< back to Sermon archive

Sermon for 8 June 2014

FIRST READING Numbers 11:24–30

24 So Moses went out and told the people the words of the LORD; and he gathered seventy elders of the people, and placed them all around the tent. 25 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. 26 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, and so they prophesied in the camp. 27 And a young man ran and told Moses, “Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp.” 28 And Joshua son of Nun, the assistant of Moses, one of his chosen men, said, “My lord Moses, stop them!” 29 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!” 30 And Moses and the elders of Israel returned to the camp.
PSALM Psalm 25:1–15

1 To you, O LORD, I lift up my soul. 2 My God, I put my trust in you; let me not be put to shame, nor let my enemies triumph over me. 3 Let none who look to you be put to shame; rather let those be put to shame who are treacherous. 4 Show me your ways, O LORD, and teach me your paths. 5 Lead me in your truth and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation; in you have I trusted all the day long. 6 Remember, O LORD, your compassion and love, for they are from everlasting. 7 Remember not the sins of my youth and my transgressions; remember me according to your steadfast love and for the sake of your goodness, O LORD. 8 You are gracious and upright, O LORD; therefore you teach sinners in your way. 9 You lead the lowly in justice and teach the lowly your way. 10 All your paths, O LORD, are steadfast love and faithfulness to those who keep your covenant and your testimonies. 11 For your name’s sake, O LORD, forgive my sin, for it is great. 12 Who are they who fear the LORD? You will teach them the way that they should choose. 13 They shall dwell in prosperity, and their offspring shall inherit the land. 14 You, LORD, are a friend to those who fear you, and will show them your covenant. 15 My eyes are ever looking to you, O LORD, for you will pluck my feet out of the net.

1 When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. 2 And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. 3 Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. 4 All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability. 5 Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. 6 And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. 7 Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? 8 And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? 9 Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, 11 Cretans and Arabs — in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” 12 All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” 13 But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.” 14 But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. 15 Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. 16 No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:
17 ‘In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. 18 Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy. 19 And I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist. 20 The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day. 21 Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’


GOSPEL John 7:37–39

37 On the last day of the festival, the great day, while Jesus was standing there, he cried out, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, 38 and let the one who believes in me drink. As the scripture has said, ‘Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.'” 39 Now he said this about the Spirit, which believers in him were to receive; for as yet there was no Spirit, because Jesus was not yet glorified.

Throughout my time in the military and in seminars offered by church leadership, I have been warned about the dangers of stress and of allowing stress to overcome me. I don’t believe there is an adult here who can say they’ve never experienced stress. Whether it comes from work, friends or family, stress is an everyday part of our lives. And I’ll bet that each of us can think of at least one time in our lives when we let stress get the better of us. It reminds me of the two vultures sitting on the limb of a dead tree.
One buzzard looks over at the other and sees that his fellow scavenger friend has his feathers all ruffled up so he asks, what’s going on? The ruffled bird answers, I’m so stressed out I think I’m gonna kill something! Stress comes in so many forms; it might be financial, deadlines, difficult bosses or co-workers, unrealistic expectations, a lack of adequate assistance or from the type of work itself. And if we’re not careful, these stressors can push us into doing something we might not normally do. Or the stress can be self-inflicted because of pride or stubbornness.
I was doing some research on stress the other day and ran across several lists that rank professions by stress. In some ways the results surprised me and in other ways it didn’t. On the top of almost every list, as the most stressful job in America, was Enlisted military personnel. Coming in second was a military General. Neither of these surprised me nor did the fact that among the top 10 most stressful jobs was Firefighters, pilots and Police Officers. What did surprise me a bit was that taxi drivers round out the top 10. I never would have imagined that.
Next, I looked at the opposite end of the list, for the least stressful jobs to hold and found, (and Martha may or may not agree with this) that as a Hair stylist she came in second only to be bested by an Audiologist, who according to Forbes has the least stressful job. Considering a cross section of the congregation, Robert, in his former job as a principle, came in at 90th on the list, our teachers were close behind at 93 and our two lawyers came in on the list at 117. The thing that surprised me the most was my calling as a pastor. On several of the lists, the job of pastor, minister or clergy was noticeably absent. In fact I was only able to find clergy on one list and it came in at 110th. I did a bit more digging and discovered that many consider my profession to be even less stressful that an Audiologist. I guess that means all the worrying I’ve done for the last five years has been for nothing.
I must admit that I do have to agree, to a certain extent, with those who think that pastors have a stress free occupation, because for the first time in my adult life I can say, without reservation, I really do love my boss. And when you consider the retirement plan, pardon the pun, it’s out of this world! But truth be told, every Christian in the world can lay claim to the retirement plan. As believers in Christ, we have been promised life eternal in the presence of God with no sorrow, sickness or death which is a pretty great plan. Boss, lists and retirement plan aside, I bet everybody thinks that his or her job is a stressful job. Nobody really likes to admit that they have an easy time of it. I remember a cartoon: big office, huge desk, a CEO type sitting behind the desk. In front of the desk there’s a little man in work clothes, his hat in his hand. He’s saying to the CEO, “If it’s any comfort, sir, it’s lonely at the bottom, too.”
Get into a conversation with almost anyone and ask, “How’s your work going?”, and they’ll tell you about some stress point. Even if their job is just sitting in a chair doing nothing all day long, they’ll usually find something to worry about. If nothing else the effect it has on their weight. This is why our Old Testament reading for today is a good passage for us to consider this morning.
In our reading from Numbers we find Moses, of all people, suffering stress on his job. Moses who was personally called by God from a burning bush, who was given God’s own Spirit and special abilities to torment the Egyptians until Pharaoh finally released the Children of Israel and was the only one in the desert allowed to be in the very presence of God, was feeling stressed out. It almost seems impossible. Yet, when you stop and think about it, Moses was human, an average man used by God, faults and all. And that’s what’s so great about the Bible. It has real people in it.
The Bible doesn’t hide the fact that the heroes and heroines of our faith are real human beings. Real people who dealt with life just like you and me: Real people who had to suffer from their own limitations and stubbornness. But before we look too harshly at Moses, we do need to consider that he might have suffered what a lot of people feel stressed over; he felt over-whelmed because he felt out of control.
Maybe part of Moses’ problem was that he felt, that he was ill-prepared to do what he was called to do. Evidence of this can be seen when at the burning bush, he tried to tell God that he didn’t have the skills necessary to meet the demands of God’s directive. However, God said to do it anyway, so Moses obeyed. He hung in there, clear to the end. Which I suppose is there to tell us that if we do what God asks us to do, and hang in there, we’ll probably make it, too.
Backing up a bit in our story, we have a murderer who runs away from Egypt with the goal of settling down in Midian and becoming a sheep rancher. But God comes to him and said, “I want you to go into the tour business.” Moses was being asked to lead a pilgramage out of Egypt, across the Red Sea, into the Sinai desert, and to the Promised Land. With a cooperative effort, this would have been a very manageable task. However, as we know from our Bible reading, everything went wrong. In the first place, they were an uncooperative, whinny bunch. Second of all, they kept getting lost. God, because of their sin, impatience and idol worship caused their GPS systems to malfunction. That’s the only way you can explain why it took forty years to go across the Sinai desert. God simply had them going in circles. I heard one smart-aleck say, Moses’ wife, Zipporah, said it took forty years because Moses would never stop and ask for directions. But a lack of cooperation and poor navigation skills weren’t their only issue, they also ran out of food and water.
So God intervened and gave them something called “manna”. Nobody really knows what “manna” was. Garrison Keillor says “manna” is Hebrew for “tuna casserole.” He insists that someday history will prove that the Hebrews crossing the desert were actually the first Lutherans. This whole story does sound a bit too familiar; they got lost and they ran out of food. But God’s action in their lives still wasn’t enough for them, so they complain even more. I guess we do need to cut the Israelites some slack; they were at times without food, water, and apparently faith as well. This is where the text we read this morning picks up the story. The people would plead with Moses during the day, and he would hear their weeping at night, crying, “We were better off in Egypt as slaves, than we are now free, wandering this desert.” This is also the point where we find Moses feeling completely stressed out.
He’d apparently had it up to here with his people. So what does he do? He complains to God; “Why have you done this to me? Am I the father of all these people that I should take responsibility for looking after them? I’ve had it. You can take your ‘exodus’ and finish it yourself. I’m going back to the ranch.” Senator Alan Simpson is credited with saying, “Up in Wyoming we have more cattle than people. We like it that way.” That must have been the way Moses felt, only he had sheep, not cattle. He found it easier to shepherd sheep than to shepherd people. Moses said to God, “I don’t need this. Do something.”
God answers Moses, “Take seventy of the elders and go to the tent of meeting, and I will meet you there. I will take some of the spirit which is upon you and put it on them; and they shall bear the burden of the people with you, so you will not have to bear it by yourself alone.” It’s an amazing passage for many reasons one of which is that it’s got some really good practical advice. Stress can be experienced as a result of carrying too much weight in your life. Just ask Tyler, he’s a mechanical engineer; he’ll tell you that anytime you put too much pressure on a single member of a structure, before too long you’ll see “stress fractures.” But, as I mentioned before, stress can also be self-inflicted.
In psychology there’s a concept called the “heroic ego.” The heroic ego is the person who thinks that he or she has to do it all by themselves. It seems to be more typically a male problem in our culture. Men, in general, are conditioned, to be in charge, to be able to handle everything that comes up and to take care of problems and situations all by themselves. Turning to somebody else, can be and often is seen, as a sign of weakness, as a loss of power. As a result, in our society, we have structured all social organizations, from the family, to business, even to the Church, as hierarchies, with one person at the top of these hierarchies, making decisions for other people, taking the responsibility for everything, being in charge of everything. Of course as women “break the glass ceiling” they also find themselves in this same situation.
Anyone who does counseling will tell you the toll that this takes on the mental health of people. Not only because of the emotional weight of responsibility for success or failure in your own life, but because of what could be called the “apotheosis” of the individual. Apotheosis means the raising up of the individual to the status of being a god. The properties of being god are that you see yourself as all-knowing, all-powerful, you can do all-things. The result is in glorification of competition, because competition is the way you move up through the hierarchy. This may also be the reason we glorify sports and sports figures so much in our society. We fulfill our need to achieve vicariously through them.
In a hierarchical system, as in sports, there’s only one winner, only one person can get to the top. Very often, therefore, critics have discovered in analyzing American institutions, the goal often isn’t quality as a product of the institution. Nor is it fulfillment, in doing something that you feel called to do. The goal of the institution is promotion, and advancement: The apotheosis of the individual. Therefore, we can learn from Moses, from whom God took some of the spirit that He had given originally to Moses, and gave it to seventy others. “They shall bear the burden with you, so that you will not bear it by yourself alone.” We can learn a lot from Moses.
In fact, business and industry have already learned from Moses. One of the characteristics of the new businesses and industries in the latter part of the 20th century is how progressive they are. The most innovative have policies that are non-hierarchical, where power and decision-making are shared with the greatest number of people, where promotion is not lifted up as a goal, but creativity, solving problems, being of service. You could call it “the biblical model of organization.”
Even the terminology used in those businesses is taken from the biblical tradition. I ran across the term “servant leadership” in an article on management. That’s right out of the Bible. The “servant leader” is the person who sees to it that other people find fulfillment and creativity in their work. “Covenantal relationships” is another term that comes right out of the Bible. “Covenantal relationships” are based on common vision and mutual trust, rather than “contractual relationships,” which are based on imposed expectations, rewards and punishments.
We could also call this “the biblical model of organization.” But ironically, the slowest institution to adopt that biblical model has been the Church. You all know that the Church is one of the oldest hierarchical institutions in the world. But it didn’t start out that way. It became hierarchical when it inherited the Roman Empire. The Church was the last institution standing when the Roman civilization collapsed, so it took over the responsibility of ordering and ruling that society. Inheriting temporal power it took on the trappings of royalty, including a hierarchical system, with a solitary man at the top, making all the decisions, having all of the power, all knowledge, running all things, and everyone else underneath him arranged according to their status.
The Church got that from Rome, not from the Bible. The image of the Church in the Bible is “community,” not hierarchy. The image of the Church in the Bible is a “body,” where everybody is as important as everybody else. Every person has something to give, equal to everybody else, because we all share the same Spirit. We’re all empowered by the same Spirit. That’s a source of equality in the Church. “We are one in the spirit.”
The Church isn’t supposed to be a “one man show.” There’s nothing in the Bible having to do with the veneration of a charismatic leader. Not even Moses, who was the hand-picked leader of Israel. Not David, who was the greatest king who ever lived. Not Peter, who was personally chosen by our Lord to be the head of the Church. None of them are venerated. They’re all drawn with portraits that reveal their human faults and limitations. In fact, their portraits are drawn that way more vividly than any other people in the Bible.
Considering what’s recorded in the Bible, it doesn’t attempt to venerate charismatic leaders. In fact, it warns us against them. I urge you to beware of any religious organization that’s centered on one person who is seen as having all the gifts and graces, and can dispense them to everybody else. That has nothing whatsoever to do with being a true disciple. As a matter of fact, if they’re not careful, it could develop into a “cult,” and the Bible rightfully warns us against its dangers. Church has nothing to do with that. Study the Bible and you’ll learn that the tradition of the Church isn’t hierarchy, it’s community. “Moses, get seventy of the elders, take them to the tent of meeting, I will meet you there; and I will take some of the spirit I put upon you and put on them; that they shall bear the burden of the people with you, so that you will not have to bear it by yourself alone.”
On October 31, 1517, almost 500 years ago, Martin Luther nailed the Ninety-Five Theses to the door of the church at Wittenberg, and began “The Reformation.” It’s the reformation of all the churches, not just Protestant churches. And it continues today. In our time the Roman Catholic Church is probably reforming by the principles of the 16th century Reformation more rapidly than the Protestant churches.
One of the pillars of the Reformation is called “the priesthood of all believers.” It was a direct salvo aimed at the hierarchical system of the medieval church that placed the religious leaders on top, and the laity down on the bottom. The vocation of the religious leader was to minister to the laity. The vocation of the laity was to be ministered to. But Luther said, “no.” The gifts of ministry have been given to all who are baptized. We are all priests. We are all here to minister to one another. There were radical implications of that in all of western civilization. But the most radical was declaring that a calling in the world could be as holy as a calling in the church. Just as a priest is God’s representative at the altar dispensing grace through the sacraments, so you are a priest at your work, in your home, in your neighborhood, dispensing grace through your words and through your deeds. And we can find some wonderful examples of this within and around us almost daily.
I came across one not too long ago about a teacher teaching in the lower east side in New York, in a neighborhood where education can hardly take place. It’s a place where there’s high crime, drugs, delinquency, and homes that don’t take responsibility for their children. Yet this teacher, named Jessica Siegel, has been tremendously successful with high school students. She teaches English. She teaches these kids the great classics of western civilization. Irving Howe wrote about this teacher, how she had overcome all the difficulties and given the children hope to take up the responsibilities of becoming adults in this society.
Howe asked, “How did she do this?” He recognized that we’ll probably never really know, because good teaching is a gift and, therefore, there’s a dimension of mystery to it. We don’t know how it happens, but, he said, there’s a clue. He quoted a student in her class, named Carlos, who said, “I have never known such concern for me from anybody else.” Her caring for him, her paying attention to him, her treating him as an important human being, her bearing his burden with him, transformed his life, and probably, given the context of that neighborhood, saved his life. We are all priests to each other. We can mediate the grace of God through our concern for other people. We can redeem their lives, give them hope, turn them around, simply by making ourselves a vessel for God’s grace to touch their lives. But even more so, we’re supposed to be priests to one another in the Church.
Most of us are familiar with the hymn, “Blest Be the Tie That Binds.” In verse three we sing: We share each other’s woes, or mutual burdens bear; and often for each other flows the sympathizing tear. “Community” is what that hymn is talking about. The Church should be a community where we’re able to share one another’s burdens. All God needs to touch somebody’s life, is for you, to touch somebody’s life. That’s all it takes. Just let them know that you know about them, that you care about them, that you’re thinking about them and praying for them. That’s what God wants us to do.
In Paul’s letter to the people in Galatia is an answer to their question about what to do with a person that has been reprimanded by the church for their behavior. The Church wanted to ostracize them. We don’t know what the offense was, but we know that it must have been pretty serious. In what I’m sure was a surprise to the church in Galatia, Paul’s advice was to restore him! Bring him back, and remember, someday you may be in the same position. After that he says, “Bear one another’s burdens, and thus fulfill the law of Christ.”
The mission of Bethel is “That all may know Jesus Christ and become responsible members of His church through our caring. Another way we could say this is our goal is to, “become a caring community,” or, to become a real church. Human nature, being what it is, it’s much easier to be distant and disconnected. To be the church we need to bear the burdens of others, but we don’t need to do this alone. When we work as a community, as God intended, we can fully appreciate Jesus’ words to the disciples in Mathew chapter 11. Starting in verse 28 Jesus said, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

< back to Sermon archive