September 30, 2012
Living and dealing with other people is hard work. That is true in a family, in a school, in an agency, in the government—and it is very, very true in the Church. That’s why we have to be so intentional about celebrating it whenever it does work. And sometimes The Church really does work! Right now millions of sisters and brothers we may never meet are sharing communion. It may served in clay vessels, or on wooden trays, or in solid gold. Right now, Jesus’ disciples are singing and speaking in Russian, Swahili, Tagalog, Arabic, Spanish, and Chinese. Today, just as we will, they will take a piece of bread, or a wafer, or a tortilla or a rice cake and know that it is the body of Christ. They will sip homemade rice wine, grape juice, honey mead, and they will know it is the blood of Christ. They will cherish gifts given and shed for them. We are one body with a mysterious connection running through our veins and our hearts. One baptism, whether in a creek, a marble font, a glass swimming tank, transformed us into a worldwide web long before there was a worldwide web. Whenever we start to feel lonely or isolated in our technological and busy world, acknowledging we are part of such an extended, varied family can be a gift beyond imagining. This is one of God’s gifts to us: there is no corner of the earth where we could go that we would not find God there waiting for us. No place so desperate that we wouldn’t see God’s gracious welcome extended from others, whether or not we understood their language.
But this is also the ultimate test of our faith. It doesn’t always feel like a gift, this huge and widely varied family called the Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church. Sometimes it’s embarrassing and even horrifying to see what our sisters and brothers do in God’s name. Sometimes we might feel we have to apologize for what people who call themselves Christians teach or do. Sometimes we might prefer to ignore the fact that the Church is bigger than the circle of people we know and approve of. Sometimes we simply cannot feel grateful for the diversity of the family of God. We want others to worship and pray and think as we do. We may sing and pray about the unity of our faith, but sometimes we can’t find any connection to other believers at all. As George Bernard Shaw once said, “It is much easier to love people in general than to love people in specific.” It can be so hard to deal with people who don’t understand how right you really are!
I want to say our intentions are good. I think most people of any faith—Christian or otherwise—believe that are doing their very best to abide by and teach God’s way. This is admirable. But the truth is, none of us can grasp the complete mystery of God. God is bigger and wider and deeper than any of us, and infinitely more varied. Sometimes when we are in the midst of a conflict, we lose track of that fact.
No doubt many of us have had days of feeling misunderstood, of wanting to walk out and slam the door on all those other people who didn’t get it, and never come back. Sometimes this feeling escalates into serious violence done in God’s name. Sometimes more harm than good comes out of being people with strong spiritual convictions. Does it help or hurt to know that conflict in faith communities goes way, way back—thousands of years before Jesus was born?
We hear about it in today’s reading from Numbers. Moses has been leading God’s people out of slavery and marching everyone toward the Promised Land, but that mission is taking a lot longer than anyone expected, and everyone is tired and cranky. Poor Moses has been trying to do everything himself and is completely exhausted. Wisely, he takes his problem to God. God suggests Moses set up a church council. Pick 70 elders to help you out, God advises. So he does. They hold a special worship service for the 70 to be blessed with the power of the Holy Spirit and appropriately installed according to synod guidelines and bylaws and procedures (or their Hebrew equivalent.)
And yet, while this official service is going on, two guys who were NOT with the 70 start preaching on the fringes of the community! The audacity! Neither Eldad nor Medad had been to seminary. They hadn’t been ordained or elected or in any way chosen to speak to the congregation about God’s dreams! They have no business telling the others what they hear God saying.
Similarly, in today’s reading from Mark, the disciples have come across someone unknown to them, not part of their inner circle, doing miracles in Jesus’ name. They are outraged. Remember the argument they were having in last week’s Gospel lesson about which of them was the greatest? They suffered the indignity of Jesus telling them that none of them were, and suggested that they get in touch with their humble and childlike selves. Now they are again confronted with outside competition who acts on the truth, but who isn’t one of them! How dare this person do wonders in Christ’s name!
Children notwithstanding, these 12 expected to be the privileged ones, the ones who would be known for doing wonders in the name of Jesus! How dare this guy (whose name, interestingly, we never get the privilege of knowing—and you know who wrote this book!) try to do it! He doesn’t know the secret handshake! The right liturgical words or gestures! Jesus’ chosen ones were not comfortable expanding their circle to include people they had not selected or desired to connect with. It is easier to say, “Love your neighbor” than it is to actually do it, especially if your neighbor is stealing your thunder. It is so much easier to love people in general than it is to love people in specific.
In both the Old and New Testament readings today, the “true believers” are reminded that there may, in fact, be more than one road to the Truth. There may be sisters and brothers who are alongside them on the journey that they know nothing of, and wouldn’t have chosen if they HAD known. There are other believers who may not do it quite the same way, abide by the same rules, or travel by the same routes, who are, nevertheless, pointing toward the Kingdom of God.
Neither Moses nor Jesus seems at all worried that there are other people proclaiming God’s vision to anyone who would listen. Moses says, “Would that all of God’s people were prophets!” Jesus adds, “Whoever is not against us is for us.” Neither Jesus nor Moses seems troubled that unexpected voices coming from people they had not appointed were spreading the good news. They simply rejoice that the good news was being spread! Can we join them? Can we pray with Moses, “Would that all of God’s people were prophets!” even if we don’t understand them? Even if they are different from us?
I am not saying that we shouldn’t be Christians, or even Lutherans. I think our faith identity and way of understanding theology is a tremendous gift. However, our Bible readings today make it clear that we are to proceed with humility. We may not have discovered all that there is to know about communicating with or about God. Perhaps there are things we could learn from those who prophesy on the margins, whose names may not even be known to us. Perhaps there are blessings to receive from those we might not automatically choose to call sister or brother. Perhaps our Muslim or Jewish or Buddhist or atheist neighbors have some wisdom about God that it might benefit us to listen to.
Trinity stands on the brink of a new phase in ministry. There will be adjustments to make in the months and years ahead, as we re-examine who God is calling this congregation to be and what God is calling us to do in this time and place. There may be moments when we will doubt one another’s commitment to the church, or even to Christ, because we cannot see what they see the way they see it. But remember this: Eldad and Medad didn’t walk the orthodox way, and they were still doing God’s work. The unnamed man in the Gospel wasn’t one of the twelve, but he grasped enough of Jesus’ message to apply it for the common good in his own way.
We might have to color outside the lines a little, learn a new way of doing things. And we will have to allow others to do so too. The Holy Spirit blows where She will and appoints whom She wishes, whether or not everyone else approves or understands. Whether or not we like this idea, God’s message will be proclaimed with or without us. That is both exhilarating and scary to consider.
So how are we to be God’s family, if we never know who has the truth or how it might be proclaimed? Acknowledging our shared humanity is a good start. James has some practical suggestions in his letter. He urges Christians to pray for one another, and to confess our shortcomings to one another. He tells us to acknowledge our need for healing, and to seek out others who need a support and guidance. Bring it all into the presence of God, he says.
When we are vulnerable with one another, humble about our own limitations, and open to God working in unconventional ways through mysterious people, holiness creeps in. That is when the Church is at its best. It may always be a challenge to be the Church, to love one another in general and in specific. Nonetheless God calls us to offer our shared humanity with the whole world. Sometimes loving God and other people is as simple as offering someone a cold cup of water, and trusting God to do the rest. Amen.