27 September 2009

Sermon for the Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost - "Part of the Stumbling Rabble"

Who was the “rabble,” anyway? The writer of Numbers mentions “rabble among” the Israelites, but doesn’t give a definition. Who were they? What was their story? How did they get hooked up with the people of Israel? Moses is leading a family of some 600,000 who all descended from Jacob during their sojourn and captivity in Egypt; how did a “rabble” get thrown in with them?

What about Eldad and Medad? The Bible says they prophesied, but it doesn’t say what they said, nor does it ever mention them after this. Who were they? Why was it so important to mention them? What’s the difference if they prophesied in the camp or not?

What was James talking about, with all this healing jargon? I’ve never healed a single person in my life, though I’ve prayed fervently for their health. James says that Elijah was a human being just like us, but I’ve never felt the call to command a three-and-a-half-year drought, and challenging queens and kings just isn’t my thing. Does that mean I’m not righteous? I’d love to bring back sinners from wandering, but I can’t even get my wife to stack the dishes right – how am I supposed to do these greater things?

Who was this mysterious person casting out demons in Jesus’ name? He didn’t give a name to John, and John didn’t give one to Jesus. Who was he? Jesus was teaching his disciples, his 12 closest companions, but they completely missed everything Jesus said – how was some unknown healer able to do miracles in Jesus’ name? Why was John so worried?

It seems like everything in my life causes me to stumble. Even the good things make me stumble. How much to I need to remove to make sure I enter the kingdom of God? Where do I start? Where does it end?

And the most important question in all of these goes unasked: Who am I? Let us pray.

Father, we come to You confused and uncertain. The dangers that surround us are not nearly so threatening as the dangers with us. We stumble and wander and lose sight of You, our Keeper and Protector. Make us whole. Heal our wounds. Feed us with Your love, and guide us through our darkness. In Your Son’s name we pray. Amen.

The quick and easy way to address these readings would be to give short, to the point answers to all the questions that get raised. For example, Bible scholars suggest that the “rabble” were slaves in Egypt from other lands: when the Israelites got the heck outta Dodge after the Passover, the “rabble” got outta Dodge with them.

Eldad and Medad? Never appear again in the Bible. We’re not sure what their prophesying contained. Their prophesy isn’t the point of the story, anyway, so you don’t need to worry about them.

James & Elijah? Special people for special times. Not in the same circumstances as we are today. The call of a prophet is for a certain time and place, and the time of the prophets ended with the last, John the Baptist, who pointed to Jesus as the new and only prophet of God His Father. Healing miracles are a function of the Bible’s record, nothing more – we would understand it much differently today, with our medicine and our electricity and nearly all the mystery of human existence crowded out by technology and science. Don’t worry about healing miracles and your righteousness: we live differently today.

This is the quick and easy way to address these readings. Every word I just said is true: I’ve said some of these words myself in certain situations where they seemed appropriate. But there’s nothing of God in these words. Explanation, yes. Interpretation, yes. Definition, yes. But are these words of salvation? No – and that’s the problem. One cannot explain, interpret or define one’s way into the kingdom of God; that takes a word of promise.

Moses can’t bring us a word of promise today: he’s too busy worrying about the discerning palate of the rabble. It seems that freedom in the wilderness, with a daily ration of manna, is not as tasty as slavery with a dash of onion & leek soup.

John can’t bring us a word of promise today: he’s too busy worry about the renegade exorcist who hasn’t filled out the requisite paperwork required of a proper disciple. It seems that following in the footsteps of the disciples is more important than casting out demons in the name of the one the disciples are following.

What’s going on here is the usual list of blunders, performed by a cast of thousands. It’s enough to make anyone with a smidge of hope for the human race weep uncontrollably. Moses can’t handle the rabble. James thinks that we just aren’t praying right. John and the disciples are still missing the point. Jesus can’t teach, so he resorts to threats. God pulls a page out of my mother’s playbook and says, “Fine – you want meat?!? I’ll GIVE you meat!” Where, oh where, shall I find my hope? What shall I, a simple campus pastor, do to find a gracious God this morning?

Then, suddenly, the promise is there, hidden underneath all the debris of our failings and God’s anger. Here is the promise: the rabble were allowed to stay. No one cast them away from the people of Israel. Not only were the rabble allowed to stay, but they were fed with the same miraculous manna. No crumbs from the table here – the rabble had a place of honor next to the children of Abraham, and even in anger God did not cast them away.

Here is the promise: we’re still here. God has not cast us away, though we deserved it many times over. When manna came from God’s hand, to sustain us in the wilderness, we rejected it: but God did not reject us. When others who were not of our fellowship did deeds of power in God’s name, we questioned their place instead of praising their faith, but God did not reject us. We stumble; we complain; we miss the point; we hitched a ride with God’s chosen people through a gift given to us in baptism, but we're still here. We are part of the stumbling rabble, lurching heavenward, and it is God who keeps us on the march, regardless of our mistakes. The promise comes out of heaven: we stumbling rabble belong to God, and even in anger God will not forsake any of us who stumble together here.

So here we are, stumbling toward heaven. Martin Bell wrote a story about us once: it’s called Rag-Tag Army:

If God were more sensible he would take his little army and shape them up. Why, whoever heard of a soldier stopping to romp in a field? It’s ridiculous. But even more absurd is a general who will stop the march of eternity to go and bring him back. But that’s God for you. His is no endless, empty marching. He’s going somewhere. His steps are deliberate and purposive. He may be old, and tired. But he knows where he’s going. And he means to take every last one of his tiny soldiers with him. Only there aren’t going to be any forced marches… And even though our foreheads have been signed with the sign of the cross, we are only human. And most of us are afraid and lonely and would like to hold hands or cry or run away. And we don’t know where we are going, and we can’t seem to trust God – especially when it’s dark out and we can’t see him! And he won’t go on without us. And that’s why it’s taking so long.[1]

Stumbling rabble or rag-tag army, we are part of a great cloud of witnesses to God’s patience, God’s determination, God’s creative and redeeming work in us, deserved or not. The question that was unasked before? Who am I? Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote a poem with the same title. He said:

Who I really am, you know me, I am yours, oh God![2]

And that’s all that really matters. Christ told His disciples to remove all the things that made them stumble, to cut away everything that caused sin, so that they would gain the kingdom of God. But the greatest thing that causes any of us to stumble is a lack of trust in God’s mercy. So Jesus cut himself off from God to give us the kingdom. He gave himself up as a willing sacrifice so that we might see the depth and reach of God’s forgiveness. Even killing the very Son of God was not enough to cause God to reject the stumbling rabble and cast them away.

The word of promise remains: God loves the stumbling rabble, in spite of our many mistakes and our costly blunders and our insistence on following the wrong people and believing the wrong things. You are loved by a God whose love is reckless and passionate – trust in that love, to pick you up when you stumble and to hold on to you when your sins make you fall away from the family. And may God’s peace, which passes all understanding, keep your mind and your heart and your life in Christ Jesus our Savior and Lord. Amen.

[1] Bell, Martin. The Way of the Wolf: The Gospel in New Images. © 1968-1970 by Martin Bell, published by allantine Publishing Group, 1983. p. 90-91

[2] Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. Wer bin Ich? – Who Am I? from Voices in the Night: The Prison Poems of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Edwin Robertson, Editor & Translator. © 1999 by Zondervan Publishing House. p. 46

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