Texts: Numbers 11: 24-29; Mark 9:38-40
Here’s an old riddle for the children. Who was the only person in the Bible who was born without parents? Hint: the answer is in today’s Hebrew Bible reading. Answer: Joshua, son of Nun.
Joshua son of Nun, Moses’s second in command, complained that Eldad and Medad were prophesying even though they’d not been part of the ritual the other seventy elders experienced. Similarly, some people outside the twelve disciples of Jesus’s inner circle were healing in Jesus’ name. These people, unknown to Jesus, were attributing their good deeds to his influence on their lives, which rankled the twelve actually chosen by Jesus. Like Joshua, the disciples of Jesus were upset about unauthorized people doing deeds of power. Both Moses and Jesus surprised their followers by defending those who were doing godly work without their authorization.
I appreciate these two stories that critique hierarchy, support the priesthood of all believers, and make space, it seems to me, for the ordination of people tradition has excluded like women and LGBT persons.
But when Jesus said, “Whoever is not against us is for us” it got more complicated for me. I’m happy that Jesus sought common cause with people who were not his followers. But then I remember in another Gospel account (Matt 12:30), Jesus says, “Whoever is not with me is against me”—seemingly the opposite stance he takes in Mark. Maybe this general theme, stated in contradictory ways, suggests that the early church really debated who could authentically claim to represent Jesus and really worried about who was in their group.
Although we at Open Table define Christian generously, we are sometimes unsure about who’s authentically a progressive Christian. Early on some founding members of our new church worried that fundamentalists might join our ranks and alter our commitments to openness and inclusion, to questioning and following in Jesus’s way rather than adhering to particular beliefs. That concern was understandable. We are not part of the majority Christian culture in Mobile. We wanted to be clear about our values and convictions—to offer “truth in advertising” when we described ourselves to others. Some of us still feel a need to say, in effect, “I’m not THAT kind of Christian.” Yet we don’t want to distance ourselves from other Christians—even if they don’t claim us. And because we have taken unpopular positions, we may wonder, like the disciples, whom we can trust as allies. Maybe I sometimes unduly stress our distinctively progressive flavor so others don’t make assumptions about our faith community—although I also emphasize our welcome to everyone regardless of their beliefs.
But that tension is inherent in all religions. The word religion is rooted in the Latin religare—ligare is “to bind together” and religare is “to bring together or bind together again.” Religion has always been about reconnecting and binding people together in a shared identity. But in doing so, religion creates a group identity for some that inevitably sets one group apart from other groups. In this election season we see that tendency for all groups and ideologies. Political parties strain to expand their influence to a wider constituency while maintaining their distinctions.
Likewise Christianity today struggles to keep its distinctiveness while increasing its appeal to potential Christians and its friendships with nonChristians. And denominations within Christianity profess one Lord while remaining separated by theological, ecclesiological, and social differences. Jesus followers seem inevitably splintered—even during a galvanizing event like the visit of Pope Francis this past week.
Most of the television media adored the pontiff, though some commentators doubted, like Joshua son of Nun, that the Pope was speaking for all Christians on every particular issue. Especially on social and print media, some emphasized or minimized the Pope’s positions on which they disagreed.
Many progressives, for example, celebrated the Pope’s support for the environment, labor, immigrants, the poor; they appreciated his opposition to the death penalty and unbridled capitalism; then they gave him a pass for implicitly disallowing women priests and contraception, or they gave him points for at least seeming to soften the Church’s condemnation of LGBT persons. For progressives, is the Pope for us or against us?
I, for one, join in common cause with Pope Francis. However, although I trust the goodness and gentleness of this man, I can’t remain silent about his silence on some issues of injustice. I strained to hear him assure us that systemic changes have been instated to correct and atone for the pedophile priest scandals. I looked for some glimmer of his realization that championing the marginalized includes those marginalized by the Church. I keep hoping he’ll see that women and LGBT folks deserve full inclusion. I keep thinking if he could just hang around women and gay people for awhile, this empathetic man might revise some church teachings.
As a flawed person myself, I should probably refrain from criticizing a beloved church leader with whom I am in agreement on so much. But well-intended, good people have their blind spots. And this good person has great influence. Pope Francis is certainly “not against us.” But that doesn’t mean I should agree with all this influential pope says or be silent about points of disagreement. Many faithful Catholics feel free to disagree on some matters and work for change.
Yet it’s tricky to persistently seek common ground with those “who are not against us” while maintaining our integrity and authentic witness. As Open Table joins hands with various groups and individuals in our community, we can, for instance, shelter the homeless through ecumenical partnerships without having to agree with other host churches on doctrinal matters. We can work on LGBT rights with people of all religious faiths and no religious faith at all. We can always love the persons in other groups without becoming complicit in actions they support but which we might see as harmful. And so we continually discern. Not to seek out examples of errant Christianity in order to admonish others but simply to make sure we are acting in ways consistent with our understanding of the Jesus Way.
In this same week, as I’ve been listening to the Pope speak on a range of issues I care about and not hearing him speak at all about a few concerns, I read the stirring speech given Thursday at the National Cathedral in Washington by the President and General Minister of the United Church of Christ. The Reverend John Dorhaurer’s topic is surely the most important of our day. It’s a topic the Pope also strongly supported. It’s a topic that may be the very place where all people begin to find common ground. I share an excerpt from Rev. John Dorhaurer’s address to a multi-faith audience:
“It is an honor to be here with friends of our Earth, whose sacred texts all remind us how precious is the work of the Creator.
“No god we have imagined, no divine being with which we have communed, can or would tolerate what our hands have wrought from the goodness she fashioned.
“All things that we claim to be true on behalf of the gods we worship have no meaning, have no value, have no purpose unless and until they unite in common cause to restore health to our beloved Mother Earth.
“We find ourselves, all of us, engaged in open debate about the relevance of our respective faiths, of the value of our rich traditions and rituals, and of the authenticity of our theological suppositions. Many wonder if there is any relevancy left to religion itself.
. . .
“Our precious planet is dying. Whatever has before kept us apart must now be cast aside. We who broker in hope, who stay attuned to the voice and movement of the sacred among us, who find light in the darkness must unite a single movement and a common cause. We must as one inspire humankind to live differently. Or the Earth will die, casting us all aside. And those who saw as irrelevant will have won a Pyrrhic victory.
. . .
“Our voice matters. We can do this. If we harness the collective agency of our religious movements, we can literally move the Earth. Let us all stand in solidarity, all people of faith, united for the preservation of the Earth and the bounty and beauty it was created to sustain.”(Dorhauer)
Friends, earth care is the new test of our ecumenical connections, our devotion to God and God’s creation, our faithful participation in God’s creative work, our hope for the future. Moses and Jesus, if they were alive today, might mark those authorized to lead and those with whom we should collaborate by their efforts to heal our planet. Uplifting women and children, welcoming immigrants, combatting poverty and racism and heterosexim are, I believe, important ways to follow Jesus. But ending violence against not only persons but against the planet may be the most urgent and ultimate mark today of “Who’s with us?”. The White House released last week this Fact Sheet about “Advancing Shared Values for a Better World”—much of which is devoted to “environmental justice and climate resilience.” World leaders–presidents and popes–are helping us recognize “shared values.”
Who can lead? Who can work with us? Let us continue to seek allies and work with those with whom we have common cause. Let us listen to alternate perspectives. But let us keep our primary commitments to love God and God’s creation with the faith Jesus exhibited, a faith that assumes a future of unity and a commitment to hope.