Caring in Community (Num. 11:4-6,10-16,24-29; James 5:13-20; Mk. 9:38-50)
Communities are funny places. Many people today misunderstand, I think, what communities are. They are not places where everyone is in the same place as regards looks, thinking, believing, and acting. Indeed, today, as we live in a digital world, people in communities may be in different physical places altogether, being face-to-face as we say, while other community members are hundreds, thousands of miles distant and connected electronically. This last part of community is one with which I’m just learning to cope. We will see more of these hybrid kinds of communities as we go forward, I suspect. True communities are, as always, places where diversity is embraced, and distinctiveness is honoured as these contribute to the richness of common life. And, frankly, learning to do these things as we live together is probably harder than learning to cope with people hooked together digitally.
True communities are places of creative tension, where life (positives and negatives) is experienced together with others. Creative tension is finding a balance between our differences and the great central unities of faith that bring us together. I think it’s a good phrase for how community living is intended to be. The great enemy of creative tension is insecurity.
Our Old Testament Lesson from Numbers 11 is a story that weaves together two themes about tension in communities that grows out of insecurity. The first theme concerned Israel’s insecurity brought about by change. Once Israel had been slaves in Egypt and now they were not. Freedom brings with it the freedom to fail because decisions that were once made for us aren’t any longer and we can make the wrong one. Israel was also not in Egypt, but they were not at Mt. Sinai either. In the 11 months they were there, they had been receiving Moses’ instructions from God about going to a place named “Canaan.” They had no idea where it was or how to get there except something about following Moses and a fiery pillar and cloud. But, now they were out of both those places, and, instead of talking about or thinking about a journey, they were actually on the move to this unknown place through a “great and terrible wilderness.” They gave voice to their insecurity by complaining about the manna, food provided by God’s grace to be sure, but the same day after day. And that’s the second story, the story of finding decent food in the wilderness, a very practical issue, I should think. The two themes are related by the way in which both problems caused insecurity.
This insecurity and its presenting complaint about manna led Moses’ into his own insecurity. The complaints about food (but really about insecurity) did not lead him to focus on solutions, but on what this said about him. Studies have shown that many leaders approach community problems as assaults on their leadership rather than as issues to face and solve creatively together. These studies also show that many leaders fear that followers will discover that leaders are just humans, don’t have all the answers, and can’t work miracles. Further, they fear that when followers discover their humanness that they’ll actually leave the community to look for leaders who can work miracles. Then the leaders will lose their jobs, their security, their pension, and their lives and identities will be reduced to nothing. Although, our text doesn’t say that Moses had those fears, we might think so from the way he dealt with it. It was all about him.
None of this made God happy. In Hebrew, if you want to say, “I got angry,” you say, “My nose got hot.” God’s nose got very hot. And it says, further, that the whole turn of events “was a bad thing, a harmful thing, in Moses’ sight.” The worst part of this bad and harmful thing, however from Moses’ perspective, seemed to be that the people were threatening his leadership. We don’t have time to go through the story line by line, but the solution God brought was basically to teach the community (including the leaders) to care for one another better in and by community. This was accomplished, first, by allowing Moses’ spirit of leadership, derived from God, to be shared by seventy other persons in the community. People care better for one another if the work of spiritual leadership is shared throughout the community.
A second contribution to better care of one another is related in the little scene at the end of the story of Moses’ shared spirit. We need to remember that instructions had been given. Each of the seventy leaders was to come to that Tent of Meeting where Moses and God would commune. That’s where it was supposed to happen. Well, the two Baptists in the seventy, named Eldad and Medad got the memo about sharing the spirit and all that, but didn’t read the rule about standing around the Tent of Meeting. Well, there they were in the camp, when – boom – the spirit fell on all of them including those two, and, right there where they were they began acting like prophets (whatever that meant specifically, it probably showed up somehow). The story also tells us that a young man (the word can also mean immature – having nothing to do with age), sees this breach of the way it supposed to be, as a big problem – “Didn’t follow the constitution” – and tattles on them to Moses: “Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp,” he said. Joshua, the assistant pastor, said, “O Moses, forbid it.” And Moses” response is interesting. He, who had once been so concerned about his own leadership that he asked God to kill him rather than make him look bad, here says, “Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the LORD’s people were prophets, and that all had the LORD’s spirit on them.” The second way to care for one another in community is simply to lighten up a little on one another. Share the load and lighten up. Do you know that song from the movie “Frozen,” called “Let It Go”? Although the words of the thing make me a little bilious, I like the title here, and we need to do more of it in community: “Let It Go.”
The New Testament Lessons expand on this business of taking care of one another. James says to his congregation centuries after the Book of Numbers, “Make sure your community practices care of one another when you’re sick, sinful, and sorrowing.” Pray for one another above all. Now, we have to remember that we don’t live in the first century when James did and that first century techniques for caring for people were never intended as immutable rules. Communities don’t need to have people called elders who go and anoint sick people with oil, and on and on. Although there’s nothing intrinsically wrong or harmful with it, if we start legislating this as the only way to care for sick people in churches, then we’re mistaking a first century technique for an immutable rule. I wonder whether this, too, isn’t a function of that old demon insecurity? We may be afraid that people that are going through tough times will figure out that we don’t know what to do or to say to “fix it.” So, we think if we’ll just follow the “approved” procedure it’ll get fixed. And it won’t. At least all the time. We need to figure out that sharing the spirit of care and concern, the spirit of Jesus together, is what will get us through, if not around, the suffering, pain, distress and even death. Of course we still pray with and for one another, but we understand also that active caring for one another in community is a part of putting that prayer into action.
Jesus, too, is concerned to tell his disciples to “let it go” as far as those who do things differently is concerned. Don’t waste your time being against them. People who are concerned to do good things in Jesus’ name are part of the family, whether they do things the way we do them, or have exactly the same beliefs as we do or not. Jesus said, simply, “Don’t get so uptight when things don’t proceed according to our rules, and people don’t jump through our hoops.” Let it go. Lighten up. Then, Jesus says, take care of the vulnerable among you. Watch out for the little ones. Every one of us is vulnerable sometimes, and that means that every one of us needs care sometimes just because, as Jesus says in another place, “the rain falls on the just and the unjust,” or as he says, more obscurely at the end of our Gospel passage, “Everyone will be salted with fire.” Even the Gospel writers were puzzled what to make of this saying, thus transmitting it in several forms. We know that some Jewish sacrifices were sprinkled with salt as they were offered. Leviticus 2 says that salt makes them acceptable. “Everyone’s life is salted with fire.” The sacrifice of everyone’s life is sprinkled with the fire of sickness and other bad outcomes. Jesus’ words don’t say that this is what “should be” or “ought to be.” This is just the way it is. In this world everyone experiences bad things. It’s probable that, in this context, the “everyone” that Jesus had in mind, was disciples. So he meant, “Bad things happen to every disciple.” It’s the way it is in the world. Looking for deep answers will get us nowhere. It’s life. Expect these things. God does not keep us back from them. We all experience them. The God of love is present with us (or our family and friends) in them, and will support and bless us (or them) in them. And, if we, in community, care for one another by sharing and spreading out the care amongst us all, and by allowing freedom to do things in more than one way, the community will find care even better.
At the end, let me come back to an astonishing line found in James 5:13: “Are any of you cheerful? Let them sing songs of praise.” It would be easy enough to miss this line because it’s buried there in the midst of all the depressing talk about praying for sick people, calling the elders, anointing with oil, and forgiving sins. “Are any of you cheerful? Let them sing songs of praise.” Sometimes all our insecurities and worries about life inside and outside of the community of faith can drain out any cheerfulness we might have when it comes to that life of faith. Is ours a cheery faith, or are we so serious about it that, inwardly, we look all twisted up with a perma-frown? When we become so serious about our faith, our life of faith may easily begin to inhabit a place that’s a little like the real world, but not quite – we’re so earnest and sober about whether we have it “right,” or whether we’ll be faithful, or whether anybody will find out that we’re really not very religious, or know very much about this spirituality business, and we begin to inhabit a religious place where all we do is feel guilty, and look for God to get us. We can even get to the place where life inside and outside the church is so filed with duty that there’s no time for the cheerfulness of enjoying, loving and being loved by God and the community.
That’s why we do things like share food at the end of worship and even just go eat pizza together. We need to remember that Jesus ate with tax collectors and sinners. People called him a glutton and drunkard. Is that because Jesus knew how to be cheerful and sing a song of praise with his life? Perhaps he spent time with just plain folk because he enjoyed being with them. Sometimes we need simply to let go of our sanctified seriousness, and enjoy one another and God and, so, care for one another in community.
In the name of God: Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer. AMEN.