Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29
The Lord’s spirit comes upon seventy elders
The commandment of the Lord gives light to the eyes. (Ps. 19:8)
Prayer and anointing in the community
Warnings to those who obstruct faith
“I had a lover’s quarrel with the world.” That is what the poet Robert Frost requested this inscription on his tombstone. I can easily imagine a variation of it on my own grave some day: “I had a lover’s quarrel with the church.”
Everywhere I have ever lived I have found a church family—parents, grandparents, and siblings—when my own blood family was far away. I have been nurtured by their love, by conversations and prayers shared in good times and in bad. Every time I take communion, I think of all the people with whom I’ve ever shared that sacred meal taking it along with me. These are the great cloud of witnesses throughout time and space who rest in the grace and dignity of being God’s beloved, and to whom I am forever tied. We are mysteriously and inexplicably joined in our baptisms, part of a worldwide web long before there was a worldwide web. It is awe-inspiring and life-giving. I love the church. I hope and pray many of you have similar stories.
But it is also true that the church has caused enormous pain, both to me and to many others. I’m not just talking about the Crusades or the Inquisition, though surely them too. I’m thinking of all the people who have been wounded by pastors and parishioners who told people that they could not come near God’s heart because of their sexuality or their gender or their politics, who were told to submit to abuse, who were told that slavery is Biblical, or any number of other cruel things that have been done in God’s name. In my own experience, the worst gossiping and back-biting I’ve ever known came from fellow church members. Yes, people with whom I’ve shared the family meal of holy communion. I’ve had a lover’s quarrel with the church.
Sometimes more harm than good comes out of being people with strong spiritual convictions. 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 as they know it. This is admirable. But the truth is, none of us can grasp the complete mystery of God. Does it help or hurt to know that God is bigger than anything we can imagine, since it results in conflict among faith communities that has been going on since thousands of years before Jesus was born?
Infighting among believers was already going on as far back as today’s reading from Numbers. Moses has been leading God’s people out of slavery in Egypt and toward the Promised Land, but that mission is taking a lot longer than anyone expected. Everyone is hot and tired and cranky. Moses, who has been trying to should all responsibilities by himself, is completely exhausted. Wisely, he takes his problem to God, who suggests Moses get some help. “Set up a church council,” God suggests. “Pick 70 dedicated, thoughtful people to help you out,” God advises. Every pastor since then has thanked God for that suggestion, but probably also questioned that number. I’m not sure 70 is the ideal size for a working group. I can say, church councils are a blessing.
A special service is held for the 70 to be blessed and appropriately installed according to synod guidelines and bylaws and procedures (or their Hebrew equivalent.) But as this official service begins, 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 selected to help Moses lead the congregation! They have no business telling others what they hear God saying.
Similarly, in today’s reading from Mark, the disciples have come across someone unknown to them who is doing miracles in Jesus’ name. They are outraged by this. These 12 expected to be the privileged ones, the ones who would be known for doing wonders! How dare this guy speak for Jesus without knowing the secret handshake or the proper liturgical words! Jesus’ chosen ones were not comfortable expanding their circle to include people they had not selected or desired. Their complaint to Jesus is telling, “Teacher we came upon someone doing miracles in YOUR name, but because he was not following us, we told him to knock it off.”
In both the Old and New Testament readings and, I’d venture to guess, in this room today, “true believers” are confronted with the possibility that there may, in fact, be more than one road to the Truth. There may be sisters and brothers alongside us on the journey that we know nothing of, and whom wouldn’t have chosen if we had known. There are other believers who may not do things quite the same way, or abide by the same rules, or travel by the same routes that we do, who, nevertheless, point toward the Kingdom of God.
It’s worth noticing that neither Jesus nor Moses seems troubled by the unexpected people—folks they’d not appointed or chosen—spreading the good news. Moses says, “Would that all of God’s people were prophets!” and Jesus adds, “Whoever is not against us is for us.” They are simply glad that the good news is being spread, regardless of who is spreading it!
Can we join them? Can we pray with Moses, “Would that all of God’s people were prophets!” even if they are different from us? I am not saying that we shouldn’t be Christians, or even Lutherans. The particular expression of faith identity and way of understanding theology is a tremendous gift, and my spiritual life is rooted in it. However, I owe a huge debt to the Roman Catholic church for shaping my prayer life, and to the Southern Baptist church for helping me articulate my faith. Jewish teachers instilled in me a love of the Hebrew Scriptures, my Missouri Synod upbringing taught me to revere the Bible, and my Bahai friends helped me approach interfaith conversations with respect and openness. What our Bible readings today make clear is that we are to proceed in this faith business with humility. We may not have discovered all that there is to know about communicating with or about God. There are things we can learn from people who prophesy on the margins, whose names may not even be known to us. There are blessings to receive from those we might not automatically choose to call sister or brother. Our Muslim or Buddhist or athiest neighbors have some wisdom about God that we might benefit from hearing.
Sometimes church people doubt one another’s commitment to the church, or even to Christ, because we cannot see what they see the way they see it. We like different hymns and enforce different laws. There are times when it physically hurts me to hear some people identified as Christian, I feel so far away from what they teach. But remember that 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.
The Holy Spirit blows where She will and appoints whom She wishes, whether or not everyone approves or understands. Whether or not we like this idea, God’s message will be proclaimed and God’s work will be done with or without us. That God has decided to inhabit both the church and places outside of it is both exhilirating and scary.
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, to acknowledge our need for healing, and to seek out others who need a support and guidance, confessing our shortcomings together. If you have a lover’s quarrel with one another, bring it all into the presence of God, he advises.
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 word and deed, but God doesn’t stop calling us to acknowledge our shared humanity with the whole world, and our collective need for God’s grace.
One of God’s gifts to us is that 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 feel God’s gracious welcome extended by others, whether or not we understand. Sometimes love is as simple as offering a cold cup of water, and trusting God to do the rest. Amen.
~Pastor Susan Schneider