"As I mused, the fire burned"

Reflection on life as a person of faith.

Leadership in Community

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The Induction of the Reverend David as Rector of St Georges’ Parish
November 13th, 2005

Numbers 11:16-17, 24-30 (note that is an expansion, the RCL ends at 25a), Psalm 84, Ephesians 4:7-16 (I cut the division out of the centre), John 15:9-16

Henri Nouwen once said that the basis of any ministry is not in competence, but in our willingness to lay down our lives in service to others. This is an appropriate thought to begin with, especially given our proximity to Remembrance Day and our thoughts around the sacrifices of soldiers past and present. Now this is not to suggest that David is to literally lay down his life in service to this parish…unless he really wants to, that is.

I’m in an unusual position in preaching at this induction, the induction of a friend, certainly, but a friend who has much more experience in ministry than I (even if not as much experience in life). So it is with some trepidation that I proceed in this sermon and only with great restraint that I did not opt for thirty minutes of stories about David titled, ‘silly things David has done’ or ‘the gruesome tale of a Rector’s Warden’ from my time as a warden. This would have been an easy way out, would have been quite amusing for all of us but really would have made no serious engagement with this event, or with the texts before us. So, I’ll proceed boldly and tell you what I have read through the eyes of my inexperience and only throw hints of advice in. What I want to do is take a serious look at the reading from the Book of Numbers.

The Book of Numbers comes to us as a part of Torah, the law books of the Hebrew Bible and tells us the story of the Nation of Israel’s travels in the wilderness. It is a very interesting book within Torah for it contains many situations and descriptions that can tell us much about the job of leaders within a community and the challenge of being in a community in the wilderness. When I speak of leadership in the community I am speaking very much of all people in the community and not just the priest.

The lectionary has cut off some of the most interesting parts of chapter 11, so we have heard tonight the account of the anointing of the 70 elders with the holy spirit, to help Moses out in the task of leading these troublesome people. I’ll range a bit beyond this passage. At the very start of chapter 11 we have this very interesting verse: “And the people complained in the hearing of the LORD about their misfortunes; and when the LORD heard it, his anger was kindled, and the fire of the LORD burned among them, and consumed some outlying parts of the camp.” Certainly an exciting start to the chapter, complain and ‘some outlying parts of the camp’ are burned up.

Aside from being a good passage to mention when ever anyone complains about their lot in life, this contains perhaps the first lesson about leadership in a community of faith. You’re doing God’s work, you’re God’s man one might say, and you stand in community with that mantle upon your shoulders. It is always important to keep foremost in your mind that we’re not dealing with a CEO at head office of whom you can speak disparagingly when you’re sitting at Tim Horton’s with all the other priests. This is the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God of the brooding chaos, the maker of heaven and earth, the source of all our being etc etc. In other words, we’re not dealing with a tame being (as CS Lewis always said in Narnia, you know Aslan is not a tame lion).

So, when the Israelites begin to complain about their lot in life, even though they’re being fed and watered and guided…their clothes are not wearing out and their feet are not swelling and most of all they’re not under bondage in Egypt anymore, and not having to make mud bricks with no straw. They’re free, wandering almost aimlessly in the desert, but free. That ever-human tendency sets in and they begin a grass is greener thought process…or perhaps the sand is cooler on the other side of the dune process and complain strongly enough that God hears and is not impressed.

The reaction reinforces that idea of the wild God, for in his anger fire arises and burns up the outer edges of the camp. () A lesson, don’t work to anger God or you may wake the next morning to find part of the church hall gone. More importantly is that sometimes disaster will befall the community of faith, will come in a crisis involving burning canvas, and will require the priest to step in and intercede before God for the people of that community.

We’ll see as this story unfolds that the edges of the community are a place of great importance and also of great risk. As the Israelites traveled through the wilderness you will read in Numbers very detailed instructions about how the camp was to be set up. There is throughout Hebrew thought an emphasis on the importance of separation between dissimilar objects. Camp set up is intended to preserve a place that is safe and holy for God’s people as they travel, safe and holy in a wilderness full of risk. When you cross that boundary you’re never quite sure what is going to happen. So it is with the borders of our church communities…this is where we are in engagement with the wilderness that surrounds us, for us today that desert is secular culture and a world full of those who need to hear the gospel message.

Now, this idea of hinterlands surrounding your church can be somewhat intimidating. Rather than a place to be feared, this borderland is also a place of great potential for it is here that the real excitement begins. A good illustration of why the borderlands are a place of such great potential comes to us from the science of aircraft design. If you’re designing an airplane for comfort and a peaceful ride you have to trade off the ability to do barrel rolls. So our airliners like the Airbus 320 are not often seen at airshows flying upside down. Now, if you’re designing something you want to turn very quickly, you need to design some instability into the airplane…instability leads to better maneuverability.

On the borders of our community we have this condition of instability where sometimes we encounter God, and sometimes we encounter fire. But that very instability means that the borderlands are a place that also gives us great maneuverability. The same is true in the borders around our communities, while they are places of great risk they are also places of great opportunity…places that ask the priest to boldly venture forth to proclaim God’s presence in a wild and uncertain place…places that ask the entire community to engage those on their periphery to bring them deeper into the camp.

There is certainly risk for the community in this activity and we never like to venture into instability. It is here that we may find our particular mission and in that instability that we may learn to truly follow God.

The lectionary has snipped out the text about Moses and the anointing of the 70 elders to assist him in the task of leadership. We’ll get to this in a moment but I have to briefly comment on the missing text from the middle, which is a dialogue about the coming of meat to the camp of the Israelites. The people are hunger and unsatisfied with the food from heaven that is being provided and so they complain. God listens and, unlike his fiery response to the first complaint in the chapter, agrees to send them meat to eat. God will not just send them meat, but so much that “it will come out of your nostrils and become loathsome to you, because you have rejected the Lord who is among you…”. When you read on in chapter 11 you hear that meat comes, more than they know what to do with, and as they’re sitting down to a dinner of quail they are struck with a plague sent by God. So, without belabouring the point, here we have twice in this chapter the cycle of complaint by the people – followed by God’s angry response that ends in fire on the boundaries or in a plague.

Now one of the interesting points about the actual lection tonight, this assigning of the 70 elders to assist Moses is that this too was a result of Moses’ complaints before God. This was a good complaint too, full of mothering imagery and is something that most of us have probably said at one time or another and I picture Moses speaking here with a little more vitriol than we normally use in this passage…so this is one of the times I like to use Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase: “”Why are you treating me this way? What did I ever do to you to deserve this? Did I conceive them? Was I their mother? So why dump the responsibility of this people on me? 12Why tell me to carry them around like a nursing mother, carry them all the way to the land you promised to their ancestors?“ But, even with this complaint, God listens to Moses who does not receive literal fire or a plague but 70 assistants to aid in managing God’s people.
So, what we might conclude from this exchange is that God listens to community leaders who are in trouble. Moses, seemingly at the end of his rope, cries out and receives immediate aid. Rather than drawing a distinction here between leaders and the community, let me instead look at the mode of complaint. The Israelites were complaining without acknowledging all the great works God was doing in their midst. We might call this type of complaint whining. Moses seems to be coming from more a space of frustration and exhaustion over his inability to keep everything together for these people. In the first case God responds with frustration “How long, O Israel?”; in the second case with support.

If you think back on your own lives you can probably recall both types of responses to prayer…sometimes the response is ‘stop whining…I’ve given you what you need, now get out and use it’…other times the response is ‘I hear your pain, help is on the way’. We see both modes of response offered here in Chapter 11 and the lesson to us is likely that we should continue to offer all of our pain and anguish to God, but be prepared for either kind of an answer in response.

As much as I enjoy obscure trips into the Hebrew language it often does not make good sermon material as it is difficult to get people as excited as I get about ancient languages. There is one very important point around this story of the quail that requires some Hebrew. We’re told that it is a rabble that is stirring up the people’s desire for meat. The Hebrew word for rabble or riffraff used here is ‘asafsuf and refers to the non-Israelites that joined the flight of Israel out of Egypt. So here we have a small group from outside of the community instigating unrest within the community and the community ends up suffering as a result. This experience is a lesson to us to be aware of those outside our communities who seek to stir up unrest with the community and that we need to proceed very cautiously in this case. As with the camp in the wilderness, sometimes these people may be living in a tent next door to us but bring a message of discord that seeks to damage the greater community.

Now, the seventy elders. This journey through the wilderness requires different gifts and different leadership than was required for a nation under slavery in Egypt. Things go alright for the first part of the new journey, and Moses keeps things together. After a while…essentially when they get into the hard part of the journey…these leadership skills no longer meet the challenge, and so there is a change.

There is a very strong message here for each of our church communities, and particularly any community that has been through conflict and division and is feeling like they’re just setting out on the new leg of a journey into the unknown, into the wilderness. The message is that some new leadership approaches may be required to deal with the unknown that is approaching, that in this time of instability the community needs to stay on its toes so it can quickly manoeuvre to meet new challenges.

Now, Moses gathers the 70 and takes them out of the camp to the tent of the presence or the tent of meeting. There the Lord comes down in a cloud and literally takes some of the spirit from Moses and places it on the 70 elders…there is a literal dilution of Moses’ leadership authority that is taking place. When the spirit rests upon them they enter a prophetic state and then it passes. In this case their anointing with the spirit is apparently just to visibly confirm God’s blessing on those Moses has selected.

But, something unexpected happens. Even though Moses has the 70 requested by God outside the camp, two others, Eldad and Medad who remained in the camp, also receive this spiritual anointing. This causes a stir and a complaint for here this is seen as a direct challenge to Moses’ authority. This is very significant for us in our search for leadership and community guidance in this chapter. First, note that these elders had to leave the camp to be anointed by God…they in effect had to enter deeper into the wilderness prior to appointment. The long wilderness tradition speaks to this whereby in entering deeper into the wilderness we come to meet God. It also suggests to me that sometimes we need to dwell in that place of wilderness, in that place of instability on the borders of our comfort, before God comes to us. This too is a risky activity.

Second, note that God’s spirit spills over onto these two within the camp as well, all quite unplanned and we do not hear that these two stop the prophecy. Here again we see this image of a wild God and the idea that when we invoke the spirit in our midst we are never quite sure what will result…for God is the one calling the shots. There is a message for community leaders here as well, that sometimes leaders are found in the borders of the community, that is, not on vestry and sometimes leaders will arise in the strangest places. The role of the community is not to exclude, but to confirm God’s gifting on those people and then to allow them to carry out their work in the community.

This is one of the greatest challenges for a leader is the idea of sharing power and understanding throughout the community. I know in my military experience the last thing I ever wanted was a group of prophets running around issuing pronouncements…how would we keep order? How would we know who was in charge? Yet, when God calls people into leadership it is the task of community leaders to respond. Moses’ obedience to God and his leadership model comes through clearly in his answer, that he would wish that all of Israel would be so anointed.

So where has all this excursion through Numbers left us as we consider task of being a community or being a leader within that community? First, let us recognize that we are a church in the wilderness, and we’re seeking to find that place that God is calling us to. Next, to be aware that challenges will face us, that there will be agitators that will seek to disrupt things as we journey, and that the community leaders will need to stand before God in intercession for the community. Perhaps the most difficult part to prepare for, that God will occasionally raise up other leaders from within our camp and we need to be ready and willing to recognize them when they show up (and note here that there is no easy way of telling them apart from the agitating riffraff I mentioned earlier).

So, the challenge I will leave you with is in the process of selecting leaders. While Moses selects the 70 that are to assist him, God selects 71 and 72 and provides them with a share of the same spirit. I’ll be a little provocative in observing that Moses’ selection sounds very much like the way the church selects people for ordination. God raises up leaders from within the community of equal or greater capability that we need to then incorporate into the life of the community.

Our task then, is to always be open to where God is leading us, to do so in prayer and to do so trusting in the gifts and sustenance that He is providing us, even when all our being cries out to demand more. The message for a community with a change in ministry is that God is there, even in the uncertainty, guiding and directing and feeding.

My prayer for you and David, is that this leading of the Spirit will call you all through your wilderness to the promised land that is to be the future of St Georges in this growing community. A place where those on the borders are welcomed and the Spirit of God guides everything. Amen.


Written by sameo416

March 3, 2012 at 4:29 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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