prayer and commentary by Rev. Priscilla Paris-Austin
Texts: Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29; Psalm 19:7-14; James 5:13-20; Mark 9:38-50
Disclaimer Note: If you are using the Semi-continuous readings (Esther 7;1-6, 9-10; 9:20-22 and Psalm 124) you are going to be wrestling with the story which is the origins of the Purim festival, a tale of threats, deception and victory claimed in the execution of an enemy. Beyond giving you caution that this tale can stir up feelings around abuse for survivors, especially during our present news cycle, I have no help for you this week. If you have no idea how the story might trigger folx, please don’t touch it. If you have a sense of the dangerous waters into which you are treading, you will be in my prayers as you preach and teach on the text.
Prayer of the Day
Teaching God, you nurture and shape us for life together with you and one another. Open our eyes and hearts to see the wisdom you grant us in elders and prophets from all corners of the community. Open our hearts to the partnerships you have designed for us with strangers and friends. May we always honor and value relationship with all who call upon your name.
The importance of elders and ancestors cannot be overstated in my family of origin. Elders with a lifetime of wisdom and experience have much to offer as we learn how to live in this broken world. Some elders gain this wisdom over time, but others acquire it through hard life lessons. And each of the elders holds a place of esteem, serving in a role that points to their particular significance to the family. As the elders move on to become ancestors, those cherished roles are passed on to the subsequent generation. In the business world, this process is known as “succession planning”. But in the world of family relationships, it is simply known as the passing of the mantle. The goofy uncle teaches all his good jokes and skills of comic timing to his silly niece. Big Mama shares the family recipe for sweet rolls with the grandchild with aspirations of culinary school. Cousin Sweets who can heal anyone with a loving touch, whispers in the ear of Baby Cousin Pat who sends healing vibes through another generation.
It’s a natural progression that can be seen in our readings for this Sunday. In Sunday’s readings, both Moses and Jesus are in the midst of developing their network for succession planning or rather, growing their “family of disciples” onto whom the mantle will be passed. What’s intriguing to me, and perhaps edifying for us as church, is the distinctions between the human implementation and response versus the divine.
In Numbers, the Israelites are nonsensically complaining, … again, about the food God has provided. Moses, feeling overwhelmed is also complaining and eventually tells God: I am not able to carry all this people alone, for they are too heavy. (Num 11:14) So out of human self-pity and exhaustion, Moses is finally ready to share leadership. God’s plan is to gather 70 elders, a term that is not necessarily a sign of age, but more a sign of authority and respect within the community. Most of the elders come to the tent with Moses, but 2 remain with the people. Then the spirit of the Lord falls upon all of the elders and they begin to prophesy, the 68 in the tent and the 2 out in the community with the people. And here’s where the narrow human understanding tries to trip things up. Of the 68, scripture tells us: they prophesied. But they did not do so again. (Num 11:25c) and of the 2, a young man ran and told Moses, “Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp.” 28And Joshua son of Nun, the assistant of Moses, one of his chosen men, said, “My lord Moses, stop them!” (Num 11:27-28)
Can you imagine? A key leader of your congregation, desperate and exhausted finally opens themself up for support from the congregation and extends and invitation for new leaders to join them. Many who are called show up for a training or information gathering session. The gathered group speaks up or acts on the training once and then steps away. Meanwhile, a few who were called but couldn’t make it to the meeting start doing the work and keep doing it. Then “Joshua” starts complaining about the few who are doing the work; maybe they aren’t doing it the way it’s always been done, or they look different than the original key leader, or perhaps “Joshua” is jealous that he is not the only one being trained to take over. These are the very human responses to shifts in leadership.
The same thing happens in the Gospel, but with a divine twist. Jesus has been teaching and training the disciples, not from a place of being overwhelmed but rather from a desire to expand the ministry. That vision for multiplying ministry is the Jesus succession plan all along. The disciples follow the “Joshua” pattern; we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us. (Mark 9:38) Jesus tells the disciples, no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. 40Whoever is not against us is for us. (Mark 9:39-40).
Both Jesus and Moses, for different reasons (Jesus to expand ministry, Moses to relieve his exhaustion), express the same conclusion, anyone can pick up the mantle as the spirit gives ability. If we follow the instruction of James, we will seek out wisdom, support and healing, discerning always, who the elders among us may be.
There’s a lesson for the church here in leadership development. What is motivating our search for new leaders? Are we driven by frustration and exhaustion? Or do we have an eye on multiplying ministry? Are we shutting down gifted leaders because they didn’t follow the “correct” training model? Do we diminish pastoral leaders who are training through TEEM instead of going to seminary?
The text of Numbers and Mark this week challenge us to reimagine what leadership can look like in the church. The Holy Spirit will not be contained by our human requirements. She will blow where she chooses, and anoint who she will. Are we ready to follow her lead? Are we open to the possibility of unexpected partnerships? Do we have our eye on the succession plan or on the growth of ministry for the sake of the world?
Let’s pray: Holy Spirit, be our guide. Teach us your statutes and rid us of the narrow lens of jealousy that can keep us from the riches of your love. Humble us, that we may be open to your guidance through our elders, whether they are in “the tent” or in the community. And may the words of our mouths and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable to you. Amen