Homily for the 19th Sunday of Pentecost – September 27, 2015
The Venerable Grant Rodgers
“Why have you treated your servant so badly? Why have I not found favor in your sight, that you lay the burden of all these people on me? Did I conceive all these 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’ …? Where am I to get food to feed all these people? For they come weeping to me and say, ‘Give us meat to eat!’ I am not able to carry all this people alone, for they are too heavy for me. If this is the way you are going to treat me, put me to death at once.”
Or, in modern idiom: “I can’t do this! Kill me now.” It sounds a lot like a typical pastor, perhaps on the eve of the parish annual meeting, and indeed this litany of questions – an expression of an exasperated leader turning to God in desperation — has been prayed in some fashion by every pastor who has ever seriously attempted to motivate and lead God’s people. But these words are the words of Moses, one of the greatest spiritual leaders of all time, and to hear him telling God “put me to death at once” sounds bizarre.
At some point, in the midst of a journey that had become too much for the people, Moses himself became overwhelmed and questioned what he was doing there, why God had initiated this whole thing in the first place. The people were tired of it, and he was tired of their whining and complaining.
Anyone who has ever tried to do anything significant, has arrived at this place of frustration, and has had to struggle with their vocation, perhaps especially the apparently crazy idea that they have been called by the Creator of the Universe to lead others in the way.
In his angry address to God, Moses demands to know why all this responsibility has been dumped on him. The task is unrealistic, he resents being isolated in the role of leader (he is not their parent, after all), he feels like he is out of resources . . . (and I imagine he may have said some other things that were not printable!).
This kind of raw, intense address to God is a bit strange (and no doubt broadens our concept of what prayer is all about!), but I think a lot of parents have said familiar things, or at least had similar feelings of being overwhelmed and resentful of the huge responsibility of raising and guiding children, and it applies to teachers attempting to teach, and politicians trying to govern, and it is certainly part of the life of most parish priests.
People do tend to snivel, actively or passively resisting the authority of those who are trying to guide them. Yesterday we saw a young couple about to set off on a very short nature walk. Before they even got on the path, one of the children was balking so much that his mother was trying to bribe him with money, offering him a certain amount of cash for every new thing he could point out. He went along, but with such an exaggerated attitude of protest that his parents must have felt like abandoning him on the trail. It provided a modern re-enactment of Moses and the rabble right before our eyes.
This version of the story in the Book of Numbers reveals something we can identify with: the limitations of human authority and ability; the necessity of learning to rely on a higher power.
God has already called others to help Moses, but when Moses returns and Joshua informs him that there are a couple of unauthorized people prophesying in the camp, Moses responds rather sarcastically: “Would that all of the people of the Lord were prophets! Would that the Lord might bestow his spirit on them all!” Moses expresses a kind of relief that others are prophesying; even though they may be off track, it is still a welcome sign to him that he is not absolutely alone, that God is spreading the load. Being responsible for others in any way is at times overwhelming, terrifying, exhausting, as well as profoundly rewarding. You get the credit, but you also get the blame. Historical figures like Thomas Cranmer, King Charles I, Abraham Lincoln, Mohandas Gandhi, Anwar Sadat, and John F Kennedy, all could tell that story of the perils of leadership.
In our time, leaders get blamed for everything. If there’s a shooting, the police are immediately critiqued; if the economy falters, politicians are condemned; if the Church is declining, the clergy are automatically at fault. And the tendency to focus on the negative rather than the positive has become a social epidemic.
Do you see a pattern here? In this way of thinking, it’s never the people themselves, or the community as a whole — it’s always the leaders that get scapegoated. We may be disappointed in the political leaders we have, but in this hyper-critical era, it’s a wonder we have anyone willing to offer themselves, and that could be said of almost any institution in our time.
The story reminds us of how smaller things get in the way of the larger cause, and how people have trouble keeping things in perspective: Moses is trying to lead them toward freedom and a new beginning and their focus is on the food they had in prison — they are reminiscing about the good old days when they were in slavery in Egypt!
What do you do when faced with adversity? How do you respond? Do you blame others? Do you blame yourself? Do you become despondent? Do you attempt to address the problem? Do you pray about it?
In the face of difficulty and oppression, the apostle James (James 5:13-20) urges the people to pray, to offer praise, to care about each other, to pray for each other, to stick together and not abandon each other, to acknowledge their faults and confess to each other, and to correct those who have gone off the rails. In saying this he names something that seems to be central in each of the readings today: the need for the people of God to assume responsibility. And that is just the point – the onus is on the whole people of God and not just on the leaders.
James tells the faithful they cannot be merely hearers of the Word; they must be doers of the Word. They are called to act, not just observe, to move beyond being passive consumers of what the Church is offering, and to BE the Church themselves; to do the work of the Church rather than just sitting back and watching others do it all for them (and then critiquing their performance).
In the Gospel today (Mark 9:38-50), we see Jesus sending out his disciples to test their gifts and calling in the real world, and helping them realize that they must not get in the way of their own success, helping them understand that they could be their own worst enemy. Jesus is not literally urging people to lop off limbs or gouge out their own eyes – he is using the human body as an illustration about the importance of not allowing things to get in the way of the larger purpose and direction. The individual parts must be cooperating, not working against each other. St Paul picks up on this image in his First Letter to the Corinthians, and creates the metaphor of the Body of Christ.
In this great new movement of the Spirit, all sorts of people are being drawn in and included in what is going on. When the disciples report that they had attempted to curb the enthusiasm of a man who was using the name of Jesus, instead of praising them for going after such unauthorised use of the brand name, Jesus says “Whoever is not against us is for us.” That is much different than saying “Those who are not for us are against us.” He wants to broaden the base of leadership rather than narrow it and control it.
I have always said that it is my job as a leader to make sure I am not getting in the way of the Holy Spirit. Instead of condemning, Jesus broadens their concept of what their faith is all about. It’s not just about them. The Spirit blows where it wills – like a forest fire it takes great leaps forward – only this is a fire that brings life not death, and is creative rather than destructive – as we say in the Nicene Creed, “we believe in the Holy Spirit, the giver of life.”
Pope Francis, in his time in North America this past week, had some very profound and relevant things to say. Jesus speaks of honouring the little ones in the midst. This little man seems able to speak to the world in such a big way that people want to respond. Like Jesus, he says things that are unorthodox, unexpected, and true.
To the U.S. congress, he spoke of the “temptation which we must especially guard against: the simplistic reductionism which sees only good or evil ; or, if you will, the righteous and sinners. The contemporary world, with its open wounds which affect so many of our brothers and sisters, demands that we confront every form of polarization which would divide it into these two camps. We know that in the attempt to be freed of the enemy without, we can be tempted to feed the enemy within.” Very consistent with the words of Jesus in today’s Gospel.
This seems to be a Pope who understands the importance of appealing to the people, not just working through the hierarchy – a spiritual leader who believes in the role of the Holy Spirit in human affairs – a Roman Catholic who embraces the biblical concept of the priesthood of all believers, not just the priesthood of priests.
“Wake up!” he seems to be saying. You are responsible for each other; you are responsible for the mission of the Church. Everything is connected; everything affects you one way or another. Do something creative about it!
The scriptures reveal to us that it is typical for people not to see the bigger picture, to look out only for their own interests, to be concerned only about their own salvation – their own place in the scheme of things. The crisis in the church is not a crisis in leadership – there are great leaders in the church today and there are potentially great leaders in training.
The crisis in the Church has to do with not embracing the reality of the Body of Christ – of not acknowledging our own importance in the larger scheme of things – of looking for individual gratification or salvation instead of looking to serve the common good.
The crisis in the Church is one of apathy and defeatism – of being distracted by other life goals that are less worthy than the Gospel of Christ — of wanting to go backward instead of pressing forward – of not accepting our true calling as children of God, brothers and sisters in Christ. It is like the Church has lost its saltiness, as Jesus suggests — its bite; its sparkle; its curative effect on things.
Like the apostle James, the Pope has challenged our lifestyles and attitudes – challenged our selfish and destructive individualism, our hypocrisy and inhumanity – like James he has challenged the rich and powerful to fight poverty, to correct injustices, to create peace, to heal the environment – to use their influence to make a difference for good. Above all, to pay attention to what it is God is calling you to do, and where God is calling you to go, rather than being immobilized by trivial and mundane distractions. Many people today are stuck in the desert – living empty and futile lives, needing to believe that there is a better way.
Mobilizing an entire people is a difficult task, but when the people embrace the cause – when it is not just the leaders or parents or politicians or clergy urging them on – but something they have embraced internally, as something intrinsic and essential to who they are, then amazing things happen.
Of course the Church needs guidance – it’s not a case of expecting everyone to start running around trying to be the Messiah. This is not an invitation for everyone to let their ego and their individualism to run wild, but to discern who they are in the context of the Body of Christ.
The festival of St Michael reminds us that we are not on our own – that the Church especially is not governed only by its leaders — that we are constantly being guided and inspired by the God who loves us, and whether that happens through the ministry of angels or popes or priests, what matters is that we are not alone in any of this – even when we believe ourselves to be in the middle of the desert.
When the Church remembers who she is, when the Church embraces the fact that it is the priesthood of all believers, not just an organization that has a few priests as leaders, and that it is the Body of Christ, not just a social institution, then we will see our society transformed. I pray that we may respond to the call to be the Church that the world needs.
The Venerable Grant Rodgers, Rector
RCL-appointed readings for Pentecost 19
Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29 The rabble among them had a strong craving; and the Israelites also wept again, and said, “If only we had meat to eat! We remember the fish we used to eat in Egypt for nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic; but now our strength is dried up, and there is nothing at all but this manna to look at.” Moses heard the people weeping throughout their families, all at the entrances of their tents. Then the LORD became very angry, and Moses was displeased. So Moses said to the LORD, “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? For they come weeping to me and say, ‘Give us meat to eat!’ I am not able to carry all this people alone, for they are too heavy for me. If this is the way you are going to treat me, put me to death at once–if I have found favor in your sight–and do not let me see my misery.” So the LORD said to Moses, “Gather for me seventy of the elders of Israel, whom you know to be the elders of the people and officers over them; bring them to the tent of meeting, and have them take their place there with you. So Moses went out and told the people the words of the LORD; and he gathered seventy elders of the people, and placed them all around the tent. Then the LORD came down in the cloud and spoke to him, and took some of the spirit that was on him and put it on the seventy elders; and when the spirit rested upon them, they prophesied. But they did not do so again. Two men remained in the camp, one named Eldad, and the other named Medad, and the spirit rested on them; they were among those registered, but they had not gone out to the tent, and so they prophesied in the camp. And a young man ran and told Moses, “Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp.”
And Joshua son of Nun, the assistant of Moses, one of his chosen men, said, “My lord Moses, stop them!” But Moses said to him, “Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the LORD would put his spirit on them!”
Psalm 19:7-14 The law of the LORD is perfect, reviving the soul; the decrees of the LORD are sure, making wise the simple; the precepts of the LORD are right, rejoicing the heart; the commandment of the LORD is clear, enlightening the eyes; the fear of the LORD is pure, enduring forever; the ordinances of the LORD are true and righteous altogether. More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold; sweeter also than honey, and drippings of the honeycomb. Moreover by them is your servant warned; in keeping them there is great reward. But who can detect their errors? Clear me from hidden faults. Keep back your servant also from the insolent; do not let them have dominion over me. Then I shall be blameless, and innocent of great transgression. Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O LORD, my rock and my redeemer.
James 5:13-20 Are any among you suffering? They should pray. Are any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise. Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective. Elijah was a human being like us, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth. Then he prayed again, and the heaven gave rain and the earth yielded its harvest. My brothers and sisters, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and is brought back by another, you should know that whoever brings back a sinner from wandering will save the sinner’s soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.
Mark 9:38-50 John said to him, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” But Jesus said, “Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. Whoever is not against us is for us. For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward. “If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea. If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell, where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched. “For everyone will be salted with fire. Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.”