“Are you the priest they sent?” That was the question he asked me. I was confused at first, but realized one of the nurses must have called an on-call priest. I also knew from experience that if he was looking for the “priest they sent” he was not looking for me. You see, I’m a priest, but I’m also a woman. When people at hospitals are looking for priests, the majority of the time they mean a Roman Catholic priest. But he seemed desperate, so I delicately said “No, I’m actually here to see a parishioner.” But I stayed and talked to him a bit more about what was going on and whether the chaplain’s office had been called. His wife joined us as we talked. Then the inevitable question came. She asked what church affiliation I had. I told them I was a priest in the Episcopal Church, and that they were welcome to wait for a Catholic priest. She insisted it didn’t matter – they just wanted a priest to say prayers.
Honestly, I was floored. That had never happened to me. Usually when I tell a Roman Catholic person that I am not a Roman Catholic priest, they reveal (subtly or not so subtly) that I am not the kind of priest they want. And truthfully, I am totally fine with that. I totally understand and would never assert any differently, especially to someone in crisis at the hospital. We ended the conversation with the agreement that we would go to our separate rooms. When I was done, if they still didn’t have their Roman Catholic priest, I would be happy to say prayers. I went on to my visit, fully anticipating the “real” priest to show up for them while I was elsewhere.
That division among the Church, among the faithful of God, is not unique to Roman Catholics. We all make boundaries and distinctions about who is in and who is out. Episcopalians are only in full communion with the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America. So if I ever wanted to have a United Methodist Minister or Presbyterian pastor celebrate Eucharist, I would not be allowed. We also make rules around the communion rail. Most Episcopal Churches say that all baptized Christians are welcome to the table – meaning if you have not been baptized, you should not receive. Even to serve on Vestry we have boundaries. All Vestry members have to be financial supporters of the parish, are expected to be present regularly in worship and parish events, and are asked to contribute to at least one ministry of the church. If the Vestry member is unwilling to make those commitments, they cannot serve on Vestry. We often think of Roman Catholics as having lots of boundaries – from no women at the altar, to no married clergy, to no communion unless you are Roman Catholic. But the reality is that, as Episcopalians, we have an equal number of boundaries that keep people in and out of our community.
The good news is that we come by our exclusivity honestly. In our gospel lesson from Mark today, we are told about an encounter between the disciples and Jesus. John comes up to Jesus and says, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” John is so confident of his authority that he almost sounds like he is boasting to Jesus. “Hey, Jesus, there’s some dude who is trying to do our work and he keeps using your name. But don’t worry – we shut him down.” You can almost imagine John expecting Jesus to give him a chug on the shoulder and say, “Good work, John!” But that is not how the story unfolds. Instead, Jesus says the total opposite, “Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. Whoever is not against us is for us.” You can imagine the disciples’ confusion. Jesus is constantly pulling them aside and only telling them how to interpret his parables. When Jesus commissions people, he commissions the disciples, and no one else. And although people are often following Jesus in droves, his crew, or his posse, is made up of the disciples. In the disciples’ minds, Jesus is implicitly telling them that they are the insiders, with special privileges, and everyone else is an outsider. The disciples are in; everyone else is out. And anyone who tries to break those boundaries is going against the will of Jesus – and, ergo, the will of God.
Despite the fact that Jesus shuts down the notion of insiders and outsiders, the Christian community has been struggling with boundaries since Jesus’ death. Who is a Christian? Who can have communion? What are the rules and what are the consequences of breaking the rules? Now, boundaries are not necessarily bad. Boundaries help us define who we are and what behavior is acceptable. Boundaries help us uphold values and create meaning. Boundaries can even help us make an informed choice about belonging to a community.[i] Clearly Jesus created some boundaries. When he says, “Whoever is not against us is for us,” he implies that there are people who are in fact against them. Jesus himself creates a group of insiders and outsiders. What Jesus is trying to communicate is not that boundaries are bad. What Jesus is trying to communicate is that we are capable of getting so wrapped up in our boundaries that we exclude people from the love of Christ. And nothing could be more harmful, or even sinful, than making someone feel that they are cut off from the love of Christ.
I had a friend who started going to therapy to help him cope with a spouse suffering from depression. He imagined that the therapist would share her knowledge of persons suffering from depression and teach him some coping skills. But after a lengthy explanation about what was wrong with his spouse, the first question the therapist asked was about him. The therapist wanted to know what his issues were. My friend interrupted, “No, no, no, I’m not here for me, I’m here to learn more about dealing with my spouse.” The therapist wisely said, “Yes. But before we get to your spouse, let’s talk about you.” That therapist did what Jesus does with the disciples. Jesus redirects the disciples concern about others by telling them to worry about their own problems – those hands, feet, and eyes that cause them to sin. You see, Jesus is very clever. What he realizes is that when the disciples start sorting through their own sinfulness, their own “stuff,” they do not have time to worry about boundaries and rules and barriers.[ii] And when they let go of those boundaries, rules, and barriers, something incredible can happen – the love of God and the fellowship of Christ can grow and thrive.
By the time I finished my visit with my parishioner, the Catholic on-call priest had still not arrived. I went into the room of the family and realized they needed more than a prayer. They were going to be removing life support and wanted someone to offer the patient Last Rites. I again reminded them that I was an Episcopal Priest. The wife of the couple said, “It’s still Last Rites though, right?” “Yes,” I replied. “Okay, then.” That was all. Here I was bringing up boundaries again and again, and this person, who normally has even more boundaries than I do, insisted that I let go of my boundaries and help her family have an experience with God. The first words the husband had asked me were, “Are you the priest they sent?” My first answer was correct. I was not. But my answer was not complete. I was not the priest that “they” sent. But I was the priest that God sent. You see, God has a call on me – and in fact God has a call on each person here. God sends us everyday – to our workplaces, to our schools, to our friends, and to strangers. Everyday we have the choice to get tangled up in boundaries and rules and limitations. But we also have the choice to remember the ways that Jesus wants us to love God and love our neighbors. Those are the only two boundaries Jesus really cares about anyway.
That is our invitation this week: to consider how God is calling you and also to consider how you are getting in the way of God’s call. The boundaries and the rules really are not as complicated as they sound. If the Pope can say, “Who am I to judge?” surely we can start letting go and embracing love. Then, the next time someone asks you, “Are you the person that was sent?” you can reply, “Yes. Yes, I am.” Amen.
[i] Harry B. Adams, “Pastoral Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. B, vol. 4 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 116, 118.
[ii] Amy Oden, “Commentary on Mark 9.38-50,” September 30, 2012, as found at http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1357 on September 25, 2015.