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Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Pastor Anke Deibler
- Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29
- Psalm 19:7-14
- James 5:13-20
- Mark 9:38-50
Grace be to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
Every family has these stories that get told again and again. In my family, my uncle has one he loves to repeat. He just did it again at my parents’ 80th birthday party in August.
He was visiting my family when my siblings and I were little. I think my brother Wolfgang was 5 or so. My uncle was chatting with my parents when little Heidi from next door came over and said: “Wolfgang is eating earthworms. Is he allowed?”
Now, Heidi did not really want to know if Wolfgang had permission to eat earthworms. She really had two different things in mind: Tattle-telling on my brother and getting people in authority to stop him.
In two of our readings today, we encounter such tattle-telling folks. In both cases they complain about unauthorized people doing things in the power of the spirit.
In the story from Numbers, Moses is cracking under the stress of leading a cantankerous people through the desert. God helps him out by blessing 70 elders with the gifts of the spirit, so they can assist Moses. Two of those 70 had skipped the ordination service, but still got blessed with the spirit and are now using that spirit as prophetic leaders in the camp.
Joshua, Moses number two, is upset by this. He immediately tells Moses about this and urges him to stop such goings-on. To his great surprise, though, Moses welcomes this spiritual free-lancing. This is where our Bible verse for the day comes from: “Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets and that the Lord would put his spirit on them!”
In other words, the more people with spirit, the better.
A very similar thing is happening in the gospel story. The disciples come to Jesus and alert him to the fact that they had discovered someone who was healing people in Jesus’ name, yet didn’t belong to the group of disciples. They tried to stop him. Now they want Jesus to step in and put a halt on such free-lance activities.
Jesus responds just like Moses did: “Don’t stop him!” Someone doing good things in Jesus’ name is wonderful. All power to him! The more people use the spirit to bring healing the better.
I think there are two very human emotions at work here.
One is jealousy. The disciples are upset that someone outside their group is casting out demons in Jesus’ name. Just 24 verses ago, the disciples tried to cast a demon out of a little boy. They couldn’t do it. Jesus had to step in and finish the job. Now here is this renegade healer casting out demons, able to do what they had failed at, and he isn’t even one of them! Yes, I believe they are quite jealous.
The second thing driving them is the need for power and control. Joshua in the camp and the disciples around Jesus want to guard the power of this amazing spirit of God. They want to control access to this Spirit. After all, if everyone would claim to be led by the spirit, where would that lead us?!
As I was searching around the internet for insights on control of the spirit, I came across the story of a father and his little son. The father is a pastor in the Apostolic Church, a church that stresses the fact that every member can be moved by the spirit.
In a devotion posted on-line, this pastor shared how one day, he asked his boy to please come and help him with some task. The 4-year-old was sitting on the living room floor playing with his truck. He answered his father: “No. God says it’s time to play.”
What do you do when someone claims to be led by the spirit into a direction that doesn’t agree with your needs or desires?
Looking over the religious history of this country, one can detect a certain pattern repeating itself in different communities of faith. For example, among the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, also known as Mormons. When Joseph Smith started this church, he was all excited about the availability of the spirit to each and every person. Everyone was encouraged to prophecy and share their visions and insights.
Before too long, however, Joseph Smith discovered that it is really hard to govern a community in which everyone is spirit led. It turns out, the spirit didn’t lead them all in the same direction. Arguments ensued.
As a result, Joseph Smith came out with a new revelation from God: Every member had the power of the spirit to be inspired in the realm of their own home, family, and business. Only Joseph Smith and the group of 12 apostles, however, could receive messages from the spirit in regard to the leadership of the church.
In order to hold on to power and create order, the spirit had to be controlled.
The same pattern of development took place among Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Pentecostal Church, the Apostolic Church, and many others.
The Lutheran Church proclaims the priesthood of all baptized believers. Everyone, we learn from our founder Martin Luther, has gifts of the spirit that are to be used to bless other people and build up the kingdom of God. Being the teacher of a Sunday school class is just as much worship as being a contractor building a house. Filing papers in an office is just as much a faithful service as milking cows, directing traffic, and planning livable neighborhoods.
With this teaching, Luther seriously threatened the power of the church of his time. He did so again when he translated the Bible into the common language of the people. Making God’s word available to everyone took away the control of the church and unleashed an outpouring of new theology, ministry, worship – you know: spirit-stuff.
And yes, the Lutheran Church struggled with this new-found spiritual freedom, too. One pastor in Luther’s town thought that if vestments of the clergy don’t matter anymore, he could lead mass in his bathrobe. How did our church decide to deal with this challenge?
We Lutherans give power of the spirit to the people in that we have a very democratic form of governance. Every confirmed member of each local congregation can vote in congregational meetings, thus making known where the spirit leads them. All these members elect a council to discern the vision and business of the congregation.
All these members also vote for people who represent the local congregation at the annual assembly of our synod, which is made up of all the local congregations in our area. At these assemblies, the voting members from congregations outnumber pastors by more than 2 to 1. This assembly makes decisions for the synod, such as passing a budget and electing a bishop.
A national assembly meets every other year. Again, local congregations elect people to go and represent their vision for the church at large.
So overall, our faith tradition values the way God inspires each and every believer. We have an order that allows for plenty of impact from all spirit-led members of our church, and yet provides a way to organize and govern.
What do we do, though, in our more immediate environment? What do we do when someone claims to be led by the spirit, yet the idea seems a bit off the wall, or just plain doesn’t suit us? How do we decide when to welcome spiritual free-lancing and when to step in with some control?
The first guidance from our readings today is to make sure we are not acting out of jealousy. I myself struggle with that. When the Damascus Road Church opened not far from here and many of our families with youth drifted over there, I was indeed jealous. I had to stop myself and realize: “The people going there are still worshiping Christ. That church is doing something to increase their faith. That is a good thing. Stop making this about yourself.”
Another guidance from our readings is to ask: Is their action done in the name of Christ? Does their vision reflect the gospel of Jesus Christ?
For example, a number of years ago an overburdened mother in Texas believed that the spirit was telling her to drown her five children in the bathtub. If she had checked with any other believer, she would have gotten the message that drowning kids is never, ever something God’s spirit would tell you to do. This was not of Christ. It should not be done.
When, on the other hand, a former drug addict and skid row resident covered in tattoos was invited to a Lutheran worship service, came to faith, went to seminary, and then proposed to open a Lutheran church for skid row residents, the synod prayed about this and recognized it as absolutely something Jesus would do. They gave Nadia Bolz-Webber their blessing and she has ministered among the least of God’s children in powerful ways. Some of our youth heard her speak at the National Youth Gathering.
“Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets and that the Lord would put his spirit on them!” There is a lot of spirit at Calvary right now. Through the LEAD conversations, through an active prayer ministry, through re-invigorated Sunday school for kids and adults and new inspiration for our youth group, more and more people are catching the spirit. This is great! New ministries are springing up, for example the new group of families with young kids that is meeting this afternoon.
And what is our leadership’s response when someone comes and says: “We saw people doing this new thing. Are they allowed”? Your council will say: “Is it done in Jesus’ name? Then yes, they absolutely are allowed. All power to them.”
People of God, you have been baptized with the spirit. Claim that spirit. Let it empower you to live in the name of Jesus and give glory to God and set the world on fire with the Holy Spirit. Amen.