Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29
Forbid him not: for there is no man who shall do a mighty work in my name, and be able quickly to speak evil of me. For he that is not against us is for us.
I always loved the final verse from Psalm 19, ""Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart Be acceptable in thy sight, O Jehovah, my rock, and my redeemer." It always seems like a fitting beginning to any message. If only we would say this prayer every time we are about to speak. We would surely be salted with fire if we cared about God's opinion of each word we have to say and every thought in the deepest parts of our being.
Jehu Jones was salt. He was the Lutheran church's first African American pastor. He was ordained in New York in 1832 and had been commissioned to accompany a group of missionaries from South Carolina to Liberia. He was a free black man who had left the state, and was not allowed back under the law. He missed the trip but spent the rest of his life ministering in Philadelphia, building the first African American Lutheran congregation.
It is hard to imagine a man of God turned away from passing through a state, even in those days. The law said that free slaves could not return, but he was not planning on staying. He was leaving to go minister around the world. However, in the minds of those southerners, black people were not capable of doing such work. They were laborers, not theologians. The claim of Jehu was ridiculous because he was not 'one of them.' How could he possibly be doing the Lord's work? Though Jehu was free, he wasn't free from the perceptions of the people he encountered. Add to this the problem of those who inciting violence against the slave trade - often freed slaves who returned to get the slaves worked up. They did not know what Jehu planned to do, so he was arrested and sent back north. He did not allow this obstacle to stop him. He ministered for twenty years, doing all that God calls us to do.
We remember Jehu on September 28 and the scriptures for this day are particularly appropriate for his life and ministry. In the Old Testament and Gospel lessons, we see the men of the 'inner circle' of a ministry pointing out those who are on the outside but are doing God's work. Moses answers, "Are you jealous for my sake?" Jesus tells the disciples, "Whoever is not against us is for us." Who are we pointing at and what can we learn from these stories?
The Old Testament lesson itself is fodder for several sermons, but all point toward our attitudes about ministry - our own and others. It seems like something God calls us to the most impossible things under the most impossible circumstances. Take, for example, Moses and the Israelites. They were wandering around in the hot, barren desert, a million or more people trying to find the Promised Land. They had no food but manna, a strange tasting substance that fell to the earth every night. They could not help but think about the good things they had left behind.
I know how they felt. I'm a stranger in a strange place. I miss the food from my hometown and would rather not try some of the things they have available here in Arkansas. I often grumble about being here, wishing I could be somewhere else. "Who shall give us flesh to eat? We remember the fish, which we did eat in Egypt for nought; the cucumbers, and the melons, and the leeks, and the onions, and the garlic." They were sick of the manna and complained about this cruel judgment against their bodies and souls. They did not see the blessing, only the curse of being away from all they knew and loved.
Moses heard them complaining and went to the tent where He met with God. God was angry and Moses displeased. "Wherefore hast thou dealt ill with thy servant? and wherefore have I not found favor in thy sight, that thou layest the burden of all this people upon me?" Moses was tired of dealing with whiny children. "Why this ministry? Why here? Why now?" Haven't we all gone through the same thing with God at some moment in our lives? He had no idea how he was supposed to handle the people's complaints, to give them meat or carry them to the Promised Land. Moses was honest with God. "I am not able to bear all this people alone, because it is too heavy for me." He would rather die than carry the burden alone.
God was quick to answer his prayer. "I will come down and talk with thee there: and I will take of the Spirit which is upon thee, and will put it upon them; and they shall bear the burden of the people with thee, that thou bear it not thyself alone." Moses asked for help and God provided. The men gathered at the tent and God put His spirit upon them. They prophesied once, but then never again. In the camp, two men had not gone to the tent when Moses called. They were among the chosen elders and God's spirit fell upon them also. When they prophesied, a young man ran to Moses to tell him what happened and Joshua said, "Stop them!" They did not come to the power as the others; they had no right to be prophesying. It did not bother Moses. He would much rather the entire camp have the power than just one man - himself.
John went to Jesus one day. "Teacher, we saw one casting out demons in thy name; and we forbade him, because he followed not us." Joshua was jealous for Moses' sake. Was the same true for John? Or was he jealous for his own sake? After all, Jesus Himself specially chose the disciples for this ministry. We find it equally difficult to believe that someone would come by his or her power in Jesus' name differently. We point our fingers at other ministries and question their authority. "Lord, stop them!" Moses' prayer was answered at Pentecost when the Spirit of God came upon all those who believe. We all have unique stories, unique callings and unique ministries according to the will and purpose of God. Jesus tells us, "Forbid him not: for there is no man who shall do a mighty work in my name, and be able quickly to speak evil of me. For he that is not against us is for us."
Jesus tells the disciples that it would be better for them to be put into the sea with a large rock around their neck than to make one of His children stumble. Seems like a pretty extreme punishment for asking someone to stop usurping the authority given to them. Yet, what happens to those who are told to get lost? They often turn from the church, separate themselves from the body of Christ and try to go it on our own. We can't do it by ourselves. We can see in modern Christianity that there are numerous ministries whose teachings are questionable. They teach a different Jesus, another Gospel. I often wonder how those ministries came to be. Were they people who had a special calling from God but were rejected by others because they did not do things the way they expected?
"What Shall I Say", required reading for all those discerning a call into rostered ministry in the ELCA, has a paragraph about the process of discovering God's call and those who decide to go on their own. "In the United States we can see this in the way that talented individuals have established their own 'ministries,' often using their own names to identify their ministries, and almost always establishing their ministries apart from the churches or traditions with which they might, in some loose way, be identified. Their powerful personal sense of call seems to have little to do with the church."
The book continues, "Such an approach can be dangerous for the people who respond to such ministries as well as for the individuals who engage in them." When we wander away from the flock - the body of Christ - we become more vulnerable to the deception of the liar Satan. God's word becomes twisted and the leadership becomes more focused on self than on Christ. It would be better to encourage and edify the gifts and draw them deeper into the fellowship of the church, building knowledge and ministry together. Sometimes the call is not real, and that is part of the discernment process. However, discernment takes the entire church for we can be easily deceived on our own. The church helps us to see our gifts and calling more clearly, we fit perfectly into the body of Christ as God has created and ordained us to be.
Jesus continues this discourse with a shocking list of things we should do if we are tempted to stumble. We are to cut off our hands, eyes or feet if they cause us to sin. He tells us it would be better to go to heaven without some body parts than to be whole and stuck in hell for eternity. This is certainly not a call to self-mutilation, but rather a reminder that sometimes we have to take drastic steps to ensure our spiritual health and well-being. Our perceptions of ourselves and of others are often not true. The guards on the South Carolina border saw Jehu Jones as a possible instigator and not as a man of God. Joshua and John saw the outsiders with eyes of jealousy. We see our neighbors, other Christians, and question their ministries, not based on what they say but on what they do.
Jesus was clear that those who do works of power in His name can not speak against Him later. They have the Spirit of God on them even if they haven't gotten it in the normal manner. We can tell the difference between those who are true and those who are false by what they say about Jesus. In the meantime, we are not called to stop a ministry, but to do our own. Jesus tells us that we are all salted with fire.
What is salt? What does it do? How does it relate to ministry? Salt flavors things, but it has a host of other purposes. It is used to heal, to bring blood to the surface of a wound. It is used to preserve other things. It is used to melt ice and to make ice cream. We are told that we are the salt of the world. What does that mean? It is more than just adding flavor. God uses our lives to bring healing and to preserve the faith of others. When we speak the Gospel and heal in Jesus' name, ice cold hearts are melted and unbelievers are made new creations through faith in Christ.
Jesus asks what happens when salt loses its saltiness. "Wherewith will ye season it?" How does salt lose its saltiness? It does when it is left to the elements or kept apart from other salt. Jesus finishes this passage, "Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace one with another." He is calling us to stick together and do the work He has given us to do.
We find a list of those things in the passage from James. We are to pray, sing songs of praise, minister to the dis-ease in each other's lives, have faith that God will hear us and answer. We are to bring the forgiveness of Christ to all who have sinned. We are to encourage one another, rebuke and correct errors and draw those who are lost into the fellowship of the body of Christ.
What do we make of the story of Elijah in this reading? He prayed and the rain stopped for three years, then began again when he prayed. Could we have such an incredible affect with our prayers? James tells us, "The supplication of a righteous man availeth much in its working." Do we not have the righteousness of Christ by faith in Jesus' name? By His power and authority we have been given the gifts to do much greater things than even Elijah. We are called, gifted and sent to bear witness to the Gospel of Christ, to bring healing and salvation to the lives of those who are lost and dying in this world from sin. It wasn't Elijah's power that stopped the rain, but One with the power heard him pray and answered because he had a right relationship with the Lord God Almighty.
By faith in Christ Jesus, we also live in a right relationship with God our Father. He hears our prayers prayed in faith. He heals the sick, He tends to the needs of His children, He gives His power according to His good and perfect will. Our greatest task and participants in God's Kingdom is to be salt, to draw people into the kingdom and to draw Christ out of all those who saved by the Gospel of grace. We can't do it on our own; we can only do it by the power given to us by our God.
It all starts with prayer, crying out honestly to our God with our troubles and doubts. Moses called out to God and He answered with help. John called out to Jesus and Jesus told him to be at peace. We can find comfort in these passages in the knowledge that it isn't our place to worry about the work others are doing for the Lord. We are simply to go forth in faith just like Jehu Jones. He did not let any obstacles stop him from doing the work God had called him to do. God has called us together to witness to the great and wonderful things He has done and to give praise to God for His mercy, love and grace. May we always be filled with salt and be at peace with one another. Thanks be to God.
A WORD FOR TODAY
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