EIGHTEENTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29
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.
Our lessons have a lot to say about leadership and how it is exercised by the people of God. That is a timely concern as our country awaits the visit of Pope Francis while trying to make sense out of that reality show we call the presidential primaries. What do we look for in a leader? How does one lead effectively? What is this thing we call “authority”? Who has it?
Judging by the polling data, we seem to respect a leader who is decisive, knows what s/he believes and is not afraid to express it-as long as we like what we hear. So a candidate running for elected office needs to walk a fine line avoiding a kind of soft-spokenness that might suggest weakness or indecision on the one hand and an outspokenness that is perceived as rude and offensive on the other. The trouble with the electoral process is that it often gives us leaders shaped by us into what we want rather than leaders capable of taking us where we need to be. How effective can one be as a leader after obtaining his/her office through following the very ones s/he is supposed to lead?
A key constituent of leadership is authority-not to be confused with power. The former makes a great leader, the latter, standing alone, makes only a dictator. Authority is frequently found among the powerless. Though Jesus had no official teaching status (as far as we know) and held no political office, his hearers recognized that he taught “as one having authority, and not as their scribes.” Matthew 7:29. What was it, then, about Jesus that made his word authoritative? I believe it boils down to one word: integrity. Jesus’ actions were so thoroughly in harmony with his words that, as Saint John would say, Jesus was his Word. John 1:1.
Being a leader sometimes means you have to tell people things they don’t want to hear-and not just the people you know will never vote for you anyway. Truth has to be spoken to your strongest supporters, your most committed followers, your most trusted friends. You have to keep reminding the people of your vision and what is required of them to achieve it long after its novelty and freshness has worn thin. As Moses is beginning to learn in our first lesson, it is hard to lead when the Promised Land is forty years away and your constituents want results yesterday. In our gospel lesson Jesus is finding that leading his fractious, power hungry and self-centered disciples is a little like herding cats. James urges us to lead those who are wandering from the community of faith back home again. Leadership is not an easy task. It calls for more than sound judgment, careful discernment and prudent action. People will finally be lead only by those they trust. That is why leadership begins with “followership.” Unless and until we are prepared to walk in the footsteps of Jesus, it is unlikely anyone will heed our call to take that difficult road.
Pope Francis offers a welcome contrast to the noisy clamor for votes we have been forced to endure the last several months. Here is a man who has consistently refused the luxuries that typically come with his office. Francis’ determination to be among the people (much to the consternation of our security forces) demonstrates the same willingness to be vulnerable that he calls upon the nations of the world to exercise in receiving refugees fleeing war and starvation in the Middle East. His frank talk about our country’s consumerism, inequality and violence will no doubt make us uncomfortable and perhaps a bit angry. But the Pope does not need or seek our votes. He seeks instead our hearts for Jesus. Now that’s what I call authority!
The Book of Numbers is the fourth of the five books of Moses commonly referred to as the Pentateuch. Modern biblical research has reached a general consensus that the Pentateuch is the product of four sources and perhaps several editors. For a thorough discussion of this theory, see this article on the Documentary Hypothesis. The title, “Numbers” comes from the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures known as the Septuagint. It was no doubt inspired by the census of the Hebrew tribes narrated in the early part of the book. The Hebrew Bible uses the title “bemidar” which means “In the wilderness.” In fact, the book as a whole narrates the journey of Israel through the wilderness from Egypt to the land of Canaan. For a more thorough outline of Numbers, see the Summary Article by Fred Gaiser, Professor of Old Testament at Luther Seminary, Saint Paul, MN on enterthebible.org.
This lesson brings back family memories-not of a good sort. Make no mistake about it, 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 seat into rolling entertainment center. 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. There were no seat belts and they probably would not have been much help anyway if we had been rear ended. Before we had gotten halfway through Washington State my sister and I were already 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.
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? Did 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? Where am I to get meat to give to all this people?” Vss. 11-13.
I think everyone who has ever served as a church leader knows how Moses feels. “Am I the only one here that sees what needs to be done? Is mine the only number in the church directory? Why does everyone always call 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 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? Moses should know that this liberation project is God’s, not his own. God is the one responsible for getting Israel to the Promised Land. Moses’ job is simply to lead the people in taking the next step.
Part of Moses’ problem, too, is that he has come to believe he is indispensable. 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 has been seeing as the problem, are actually the solution. Moses learns that he is not indispensable, 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 authority. 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 threatening to us. So sharing leadership is a little frightening. Moses, to his credit, is willing to take the risk of sharing his authority. 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. Vss. 26-29.
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 his or her 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.
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.” Vs. 11. 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.” Vs. 14. These words remind us of the admonitions of James the last few Sundays regarding the use of our tongues 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.
“The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective.” Vs. 16. 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. Vs. 15. 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.
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. Vss. 42-48. 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 nobler task than receiving 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.
The term “salted with fire” is obscure and the subject of debate by many commentators. Vs. 49. Though it is possible that purification by persecution is intended, that hardly fits the context. To have salt is to be at peace. Vs. 50. It would therefore seem that the countercultural existence to which the disciples are called works like salt-an agent of seasoning and preservation. It is so very basic that, if it loses its essence, nothing exists that can restore it. The little group of disciples, preoccupied as it is with greatness and preserving its position of privilege to the neglect of the “little ones” for whom Jesus is chiefly concerned, is sorely in need of “salting with fire.” Only to the extent that there is among the disciples peace born of mutual service to the least can the nature of God’s reign be made known.