Sermon 05/28/2023 – All the Lord’s People

Numbers 11:24-30

So Moses went out and told the people the words of the Lord, and he gathered seventy of the elders of the people and placed them all around the tent. Then the Lord came down in the cloud and spoke to him and took some of the spirit that was on him and put it on the seventy elders, and when the spirit rested upon them, they prophesied. But they did not do so again.

Two men remained in the camp, one named Eldad and the other named Medad, and the spirit rested on them; they were among those registered, but they had not gone out to the tent, so they prophesied in the camp. And a young man ran and told Moses, “Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp.” And Joshua son of Nun, the assistant of Moses, one of his chosen men, said, “My lord Moses, stop them!” But Moses said to him, “Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets and that the Lord would put his spirit on them!” And Moses and the elders of Israel returned to the camp.

Sermon Text

What do we expect from people in ministry? I do not mean pastoral ministry only, I mean ministry generally. When you picture someone working in feeding ministries, prayer ministries, care ministries, and yes even pastoral ministry – what pictures come to mind? What do they look like, how do they act, what must they do, and what must they not do? Hold those thoughts in your head, the images you conjured as well as the attributes you’ve established as most important. We will return to them later.

For the people of Israel, the Hebrews in the wilderness, they had a pretty set structure to life. Everyone had a role – some were craftspeople, others agricultural workers, others cooks and household managers. The whole community was led by the priests, Levites of many clans that attended to the ritual needs of the community. At their head were Aaron, the head priest, and Moses, the prophet of God. Moses was in charge of most aspects of leadership – being the person who spoke to God on behalf of the people. However, when you have thousands of people, one person cannot hold all that responsibility and stay sane. This is where the elders of the community came together.

Elders were exactly as the name suggests, older people in good standing who led the various clans within the twelve tribes. The traditional number of these elders, at least the most prominent ones, is seventy. This number was not set in stone, and sometimes it would go up or down based on how things were in Israel and Judea, but the tribal leaders kept to seventy individuals as the ideal. In Jesus’s time, the Sanhedrin were the seventy or so people who handled community matters in Jerusalem – although what constituted a quorum of their meetings was unclear. For Moses’s day, however, the seventy were the first of their kind, seventy men who led the community in everything they could.

Moses brought the elders before God at least twice. The first time they just got a glimpse of who God was.[1] The second meeting, the one we talk about here, has God blessing the Elders with the Spirit. That touch of divine inspiration makes them prophecy. What does that mean? It is hard to say, but the signs would have been evident to the people gathered there. After the meeting with God the leaders of the people come off the mountain and are told that God was not exclusive in the gift of the Spirit. When they left the mountain, people tell them that two men of no importance were also prophesying. Joshua, the man set up to take Moses’s place after his death, asks the prophet to stop them. Moses, does not, he is clear – “I will not stop them, because if I had my way everyone in this camp would be blessed as they have been blessed.”

The conflict has several levels. The leadership of the camp would have been worried that these two upstarts would be a threat to their power. You can’t just have regular people speaking on God’s behalf! What if they say something that doesn’t go along with what I want as someone in leadership? Some opposition may have come from a genuine concern for the content of these prophecies. What if they use their new found gift for their own gain? What will we do? They’re not part of our in-group so we have not had a chance to vet them What will we do, if God gives even more people this gift?

Those in ministry, of any kind, are called to a higher standard. There is no doubt about that. If you are in pastoral ministry especially, you cannot do or say anything you want. You have to think of what you represent, who you represent. I am thoroughly myself wherever I am, but there is always an appropriateness, always boundaries, that must be preserved in leadership. The Elders of Israel would know this, Moses knew this, they feared these two upstarts might not know it.

At least that is the optimistic view. As I already said, there are reasons that we might reject God’s work in people around us that are less altruistic. In our own life, we often doubt people who are doing God’s work because of various aspects of their life. We might criticize their dress – it’s too formal or not formal enough. “I hate that they always wear X.” “Why can’t they show up wearing Y instead of Z.” Maybe it’s how they talk. I’m not saying appropriateness of speech contextually, but style. “They never use proper grammar.” “They always sound so prim and proper.” The list goes on and on and on. We are always ready to disqualify people from ministry, because of things that do not matter.

When the Church was formed two thousand years ago, many communities were egalitarian in their leadership. Women and men shared responsibilities, more based on what they could do than any aspect of who they were. Quickly, as the Church got bigger, it sought to look more like the world around it. Women were banned from leadership, men took exclusive power in the Church, and those early egalitarian impulses were buried in an ethic that asked women to be silent in public and submissive at home. Gender was not the only determining factor in leadership though, over time the ability for anyone to enter the clergy slowly shifted to the well-to-do of the world taking ministry roles and the poorer folk maybe finding their way into a monastery. Women might be able to have so agency in a nunnery, but nowhere else.

Jewish Christians, once the foundation of the Church, became pariahs. As Europe expanded its conquest of the rest of the world, people of various races were subjugated by Christians under Christian justifications. A new category emerged to disqualify people from ministry – race. The white, well-to-do, ministers they brought the word of God – how dare any upstart question that.

Eventually the ministry became more egalitarian again. Women had more leadership as time went on, until now women can be clergy in most American denominations. Though, it must be said, many churches refuse or abuse women clergy. Race is no longer a barrier, at least on paper, as even long-time holdouts like the Methodist Church integrated following the passage of the civil rights act. Yet, still the church is largely segregated across this nation. People of various backgrounds can find their way into leadership in a church. Still, the cost of seminary and of professional training generally bars many from getting the training they need to shine.  Our world in the United States has theoretically become more open to people to take part in ministry, but in daily life, on small scale in local contexts, the story is not nearly so different than the worried cry of Joshua to stop those people from living out their call.

God does not care what people wear. We pretend we believe that, until someone comes in in raggedy clothes and we want to know why they didn’t put on their best for Sunday worship. Why are their shoes scuffed or their clothes ill fitting? We are fine with people joining a church if they have a little money to give, but when we talk about reaching out to the community the first impulse of many is often, “They won’t, or can’t give money, so who cares?” We look out and see people with bad manners or dress or different habits and backgrounds to us, and we put those as reasons we are worried about our church’s future. We ignore, that the Lord gives the Spirit to who God will. Those who get that Spirit will be given all other necessary things.

There are foul mouthed people with hearts of gold, ready to spread the Gospel – but we heard them curse in public once and wrote them off. There are poor people ready to proclaim God’s word to all the world, but we see their poverty and write them off as lazy or unfit for the ministry. There are hicks in the holler who ain’t never said a lick of proper English, and from their lips can come the wellsprings of life. We are not the gatekeepers of the Spirit, and we will never see the Church flourish as long as we try to be.

The Church is made for all people, and especially those who disagree with one another. Moses wished for a day where all God’s people would receive the Spirit of God. The prophet Joel predicted a day when God would pour out the Spirit on all flesh. Today, on the Pentecost we celebrate the Spirit falling on the Church, giving it life like it never had known before. The Spirit has opened the doors again and again for people to know God, and to serve God through ministry to all the world.

I ask you to return to the images you came up with at the start of service. The images on minsters and servants of God. Think of them now, not as an ideal to be aspired to, but as a template we have tried to force people into again, and again and again. If we want the Church to grow, to thrive, to adapt, the same one-size-fits-all minister is not gonna cut it. Christ calls all to come to the altar, to come and die to self, and all – truly means all. We must be willing to say yes to people when the Lord stirs their heart. Leadership will always be held to the high standard of Christ, but may we never think they must be held to the high standards of our own prejudices. – Amen.

[1]Exodus 24

Sermon 05/07/2023 – The First Martyr

Acts 7:55-60

But filled with the Holy Spirit, [Stephen] gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. “Look,” he said, “I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” But they covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against him. Then they dragged him out of the city and began to stone him, and the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul. While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Then he knelt down and cried out in a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he died.

Sermon Text

Stephen is someone I look up to. A Greek speaking Jew, a Hellenist to use Biblical Language, he was something of an outsider in Judea. Judean Jews would not see him as being really Jewish. Likewise, Gentiles would look at him as just another Jew in the gutter. He is a foil to Paul in the book of Acts. His death inspired Paul to go on with his attempt to persecute the Church – a mission that was as much about Paul denying his identity as it was any genuine religious conviction.

Unlike Paul, Stephen embraced his identity. Though we are given just a handful of verses describing him, we can see that he was a trust member of the Christian community and someone who made a lot of difference. Firstly, we know he was a Hellenist by his name. Stephen is a thoroughly Greek name. While all the apostles names are written in Greek, most are cognates. In other words, people like John, are named Yoannen in Greek, which is just another way of saying the Hebrew Yohenen. In the same way today John is the same as Jean is the same as Johannes. Stephen is just a Greek name, and so we know that Stephen is of Greek descent.

Secondly, we know he was trusted because of the moment he enters the Biblical narrative. A concern is raised by Hellenistic Christians that their widows are not getting the same help that Judean widows are. We are never told the cause of this – was it intentional because of bigotry? A barrier of language? The scripture never says because the Disciples were focused on remedying the problem more than they were trying to find someone to blame. They called forward several Hellenists to take over the distribution of food. One of these people was not even Jewish, just a God-fearing gentile.

The work embarked upon by these men erased the issue. No longer did anyone feel that they were being overlooked. I think today of our modern struggles with racism. Sometimes you hear people worrying that if people of color are put in positions of power they would abuse white people in the same way that they have historically been abused by white power structures. While we must admit that power is a corrupting influence, we cannot have oppression ever be considered a natural condition of humanity. Stephen and the other Greek Jews did not begin to deny Judean widows food once they were in charge of food distribution. Why? Because the oppressed are never the enemy of one another. We could learn a lot about listening, and about promoting leaders from all backgrounds, from just this brief episode in Acts 6.

After this episode, Stephen is arrested for the preaching he has been doing in Jerusalem. Stephen is, again, an outsider. His preaching would have been easier to attack than that of the Judean disciples. The words he spoke were easier to paint as heretical, because people were already looking for excuses to exclude him for one reason or another. A false accusation of blasphemy is brought against him and a mob is formed to take him before community leadership. Reading the text, we might be led to believe this was the full council of Jewish leaders in Jerusalem, but that is unlikely.

Jews in the first century were against the death penalty, those who were in power at least. This makes it unlikely that the death of Jesus or any other apostle was carried out with the full council present. Secondly, the full Sanhedrin was seventy people, good luck getting even half of them into a room at a given time. Instead, this is probably a small group of community leaders and a mob who opposes Stephen’s work. Stephen, who does preach a sermon born out of frustration with his Judean brethren, has angered a select group of people willing to kill. Stephen is lynched by a mob, not executed by a lawful authority.

Stephen’s death marked the first time someone died on behalf of Jesus. It started the series of events that would bring Paul to be converted, by first inspiring in him a plan to execute the same mob justice in other cities and towns. His ministry was perhaps the most dangerous one to the status quo of anyone who had been active in Jerusalem at the time. He was getting people to come together, Jews from Judea and from outside Judea. He had a Gentile under his leadership who had committed to living among God’s people as a believer. He created, in microcosm, the Church as it is meant to be. A people who care for one another, a people from all walks of life, a people saved by God’s grace and committed to the community they have become a part of.

Stephen will always be someone I look up to. He transformed his anger and frustration at the way the world was into action on behalf of, not only his own people, but all people. He was devoted to service and to love. Many have used him as a weapon, describing his murder as justification for attacking Jews. That is a travesty, a misuse of his legacy. Stephen, like so many advocates today, was fighting against a system that overlooked the least of these, and as a Greek Jew, his people were first on his mind. Stephen was willing to look injustice in the face and tell people that he and his people mattered just as much as anyone else. As such, he like advocates who say something similar today, he was rejected – and, yes, killed – for that belief.

We have to band together as a people, to serve one another, and to promote goodness in sthe same way that Stephen did. Listen to people when they tell you about their pain. Advocate for putting people in power who want to change the world, not double down on obviously broken systems. Work to repair this world that has become fractured, not by ignoring the problems that are but by fixing them at their root. We choose, day after day, if we will be with Stephen or with the mob that killed him. I choose to be with Stephen, with the Church, with Christ. – Amen.