Baptized into the life of the Triune God, we do not seek control of where and how God works, nor do we seek to limit those for whom and to whom God gives grace and welcome; we faithfully follow where the Spirit leads.
Pr. Joseph G. Crippen, Time after Pentecost, Sunday 26, year B; texts: Mark 9:38-50; Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29
Sisters and brothers, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
One of the many admirable things about the 12 step recovery programs that are available to people struggling with addiction is their grounding in the giving up of control. The first step is to admit one has no control over one’s life and one’s addiction. This is a wisdom which transcends addiction recovery and is worthy of all to consider: ultimately we have no control over our lives, over what truly matters, and as our readings today remind us, certainly not over God. Which leads to steps 2 and 3 in the recovery programs: recognizing that a Power greater than ourselves exists who can restore us to life, and turning our lives over to the care of that God. If you’re not familiar with these 12 step programs, there’s no attempt to define who God is, who that Power is. The focus is on each individual recognizing their own faith and need for God. But there is again much wisdom in this, even for all of us who are baptized into the Body of Christ, marked with the name of the Triune God.
Joshua and John are who got me thinking about this. Both of these great men are concerned about who’s in control, and are trying to get Moses, in Joshua’s case, or Jesus, in John’s, to share their anxiety and concern. Remarkably, Moses and Jesus do not. Rather, they open our minds to the possibility that we have no control over where God acts in the world, and we should be happy about that.
It seems that both the great prophet Moses and the Son of God, our Lord Jesus, are inviting us to a recovery of our own, a recovery from our addiction to determining who is in God’s care and love, our persistent need to control things that are beyond our skill, beyond our wisdom, beyond our compassion.
We begin with these Scriptural issues, the question of control and stumbling blocks.
In both the first reading and the Gospel, there are people who are acting under the grace of the Spirit of God whom faithful followers don’t recognize as authorized to do so. Moses receives help from the LORD to do his work, with 70 people anointed with the Spirit. They were all supposed to gather in one place; two of them stayed in the camp. But the Spirit came upon all 70. Joshua’s concern is that Eldad and Medad didn’t come to the meeting place, and yet they’re back in the camp prophesying anyway. Moses wisely recognizes that the Spirit of the LORD goes where she will go, and tells Joshua not to worry about it. In fact, he expresses his desire that the LORD would so anoint everyone with the Spirit, with no limits to who’s used by God to serve in the world.
In Jesus’ case it’s a little different. Apparently someone who wasn’t officially part of the larger group of his disciples (not just the twelve) was doing exorcisms in Jesus’ name anyway. John’s very concerned. This person hasn’t heard the teachings, he’s not actually following Jesus as a disciple. Someone should stop him. Jesus wisely recognizes that if someone is doing good in his name it’s not likely they’ll turn against him, and tells John to let it be. In fact, he goes so far as to say that if people aren’t against him, they’re as good as for him.
But he then he goes on to warn the disciples not to be a stumbling block to anyone, any of these “little ones,” not necessarily speaking only of children, but of all who would come to him. It’s not only that the disciples shouldn’t try to control whom God uses as leaders; they’re also warned not to do anything which would drive away potential followers.
So it’s pretty simple: God gets to decide where grace and life go, and the Spirit will flow when and where she will. This has tremendous implications for us in a pluralistic society and world. We’re hearing that it doesn’t matter if we necessarily agree with people who are not of our group, or even those whom we perceive as outsiders, unauthorized people in our group. The Spirit may come upon them nonetheless, and we’re not in control of that.
Now granted, in both cases today, this isn’t an argument for respecting other faiths. It was Israelites and disciples of Jesus, and even the unknown exorcist was doing it in Jesus’ name.
But that respect is certainly applicable to our world situation. Though we believe that God is truly known as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, that Jesus is the Son of God, the Word Incarnate among us, and that he died and rose to give us and the world life, though this is the truth about God’s action in the world, this faith itself commits us to another truth: if God is who we believe God to be then by definition we cannot believe that we control where the Holy Spirit will work and do things. So it would be folly for us to assume or assert that people of other faiths are not also being influenced by the Triune God through the work of the Holy Spirit, even if they don’t know it. If there’s anything Jesus and Moses are saying today it’s that we’re not in charge of God.
This warning is necessary because the need to control is widespread in every facet of society. For today we can simply stick with people of faith.
Somehow we’ve gotten so arrogant in our faith claims as a human race (perhaps because we’re also fearful of being on the wrong side) that we make faith an article worthy of war as we seek to control others and defend what we believe.
It’s easy to look to our Muslim brothers and sisters in the Middle East and decry this sinfulness, but it’s patently clear that it’s our sin as well. It’s been a long time since Christians waged the Crusades against both Muslims and Jews, but we’re still acting like we’re at war.
This is the chief problem with the proposed marriage amendment, as I see it. Clearly our practices at Mount Olive are in opposition to what the amendment proposes, and that’s a problem for many of us here. But the real problem with the amendment is that it is an amendment proposed by one religious group to codify their particular religious beliefs into the state constitution, where they have no place. It isn’t enough for them to believe what they will; they want the constitution to state that all must believe so. They want to control how other faith groups view marriage. Or at least, control whether such views should be recognized by the state.
Regardless of whether or not anyone in the state agrees with the premise of the amendment, then there is this reality: it is fundamental to our life as the United States is the principle that no religious group gets to create laws which restrict or infringe on the beliefs and practices of another religious group. To say nothing of our constitutional commitment not to discriminate against particular groups of people in constitution or in law, which this amendment also does.
So this call to relinquish control comes to us in a world where we see Christians and other faiths consistently seeking to control others who believe differently. Whether they exercise that need to control by attacking people militarily or by seeking to marginalize them in constitution and law, it’s the same problem.
But it’s not just the larger groups. Each of us individually struggles with this control issue. Whenever we wish that others would do things our way, whenever we’re angry because something doesn’t work the way we want it to, whenever we feel threatened by someone else’s views, we’re struggling with this issue.
So following Jesus and Moses, how might we live as faithful Christians and give up our attempts to control God and others?
First, it would be good if we could remove ourselves from the need to defend God, the Scriptures, the Church, or to determine who is serving God. There seems to be a tendency, especially in recent years, for people increasingly to fear that God or the Scriptures need defending against those who might disagree.
Yet we’re not called to defend the Triune God anywhere in Scripture. We are called to believe, to love, to witness to God’s grace. And it’s good if we have theological debate and try to best discern God’s will for us, for the Church, for the world. But should we meet those who believe other than we, even those of our faith who disagree with us, it’s not necessary that we work to shut them down or to restrict them. We’re called to love them and treat them with respect.
Imagine what the environment in the world would be if simply the people of faith acted with the confidence that God’s in charge and we don’t need to fight to protect or defend God or God’s messengers.
In the same way, should some seem to speak with the Spirit of God whom we don’t know, or of whom we have not approved, it isn’t our place to try and stop them. As Gamaliel said to the other Jewish leaders in the book of Acts when considering what to do with the early apostles, if we wait we’ll see the fruits. If they’re with God, we don’t want to be working against them, and if they’re not, it will become evident.
Second, as baptized children of God we are called individually and as a congregation and part of the greater Church to seek to break barriers to God’s grace, not set them up.
Jesus’ chilling declaration that we’d be better off tying stones around us and jumping into the sea than to cause someone to stumble, to fall away, is a powerful word today. Every community of any kind, every group, every institution, has its own culture and tendencies, and those can often seem to exclude others. Some of these are intentional, some are not.
The Church is no exception; neither is Mount Olive. What is different about the Church, and this congregation, is that we know we are shaped and called by the One who gave his life for all the world, and therefore we must always be vigilant to how we welcome, how we help others come to God’s grace in Jesus, how we hold ourselves in the world.
And what does this mean for us?
It means we’re called to stand for those who cannot stand for themselves, speak for those who have no voice, and work for justice for those who have no access to it.
It means that our words, actions, decisions, and life as people of God should always be held to this standard.
It means we never ask “what’s in it for me, what’s in it for us,” but rather, “who are the last, the least, the Christs among us who need our help breaking through a barrier, stepping over a stumbling block”?
It’s risky living this way, of course. It means we can’t control what others do to us because that’s not our job. But it also means that we’re living as Jesus would have us live, and we’re reaching the ones he needs us to reach, and that’s worth everything.
In the end, Jesus is asking us to lose control by trusting his love.
To give up our need to be in charge of anything related to God and the mission of Christ, and obediently seek to follow wherever the Spirit leads. Even if the Spirit is working in people we wouldn’t choose, in groups we don’t recognize. Even if there are some things that we lose by welcoming those whom Jesus has asked us to welcome. Since God’s grace and plan are beyond our ability to grasp fully, and beyond our skill and wisdom to control, all we can do is be faithful in the place we are sent.
And the only way to lose control like this is to throw ourselves trustingly upon the astonishing love of God Jesus has shown us, and let our lives live in that love, shaped by it, called by it, renewed by it, that all might be reached by such love, and that the Good News be lived in this world to the farthest corners of the creation.
In the name of Jesus. Amen