Christ Episcopal Church

Hear the Word. Eat the Bread. Change the World.

September 30, 2018

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I want to start by saying that I sat down to write my sermon on Friday morning, still disturbed by the things the Ford/Kavanaugh hearings had stirred up in me and in people I love and care about. People who, most days, are confident they have put that pain behind them, only to have it all brought back up. Lots of people were triggered about lots of things, and I want you all to know that I held you in prayer. If this has caused a setback to your healing, I encourage you to talk it out—with me, a counselor, a therapist, a trusted friend. Keeping it in only makes it more toxic and destructive, to yourself and to those around you. At communion I will offer anointing and laying on of hands for healing. You may come forward for yourself or for someone you love. The reading from the letter of James today teaches that praying with and for one another in this way is an important aspect of being Christian community.

Now, back to our regularly-scheduled sermon.

I am not sure who is being more over-dramatic in today’s readings. Moses with his “just kill me now!” rant, or Jesus telling people to cut off limbs or throw themselves into the sea! In all the readings, though, the underlying issue is leadership—who is “in,” who is “out,” what qualifies a person to lead and what he or she should do in that position.

Moses is feeling overwhelmed. Understandably so. A lot of people are extremely unhappy, and they are all looking to him for some miraculous solution. If we were just entering the story here, we might think that seems terribly unrealistic and unreasonable of them. But remember—they have witnessed the Ten Plagues of Egypt, the Parting of the Red Sea, the frightening experience of Moses going up on the mountain to speak with God, and his shining face when he came back down. I get annoyed by their selective memory about how “good” things used to be back in Egypt, but I do have to acknowledge that there were surely days when they would feel they were enticed into the wilderness under false pretenses. And Moses’ anger with God makes sense too. As someone reminded me this week, Moses was quite clear from the start, from the moment he stood in the heat of the Burning Bush, that he did not believe he had what was necessary to lead this people, and only accepted this call because God said it would be okay because God would be with him. He’s just demanding that God keep that promise. Moses feels unequipped to deal with the challenge before him.

God’s response is a really important one. Because God doesn’t turn Moses into some sort of superhuman by filling him up with an extra large dose of the spirit. Instead, God recognizes that Moses has his limits. The job is too much for one man alone. And God establishes a model of shared leadership that I wish were taken more seriously today, both inside and outside the church. Everyone does their part, and together those parts add up to a fuller expression of God’s activity in the world than could ever be accomplished by one person.

What I love most about this story, though, is that God is not limited to Moses’ idea of who would be a good leader. Moses chooses seventy men he thinks fit the job description. They go to the place where they usually meet for such important occasions, and the spirit falls on them, confirming that God accepts them in this role. But God also chooses two other people, Eldad and Medad, who were not identified by Moses as belonging to the in-crowd. God included them, where they were, as well. God made the tent bigger.

It is to Moses’ credit that he recognized and accepted this with humility and faith that God knows what God is doing.

Fast forward to the reading from the Gospel of Mark today, and we see the disciples didn’t do quite so good a job when presented with a similar scenario. They wanted to control the activity of God; they wanted to say who was authorized to heal in the name of Jesus, and who was not.

Before I go any further on this topic, I want to be clear that I think we do need to set good, clear boundaries around who we call leaders in the church. We need to be sure that they are able to express the love of God in appropriate, healthy, healing ways. There are people who are attracted to ministry because they see it as a way to fulfill their own needs rather than because they feel called to get out of their own way and minister to others. Individual denominations have the right and the responsibility to set standards for the people to whom they give authority to speak and act in the name of God. I don’t always agree with how other denominations do that, but that’s okay. Each will be held responsible for the decisions they make. My job is to help you live into your own baptism as fully as possible.

When Jesus talks about drowning oneself in the sea or cutting off limbs and throwing them into the fire, he isn’t being literal; he is telling the people called to follow him that there will be times when they have to make sacrifices in order to continue to follow. They will have to choose not to give in to temptation and take a wrong path, not to prove that they are somehow more moral than the people they serve, but so that others don’t follow them down the wrong road. Jesus is saying that there is a cost to being a disciple; you can’t just do what makes you feel good or happy, with no regard for the rest of the community of faith. We are responsible to one another, and most especially to the least powerful, the most vulnerable among us. While the image of “hell” Jesus refers to here is something different than what we think of when we use the term, I think it’s important to note that he is saying there will be consequences when someone misuses a position of power. It may take a long time for them to come to fruition, but I have to hope for justice in the end. Not retributive justice that punishes by plucking out an eye as revenge, but restorative justice that leads to repentance and restoration of relationship.

So back to the idea of shared leadership. Within appropriate boundaries, it is a good thing to share responsibility for the well -being of a community. There are things which are necessarily my job as pastor and priest. I am the only one authorized to stand at the altar and consecrate the bread and wine of communion. I am the only one allowed to anoint the sick with oil. I am the only one allowed to pronounce absolution to the congregation following the confession. There are good reasons why these particular tasks are given to me, and a lot of it has to do with being ordained for that task. I have been empowered by the Holy Spirit to get out of my own way in those moments, and allow God to work through my voice, my hands, my heart without my thinking I’m the source of any of it.

But there are other things which are not solely mine. In fact, there are things that many of you do better than I do. So sometimes my job is to stand back and let all of you exercise your gifts for ministry.  The point of it all is not to garner praise and glory for ourselves and our particular ministries. The point of it all is to move us all along the road, following Jesus.

It makes me think of something I learned a few years back, about geese. Geese fly in that distinctive V formation because it is aerodynamically efficient; the geese in the back get the advantage of the draft of the geese in front of them, making it easier to fly long distances. But this means that the goose in the front is at a disadvantage; it is creating a draft for others without the benefit of one for itself.

So the geese regularly rotate position. The one that has been flying in the front for a while will start calling to the others, signaling that it is about to drop back and allow another to take the lead. It falls to the back of the line, resting in the draft created by others who have moved forward, discovering strength they didn’t know that had and offering it for the good of the whole flock. Without this system, they couldn’t fly very far. With it, they can make it to the goal.

The letter of James offers us some practical suggestions for how we are to “fly together.” Pray for each other when someone is suffering; sing together when someone is cheerful. Call on the leaders to anoint the sick in the name of the Lord. Confess to one another, which I think means to be honest about your imperfections and mistakes, so that you can get past the harm done, give and receive forgiveness, and heal the community. Accept that none of us survive the journey alone. Acknowledge that sometimes help will come from the most unexpected, remote corner of the camp.

And rejoice that God hasn’t given up on us. Jesus is still ahead of us, showing us the way to life in the kingdom. The Holy Spirit is still coming up beneath our drooping wings to carry us along when we’re ready to give up. We are still in flight. We are still on the journey. But we can only get there together.

Amen.

Christ Episcopal Church, Norway, Maine | A member of The Episcopal Diocese of Maine, The Episcopal Church, and the Worldwide Anglican Communion