Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost B
Preached at Faith Lutheran Church in Three Lakes, WI.
Numbers 11:4-16, 24-29
When Debbie and I were planning to get married, we knew we wanted to get married in Columbus, OH, where we met, where we’d lived for most of ten years, and where she still worked and lived. And of course we were going to get married in a church, with a big full ceremony (that our families still rave about to this day). There was just one problem—we weren’t members of a church anywhere.
Shocking, right? Two seminary graduates, and we didn’t belong to a church in Columbus. But it makes sense. My first and second year in seminary, I was assigned to an inner-city urban congregation. During my third year, I was an intern in Muskegon, MI. And few fourth-year seminarians formally join a congregation because in less than a year, we hopefully are called to lead a congregation. Debbie likewise chose to retain her membership in her father’s congregation, since she had recently moved and knew she would be moving soon, too.
In the meantime, while she worked at Bexley Hall Episcopal Seminary as their office manager, she started working Sunday mornings as a nursery helper at the church her sister is the director of youth ministry at. I was also attending worship at the church during my fourth year of seminary because it was right across the street from the seminary and our university. It seemed pretty obvious that this church, which we knew and where the pastor knew us, was the easy choice for where to be married.
There was one strange question that did come up as we were planning the wedding though: would we pay the “member” rate to use the church, or the “non-member” rate. Technically, my membership was still in the congregation I grew up in, and Debbie’s was in her father’s congregation. Even though we had worshipped there about a year, had communed and contributed numerous times, and Debbie was on the payroll, there was still this question of technicality.
Eventually, it was decided that we would pay the member rate, since we were involved in the community there even though technically, we weren’t on the “membership roll”. The wedding went off without a hitch (really, nothing went wrong!), and life went on.
It seems such a silly thing to be concerned with, this idea of membership, but we still cling to it fiercely. I spent a good amount of time this last week figuring out who is and who is not a voting member of this congregation for the purpose of the annual meeting we will have following our worship service. The entirety of the Office Report in the packet you will receive has to do with tracking changes in membership, and I can tell you that there’s still one error in it, even after all that effort. A lot of work goes in to determining who is in and who is out.
This is, of course, not a new phenomenon. The majority of the ritual laws in the Torah, the first five books of the Bible, were written to help establish the Israelite people as a people apart, an “in-crowd” to everyone else’s “out-crowd”. Paul’s letters are full of suggestions for the early Christians that would help them maintain a distinctiveness and separateness from the rest of the world.
Are such distinctions useful? Do they hinder more than they help?
Two of our stories this morning, the story from the book of Numbers (seriously, when was the last time you read a story from Numbers?) and from the gospel of Mark, are about in- and out-crowds. In the first, Moses, tired of dealing with the constant complaining of the people and how as the leader of the people everything gets heaped on his head, complains to God for a solution. God’s solution is to have seventy elders of Israel appointed to receive part of the spirit given to Moses. All of these elders but two are gathered in one place to receive this spirit, which manifests in the speaking of prophecy. But two not present still receive the spirit and prophesy, in the midst of the people. Joshua, Moses’s eventual successor, is appalled by this, as this is highly irregular. This was not proper procedure! Boundaries must be observed!
In the second story, some of Jesus’s disciples, particularly John, see a man casting out demons in the name of Jesus. This is extraordinary! Earlier in the chapter, Jesus’s own disciples have trouble casting out a demon—yep, Jesus’s disciples fail. And then, they see someone they don’t know, someone they don’t recognize, someone obviously not connected with them, succeeding where they failed, and doing so in Jesus’s name! Unacceptable. Simply unacceptable. No one was allowed to use Jesus’s name but them! Scandalous!
I wish I could scold Joshua, or do my usual mocking of the disciples. It would be easy. How absurd of Joshua, to be concerned that those whom God appointed to prophesy were doing so in a place Joshua determined was inappropriate—they were prophesying, as God intended: that’s what’s important! Or how absurd of John to be angry that someone not connected with them was casting out a demon—he was casting out a demon, something good: that’s what’s important!
But I can’t get too smug with them. After all, doesn’t this sound an awful lot like the church? You’ve already heard about how I had to determine who was and who wasn’t a voting member here. Which sounds absurd to me, given that there are a number of people sitting here this morning in this very worshiping gathering who do not qualify as voting members, even though they are far more active in this congregation’s ministry and give more of their time, talents, and money than the majority of those we count as members.
And then there are all the problems between different congregations and denominations. Some don’t believe that Roman Catholics are Christians (they are), or that those who don’t believe in infant baptism aren’t faithful to God (they are), or that churches that fully welcome members of the LGBTQ+ community are going to hell (they aren’t), or churches that use drums, dancing, and singing are worshiping the devil (they aren’t), or that age matters when it comes to the sacraments (it doesn’t), or that “those people”, whoever they are, are simply too immoral for Jesus to love (they aren’t).
This phenomenon is not just limited to churches of course. It was an intentional decision to use red and blue circles in my children’s sermon this morning*. After all, it’s just common knowledge that if you don’t vote exactly the same way I do, you obviously want to destroy our country (you don’t). Or if you belong to another party, obviously you don’t care about “freedom” (you do). Of if you disagree on any single particular issue, obviously you’re an evil spawn of evil (you aren’t).
We draw lines in the sand all throughout our lives: big lines, little ones, thick lines, thin lines, deep lines shallow lives. Yes, we even draw lines around Jesus, lines that keep “others” out, as if Jesus needed our protection.
Jesus’s response to such thinking is quite the response. A lot has been made of this speech about cutting off your own hand and foot and eye, usually out of context. Usually, it’s taken to mean “focus on your own salvation at all costs, cutting everything and everyone out of your life that might possibly keep you from saving your skin”.
I don’t think so. Jesus’s words always depend on the context, and this speech is part of his response to John’s anger at this outsider performing good works in Jesus’s name. When I hear Jesus’s speech, this is what I hear: “Don’t you dare.”
Don’t you dare keep anyone away from me.
Don’t you dare let your inflated sense of self-worth get in the way of anyone who is looking for me.
Don’t you dare impose your own restrictions on what I, my father, and my spirit are doing.
Don’t you dare.
If there is one thing more disturbing about Jesus than his willingness to be executed for a bunch of people that hate him, it’s his insistence on breaking down barriers around himself that others insist should remain. It’s why people, including his disciples, get so upset when he insists on meeting with prostitutes, sick people, poor people, thieves, and actually treating them like human beings. It’s why he yells at the Pharisees for enforcing laws that keep people away from God. You want to control who gets to experience God’s grace, Jesus asks? You want to determine who is in and who is out? Don’t you dare. Don’t you dare.
It’s a natural instinct. We form groups, and we want to protect that group and our sense of identity. It gives us stability and confidence and a sense of safety. But this is God’s group, God’s choice. This is not our group to manage. This is not our in-crowd to regulate. These are not our walls to build, especially in the name of a God who is just going to knock them down anyway. More walls need to come down. And when they come down, amazing things happen.
I loved it last week when little Charlie came right up to the pulpit to hand me a card, telling me about feeding the homeless, much to the shock of many people who think that was inappropriate.
I loved it when, at one of my first funerals here, a child wandered up behind the altar to stand with me, for whatever reason.
I love that many times serving communion, one of our young people helps with the distribution, and I am deeply honored to receive the sacrament from their hands.
I loved it when, on “God’s work. Our hands.” Sunday, most of the adults who helped out were, in fact, non-members.
I loved it when we had a visitor one week who was walking across the country, and asked to spend one night sleeping underneath a tree on our property before continuing on his journey with nothing but the clothes he was wearing and a backpack.
These are all instances that challenge our notions of the in- and out-crowds. We aren’t particularly welcoming to children. Non-members are denied full inclusion in the community more than non-participating members. Dirty visitors are viewed with suspicion.
But this is who Jesus is, and what Jesus does. And if we are being honest, this is how it needs to be. I know that many of us in this very congregation consider themselves refugees from a way of doing church that was hostile to them. We are a congregation of people who were once considered outsiders, who left their traditions when the walls they built were turned on them and used to keep them out. We are a people who experienced the hurt and pain of exclusion that someone else put in our way.
And in the midst of that, Jesus reached out and said, “Don’t you dare.”
Don’t you dare think that you don’t belong in my father’s house.
Don’t you dare think that they get to decide who I welcome.
Don’t you dare think that your worth depends on what other people think of you.
Don’t you dare think that I didn’t die for you.
Don’t you dare think that I don’t love you.
Don’t you dare.
I guess we not only put stumbling blocks in front of each other, we put them in front of ourselves, convincing ourselves that we are not worthy of Christ’s attention or God’s grace. As if that grace somehow depended on our own merit. It doesn’t. It depends on Christ’s.
When the world says, “You’re not good enough for God,” Christ says, “Don’t you dare.”
When the world says, “You don’t belong here,” Christ says, “Don’t you dare.”
When we ourselves see nothing but fear and hopelessness crowding in around us, Christ says, “Don’t you dare.”
Don’t you dare harm any of these little ones, whom I love. Don’t lay a finger on them. They are mine, they are beautiful—they are broken—but they are my broken.
Don’t you dare lay a stumbling block in front of them.
Don’t you dare.
*For the children’s sermon, I had the kids randomly choose blue circles or red circles from a bag, separating them into groups. Then they had to argue about which group was better. At the end, I showed them that each circle had a cross on it, just like the crosses on our communion wafers. We all belonged to one group, Christ’s group, which was the most important group of all.