A Sermon for The Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 21)
by Louise Browner Blanchard, Associate Rector
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, *O LORD, my strength and my redeemer. –Psalm 19:14
In case you’ve missed it, we’ve had a visitor in our country this week. No, I’m not talking about Xi Jinping, although he was here, too, and he is president of the approximately 1.4 billion people who live in China. I am, of course, talking about Pope Francis, the leader of the Roman Catholic Church whose nearly every move in the United States has been witnessed by thousands of people in person and millions more through round-the-clock media coverage.
In spite of the wide variety of places he’s been–from the White House, Congress, the United Nations, Madison Square Garden, and the grandest Catholic churches in Washington, New York, and Philadelphia to an elementary school, a prison, and the National September 11 Memorial and Museum–Pope Francis himself has been remarkably the same: humble and gracious and deeply faithful. He has made a point to meet people who are homeless and poor as well as those who wield great influence and power; people without work and workers behind the scenes as well as leaders on the national and world stage. And he has shown a special tenderness toward children, most dramatically when a little girl broke through a security barrier, and Pope Francis asked a bodyguard to bring her to him for a blessing. He has met with schoolchildren in Harlem. And he has kissed scores of children and babies, at least one who was wearing a pointed hat like the pope’s miter.
No one would seriously doubt the pope’s Christian faith. Whether greeting people in small groups or from the pope mobile, he proclaims God’s blessing. In his homilies, he urges people not only to follow Jesus, but to accept the challenges of Christian life. And in speeches at the White House and Independence Hall, before Congress and the United Nations, he has embraced religious liberty and the notion that all followers of various religions join together in the pursuit of “peace, tolerance, and respect for the dignity and rights of others.” Pope Francis’s expression of Christianity reaches wide and embraces many. He represents a God who, in the words of today’s collect, declares his almighty power chiefly in showing mercy and pity.
In so doing, Pope Francis has captivated Americans of every faith–Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, and more–and those of no faith at all. “Pray for me,” Pope Francis asks people wherever he goes, and “If you are not believers,” he adds, “I ask you to wish me well.” One wonders what the disciple John, who in today’s gospel worries about those who are not followers of Jesus acting in his name, would have thought of such a humble and gracious nod to the dignity of every person, faithful or not. Pope Francis seems to have grasped what Jesus was trying to teach John and the other disciples: that none of us has an inside track to God and that the gifts of the Holy Spirit very well might extend beyond the bounds of Christianity. As Jesus says in today’s gospel, “Whoever is not against us is for us.”
In quite dramatic language, Jesus goes on to warn his disciples not to put a stumbling block before any of the little ones who believe in him. We can imagine that he is still holding in his arms the little child who prompted him to speak about the importance of welcoming children in last week’s gospel. It’s likely that in speaking so vividly, Jesus is not trying to scare the child, but he is certainly trying to make a point to his followers. He is making sure that the disciples–and we–remember that children and others who are tender in their faith matter in the Kingdom of God. The rest of us have been entrusted to nurture that faith, not only in what we say, but in what we do. Not only in church, but throughout our lives.
It is against this backdrop that we will baptize two babies at the 11 a.m. service this morning. It is a joyous occasion, but it is also a grave undertaking. The parents and godparents of those babies make solemn promises on behalf of their children and themselves, and the rest of us join in some of those promises, as well. Even if you will not attend today’s baptisms, if you have ever attended a baptism, you have likely made these promises. For example, at every baptism, we promise to do all in our power to support those being baptized in their life in Christ, which is the flip side to not putting up a stumbling block.
Each of us might pause and ask ourselves how we do that in our daily lives and how we might do it better. In the reading from the Letter of James that we heard earlier, the author suggests that in just about any situation, we pray. Suffering? Pray. Cheerful? Pray. Sick? Pray. Do our children hear us pray? Do our children hear us pray for them?
Another way that we show our support for those being baptized is to renew our own baptismal covenant, which contains several promises, including to proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ; to seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbor as ourselves; to strive for justice and peace among all people and to respect the dignity of every human being. These are serious promises, meant to be taken seriously. This is stumbling block territory. But, as Pope Francis has demonstrated this past week, they are meant to encourage and inspire us, not shame us, and to remind us that we are all in this together.
Salt, of all things, can remind us of that. Originally, baptismal ritual included the salting of lips as well as the sign of the cross on the forehead. Among other things, the salt would remind people of their hunger for the Word of the Lord. It can remind us still. Taste the salt on your lips and remember that you have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.