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Moses shares the leadership!
A sermon preached on the Sunday of the Dedication of our new Organ and Chancel Renovation, September 30, 2012

Sermon for Pentecost 18 (Proper 21C)
September 30, 2012
Christ Church Andover

Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29; Psalm 19:7-14; Mark 9:38-50

I think it’s rather fitting that on the Sunday morning when we are dedicating a new organ and newly renovated chancel, and celebrating the completion of our building project, we have this wonderful story from the Book of Numbers about Moses and the children of Israel in the wilderness.  It’s a classic tale, a sometimes humorous, sometimes painfully real parable about life in community, with all of its joys and its challenges.  And it’s a good reminder to us here today of just how important community is, how we recognize and deal with some of its limits, and how important it is for us to give one another some slack!   

We’ve had to do a lot of that these past few years as we worked through some of the challenges of a major building project and a new organ.  We faced lots of challenging decisions over priorities, how we were to do all we wanted to do with limited resources, and in all of it how we continued to discern the will of God for us.  And just as with the children of Israel, that is not always an altogether clear proposition! 

The story in Numbers today starts off with the people getting a little restless.  They aren’t sure what Moses is up to, and whether he can actually do what he has proposed to do – lead them through the wilderness to a promised land.  They’re beginning to question whether it had been a good idea to come out here where there isn’t even really any food into the wilderness with this guy, except for some sticky stuff that shows up on the ground every morning, and they are even beginning to wonder whether they might not be better off had they stayed back in Egypt.  So, they do what people often do – romanticize the past, look back to the alleged glory days, forgetting that slavery wasn’t all that great a situation for them.

The people said to Moses:  “What are you doing to us, Moses?  Where are you taking us?!  We want meat!  We were better off in Egypt!  At least we had some fish – and it was free!”  And they got each other all worked up about it, saying, “remember all those leeks, and melons, and cucumbers, onions, garlic…!”  Their mouths were watering just thinking about it.  And then turning to Moses, “But all we get out here is manna, manna, manna!”

Moses listened – patiently at first.  As one translation puts it, “Moses heard the whining, all those families whining in front of their tents.”  And then, we are told, “God’s anger blazed up.”  Moses saw that things were falling apart fast!  It’s a moment of crisis!  So, what does Moses do?  He has a talk with the Lord, and he even gets a little angry with the Lord.

Moses says:  “Why are you treating me this way? What did I ever do to you to deserve this? Did I conceive these people?  Do I look like their mother? So why dump the responsibility of all these people on me?  Why tell me to carry them around like a nursing mother, carry them all the way to the land you promised to their ancestors?!  Where am I supposed to get meat for all these people who are whining to me, ‘Give us meat; we want meat.’ I can’t do this by myself—it’s too much, all these people. If this is how you intend to treat me, do me a favor and kill me.  Just take me out now.  I’ve seen enough; I’ve had enough. Let me out of here!”

And then the LORD says:  “Okay, okay, Moses, calm down.  Why don’t you try getting some help.  See if you can get seventy people who are leaders.  Pick out people who are respected and responsible.  Bring them to the meeting house and I’ll meet with you there.  I’ll come down and speak with you (and them), and I’ll take some of the Spirit that is on you and put it on them.  And then they’ll be able to take some of the load, and you won’t have to carry the whole thing alone.”

This classic story is about the importance of shared leadership.  As I think about these past seven years since we began this project, I can remember some restless moments, and I’m sure some of you can, too.  But then I think about all the people who stepped forward, people who provided leadership and guidance and counsel.  People who shared the load of responsibility, all those who listened to the different points of view, the worries and concerns, the anxieties.  How are we possibly going to do this?  Is it the right thing?  How are we going to pay for it?  Wasn’t what we had good enough?

If you look in your bulletin this morning, you’ll see a long list of people who served on the vestry, the building committee, the organ committee and the campaign committee these past seven years.  And it’s just about exactly seventy people!  Very biblical!  And just because people served on the vestry or one of these other committees doesn’t mean they always agreed on everything!  We have had to do a lot of listening to one another, and yes, there have sometimes been differences, but we are stronger and have a better outcome because of them.  We listened to one another, we sometimes changed our ideas and opinions because of one another.  We grew into a deeper kind of community because of what we learned from our differences.  We rarely voted on a matter until we had worked through the issues and come to a consensus – or very nearly so.

We’ve had some extraordinary leadership emerge in this parish throughout this process.  People like Tom Childs and Chris Huntress brought their skills in the building trades to the table.  Others brought their skills in finance, or design, or liturgy, or woodworking, or fundraising, or any number of other skills.  Some brought cookies to meetings.  Others took notes.  Some did what Jesus said in the gospel today and just offered a cup of water. 

The important thing is that we pulled together.  When you pull, yes, there are tensions, and those tensions are good!  They didn’t pull us apart, but have made us stronger.  And we know, even more than we did before, that we can go through challenges together and come through them, and not just come through them, but come through them stronger, more resiliant than we were before.

So, what do we learn today from Moses and the children of Israel?  Several things:

  1. Yes, people sometimes get restless.
  2. People sometimes complain, and some even want to go back to where we started.
  3. People sometimes have a tendency to focus on what they don’t have and not on what they do have.
  4. People sometimes project their own needs and desires onto their leaders.
  5. Leaders can’t be too concerned about being popular, or about pleasing all the people all the time.
  6. Leaders can never be all things to all people.
  7. Leaders sometimes get frustrated.
  8. Leaders need other people.
  9. We are at our best when people step forward to share the burden, to share in leadership, to share in carrying the load of responsibility.

Christ Church will need to remember all these lessons in the coming months, as the strategic planning process continues, and as the search for new leadership begins. 

And we always need to remember what Jesus taught the disciples about leadership.  Remember what happened when they were getting themselves all worked up about who was the greatest?  We heard in the gospel last week Jesus teaching them that whoever wants to be first must be last and, yes, servant of all.  And he took a child in his arms and said, “whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” 

Today, the disciples are testing the boundaries in another direction.  They’re worried about spiritual authority.  They haven’t been very successful at casting out demons, but they sure don’t like it that someone else has come along and is doing so.  They’re upset because they saw someone using Jesus’ name to cast out demons, and they tried to stop him, because he didn’t have the right identity card.  “He was not following us,” they said.  (v. 38)

Jesus wasn’t nearly so concerned about that.  And what does Jesus say to them?  He tells them to leave him alone.  Don’t stop him – for “no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me.  Whoever is not against us is for us.”

In other words, let’s not get too excited about whether someone is following us or not.  If what they’re doing is good, don’t worry about who gets the credit!  It was just one more example of Jesus’ ethic of inclusion, lowering the barriers so that all can become part of God’s domain.

Let me leave us this morning with one more thought as we ponder the meaning of this moment in our life.  Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk and one of the great spiritual lights of the 20th century, once said “The biggest human temptation is to settle for too little.”  There were certainly many moments in this journey when we could have been tempted to settle for too little.  But we didn’t.  We have together created a thing of beauty, a renewed and revitalized house of worship, where the souls of people will be nurtured and voices will be lifted in praise to God for generations to come.  We set our sights high, and we accomplished what we decided to do.   And we did it with a lot of prayer, with shared leadership and a spirit of servant leadership.  May it be a blessing to us and to this community for many years – many generations – to come!

Last Published: October 9, 2012 2:47 PM