Gospel: Mark 9:38-50
1st Reading: Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29
2nd Reading: James 5:13-20
“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth....God saw everything that God had made, and indeed, it was very good.” God blessed them, animals of every kind and humankind, as well. Each received God's spirit, as it moved over the waters and called them forth. Each was created good to be a blessing to one another.
When I think of the whole of this Earth, and how each plant and animal is balanced with all the other ones, how each environment is uniquely suited for specific species, the symbiotic relationships between plants and animals, how they help each other out, it just boggles my mind. Plants provide shelter and food. Animals carry the seeds and provide fertilizer. Insects break up the waste to ensure that roots of plants have access to what they need. And then there is the geography of the land, how the water evaporates and the clouds are pushed higher in the sky where they make rain or snow and how the snow accumulates and then melts to provide moisture through all the seasons in a steady supply for the life of all the plants and animals, including humans. What an amazing world we live in! No matter how much we study and try to understand all the interrelationships and how everything works together, we will never know all the ways that each plant or insect or animal or mountain or stream is a blessing, or even how we are blessed by them. We will never fully know the fullness of the Spirit and power of God in each of its manifestations, in each of God's creatures.
The Earth has, at times, been called an organism, because no one living being could exist on its own, not even the cockroach. Each relies on the other as a living, breathing, system of interrelated parts.
“Would that all the LORD's people were prophets, and that the LORD would put his spirit on them!” Well, folks, God did put God's spirit on all people, and not only that, on all Creation and blessed them. Why don't we know it and see it? I think, at times, we do. A new baby is born, and we know it. But a baby is innocent and helpless. It can't argue with you. It is easy to love a baby. Somehow, when people grow up, it seems easier to find fault with them and write them off or deny their Spirit.
There might be a couple of reasons we don't see the Spirit so easily in others. One is that the world is always telling us that some have Spirit and some don't. The world tells us that folks have spirit and value if they are young, wealthy, hip, and clean. Another reason we don't see the Spirit in ourselves or others is that we see ourselves differently if we think of ourselves that way. If we have God's Spirit, then we have responsibility.
That's where the Israelites are, this morning. They don't see they have Spirit, or power to do anything about the situation they are in, so they are complaining and blaming others for their predicament. We always laugh when we read this lesson, because it is so familiar. We can hear ourselves whining like that. We can hear our friends, kids, and family whining like that. “I'm sick of this food! This is disgusting! I want melon!” They blame Moses. Moses blames God. Pretty soon everyone is mad at everyone else.
Instead, God reminds people that they do have the Spirit, that Moses isn't the only one with gifts, and they are all capable and responsible for the welfare of the people. The reading actually cuts out the part where God gets mad and basically promises, “You want meat? I'll give you meat! You'll have meat until you can't stand another bite.” But just like when a mother gets frustrated and shouts at an ungrateful child, God comes around to be level-headed again and remembers that punishment doesn't work very well, it is the empowering of the child, whether he is 3 or however old Moses is, that is going to help. It is the encouraging of the sharing of the load, the sharing of the Spirit that is going to help, to inspire the imagination.
All the people could think about was the past. Oh, there were some good meals to be had in Egypt. But is that all there is of life? You eat three meals a day, but when you live in slavery, that is a barrier to the Spirit. The people needed to be free. They needed to be free of Pharaoh and that oppression, but they were also in Wilderness School, as Dan Erlander likes to call it, in his book “Manna and Mercy.” The people were learning what it meant to be free, to recognize the Spirit in each of them, to work together in community, to handle things as mature adults, and to take responsibility for their part.
So God appointed 70 elders and God reminded them, they have the gift of prophecy. God gathered them around and asked them to tap into their dreams for the future. What were their hopes for their new land? What would it be like there? How would it be to live in freedom? I doubt it was very hard for those elders to go there. They just needed to be reminded to let their hopes and imaginations work. Then their anxiety and living in the past melted away, for that moment, and the community was able to move forward. But it wasn't just the 70 official elders that were accessing their hopes and dreams. Here come Eldad and Medad. Can't you just imagine these identical twin hoodlums—the rhyming names just add another level of humor to this story! Moses says, “I'll take all the help I can get! Are there any more Eldad's and Medad's out there? Find your Spirit! It is in there! Find your hope, your creativity and share it with the community! It isn't food we're in short supply of, it is imagination.”
And God is saying that to each of us, today. You have the Spirit. It was promised in your baptism and it is still there, no less effective than that blessed day. And you know what, I am going out on a limb to say that even those who aren't baptized have that Spirit, too. God created us each one, breathed God's Spirit into us, and blessed us. Of course people are out there doing God's work that have nothing to do with the church, but God is working through them all the same, and maybe even more effectively than some of us who feel we need permission to prophesy or dream.
You know that dream you have. It isn't about something shallow, but it is a bigger dream about the interconnectedness of all Creation. It is about wholeness. It is hopeful. I invite you to let God reveal that dream to you. I invite you to let yourself dream it.
I heard a story last week that really inspired me. It is about a boy in Malawi in 2002. There was a drought and his family's farm failed. They could no longer afford to send him to school. I'm sure he felt distressed. I'm sure he felt like giving up. Like the Israelites, surely he complained. But God's dream did not go away from him. He did not lose sight of his goal or what might be possible. Each day, he went to the library to teach himself. And as he read, he got an idea. From scraps of wood, bicycle parts, and other parts from the dump and he made a windmill that his family was able to use to power their home and appliances. It seemed like he had lost everything, but he didn't forget God's Spirit was in him. He moved past the despair, kept the bigger picture in mind, and accomplished something that helped him and his family. Compared to him, we've had everything handed to us, but we still experience despair from time to time. Do we let it deflate us, or do we look to the bigger picture and God's inspiration to help us make a difference.
So now we come to the Gospel reading about cutting off hands and feet. Not a favorite reading for most preachers. This is where I am this week. The Israelites were in despair, and in their despair they were particularly shortsighted. All they could think of was the food they wanted to eat. They would have sold themselves back into slavery, sold their bodies, their children, their wives and mothers and fathers back into slavery for some tasty leeks. They would have cut off their freedom for a cheap price.
The Disciples were jealous. They had just failed at casting out demons. Now there were these other guys, who didn't even know them, who hadn't been through the training that were successful. The Disciples are so shortsighted. Their own egos are getting in the way.
So Jesus says something to point out just how shortsighted they are being. It is absurd, to get their attention. Very similar to when a kid scrapes his knee and we say, “Shall we amputate?” In that moment the pain and the wounded pride are all on the kid's mind. But when we say, “Shall we amputate?” it is a reminder of the greater good of that leg. In the same way, Jesus says, “Shall we amputate?” If we start cutting off each other and deciding who is in and who is out, we start cutting off the body of Christ. Recall the reading, “The hand can't say to the eye, 'I have no need of you.” “Whoever is not against us is for us.” We are all one. We can't afford to cut each other off. Since each carries God's Spirit, we can't afford to do without each other, just as we can't afford to live without an appendage. We need each other.
Possibly the other reason we don't dream is that we're afraid. If I open myself to this dream, what will it mean for my life? How will it change me? How will I be different? God is changing us. God is lifting our eyes from our own troubles and scrapes, to see that we are not alone, to acknowledge the Spirit in ourselves and others, and to see the bigger picture of a world thriving in God's living Spirit.