Sunday, September 30th

Pentecost 18

Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29
Psalm 19:7-14
James 5:13-20
Mark 9:38-50

Prayer of the Day
Generous God, your Son gave his life that we might come to peace with you. Give us a share of your Spirit, and in all we do empower us to bear the name of Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

Greetings everyone and welcome! As most of you know by now, Sesle and I will be away on vacation from Monday to Friday of this week. We will by flying out to Sedona, Arizona where Sesle will attend a continuing education event and I will be hunting beetles for my son Ben’s research projects. It promises to be an interesting time all around. If you are in need of pastoral assistance, please call the office or one of the lay ministers.

Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29  http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=215351685

I love the family in which I grew up. I think my parents did a wonderful job raising me and my siblings. I enjoyed doing things with my family for the most part. Family vacations constitute one of the few exceptions to that rule. We never went to Disneyland or any comparable place when we took the two weeks of vacation to which my father was entitled each year. Instead, we drove out from Bremerton, Washington to Iowa to visit my aunt and uncle, stopping in Montana along the way to see another uncle and aunt. This was before air conditioning was standard equipment for cars and long before digital technology transformed the back seats into travelling entertainment centers. We traveled in a Chevy station wagon, my younger sister and me sitting all the way in the back on a seat facing the rear. The car had not gotten halfway through Washington State before my sister and I were whining: “When will we get there? We have to go to the bathroom! We’re hungry! How much longer do we have to drive? Why do we have to go on this stupid trip? Why can’t we just stay home?” Multiply that by several thousand voices and forty years and perhaps you can begin to appreciate Moses’ dilemma.

But now let’s take a closer look at what is going on here. The people are angry. They have been travelling for a long time eating food that is unfamiliar to them. They don’t know where they are going or when they will get there. They have to rely upon Moses to give them that information and it appears that Moses is not altogether clear on the future either. So they complain. “Come on Moses! You told us that you were leading us to a good land! You told us we would live as a free people in our own country. But so far, all we can see is this wilderness that can’t support us. We have to survive by scrapping our bread off the desert floor. When are you going to deliver on your promises Moses? How long do we have to wait?”

Moses is angry too-at God. “Why have you treated your servant so badly? Why have I not found favor in your sight, that you lay the burden of all this people on me? 12Did I conceive all this people? Did I give birth to them, that you should say to me, ‘Carry them in your bosom, as a nurse carries a sucking child,’ to the land that you promised on oath to their ancestors? 13Where am I to get meat to give to all this people?”

I think everyone who has ever served as a congregational president or in some church leadership position has felt a little like Moses at some point. “Am I the only one here that sees what needs to be done? Is mine the only number in the church directory that everyone calls me for every little thing that goes wrong down at the church? Do I have to do it all?” Now I think we need to stop here and reflect on Moses’ complaint. In fact, God did not lay the burden of all the people on Moses. Moses assumed that burden himself. Has Moses also forgotten that it was God whose mighty works brought Pharaoh to his knees? Does Moses really believe that God expects him to “carry the people in his bosom?” Was it not God who has been carrying the people thus far? Part of Moses’ problem is that he has come to believe he is indispensible. He has convinced himself that no one is capable of leadership except him. Of course, when you assume responsibility for everything, you wind up taking the heat for everything. No human being can remain sane for long under that kind of pressure. God knows that. That is why God does not expect any of us to shoulder the load when it comes to mission and ministry.

Moses discovers that the people, who he sees as the problem, are actually the solution. Moses learns that he is not indispensible, that there are other persons with prophetic gifts capable of sharing his responsibility of embodying God’s vision for Israel. Of course, that means Moses has to let go of some of his power. That is not always an easy thing for leaders. Most of us leaders are convinced that nobody can do things as well as we can. Most of us leaders are convinced that our way is “the” right way. The notion that God might be leading through the insight and knowledge of someone else is a little threatening to us. So sharing leadership is a little frightening. Moses, to his credit, is willing to take that risk. He is secure enough in his leadership role to recognize the prophetic voice of God even when it is spoken outside of “official channels.” When Joshua reports to Moses that there are two men prophesying that were not among the seventy that he “properly ordained,” Moses tells him not to fret about it. Instead, rejoice that the generosity of the Spirit is bigger than our imagination and more expansive than our organizational structures.

This lesson serves to remind us that the church is not made up of leaders and followers. It is made up of a communion of saints each having their own unique gifts for building up the Body of Christ. So leadership in the church is never a question of “who is in charge.” Rather, it is always a question of how best to recognize each person’s unique gifts and to order our life together in such a way as to enable, encourage and support the exercise of those gifts for mission and ministry.

Psalm 19:7-14  http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=215351766

The first six verses of Psalm 19 praise God for God’s self revelation in the wonders of the natural world, the heavens, the forests and fields. The second half of the Psalm, which is our text for Sunday, focuses on God’s self revelation in Torah, the teachings of the scriptures. “By them also is your servant enlightened, and in keeping them there is great reward.”  This is not to say, of course, that God rewards people who are obedient to the law with approval or that people who keep the law are somehow immune from suffering or bad fortune. Meditation on the scriptures is its own reward. By so doing, we are drawn closer to God and deeper into the heart of God. By internalizing the scriptures, we give the Holy Spirit a powerful tool for transforming us into the image of Christ. That is why I continue to recommend reading two psalms per day, one in the morning and one at night.

The psalm concludes with a prayer: “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O LORD, my strength and my redeemer.” These words remind us of the admonitions of James the last few Sundays regarding the use of our tongue and the responsibility of being teachers in all that we do and say. This would be a good prayer to repeat each morning before we have had a chance to speak to anyone. It is a reminder that wherever we are, we are always in the presence of Jesus.

James 5:13-20  http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=215351830

“The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective.” Over the years, there have been several studies done in the medical community to measure the “effectiveness” of prayer for people who are sick. The results have been inconclusive. At best, some data suggests that where people are supported by a praying community, they tend to experience a faster and more thorough recovery. Other test results suggest that people who are the object of prayer feel a sort of “obligation” to recover. Because setbacks in recovery might be interpreted as a lack of faith or divine support, knowing that one is being prayed for might actually hinder recovery.

Obviously, the problem here is our understanding of effectiveness. If the measure is simply recovery of the sick person we are praying for from his or her disease, that measure is flawed. Eventually, all of us will suffer an illness or accident from which we will not recover. No amount of prayer will save us from our mortality. Consequently, I don’t believe we can take James to mean that prayer always results in healing the sick. Moreover, James tells us that when we pray for the sick person, the Lord will raise him or her up and forgive his or her sins. Is “raising up” synonymous with healing? It may be so in some circumstances, but not all. Recall that Paul prayed three times for the removal of a “thorn in the side” that he felt was hindering his ministry. We do not know whether that was a physical ailment, but the point is that God did not remove the thorn. Instead, Paul was left to work around it and, in so doing, he discovered that God’s strength was sufficient for his weakness. Indeed, God was able to use Paul’s infirmity to strengthen his faith and deepen his ministry.

Prayer is more than making requests and seeing them answered. One of my predecessors here at Trinity, Rev. Stephen Bouman, recently said that “lament” is that space between what should be and what is. I like that. I believe that prayer often has a dimension of lament where we struggle with a reality that seems to cast doubt on God’s love for us and commitment to our wellbeing. It is in that struggle that we finally arrive at the place where God would have us be. It is perhaps not the place we hoped to arrive at. It is probably much different than what we expected salvation to look like. But it turns out to be a good place nonetheless because it is the place where Jesus brings us.

Mark 9:38-50  http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=215351894

The first part of this Gospel lesson is strikingly similar to the interchange between Joshua and Moses in our first lesson. James and John come upon a man who is doing the work of exorcism in Jesus’ name. He is not one of the Twelve or any of the disciples commissioned by Jesus. So James and John put a stop to his ministry because, “he was not following us.” Notice the pronoun “us.” The disciples do not say that this man was not following Jesus, but only that he was not with them. In modern parlance, we might say that this man was not “properly ordained” or “approved by the credentialing committee” or “on the clergy roster of any Synod of this church.”  Now we need to be careful here. As I said before, the church is not a community of leaders and followers. It is a communion of saints each of whom is given gifts for building up the Body of Christ. As one who has experienced firsthand the destructive power of ecclesiastical regulations and guidelines that operate to crush opportunities for ministry that don’t fit into narrowly defined understandings of how ministry is to be done, I resonate to Jesus’ admonition here. Do not stop someone from exercising his or her gifts for ministry just because they don’t fit into any predetermined pattern. Rather, examine the pattern to see what must be transformed so that this gift of ministry might be gratefully accepted and integrated into the full Body of Christ.

Still and all, a call to ministry is never merely a matter of individual choice. It is the Body of Christ, the communion of saints that must help each person discern, develop and exercise his or her gifts for ministry. I might be entirely wrong about what my gifts and abilities are. I may be immature and inexperienced in my exercise of those gifts. I am always in need of the church’s guidance, encouragement and discipline in the exercise of ministry. That goes not only for pastoral ministry but for all ministries in the church-music, education, stewardship, administration, etc. Nobody’s office in the church is above the discipline and admonition of the church.

What follows is one of the few instances in which Jesus preaches hellfire. Whoever causes one of these “little ones” who believe in Jesus to fall will have hell to pay. Is this a continuation of Jesus’ teaching last week to the effect that there is nothing greater in the kingdom of God than to receive a child? Or is it a further response to James and John for their suppression of the exorcist? I think it might be a little of both. The lectionary readings from last week began with the question: “Who is the greatest?” Jesus first tells the disciples that to be great in the kingdom of God, there is no more noble task than to receive a child. Under this standard, moms, babysitters and nursery school teachers will be elevated over presidents, generals, captains of industry, bishops, pastors and seminary professors. How does one lead with greatness in the kingdom of God? Well, certainly not by suppressing the work of other people who are exercising the power of that kingdom under the poor excuse that they don’t have the proper credentials. Rather, greatness requires keeping the borders of the church porous, hazy and in flux so that it will be capable of receiving the gifts of the Spirit wherever they are manifest.

Exercising the worldly greatness of hierarchy in the church is a crime against the Body of Christ. It ignores Jesus’ dictum that the last are first and the first last. It imports methods, values and structures into the life of the church that are antithetical to the ways of the Spirit. In the name of exercising authority for the sake of the church, people acting under such a false understanding of greatness actually stifle the work of the church, hinder the Spirit of God and undermine the church’s witness to Jesus.

  1. #1 by Joelle on September 24, 2012 - 7:43 pm

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  2. #2 by Marcus Grasso on September 25, 2012 - 5:21 pm

    I love the part about leaders, “…leadership in the church is never a question of “who is in charge.” Rather, it is always a question of how best to recognize each person’s unique gifts and to order our life together in such a way as to enable, encourage and support the exercise of those gifts for mission and ministry.”

    It’s true, we all have special gifts!

    • #3 by revolsen on September 28, 2012 - 9:18 pm

      Yes. Often I think that we in the church are not as good as we should be about recognising and incorporating people and their gifts into the life and ministry of the church. I am working on doing a better job of that. Thanks Marcus. Pastor.

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