God’s Widening Circle (Lectionary 26, Year B)

Lectionary 26 (17th Sunday after Pentecost)
Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29; Mark 9:38-50
September 27, 2009

Grace to you and peace, from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.  Amen.

As we stand here at the beginning of our church's program year –
    today marks our first day of Sunday School classes
    and our new Closing Devotion in the Parish Hall –
    I can't help but think about the nature of the church.
In the past days and weeks, as I looked forward to our Sunday School classes
    and the faithful teachers and helpers who make this ministry possible,
    I've been increasingly humbled by how and through whom the spirit of God moves
        in calling our church into being,
        in carrying out our church's ministry of the Gospel.
Today's readings have something to say about church,
    about the ways that God acts through his people to achieve his will.

Look, for example, at the first reading. 
We start with the called leader of the people of Israel, Moses.
Moses is essentially working alone,
    and when we meet him in today's reading he is overwhelmed
        by the burden of caring for a people who were weeping and complaining,
    a people who were rescued from slavery in Egypt, but who,
    now living in the midst of what will become for them a 40 year journey in the wilderness,
    are tired of eating plain-old manna from heaven.
They are tired of wandering in the wilderness, 
    tired of being no longer slaves but not quite free.
So tired, in fact, that they yearn for the comforts of their lives as slaves,
    when, at least, they had adequate food to eat and shelter under which to sleep.
Now, God begins to get angry with his chosen people, and who would blame him?
These are a people who God chose to be his people,
    a people who he rescued in dramatic fashion from bondage in Egypt,
    a people who he has guided with a pillar of fire by night and a pillar of cloud by day.
These are a people for whom he has provided manna from heaven,
    a people to whom he has given a law and a promise.
And yet … they complain.  Manna, fire, clouds, law, promise … that ain't enough.
And God gears up to give the Israelites a lecture, but Moses wouldn't have it.
Moses interrupts and lets God have it,
    essentially calling God out, all but saying that God has let him and his people down.
    "I am not able to carry all this people alone," an exasperated Moses says.
Rather than browbeating Moses, reminding him of all that he has done for Moses and Israel,
    God gives Moses a reorganization plan.
"Get 70 elders," God says, "and bring them to the tent of meeting with you."
    The tent of meeting is where God uniquely dwelt and revealed himself to his people.
And Moses gathers the elders from the camp and he brings them to the tent.
There in the tent, God takes some of the spirit he had given to Moses and spreads it around,
    giving all of the elders a share of his spirit.
Immediately, the elders prophesy, that is,
    they began declaring God's promises and mercy for his chosen people,
    proof positive that the mantle of leadership had now been shared.
And so, if we're looking at today's reading through the lens of how God acts in the church,
    we can say with some confidence
    that God doesn't just move through the solitary appointed leaders …
We guys who wear the funny shirts and robes – me and Pastor Scott –
    we're not lone rangers up here, and many of you know that.
Indeed, as in this reading from the book of Numbers,
    there are a host of elders in our congregation on whom God's spirit has rested,
    leaders to whom God has given a passion for his Word and this ministry,
    a love for people and a desire to see this church grow.
Many of these elders are among our church's leadership –
    they are on church council and committees, teaching Sunday School, or singing in the choir,
    in places where we'd expect to find the church's leaders.
God's spirit has rested on our elders,
    and has guided them to do wonderful and holy work in this place.
But if we return to our reading for a moment,
    we note toward the end of the reading that there were two elders – Eldad and Medad –
    who were not part of the great committee meeting that God convened in the tent of meeting …
        and yet, back at the camp, they were prophesying nonetheless!
Upon learning this, a young man named Joshua,
    who would later lead the people into their promised land, after Moses' death,
    complained to Moses that Eldad and Medad were out of order,
    that they were not among the chosen leaders in the tent of meeting,
        that they should not be prophesying.
But rather than castigate these out-of-line elders, Moses celebrates them!
    "Would that all the Lord's people were prophets!" Moses responds gleefully.
Our insight from this reading?
    God works not only within, but beyond our established leadership structures and systems, too.
Are you an Eldad or a Medad,
    someone on whom God's spirit has rested,
    someone gifted for sharing God's love and grace,
    even though you find yourself outside of the formal leadership structure of this place?
Perhaps you are but you've been hesitant to use your God-given gift,
    you've been anxious about it,
    not sure if you should exercise your spiritual gift for the benefit of others …
Perhaps you've spoken up and used your gift,
    only to have a well-intentioned but misguided Joshua try to stop you.
Please know … this ministry needs not only the elders gathered under the tent
    in the formal operating structure of this place,
    but we need elders, we need Eldads and Medads to use their gifts in the community,
        both within and beyond the walls of this tent of meeting,
        in daily life, in places where people live and work.
And so, in this reading from the book of Numbers,
    we learn that responsibility for the ministry is not the sole responsibility of one or two leaders,
    but that it ought to be shared among a broad group of elders,
    and that even as we organize for the tasks of ministry,
        God will work both within and beyond those structures we establish.
This is evident, too, in the Gospel text. 
    The disciples report to Jesus with some consternation
    that they have seen someone casting out demons in Jesus' name …
        and they tried to stop him, for "he was not following us."
From the reactions of the disciples you'd think it were a sin to do good works in Jesus' name
    if you weren't following the disciples!
Kinda like the Pharisees who get all bent out of shape when Jesus heals on the Sabbath,
    the disciples here get all bent out of shape
    when someone they don't know casts out a demon in Jesus' name.
And yet, Jesus responds, urging the disciples not to stop him,
    "for no one who does a deed of power in my name
    will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me."
As with Eldad and Medad,
    here we see that God's work of love and mercy flows even through outsiders,
    that God will act when, where, and through whom God chooses to act.
Demons are cast out in Jesus' name …
God doesn't seem to be too worried abou
t the affiliation of those casting out demons,
    about which brand of Christ-follower they are …
    … simply that demons are cast out!

This is a humbling thought for the disciples, and indeed, for many in the church today.
I admit to a sense of pride about being called as a Lutheran pastor.
My education and formation at the seminary instilled in me much pride in our Lutheran heritage,
    in the theology, teachings, and practices of our church that offer a faithful witness to the Gospel.
And when I peer into the ministry of other churches I'll admit to some snickering or bickering …
    "They do that?  Oh my, we'd never do it that way in the Lutheran church!"
But then I'd be just like the disciples,
    insisting that others follow us in our Lutheran way of doing things,
        that they cast out demons in a Lutheran manner,
    rather than give praise to God that demons are being cast out in Jesus' name,
        no matter who did it or how!
If we're casting out demons in Jesus' name, does it really matter how we dress it up?

And so, from the first reading to the Gospel today,
    we've gone from the solitary leadership of one person – Moses –
    to the shared responsibility of the 70 elders in the tent of meeting,
    to seeing that God's spirit moves even outside of our appointed leadership,
        among the Eldads, Medads, and freelance exorcists of the world.
And this is challenging to us.
We're inclined to just want to look at the Moses of the world,
    to place our hopes on one leader to be the spokesperson,
    the one central authority to take control.

Isn't that the danger we've seen over and over again throughout history,
    that people put too much trust and hope in a single leader –
    be they religious or political –
        and it leads to abuses of power and, inevitably, tragedy?
But no.  God doesn't just work through one central authority,
    God's spirit doesn't rest just on one person.
God spreads his spirit over a broader group of elders …
    even on some who are outside the recognized group of leaders.

But then we read this amazing line in vs. 40 of today's Gospel:
    Whoever is not against us is for us.
Going beyond the solitary leader model,
    going beyond the shared leadership model,
    going beyond the spirit-of-God-will-move-among-other-folks model,
Jesus here tells us that we have common cause with anyone who is not out to get us,
    that anyone who is not an avowed enemy of the Gospel is with us,
    is a partner in this world in the tasks of love and mercy to which we are called.
Now Jesus has really messed with our way of seeing things!
You see, we want to draw lines,
    to clearly demarcate who is in and who is out,
    who is right and who is wrong.
We want to create camps and factions and affinity groups.
Joshua was upset that some outside of the chosen 70 were prophesying.
The disciples were upset that someone other than them would cast out demons.
But God keeps expanding the circle,
    keeps pushing the line further,
    refusing to allow God's people to be content with a narrow vision of how God's spirit moves,
    a short list of those through whom God acts.
And this is the Good News, brothers and sisters in Christ:
    that God acts in this church and in this world in a great many ways,
    that God's work is being done through the church, but also through the state,
        through the work of people of faith and people of no faith,
        through any who is not an enemy of God,
        through any who seeks to cast out the demons that plague the world,
        through any that serves a brother or sister in need.
Dear friends, let us open our eyes and our hearts to the work of God in this world.
Let us follow the leadership of the Moses'
    but also listen for the prophesies of the Eldads and Medads of this church.
Let us celebrate when demons are driven out of this world,
    no matter who or how it is done.
Let us make common cause with any who are willing,
    for in so doing we are making common cause with God.

Published by Chris Duckworth

Spouse. Parent. Lutheran Pastor. Veteran. Jedi. Political Junkie. Baseball Fan.

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