Sermon: Sunday, September 27, 2009: Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost

Texts: Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29  •  Psalm 19:7-14  •  James 5:13-20  •  Mark 9:38-50


Grace and peace to you, sisters and brothers, who are made holy by baptism, called to be saints, together with all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours, from God our creator and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

It’s been about a month now since Bill and Judi and I returned from the 2009 Churchwide Assembly in Minneapolis. It was an amazing gathering – full of prayer and worship, dialogue and discernment. It was a gathering that gave a witness to the world on a number of fronts. We gave witness to a church that is committed to ecumenical relationships and a global Christianity – as we entered into full communion with the United Methodist Church and welcomed the General Secretary of the Lutheran World Federation, the Rev. Dr. Ishmael Noko of Zimbabwe. We gave witness to a desire to be part of God’s healing work throughout the world as we approved a plan to work in conjunction with the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod, Lutheran World Relief and the United Nations Foundation to combat malaria, as well as funding a new global and domestic strategy for combating HIV and AIDS.

Anyone watching would also have learned that Lutherans are, counter to stereotypes propagated by Garrison Keillor and “A Prairie Home Companion,” quite able to argue and unafraid of conflict. We came into the assembly knowing that we would finally, after eight years of studies and social statements, which followed decades of activism, be addressing the topic of human sexuality and how this church will handle the serious divides between progressives and conservatives in the ELCA.

The question before the assembly was whether or not each side of the gap could respect the “bound conscience” of the other. Could conservatives, while not relinquishing their own scripturally-based and faithfully considered beliefs, respect that progressive Lutherans who have been working for a change in church policies regarding the blessing of same-sex unions and the ministries of those in such relationships are also people whose beliefs are scripturally-based and faithfully considered. And, likewise, could progressive Lutherans respect that those who disagreed with them might be doing so not on the basis of fear or prejudice, but out of a sense of reverence and respect for the Lutheran tradition as they had received it.

It was not easy conversation. Voting members to the assembly lined up behind microphones with red or green placards, depending on whether they were for or against the motion being debated. People made every attempt to remain civil, but it was obvious that there was deep passion, hurt and anger to be found on all sides of the issue. Someone called early in the week for the assembly to stop every twenty minutes for prayer, a practice which proved infinitely wise as it gave the debate time to cool down and for people to remember that beneath their disagreement, they shared a common identity in baptism and a common love for the church.

The first vote on these matters was taken on Wednesday when the assembly was asked to vote on the final draft of the Social Statement on human sexuality. Passage of a social statement requires a two-thirds vote. There were slightly over one thousand voting members. Presiding Bishop Mark Hanson called for the vote, and then reviewed the results before announcing them. It was a full and pregnant pause, and then he said, “I’m going to show you the results, but then I need you to be quiet while I consult with others about what this means.” We weren’t sure what to make of his cryptic comment until the result were projected on the jumbo screens at the front of the hall. The percentage of voting members who had voted in favor of the social statement was 66.667% – in other words, the social statement had passed by exactly the number of votes needed for passage. Had any one additional person voted against the statement, it would have failed.

But the social statement did not itself change policy. It provided a basis and rationale for understanding how Lutherans come by their diverse perspectives on human sexuality without privileging any one perspective over another. This meant we were now a church with a social statement that recognized the wide range of faithfully held beliefs on matters of sexuality, but with policies that still only reflected the practices of those holding conservative beliefs. To remedy that, the assembly was asked to consider implementing resolutions that would allow for what the ELCA is now calling “structured flexibility,” meaning that synodical bishops and candidacy committees would be free to make their own decisions about whether or not to approve for ministry, and congregations would retain the right – as they’ve always had – to call the pastors they discern are best equipped to meet the needs of their community. No one would be forced to call a pastor they could not in good conscience recognize, but neither would churches be restricted from being able to call a pastor who, while otherwise qualified, was also in a publicly accountable, lifelong, monogamous, same-sex relationship. It was a compromise solution that proposed that each side allow the other to focus on their own ministry and to leave aside preoccupation with the ministries of those sisters and brothers with whom they had serious disagreements.

This is a situation not completely unlike the two we heard recounted from scripture this morning, first in Numbers and then in Mark.

First, in Numbers, we hear the story of Moses and his frustration with the people of Israel as they make their way from the narrow place of Egypt to the freedom and expansive way of life waiting for them in the promised land. They are stuck in the past. They remember that there was good food in Egypt. The comfort food of the familiar. Moses is trying to help them stay focused on moving forward, on seeing what God still has in store for them, but they seem determined to live in the past. Finally, Moses loses his cool and gets into it with God, complaining about the stress of being called to lead.

“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 suckling child,’ to the land that you promised on oath to their ancestors? Where am I to get meat to give 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…and do not let me see my misery!” (Num 11:11b-15)

And I suppose this speech is not too dissimilar from the one our Presiding Bishop Mark Hanson was praying each night at the assembly, as he listened to the complaints of the church. But God hears Moses’ prayer and answers him. God responds to Moses, saying

“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” (Num. 11:16)

God calls for a churchwide assembly. Get all the elders and officers together and we’re going to take care of this situation for you. You don’t have t
o do it alone. And, in a manner reminiscent of the book of Acts and the appointment of the deacons, they start a church. But no sooner do they come up with a list of seventy approved candidates for ministry and call them to a conference on ministry, than two men start preaching outside the regulations: Eldad and Medad. Scripture says, “and the Spirit rested on them; they were among the registered, but they had not gone out to the tent, and so they prophesied in the camp.”

Someone reports them to the new church hierarchy, and word gets to Joshua, and Joshua tells Moses and says, “My lord Moses, stop them!” But Moses replies, “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!”

We get a similar story in Mark’s gospel. There Jesus is on the move with his disciples, and John brings a report to Jesus that someone who is not a part of their company is out performing exorcisms, healings, in Christ’s name. John says, “we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” But Jesus responds, “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” (Mk 9:38-40).

Well, sisters and brothers, I have to tell you these texts have shown up for us in the lectionary at just the right time. As I mentioned in the eNewsletter that went out on Friday afternoon, there is some serious grumbling in the church right now – weeping of biblical proportions. Even as we are gathered this morning here in Chicago, there are Lutherans from around the country gathered in Indianapolis to discuss the votes that were taken at Churchwide Assembly last month. It is a gathering of conservative Lutherans who feel that the church has abandoned its biblical and confessional grounds, that it has followed after culture and wandered into heresy. They are encouraging individual Lutherans and dissenting congregations to withhold their benevolence from the church, and they are discussing a withdrawal from the ELCA. A schism.

Now, at this point, it’s interesting to think about how the different camps of ELCA Lutherans fit into the stories we’ve read this morning.

For so many years, progressive Lutherans have felt like the Eldads and Medads of the church – preaching their gospel outside the boundaries of the approved and appointed places. We have been worried about the Joshuas in the church who might call for our discipline, and we have wished for bishops like Moses who might have the courage to say, “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!”

Or, wouldn’t it have been so good if we had heard the church, the body of Christ, say to those calling for our discipline and removal, “do not stop [them], 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!”

But, too often it did not. Too often the church acted on the impulses of Joshua and John, trying to police the boundaries of the Holy Spirit, even when it chose to rest on those doing ministry outside the boundaries.

Now, however, we have to ask if that’s still an appropriate comparison. Now, as Lutherans who disagree with the majority of the church which voted for policy change are gathering to discuss their response, we find ourselves – unexpectedly – in a new location in this story. What happens when you wake up after decades of life on the margins, to discover that you may, in fact, be among the sixty-eight in the tent of meeting? You may be a part of those who are following Jesus, noticing that there are still others who claim to know him, but who are not a part of the community of faith in ways that you can recognize or approve of?

Some of you know that my father was a voting member at Churchwide Assembly, elected from the Southeast Iowa Synod and sent by my home congregation of St. John’s Lutheran Church in Des Moines. I have never been so proud of him in my life as I was during that week, as he rose to speak at the microphone on three or four occasions – each time offering what I thought to be the right word at the right time.

Near the end of the week, as we were debating the implementing resolutions that would change policy, he made a speech on the floor that I don’t think I’ll ever forget. I remembered it as I was reading the second half of the passage from Mark about chopping off hands and feet and eyes.

People opposed to policy change kept hammering away about how we have a call and responsibility to preach the law to one another, to hold each other accountable to what the Word of God in scripture teaches, so that we can come to recognize our own sin and be moved to an awareness of our need for the grace and forgiveness that God does not withhold to any who ask for it.

My dad rose to speak and said, “we keep hearing about the need to preach the law to one another, but I recall that Jesus said,

“Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbor, "Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ while the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.” (Mt 7:1-5).

“We are called”, he continued, “to be rigorous in applying the law to ourselves, to fearlessly uncover our own sin and failures so that we can experience God’s mercy and forgiveness. But we are also called to be extravagant in the grace we offer to one another.”

He hit the nail on the head. We are called to fearlessly inspect our own lives, not cause fear with our inspection of one another’s lives. After Jesus speaks to prevent the disciples from confronting the unauthorized exorcist, he continues on with dramatic words that illustrate the rigor with which we should inspect our own lives, our own conduct.

"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” (Mk 9:42-48).

Note that Jesus does not say, if other people offend your sensibilities about what is acceptable, then cut them off.

Now, on this I know I could and perhaps will receive some feedback. Folks who are reading scripture through the lens of history will point out that, in fact, this passage may have been dealing with how the community of faith is called to respond to those members of the body of Christ that offend or cause others to stumble. But I think that it’s placement directly after a story in which the disciple John wants to reprimand someone healing in God’s name is not unintentional. I think both this story and the one from Numbers are intended for us as a word of instruction about how to deal with those who confess a belief in the same God, who come from the same community, and yet who end up practicing out their faith in very different ways that we do.

We so much want to be able to
define what is and is not acceptable to God. We want to label behavior in others that offends God – as if God’s sensitivities are so fragile – when God has made it clear to us that the thing God finds most abhorrent is our inability to love and forgive one another. To accept that our unity and our diversity are both gifts from God, and that we don’t gain one by losing the other.

“Salt is good,” Jesus concludes, “but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.”

We as a congregation are a salty group of people, I think I can say that with confidence and I doubt that any of you will disagree with me. That’s great! Let’s embrace that. God has been with us on a journey from the narrow places of our lives to the freedom that God is imagining for the whole world, and along the way we’ve been flavored, we’ve been salted with fire. That fire has burned off some of our impurities, but others remain. We are constantly being perfected in faith by the grace of God.

And that is also true for those whom we observe but cannot understand. They, too, are being accompanied by God on a journey from a narrow place to a place widened by grace and prepared for freedom. God has flavored them as well, burning off some of their impurities and leaving others for the future. They, too, are being perfected in faith.

Along the way, it is not our job to decide what their impurities are. Instead, we are to examine ourselves rigorously – looking for those places in our lives, in our homes, in our congregations, in our denomination, in our city, in our country, in the world, where we have put stumbling blocks in the way of people who are dying to find new life, who are still trapped in narrow places, looking for the road to freedom. We are to look inward, to remove those blocks, so that when we do look outward we can make God’s extravagant grace visible, audible, tangible, taste-able to all the world.

We do not need to be fearful about our future. That is in God’s hands. Instead we are called to have salt in ourselves, and be at peace with one another.

In the name of Jesus,


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