September 26, 2021 / 18th Sunday after Pentecost / Richard Holmer
First Reading Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29 / Second Reading James 5:3-20 / Gospel Mark 9:38-50
Speak a Good Word
Psalm 19 is a beautiful psalm that highlights different forms of speaking. The psalm begins: “The heavens are telling the glory of God, the firmament proclaims his handiwork.” The psalm continues: “One day tells its tale to another, their voice goes out through all the earth.” For those who have ears to hear, God’s creation speaks volumes about the goodness and greatness of God. As the psalm continues it recalls the way that God speaks to his people. "The Law of the Lord is perfect. The testimony of the Lord is sure and gives wisdom to the innocent. The judgments of the Lord are true and righteousness." God reveals his will by speaking a word that is clear and compelling.
The psalm concludes by recalling that we, too, have the capacity (and the responsibility) to speak: “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my strength and my redeemer.” God gives the power to speak, and we ask God for grace to say what is worth hearing.
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Right now in confirmation class we have been studying the Apostles’ Creed – beginning with the First Article, which deals with creation. What is marvelous in the first chapter of Genesis is that God creates everything by SPEAKING it into being. God needs no tools or resources. God speaks, and out of nothing comes everything. A most powerful word! God’s final act in the creation is forming human beings. God says: “Let us make humankind in our image according to our likeness – both male and female.” One way that you and I share God’s likeness is our capacity for speech. Like God we can speak words that matter.
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A few weeks ago, a scripture reading from James offered caution about the power of the human tongue – how it can both bless and curse. James writes: “no one can tame the tongue . . . it is like a fire . . . with it we bless the Lord and Father and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God.”
Speech is a potent force – but it is not always constructive. We see evidence of this fact in our First Reading from the Book of Numbers. Let’s set the scene. The Israelites are traveling through a barren wilderness. They have been away from Egypt for some time. Any food and provisions they brought with them are now long gone. As they begin to hunger, God provides a miraculous food: Manna from heaven. Each day they collect enough to sustain them for another day. But after a while, the people grow weary of manna – a bland diet with no variety. They have strong cravings – they are HANGRY, you know, hungry and angry. They actually begin to long for the days when they were slaves in Egypt. “If only we had meat to eat!” “We used to eat fish for nothing,” (no fish out in the desert.) “We recall cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions, garlic” – what they really need is a farmer’s market. But “there is nothing at all but this manna to look at.”
So the people are very unhappy, God is angry at their ingratitude, and Moses is stressed out by all his responsibilities. So now it is Moses’ turn to speak – and Moses launches into a litany of complaints to God. It’s a combination of a heartfelt prayer, a deep lament, and an angry tirade. He says to the Lord: “Why have you treated me so badly?” “Why have I not found favor with you, that you burden me with all these people?” “Did I conceive them?” “Did I give birth to them?” “Why is it my job to get them to the promised land?” “And where am I supposed to get meat for all these people?” “This people is too heavy for me to bear!” And then Moses concludes his string of complaints with this kicker: “Lord, if this is the way you are going to treat me, put me out of my misery – put me to death at once!”
You kind of want to warn Moses, “Hey Moses, be careful what you ask for when you are speaking to God!” Yet God doesn’t punish Moses for all his complaints. Instead God comes up with a whole new plan – a complete reorganization. There will be a new level of middle managers: 70 Elders to help Moses carry the load. Two of the appointed 70 – Eldad and Medad – miss the installation ceremony at the tabernacle. However, a report comes to Moses that Eldad and Medad are prophesying back at the camp (they are using the gift of speech). Joshua is very upset about these two speaking and tells Moses to stop them. Then comes the punchline to this whole story: Moses declares, “Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit on them!” Moses doesn’t want to limit who can speak for God. He wishes all God’s people could and would do so. He would welcome all to speak a good word. But in those days spiritual gifts were limited to a few – those especially appointed by God as prophets, priests and leaders.
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Flash forward to today – here and now. All of us are capable of speaking. Like those Israelites in the wilderness, hangry and tired of manna – and like Moses, weary of leading his band of stubborn and stiff-necked people – we know how to complain! We have no problem voicing our frustrations.
But there is a significant difference between then and now. Moses wished God would put his Spirit on all of his people. It didn’t happen then – but it did happen on the Day of Pentecost. God’s Spirit was poured out on all the people who were gathered that day. That same spirit was given to each of us at baptism: “Pour your Holy Spirit upon this child: the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord, the spirit of joy in your presence.” So you and I have the capacity to speak – and not only our complaints. Led by the Spirit, we can speak words of wisdom and grace, faithful words, godly words, inspired words. Far too often we are unready or unwilling to speak up, to speak of our faith, to testify to the hope that is in us.
Actually, each year we ask our confirmands to do precisely this: to share in their own words what it means to be a Christian. Last Monday night they read their essays at our church council meeting. Members were quite impressed by what our two students shared. So was I! They shared words of conviction, commitment and hope – our own Eldad and Medad. Here is a bit of what they had to say. You will hear both essays in a few moments.
“We should be generous with our time, our good fortune, our compassion and our unconditional love.”
“We should have the courage to put the needs of others before our own; and to always be truth tellers.”
“Even when life knocks you down and you’re feeling small, there is still hope to be found.”
"No matter what background we come from, we are all Christians, making us all God’s children.”
“I realize that life itself is a miracle given to us by God, and I had taken that for granted, never truly realizing how great life is.”