Year B, Lectionary 26
September 27, 2015
Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29
Pastor David Tryggestad
Our Savior’s Lutheran Church
Last Sunday I insisted that we read the Bible through the lens of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Christians interpret all of Scripture through Jesus. Martin Luther said that the Bible is like a “cradle” which gives us Jesus—the Word of God incarnate. In this way, the Bible gives us Jesus, and Jesus then gives us the Bible—the Bible according to Jesus.
But the Bible according to Jesus is not necessarily a “softer” Bible, an easier Bible, although it is a more gracious Bible. In many ways, Jesus’ ups the ante. Our Gospel readings today and next Sunday are an example.
Our Gospel today is graphic: “If your hand causes you to stumble—that is, sin—cut it off. If your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off. Likewise, if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out.” If we were honest with ourselves and with each other, and if we were to take Jesus’ words literally, I would suggest that not one of us would be here with both hands, both feet, and both eyes.
“If your hand causes you to stumble . . .” Who among us has not used our hands in anger? Or withheld our hand when a touch of gentleness might have made a difference? Or used our hands to write words that should not have been written? Or hit the “Send” button on our computer without thinking through the consequences?
“If your foot causes you to stumble . . .” Who among us has not allowed our feet to lead us where we ought not have gone? Or climbed over others to achieve recognition? Or refused to go when help was needed?
“If your eye causes you to stumble . . .” Who among us has not allowed our eyes to lead us somewhere we ought not to have gone? Or given a cold look that could kill? Or withheld a sympathetic gaze? Or burned a blind eye away from injustice or pain?
What’s going on?
Our Gospel is an example of heightened language, exaggerated language, or, in the language of literature, hyperbole. Jesus uses hyperbole in order to stress a point. Sin is serious business, and it’s especially serious when we cause others to stumble: “little ones”—children, young people, those newer or weaker or more vulnerable in the faith. Beware of putting stumbling blocks—barriers—between others and Jesus.
The visit of Pope Francis to Cuba and the United States has dominated the news. After his address to Congress—the first ever by a Pope—Francis elected to have lunch with the throngs of the poor in Washington rather than with the powerful men and women in government. Everywhere he goes, he looks for opportunities to bless children. I watched him stop to bless a girl in a wheelchair. In both his address to Congress and then to the United Nations the following day, he lifted up the children of the world, especially the poor and the displaced. He challenges the rich and powerful—all of us—to remove the barriers that stand in the way of the children, the poor, and the displaced.
“If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones . . . it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea.” That may be exaggerated language, but we get the point.
I’ll come back to stumbling blocks.
Our First Lesson from the Book of Numbers takes us all the way back to the wilderness wanderings of the Hebrew people. Things have been becoming difficult for Moses. The people are complaining and they suggest they had it better back in Egypt. Have they forgotten that they were slaves? Moses brings the complaints of the people—along with his own—to God: “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.”
God always empowers those whom the Spirit calls. God instructs Moses to assemble 70 elders from the people and then God anoints these elders with a portion of the spirit that was on Moses. This is the wonderful and amazing thing about the Holy Spirit. The gift of the Holy Spirit is not a zero-sum proposition. Rather, the more the Spirit is shared, the more Spirit there is. Taking some of the Spirit from Moses did not diminish Moses; rather, the Spirit was multiplied throughout the camp. It was a multiplication of the Spirit rather than a division of the Spirit.
Sometimes I wonder about the Church—and I have to clarify that I am not talking necessarily about Our Savior’s because I don’t know you well enough—but I have seen too often that individuals or small groups within the Church are reluctant to share power or authority, afraid that in the sharing, their own power and authority might be diminished.
I wonder if this is not what’s going on with the disciple John’s protest in our Gospel: “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” We hear John saying: “Jesus, he’s not one of us, so make him stop! Jesus, he has not spent the last three years of his life following you around, sleeping out under the stars, or wherever. Make him stop! Who does he think he is?!”
This is what’s going on with Eldad and Medad in our First Lesson. They didn’t show up in the tent of meeting. They didn’t take the course in ministry. They didn’t do their homework. They didn’t attend the leadership retreat. Yet the Spirit came to them, also.
Ministry is not a zero-sum proposition. Rather, the more that ministry is shared, the more ministry there is to go around. The more the Spirit is shared, there more Spirit there is in the midst of the community.
Whenever I remember the story of Eldad and Medad, I think of Roger. Roger was a custodian at First Lutheran Church in Duluth, where I served as pastor and minister of music when we first came to Duluth in 1993. Roger was a quiet, soft-spoken, steady man with gentle and kind eyes. He loved to go down to the boiler room to smoke his pipe (the only place he was allowed to do it on the premises). Roger was also a man of deep faith. In early 1996 many people from across the synod were encouraging our Senior Pastor, Peter Strommen, to allow himself to be a nominee for Bishop at the spring Assembly. Peter loved being a parish pastor—and I can testify that he was a very fine one—and the office of bishop did not attract him at all. So he agonized over the decision. As he would tell the story later, the tipping point for him was when he sought out Roger, the custodian, in the boiler room, laid his burden before him, and Roger prayed for him. Our custodian prayed for our pastor. Our custodian, upon whom the Spirit of God rested just as surely as it did upon our pastor, prayed that the Holy Spirit would lead Peter and that Peter would be attentive to the Spirit. Peter was elected our Bishop that spring and then re-elected six years later.
Helene was 87 years old when this next story begins. Concordia Lutheran Church in Duluth, where I served as pastor for 16 years, serves supper at the Union Gospel Mission twice a month. When one of our regulars was having joint replacement surgery, I announced that we needed more helpers at the Mission. Helene showed up, her eyes spilling over with joy. Helene was 87! She had so much fun that she decided to look for more ways to serve. She volunteered to prepare the supper meal, all alone, from beginning to end, for the residents at Loaves and Fishes once a week. She did this until the arthritis in her neck progressed to the point that she could no longer continue. That was when she was 90. Helene has a servant heart and is filled with joy.
Here at Our Savior’s we are blessed with many leaders—though many might not consider themselves as leaders. Their credentials include being open to the Holy Spirit at work within them as well as having servant hearts, following the example of our Lord. Spirit-filled leaders look more like Pope Francis than many of our leaders in Congress and, unfortunately, many of those running for President.
I think that two of the most amazing verses in all of Scripture are in the Gospels. One is that Jesus declares that the only unforgivable sin is the sin against the Holy Spirit (Mark 3:28-30). Whatever that may mean, it surely includes putting roadblocks in the way of the working of the Spirit within oneself, another individual, or a community. The other amazing verse is that Jesus was not able to do any deeds of power among the people in his own hometown of Nazareth because of their unbelief (Mark 6:5). The people’s unbelief was a roadblock to Jesus’ power in their midst.
Stumbling blocks are a serious matter. Where might we have erected stumbling blocks where we might not be open to what the Holy Spirit may want to accomplish in our midst, where the Holy Spirit may want to lead us?
As we continue through this in-between time, let us be attentive to the ways in which we can continue to share the Spirit in our midst. Let us be particularly alert to the places where we may have erected stumbling blocks, whether deliberately or inadvertently, stumbling blocks that prevent the Spirit to be at work in our midst. If Eldad or Medad; or if the man in the Gospel who was not a disciple, who was casting out demons in Jesus’ name; or if Roger the custodian; or a woman radiating joy, a woman like Helene; were to show up, would there be a place for them in our midst?
Thanks be to God!