The Salty Pope

Transcribed from the sermon preached September 28, 2015

The Reverend Max Lynn, Pastor

Scripture Readings: James 5:13-20, Mark 9:38-50

I saw a cartoon the other day: A caption had the pope with his hand on President Obama and saying, “The President is a Christian, not a Muslim.” Then off to the side a guy with a Tea Party T-shirt questioned, “Yeah, but is the Pope Catholic?
As Protestants, we have an inherited suspicion of the Pope. It was, after all the hierarchical, dictatorial Catholic form of government that Luther, Calvin and Knox protested against. In forming our Presbyterian representative democracy, they made a point of not being like the Catholic Church. In calling for a priesthood of all believers, translating scripture into the vernacular, teaching people to read, they expected lay people to do their own study and not just take leaders at their word. The Pope was not the unique sole embodiment of Christ in the world, but instead each person was to receive Christ into their heart – and the proof was in the pudding. It is thought that John Witherspoon, the Presbyterian and only pastor to sign the Declaration of Independence, noted that “Truth is in order to goodness.” This saying made it into our Book of Order. By this he meant that the truth of Christianity is to be tested by moral behavior, both personal and collective. For Protestants there was too much baggage added onto the Gospel, all the pomp and circumstance of ritual, the praying to Saints, as if other things were needed beyond God’s grace through Christ. We just need to go out and live the simple kindness and compassion of Christ.
Going back to the Bible, Protestants read from James what we are to be about. We are all called to pray, to sing praise, to pray for the sick. Rather than confess our sins only to a priest, we confess them to each other, we pray for each other, we forgive one another in the name of Jesus. We have the authority and duty to call each other on our junk. If the Holy Spirit is present within each of us, then we are also obligated to listen to each other, because God might be speaking to us through them.
For my conscious life, the Popes who have led the Roman Catholic Church have done a good job of affirming the need for the Reformation churches. We know there are many powerfully faithful nuns, priests and Catholics, but with the failure to acknowledge the equality of women and Pope Benedict’s role in squashing dissent among nuns and priest, and helping to hide the child abuse scandal, the Roman Catholic Church seemed to move further and further from anything resembling Jesus. The Church institution itself it seemed, was a stumbling block. Salt is good, but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it.
Then Pope Francis came along. In one of his first addresses in St. Peter’s Cathedral, a small boy, a six year old orphan in a yellow shirt went up on stage and hugged Pope Francis leg. Francis placed his hand upon the boys head. Then the boy sat in the pope’s chair. It isn’t the first time a pope blessed a child, but it was clear from Francis’s smile and calm loving pat and hug that this Pope has flavor. We Christians heard Christ’s words echoing; to such as these belong the Kingdom of Heaven. The Pope moved into a simple dwelling at the Vatican, traded in the Mercedes for a simple vehicle and flies economy class. He cut off unnecessary luxury. Then darned if he doesn’t start washing feet; the feet of women no less, of Muslims and prison inmates. And I found my Protestant sensibilities softening: “For no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon after to speak evil of me. Whoever is not against us is for us.
And Francis is adding to his actions salty, prophetic and compassionate words; he is sounding like Jesus too. In Philadelphia yesterday he spoke to this nation of immigrants.
“Thank you for opening the doors. Many of you have emigrated. I greet you with my heart. Many of you came to this country at great personal cost, but in the hope of building a new life. Do not feel discouraged by all the challenges and hardships you might face. I ask you not to forget that, like those who came here before you, you bring many gifts to this new nation of yours. “Please: do not feel ever ashamed of your traditions.”
And before Congress, he spoke of the value of all life, an end to arms for profit, the need for dialogue and the peacemaker, and this great nation’s role in ending poverty and moving toward a just and sustainable stewardship:
“Business is a noble vocation, directed to producing wealth and improving the world. It can be a fruitful source of prosperity for the area in which it operates, especially if it sees the creation of jobs as an essential part of its service to the common good” (Laudato Si’, 129). This common good also includes the earth, a central theme of the encyclical which I recently wrote in order to “enter into dialogue with all people about our common home” (ibid. 3). “We need a conversation which includes everyone, since the environmental challenge we are undergoing, and its human roots, concern and affect us all” (ibid., 14).
“In Laudato Si’,” Francis goes on, “I call for a courageous and responsible effort to “redirect our steps” (ibid. 61), and to avert the most serious effects of the environmental deterioration caused by human activity. I am convinced that we can make a difference and I have no doubt that the United States – and this Congress – have an important role to play. Now is the time for courageous actions and strategies, aimed at implementing a “culture of care” (ibid., 231) and “an integrated approach to combating poverty, restoring dignity to the excluded, and at the same time protecting nature” (ibid., 139). “We have the freedom needed to limit and direct technology” (ibid. 112); “to devise intelligent ways of… developing and limiting our power” (ibid. 78); and to put technology “at the service of another type of progress, one which is healthier, more human, more social, more integral” (ibid. 112).
Jim Wallis writes in the Huffington Post about Francis: Isn’t it extraordinary how simply following Jesus can attract so much attention when you are the pope? Every day, millions of other faithful followers of Christ do the same thing. They often don’t attract attention, but they keep the world together.
The remarkable acts of kindness and grace we see with Pope Francis are the natural response from a disciple who has known the kindness and grace of Christ in his own life. The pope’s moments of Christ-like compassion and love point not to “a great man,” but rather point to Jesus. He is not asking us to follow him, but inviting us to follow Christ.”
Truth is in order to goodness. Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another. Follow Jesus and know the joy of goodness.