and your actions. That means being positive and creative, compassionate and fearless in the pursuit of physical/spiritual wholeness. Some of you may lobby for better health insurance, others for special classes, or attention to the pandemic illnesses such as AIDS, malnutrition, or cancer.

You know, when you try to “Do better. Try harder,” that isn’t enough, because you will often fail. And then what have you got? Shame. Guilt. Despair. But if you place your life in a Christian perspective, you are “preapproved,” “movin’ on” and commissioned by Jesus to do something worthwhile: face the demons and seek to cure those who are sick in mind and body. You know that you will be rejected and fail from time to time. Jesus knew that and He was rejected. But the message of the Passion Narrative (which dominates the Gospel of Mark) is that in His death and resurrection, Jesus has shown that the forces of death and destruction are overcome, principalities and powers, the spiritual forces have ultimately lost. (St. Paul spells this out clearly in I Corinthians, which I read at most funeral services.) So your and my labor is not in vain. Christ has gone before us and Christ is with us through the authority He has given us. In The Gospel of Mark you and I are called to lives of high calling and great adventure. We are given spiritual authority to cope with serious issues. We are given difficult, but not hopeless tasks. Mark tells us that Christ walks with us, that we are not alone. In the sacrament of the Holy Eucharist, which Jesus celebrated before Calvary, you and I are given the presence of Christ in our lives, and the assurance of the presence of our lives in His.

Confront evil, encourage repentance and seek to heal. On my report card, that is a lot better than “Do better. Try harder.” The Christian life holds the promise of challenge, adventure and spiritual reward. Confront. Repent. Heal. Pretty elementary. Amen.