Twenty-five years ago this month, I was sitting on a rock in the middle of a river in Yosemite with three other first-year Seminary classmates. We were visiting the park for the first time and had come from Berkeley for a long weekend. Out of a class of 36 we couldn’t have come from more different backgrounds.
I was a multi-denominational mutt with an evangelical bent and had been an Episcopalian for less than 2 years. The only male was an exchange student from Britain, the son of an Anglican priest, very traditional and Anglo-Catholic. My friend Lucretia is a cradle Episcopalian who spent years in the Convocation of Episcopal Churches in Europe. The youngest gal was a recent Smith graduate and a radical who wanted to challenge and upend the church’s oppressive traditions.
It was a gorgeous day in autumn and we had just completed an awe-inspiring hike to the top of the falls. We climbed onto a rock to celebrate the beauty of that astonishing place and to have lunch. After the meal, with all my naiveté and enthusiasm, I said, “We have bread and wine. Let’s celebrate communion.” What ensued was an hour-long debate about the nature of the Eucharist, the canons of the church and the role of the ordained in the sacraments. I don’t even remember if we ever ritually broke the bread and drank the wine, but I did begin to realize the complexity of worshiping God within a particular faith tradition.
So much brought us together and so much divided us. The meal that Jesus instituted for his followers as a way to celebrate his presence and be re-membered into his One Body has also separated and kept Christians apart for centuries.
In the Book of Numbers, the power of God’s Spirit is poured out on the 70 leaders chosen by Moses so that God’s word and work can go forth into the world and God’s people can be adequately cared for. Two, Eldad and Medad, receive the Spirit even though they aren’t on the mountain top with everyone else. They are literally in a different camp from the rest of the chosen ones, outside the tent. How quickly this causes controversy and an order to shut them down. They’re not authorized, they haven’t been properly prepared and anointed, and they are under suspicion by those who follow the rules and procedures. The amazing gift of speaking God’s word through prophetic inspiration is so often controlled and shut down because it comes to the wrong people, in the wrong place at the wrong time.
We’re so good at making distinctions, differences and divisions. We start with our closest relationships, in our own families. I’ll never forget the year and a half my sister and I had a masking tape line down the center of our shared bedroom. That simple division came with a warning, “Thou shalt not cross over!” It was childish then but the fact that we now rarely speak to one another as adults is a source of great sadness. Many of you have these kinds of family divisions, where anger and hurt keep us apart.
We’re keen on our differences as well. In the church there are important distinctions between the charismatics, evangelicals, Pentecostals, social justice liberals, liturgical perfectionists and conservative Christians. Many of us have stopped talking to one another. Jesus’s final prayer for his followers was that we “might all be one as He and God are one.” Sadly we are often more allied to our strongly held points of view than we are to the sacrificial act of truly listening to someone we disagree with. I’ll never forget the tiny church in Hawthorne, Nevada. They had enough resources to stay open with their small congregation of seven members but the bishop was forced to close them because 3 of them refused to be in church at the same time as the other 4.
And Lord knows our politics are divided. This bitter, disturbing week of hearings saddened, scared and triggered many of us. Somewhere in the mass of statements, opinions, pontifications, denials and demands there are wounded and damaged young people who have been terrified, alone and hurting for 35 years. The truth of the original wrong, the years of suffering and the current consequences are caught up in a firestorm of partisanship. We’re all in our camps now and there is precious little room for the healing balm of truth, reconciliation, humility and compassion.
Once again I am amazed and convicted by the radical way in which Jesus goes beyond our human limitations and failings to bring us closer to God and closer to one another. John, the beloved disciple of Jesus, comes to him with a complaint against someone who is outside the fellowship, a stranger, someone who doesn’t belong with those on the inside, the close followers. John is jealous and zealous. He wants Jesus to shut down someone who is using the name of Jesus without authorization or proper credentials to free people from demonic influence.
Jesus is still sitting there with a child in his lap, having told his disciples, just moments before, that to be great, you must serve the least, the invisible, the silenced, the ones who cannot defend themselves. And here comes his beloved disciple complaining because people are being delivered from their bondage by someone who doesn’t have the proper identity. You can almost hear the frustration in Jesus’s words. Stop it. Stop putting up obstacles to the work of God. Stop trying to bolster your own standing by protecting my name and reputation. I don’t care about my name and reputation. I do care about the little ones. I care so much that I tell you it is more important for you to put yourself at risk for their sake than it is for you to try and protect me. It is better for you to be more concerned for them than you are for me.
It is more important for you to stand up for others, to rub the salt of your truth-telling, compassionate care for these little ones into the entire wounded, bloody body of this world, seasoning it with your tears for the ones I love.
We who are so privileged to know the love of Jesus are called to serve others in his name. What would happen if instead of protecting our own–our own image, comfort, success and identity—we worked at removing the obstacles experienced by others? What might it mean to try harder to hear the different voices, from the “wrong” places, without the proper credentials? What would happen if we first tried to remove the obstacles we put between us and others, the barriers that prevent us from fully being engaged with one another? How can we allow God to make a way where there is no way, to clear the path to true connection and community?
At the beginning of this past, difficult week many of us got to see a glimpse of what that kind of communion might look like at the Edible Hope fundraiser. At least 200 people from all walks of life gathered together to care for this community. The week before our bishop asked with incredulity, “How did you sell out your fundraiser when your church is so small?” Well, “whoever is not against us is for us!” And our community is so much bigger than our Sunday morning attendance. Nancy Rogers and Robert Loomis made it clear that we feed people in the name of Jesus.
We are joined by many, many others who may or may not share that conviction. We are united not by politics, ideology, denomination, economics or education. We are united by a willingness to care, a desire to serve others, the belief in the dignity and worth of every human being and the simple compassion of providing a warm room, a good meal, a cup of something to drink and human connection. We offer food for the soul and the cup of new life with God’s help.
The love of Jesus is more inclusive than any one of us is ever capable of. Perhaps you need the love of Jesus this week to bring healing where you have been wronged, abused and humiliated. The oil of anointing and the prayer of the faithful are one of many resources for you in your time of pain and grief. Maybe you need the love of Jesus to mend a broken relationship where there are obstacles or distance, maybe years of hurt and anger. The grace of God poured out within our hearts and nourished at this table of love can strengthen us for the work of reconciliation. It could be that you need to tell the truth, to face shame, failure and self-loathing. You can begin in corporate confession with your fellow sinners and companions on the journey.
Proper 21, Year B
Numbers 11: Psalm 19:7-14
James 5:13-20; Mark 7:38-50