Passage: Numbers 11:24-30; Acts 2:1-21
Date: May 11, 2008
Preacher: Dr Jim Moiso
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I am not sure that I have ever heard today's lectionary reading from the Old Testament book of Numbers in worship before. Numbers 11 is a textual doublet of Exodus 15, 16-very similar stories. The context of our ancestors in faith: Moses had led them out of slavery, outfoxing Pharaoh's army, and to the foot of Mt. Sinai. They had encamped there for over a year, during which they had entered into a covenant with this new God, this God who heard their cry and rescued them. Now, they were moving out of the security of that place, moving into uncharted wilderness, on their way to the land which God had promised , wherever it was. Even with the anticipation of the new, they were being forced to deal with change. They were sort of a surely bunch, these tribes, these former slaves. Earlier,Yahweh God had responded to their fear of starving to death by providing manna, daily. Listen, hear and feel their context of uncertainty and anxiety. I begin at verse 4. Follow along if you'd like. Listen to this memory of our history, of our relationship with leadership and order and control, and of God's lively spirit. (4-24)
From the book of Acts, Luke writes of the sudden advent of God's surprising spirit into the lives of Christ's disciples. The context of these ancestors in faith: There they were, the little band of Jesus' followers, waiting for what he had promised seven weeks before, waiting for something, for the Spirit of God. Seven weeks since the resurrection. Then, on that special Jewish feast day, Pentecost, it occurred. Listen: 2:1-21.
Mercy, when I think about this last week, it feels like we have all been engaged in an emotional ping pong game, and we have been the ball. Ping: Hillary and Barak have been in town, because for the first time in decades, Oregon's presidential primary matters. Then there were the exchanges between Sam and Sho, and the "In congress, he'll protect Oregon taxpayers," and the "He says he's an independent, but his record says different", and the "I'll fight for the little guy," and so many more dukeing it out before our eyes and ears. Pong: rhodies and azaleas are bursting forth. Did you get embraced, enveloped by the pink ones on the parking lot side of the church as you came in today? What fabulous renewing, refreshing gifts, these spectacular living things doing their level best all over the region, bringing us sensual and spiritual delight. Ping: the skyrocketing death toll in Myanmar, bloated rotting human carnage, well over 100,000, overloading our ability even to comprehend, with more than a million other human beings, people like ourselves, without homes, family members, food, water. And the country's unconscionable military rulers, hunkered down in fearful iron-fisted control, terrified of the truth, overwhelmed with the situation, willing to let tens of thousands more perish as they protect their power and position. Pong: Portland's Rose Festival Court, bright, vibrant young women, representing much that is terrific about our youth, becoming part of a wonderful festival which builds community, crossing all sorts of ethnic and economic barriers, bringing people together, just for enjoyment. Ping: the nation of Lebanon, disintegrating again into civil chaos. Not long ago, the commercial and tourist flower of the Middle East. Pong: Yesterday, giving thanks to God for the more than nine decades of the life of the Rev. Burton Alvis. A wonderful, gentle spirit, with lively humor, a passion for music and God's creation, and deep supportive compassion in ministry. He was a gift. Ping: Israel, celebrating the 60th anniversary of its founding as a nation, as a place where for the first time in tens of centuries, Jews would be able to live in their own land, free from persecution historic and new, free from the threat of Holocaust, free to live out the promise of their faith, a faith we share with them. Pong: the 60th anniversary of Nakba, the catastrophe, when more than 700,000 Palestinians were violently forced from their ancestral villages and towns, uprooted to refugee camps, as the nation of Israel took shape. Ping: spring gardening, the first fresh rhubarb pie of the season, my potatoes and beans deciding it is finally OK to grow. Pong: the price of a barrel of crude oil up every day.
What a week! And here we are, celebrating the ancient event of Pentecost, the birth day of the Christian community in the Spirit, here. Pentecost. What we are doing seems almost quaint, in comparison with the ping pong of the week. Pentecost, the advent of the Spirit, slapping those astonished disciples up the side of their heads with flames and revolutionary ways of knowing and hearing and being. There in Jerusalem, the prophetic of God became truth. Outrageous, second class Jews from all over the world-they were less than the best because they lived elsewhere than Jerusalem, and did not speak the mother tongue as clearly, as fluently as those in the know-second class ones heard the new word from God's Spirit just the same as the insiders, the purebloods. And, they heard from true outsiders, mere Galileans, ignorant peasants from that place up north. Astonishing, it was from them that they learned the latest from God.
Being outsiders, speaking or hearing, was not actually new in that people, of course. God had a long habit of doing that. The unlikely holy connection traced itself back to someone named Abraham and his wife Sarah, who started wandering, following a spirit. Much later, Moses had helped people of similar ancestry escape slavery in Egypt, and told them that it was God almighty who had done the deed. God almighty, hearing the cries of nobodies, not the great somebody, not Pharaoh. Imagine how hard it must have been for Moses and those disorganized nobodies. Like herding hundreds of cats, through a rocky arid wilderness no less. And his job was to keep them connected to God, with each other, and somewhat happy. Anybody want his job?
Of course they grumbled a lot. At times their whining got to Moses. He was only human, after all. He nearly resigned, till God told him he'd get him some help, actually 70 helpers. What Moses needed was an orderly way to work with the disorder. He sounds like a Presbyterian. God told him to pick these men, and get them organized outside the holy tent. Then God would mark them, lay hands on them, ordain them for particular service, to assist Moses, to assist God. Moses did, and God took some of Moses' spiritual authority and spread it out, setting these 70 men aside for special purpose.
But then something disorderly happened. Two, Eldad and Medad, still in the camp, not at the luminous tent, got zapped too. Joshua responded with a need to control. Moses responded with an open door to God's work, however it might be shared.
In Acts, of course, it is the same response from people needing to explain and control: "Oh, this is nothing important. These dumb Galileans, they are just drunk."
In a sense, we who need decency and order, we respond similarly. The events in Numbers and Acts, later the outrageous things prophets said to wayward people of faith, even the life and teachings of the prophet Jesus, we are apt to tame and organize and regularize, until it all becomes acceptable and does not disturb us and Pentecost is nothing more than a quaint story. Loose spirits, confrontational voices, compassionate holy calls to amend our ways do not get very far with us. They never did, either.
Some of the respondents to the Rev. Jeremiah Wright's statements sound like that. As a preacher, I may wish he had said a few things differently, but I do not for a moment wish away his prophetic voice. It is part of our tradition, calling people to God's truth when we would rather avoid it, make it orderly and less disruptive. For so many to write him off is to deny the possibility of God's spirit working through him in that United Church of Christ congregation, a denomination, by the way, much like ours. During his pastorate, that city church has brought thousands into relationship with Jesus Christ, reached out to a hurting community with mission programs, education, social services, AIDS education and treatment programs and health care. In Chicago, Trinity Church is widely admired as a model of what a public church can and ought to be. And part of that lively Spirit is a voice that disturbs and disrupts, that calls God's people to be more than they are, and even this nation to be more than it is.
So, it seems to me that as we celebrate Pentecost this day, a word of caution is in order. We need to understand that God's Spirit is out of our control. In the midst of all of the pings and pongs of life, who knows what God is up to? Perhaps, instead of our politically correct, polite, namby pamby prayers, we should be down on our knees, passionately pleading with the Spirit, fiercely arguing with the Holy Mystery to break in in Myanmar, to shatter the leaders' fear, to melt cold closed hearts. Maybe we should ask that this become a heaven-sent opportunity to bring humankind into unprecedented cooperation across all sorts of barriers and lines, a Spirit-filled moment for Christians and Jews and Muslims and Buddhists and atheists-all sorts of people to come together. How astonishing that would be, for the sake of the world we believe God loves. We need to ask for and to listen for the Spirit breaking through.
Maybe the 60th anniversary of place for Jews and nightmare for Palestinians can become not yet another event of barrier building and hostility, but of opening, of recognizing that each people is deeply valued by God. We need to ask for and to listen for the Spirit breaking through.
This Pentecost Sunday we baptize two wonderful infants, precious gifts. In the sacrament, we hand them over to this mysterious, uncontrolled Spirit of Christ. Do we dare, actually? It should be a little scary every time we baptize anyone. What will God do as we consecrate these in Christ's name and promise? There is no telling at this point. They will spend the rest of their lives listening, watching for the Spirit breaking through to them.
Ping pong. Yes, life is like that. And here we are, within these sacred walls, invited, challenged, urged to trust this out-of-our-control Spirit in all of its wild and wonderful fullness. The dynamic Spirit of the risen Lord is present, active.
Finally, the ping pong is not actually about us, about our feelings, whether we eat manna or meat. Within the ping pong hides God, the astonishing One we know in Christ Jesus. Maybe, in all of the chaos and wonder and grace of life, that is all we need to know. It is enough.