Sermon for Sunday September 30th (Mandarin Service)

I am one of the fortunate ones.  All of my life, I have been a part of a Christian church. So from my earliest days I was steeped in the great stories of our faith – so much so that they have become as much a part of my own DNA as they are a part of the church’s DNA.  Whether it’s the creation story, or Jonah and the whale, or Joseph and his coat of many colors, or Elijah and the chariot of fire, or Daniel in the lion’s den, or Moses in the bulrushes, those stories have shaped me from my earliest days. 

This morning we got to hear just a tiny snippet from another one of those foundational faith stories in our first lesson from the Book of Numbers.  We heard just one small incident from the story of the Exodus, the pivotal narrative in the lives of the people of Israel… when, by the hand of God, Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt and their bondage under Pharaoh… followed by their 40-year sojourn in the wilderness… before finally being led by Joshua into the Promised Land.

Today’s episode recounts just a short episode from that great saga. And it begins in typical Exodus fashion… that is to say, with the people whining.  I must say, for all that God had done for them, it seems like the followers of Moses spent an awful lot of their time complaining about it.  And today is no exception.  Despite the fact that God has miraculously provided manna – this bread from heaven which inexplicably showed up on the ground each morning – for them as food for their journey, apparently that’s just not good enough. 

“We want meat to eat,” they cried out to Moses.  “We remember the good old days back in Egypt when we got fresh fish.  And remember all of that other great stuff we got as well… the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and – oh yeah… who can’t forget… the garlic.” Somehow they seem to have already forgotten that they also had spent their lives as slaves, making bricks from mud and straw to build Pharaoh’s empire.

Well, if complaining was good enough for the masses, then I guess Moses must have thought that it was good for him as well.  So Moses unloads on God:  "Why have you treated me so badly? Did I conceive all this people? Did I give birth to them? Where am I to get meat to give to all this people? If this is the way you are going to treat me, kill me now." 

So God says to Moses, “Look… I know you’re tired.  I know you’re stressed.  I know you’re over-worked.  I’ll tell you what I’m going to do.  Gather up a bunch of folks – let’s say, 70 of them – put them all together in the same room, and I’ll give them a blessing, and they can share the leadership with you.” And that’s exactly what Moses did… and God blessed those 70 elders… and they prophesied.

Here’s where the story takes another strange twist, however.  It seems that, while the 70 elders are all off prophesying together in a tent somewhere, two other guys back at camp with the remaining group of Israelites – two who were not a part of that select group of 70 – started prophesying as well. So somebody ran off to Moses to inform him about what these two were up to, and Joshua (Moses’ right hand man) said to Moses:  “Make them stop.  They’re not real.  They’re not special.  They’re not one of us.  They shouldn’t get to prophesy too.”

We are at that point in our fall national political cycle, with election day only five weeks from Tuesday, where it’s getting down to the wire for the candidates. And it seems like every campaign uses the same tactic. And that script goes something like this:  “I am right.  The other candidate is all wrong. Their policies are going to drive us down the road to destruction, and the fate of the world as we know it hangs in the balance.”  “If you’re not for us, you’re against us,” each candidate will say in their own carefully nuanced words, “and if you are against us, we will crush you.”

In the midst of this spirit of antagonism and animosity and deep polarization which seems to infect every aspect of our common life together, we come face-to-face with this morning’s gospel lesson. Just as Moses’ followers had come whining to him in the first reading from the Book of Numbers, today’s gospel begins with John, the so-called beloved disciple, whining to Jesus.

“Teacher”, John complains, “we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he wasn’t following us.”  He didn’t do it right.  He didn’t follow the rules.  He wasn’t a member of our club. He was different. He was an outsider. He was “one of them.” And Jesus responds: “Do not stop him… for whoever is not against us is for us.”

In a world rife with division – with “us” and “them”, with “insiders” and “outsiders”, with “good guys” and “bad guys” – Jesus responds by saying, “Stop.  Stop the madness.”  For just as the children of Israel had to learn in the wilderness of Sinai in our first lesson… just as the disciples had to learn in this morning’s gospel lesson… just as we have to learn time and time again in our own lives… the only way we will make it through this wilderness called life is in partnership with God and in partnership with one another.  Tolerance of difference… it isn’t simply a thoughtless, mindless acceptance of an “anything goes” way of life.  Rather, in the words of the early 20th century English statesman, John Morley, “toleration means reverence for the possibilities of truth, it means acknowledgment that it dwells in diverse places, and wears many colors, and speaks in strange tongues.”

I know that, unlike me, many of you are not life-long residents of the United States. Some of you have been here your whole life… others have been here many years… and some of you are relatively recent arrivals here. And so, because of differences in language, or customs, or understandings of how the world works, you are often treated as “the outsider”, “the other”, not one of “us” – whatever “us” is supposed to mean. It happens in your neighborhoods. It happens in the communities where you live. And yes, I know it even happens right here at church.

And I also know that it’s probably just as true that that road travels in both directions, and that there may well be times when we treat somebody else as the outsider, because they don’t fit in to our view of the world. Who, then, are the people or the groups in your lives who are far too often cast as the “other,” who might instead be viewed as bearers of some piece of the truth… even when it’s truth we don’t always want to hear?  When Jesus says, “Whoever is not against us is for us,” I hear an invitation to strike new and creative partnerships with those around us… those different than us… those we might otherwise avoid, or demonize, or dismiss. With whom might you partner today, combining your resources with theirs to further God’s work in the world?

That is the hope, and that is the promise, of the Christian life today. May we embrace that diversity, and celebrate our differentness, and proclaim the richness of our variety of experiences… that together we might walk through the wilderness… and together we might change the world.