Do me a favor, folks – tell me your favorite kind of pizza.
Now: what would you do if I told you you’re all wrong? That the best kind of pizza is Fat Pat’s Canadian Bacon and Sauerkraut pizza? Right or wrong?
How about college rooting interests? Care to argue about that? How many University of Iowa freshmen does it take to screw in a lightbulb? They can’t: at Iowa that’s a sophomore course. How do you get an Iowa State grad off your front porch? Pay him for the pizza. What does the “N” on Nebraska helmets stand for? Knowledge.
Jesus made it clear that arguing about what makes a person worthy to be called a follower of Christ is as silly as arguing about which pizza is the best, or which school is the best. If he were into ad campaigns, he might have liked the one from Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups when I was a kid: “There’s no wrong way to eat a Reese’s.” He put a reality check on any group of people, even his closest friends, who insist that “if you’re not for us, you’re against us!” The truth of the matter is, we’re all part of the rabble following Jesus, and none of us has the right to say who’s in and who’s out.
I love the word “rabble.” It’s one of those onomatopoeia words – it sounds like what it describes. The “rabble” sound like this: rabble rabble rabble. The writer of Numbers mentions “rabble among” the Israelites, but doesn’t give a definition. Moses is leading a family of some 600,000 who all descended from Jacob during their sojourn and captivity in Egypt; the rabble are among the crowd.
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. In this Gospel, we’ve just heard how the disciples couldn’t cast out demons – how was some unknown healer able to do miracles in Jesus’ name? The rabble strikes again.
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 might have been among them. They 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 – a word of welcome and hope for the rabble trying to follow Jesus.
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!”
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.
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 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.
There are many, many, many ways to be a person of faith. No one will follow Jesus the same as everyone else. As disciples, the life of faith is rarely black and white: we are called to live as vibrantly as we might in our own walk of faith, and when others follow in a different way, to consider whether they are simply a different shade of faith. Forgiveness, vitality and openness to others are at the center of what it means to be followers of Christ.
Congratulations, you stumbling rabble: God has welcomed you this day into the Rag Tag Army. Whether you’re Lutheran, Roman Catholic, Methodist, Evangelical, Charismatic, or frankly uncertain about the whole business and wondering why we need all the labels in the first place, you are welcome here. It’s not about your credentials or who invited you or whether or not you’re the “right” sort of person – it’s about the One we’re all following, as best as we know how to follow. Come join the procession, friends, and remember – there’s no wrong way to follow Jesus. Amen.