09/26/2021 ~ Proper 21 ~ Twenty-sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time ~ Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost ~ Esther 7:1-6, 9-10; 9:20-22; Psalm 124 ; Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29; Psalm 19:7-14; James 5:13-20; Mark 9:38-50 ~ VIDEO OF COMPLETE SERVICE: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0yXagDdMYAk.
“…Moses answered, ‘Are you jealous for my sake? If only all the people of God were prophets! If Yahweh would bestow the Spirit on them all!’” — Numbers 11:29.
When I offer pre-marital counseling, something I have done a number of times, I always ask a very basic question. ‘When does the marriage happen?’
I’m happy to report no couple has ever given me an answer like this: “Didn’t we tell you? The marriage will be Saturday, October the 2nd at 2:00 p.m.” No one has ever said that to me.
The real answer is not simple but it is obvious. Marriage happens when the covenant commitment is made among— note, not between but among, meaning three parties— marriage happens when the covenant commitment is made among those two people getting married and God. This is a three way covenant.
That covenant commitment could have happened a long time ago, before the ceremony. Equally, it might not have yet happened, might not happen for years. The only thing I might be willing to bet on is it’s unlikely the ceremony will entice it to happen.
So, what’s the ceremony about? After all, in our culture it does seem to carry great importance. (Slight pause.) Here’s my take: the ceremony is about gathering family and friends and inviting their blessing and the blessing of God, something we should invite every single day.
Rituals of passage are important markers. So to say the marriage happens when the commitment to covenant becomes realized in no way diminishes the ceremony.
That having been said, this question about when the marriage happens and the answer about covenant commitment among the two people and God is a very complex concept. Why? Well, what is covenant and, therefore, commitment about?
I have already said this here. Covenant is a commitment to growth— growth in learning, growth in the spirit, in wisdom, in love. In the case of marriage it is a commitment before God, with God, through God, in companionship with God and another person.
The idea of covenant growth in marriage raises many questions. What happens when one person in the covenant in some way— mentally or physically— is not able to grow? What happens when one person in covenant in some way simply refuses to grow.
You will be relieved to know I am not going to tackle those questions since my comments might last a couple of hours. The aspect of covenant I want to consider is not about we humans but asks the question ‘Where is God in the covenant?’ (Slight pause.)
These words are found in the work known as Numbers: “…Moses answered, ‘Are you jealous for my sake? If only all the people of God were prophets! If Yahweh would bestow the Spirit on them all!’” (Slight pause.)
The Israelites think of Moses as their leader. Why not? Moses is charismatic, gifted, filled with the Spirit, speaks with God face to face, speaks for God to the community, intercedes on behalf of the people. Leadership is embedded in this story and it cannot be read independently of it.
But what happens? There are complaints and at the end of today’s reading these complaints say people other than those assigned to prophesy are being prophetic.
Now through the leadership of Moses this community has had a formation experience in the Exodus and Sinai events. But now this community has entered a different phase— a wilderness phase, a wilderness… experience.
And so when, where and perhaps even why does this conflict, this complaining happen? It happens in the wilderness. It could be the charisma of Moses has lost some of its gleam. Time does that. And yes, perhaps the people are puzzled, confused, lost.
Questions are raised: where are we going? What was done wrong? Who got us here? Whose fault was this? Who is in charge? Let’s… blame… someone.
Moses is a convenient target. Even Moses complains. But Moses complains to God. (Slight pause.)
Earlier I asked the question ‘Where is God in the covenant?’ I want to suggest in complaining to God Moses got it right. Moses complains to God but then Moses listens to God. What does Moses hear? (Slight pause.)
Moses hears God is present, there, real. And Moses also hears God seeks to be present to and for everyone. (Slight pause.) What does that say to us? I think it says we need to be like Moses. We need to listen to God. And we need to be like Moses— confident God is there for us, present to us, with us.
Please note: I am not addressing results. Being confident God is there— present to us, with us, is not the same as having an expectation about results. It is simply being in the moment, living in the moment with God.
And that is what Moses did. That is, in fact, what leadership in a community of faith really means for we humans. Leadership is not about figuring out what program or planning is needed.
Leadership in a community of faith is about asking a key question: to where is God calling the entire community of faith? Let me be clear. I am not bad-mouthing programs or planning. That is often good work. I am saying if leadership fails to ask to where is God calling the community of faith, programs, planning will not matter.
Indeed, programs, planning may turn out to be successful in human terms. But does that success fulfill being in covenant with God if God is not on board? (Slight pause.)
This is a quote from Óscar Romero, Catholic Archbishop in El Salvador, who was assassinated while offering Mass. “A church that does not provoke any crisis, preach a Gospel that unsettles, proclaims a Word that fails to get under anyone’s skin, a Word that fails to touch the real brokenness of the society in which it is being proclaimed, what kind of Gospel is that church preaching?” (Slight pause.)
I think Romero had it right. God always calls the community of faith to be provocative, unsettling in our society, among the congregation God has gathered also.
Equally, I think this reading tells us something very important. Leaders, no matter how charismatic, can only take a community so far. Ideally, in a church, a congregation, the whole community of faith needs to be involved, needs to have a voice. (Slight pause.)
That brings up two points. First it is the work of every person in the community of faith to listen for and listen to God. Equally, it is the work of every person in the community of faith to understand the covenant means God is there for us, present to us, with us.
And for what are we listening? Programs and planning are good but every person in the community of faith should be listening for the God of covenant who calls us to be committed to covenant growth— growth in learning, growth in the spirit, growth in wisdom, growth in love.
As Archbishop Romero suggested our work is to preach the Gospel. From what I hear the Gospel provokes, unsettles, gets under the skin, identifies the brokenness in society. Why can society be described as broken? Tell me, has society ever been a place where everyone— everyone— feels loved, wanted, protected, encouraged to grow?
My friends, the call of the Gospel is clear. Everyone should feel loved, wanted, protected, encouraged to grow. Amen.
South Freeport Congregational Church United Church of Christ, Freeport, Maine
ENDPIECE: It is the practice of the Pastor to speak after the Closing Hymn, but before the Choral Response and Benediction. This is an précis of what was said: “If you turn to the Call to Worship in the bulletin and find the sentence which reads, ‘Let the Glory of God abide in this place’ you will notice the word Glory is capitalized. That is not a typographical error. The word glory appears many times in the Hebrew Scriptures. The underlying Hebrew word is Kabod. Kabod indicates the real presence of God is being addressed and that’s why Glory is capitalized. Kabod— the real presence of God is with us. So indeed, as a congregation, as a community of faith, let us commit to covenant growth and recognize the reality of the real presence of God.”
BENEDICTION: We are called to care in a world which can be uncaring, commissioned as lovers among some who may offer back indifference. Know this: God is with us in all our days. So, let us go forth knowing that the grace of God is deeper than our imagination, the strength of Christ is stronger than our need and the communion of the Holy Spirit is richer than all our togetherness. May God guide and sustain us today and in all our tomorrows. Amen.