Called to Life in Community
First Reading: Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29
Psalm: Psalm 19:7-14
Second Reading: James 5:13-20
Gospel: Mark 9:38-50
“Let the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, * O Lord, our strength and our redeemer.” Ps 19:14
In the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Today, the scriptures speak directly to St. Paul’s. Of course, the living Word is written for and to each of us, individually and collectively. But today, the scriptures speak of how communities participate in kingdom living. When we read about communities wandering in the wilderness, negotiating how to be church, or gathering around Jesus, we should see ourselves.
A rabble of Israelites are complaining to Moses, again. The rabble are not bad people. The word translated rabble literally means a collection. This is simply a mixed group of people who are craving certain foods. The rabble complains to Moses they have no meat. But their collective memory of “meat” in Egypt is mostly vegetables, and does not include meat at all except fish. They simply want something they do not have. We all have cravings. The rabble could be any of us.
Complaining seems to be part of life in community. How often do we complain when there is no one to hear? Part of our journey together is to listen to each other complaining. If you haven’t heard any complaining at St. Paul’s, perhaps you are not participating fully in the life of the parish. I suggest you join one of our ministry teams, attend a few meetings, or run for Vestry. We view complaining as a negative activity, and when there is nothing but complaining, it usually is. But complaining can be an opportunity. Complaining is best heard with compassionate listening. Complaining can begin a conversation of suffering and hurt, and lead to healing and wholeness. If there is no complaining, there is probably no challenge, and no opportunity for growth.
The Israelites do not realize they are under the care of the one true God. Nor do they realize their new God given freedom. Instead of their former Egyptian masters, they now turn, not to God, but to Moses, and complain. Moses has had enough. He perpetuates the cycle of complaining by taking the matter to God. But Moses has his own complaints, mainly for his lot in all this, and states he would prefer death to continuing. He feels caught between the complaining crowd and a seemingly uncaring deity. “I am not able to carry all this people alone!” At least in this, Moses speaks truth.
Moses also seems to be complaining, but in taking the matter to God, he is pleading ... praying. God provides a solution, and the solution is in the community God has provided. Moses recruits others to help listen to the complaining and to help find solutions. When the people of God gather around God’s purpose, the Spirit is among and upon them. When Eldad and Medad, who didn’t attend the church meeting, receive the Spirit and begin prophesying, the rabble find something new to complain about ... who is in and who is out of the community. Moses states clearly, that God calls who God calls. “Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit upon them!”
The disciples are also often complaining. This time, it is about a stranger who is casting out demons in the name of Jesus. The disciples wish to distinguish the work of Jesus from pagan magic. They want to differentiate and protect the good Name of Jesus. They want to maintain communal boundaries. It is tempting to divide the world into “us” and “them.” The disciples want to have power over others in the kingdom. It is telling that their complaint to Jesus is that this exorcist stranger does not follow “us” rather than “Jesus”.
To the disciple’s surprise, Jesus praises all good works in his name. He suggests if one is truly working miracles in the Name of Jesus, the power of the Spirit will be so great they cannot overcome it. No matter the performer of the good works, good works are in fact good works, and serve the kingdom, though we may not understand how or why. The power of Christ mysteriously transcends human intention or motivation. The work of Jesus is confronting and defeating evil in the world, so those engaged in this work are with us, no matter their affiliation. “Whoever is not against us is for us.” Jesus does not say, “whoever is not for us is against us.” We are to draw together rather than draw lines of division, calling names, and picking fights.
Jesus expands the invitation, inclusion, and acceptance of the community and the kingdom. We are to always support others wherever they may be on their journey of faith, and never be a stumbling block. Even if it means sacrificing hand, foot, or eye ... these are not important. The in-breaking of the Kingdom of God and salvation for self and others is our hope, our promise, our goal.
We often divide reality into the kingdom life God would have us live and the reality of the world. As the Body of Christ, we are not spiritually ‘of’ the world, but we do live ‘in’ the world. God is in the world with us. God is both compassionate and acts powerfully in our lives. Our journey with Christ is about noticing where God is revealed and navigating those spaces where the world seems to win. Like Moses and the Israelites, solutions are found in our lives in community. Like the disciples and the stranger exorcist, we are to notice where God is acting outside our community, and rejoice.
Our life of faith is fully lived in community. St. Paul’s is our base of operations for kingdom living. In the final eight verses of the letter of James, he encourages practices that foster community solidarity. The response to our every encounter in the world is to turn to God together. Wherever two or more are gathered, there will be complaining. But praise be to God we are here for each other, through thick and thin. Are we suffering? Yes! But we are to be cheerful and sing songs of praise. Are there sick? Yes! But we lean on the community for prayers and anointing. Are we a sinful people? Yes! But we confess in community, offer mutual correction, grant each other forgiveness, and are healed. Both those who suffer and those who are cheerful are encouraged to pray, to pray together, and pray for each other.
The power of God is in the community of the faithful. We pray for others and ourselves. Intentional, purposeful, authentic prayer can effect change ... change in hearts and minds and action. Prayer reconciles us to God and one another, sharing our blessings and burdens, successes and sufferings, healing and wholeness. Our communal prayer is not all talk. It is chanting and singing and laughing and crying. It is also listening. How are we to hear the answers to our prayers if we are not at times silent, listening to God?
In community, we discern together how to hear and answer God’s call. The first step in ordination to the priesthood is a gathering of fellow parishioners to pray, to listen, and when guided by the Spirit, to lift the individual up to the larger Church. How are we lifting each other up to discern God’s call for each of us and our parish? Are we noticing each other’s gifts and encouraging one another to offer them?
We are all called to life and service in the kingdom. The first will be last of all and servant of all. We are called to lead by serving. How are we called to serve? We will soon launch our stewardship campaign, with the opportunity to pledge financial commitment to the community and God’s work here. Perhaps you have something to offer our worship teams, to help create a space to praise and encounter the living God. St. Paul’s engages in ministries locally and around the world. Are we called to travel to Haiti to form new relationships, or perhaps help cook smoked butts. Maybe we are called to travel across our parking lot and spend time with our neighbors at St. Paul’s apartments in bible study, or at Bingo. Could we offer a plate of food and a smile to one of our hungry brothers and sisters at Weekend Lunch? Could we be called to share time and relationship with a child in Path To Shine? As I mentioned earlier, perhaps you are called to serve on the Vestry. These are only examples, and only the beginning of living the kingdom life at St. Paul’s and in the world. Soon, we will get out of our pews and be sent forth. The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers few. We are challenged as a community to strive for kingdom life, on earth as it is in heaven. Amen.