Hello, again! I am Jim Jelinek and I serve at Trinity Church, Newport, RI, with my colleague The Rev. Alan Neale. This is another in our series of meditations/reflections during the coronavirus quarantine.
Today I want to “play with” a lesson that we rarely use on Pentecost because it is an alternate to the story from the Acts of the Apostles which is so very compelling. This is from the Book of Numbers, the fourth book of the Torah, and tells the story of dozens of the elders of Israel being infused with the spirit of the Lord. Briefly, Moses has been working every day from sometime after sunrise until just before sunset in the center of the encamped community as a judge over the people. When his father-in-law Jethro visited Moses and watched him in the “judgment seat,” Jethro asked Moses why he had to do all this by himself, for whenever two people had a disagreement, they would go to Moses, he would listen to them and make a judgment, and then they would (or maybe not) abide by his judgment. Jethro is rather like the first business consultant in the Bible. He is sure this work could be spread around and it would spare Moses a lot of work and even more, a lot of aggravation. In another version of this, we see and hear Moses whining to God about how hard he has to work, and God says to him, essentially, “Well, I have been waiting for you to get over your grandiosity and ask for help.” In both situations, this passage from Numbers is the culmination. [Numbers 11-24-30]
“Moses went out and told the people the words of the Lord; and he gathered seventy elders of the people, and placed them all around the tent. Then the Lord came down in the cloud and spoke to him, and took some of the spirit that was on him and put it on the seventy elders; and when the spirit rested upon them, they prophesied. But they did not do so again. Two men remained in the camp, one named Eldad and the other named Medad, and the spirit rested on them; they were among those registered, but they had not gone out to the tent, and so they prophesied in the camp. And a young man ran and told Moses, “Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp.” And Joshua son of Nun, the assistant of Moses, one of his chosen men, said, “My lord Moses, stop them!” But Moses said to him, “Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit on them!” And Moses and the elders of Israel returned to the camp.”
The Word of the Lord.
What a significant moment this was! Two men did not go out with the others, even though they had been selected to be among the elders to accompany Moses. We have no idea why. Given the turn of the story and the anguish and anger of someone who functioned as a “snitch,” this was seen as very negative, perhaps an undermining of the bigger story of the spiritual empowerment of the 70 who did go out with Moses into the tent in which everyone was transformed, empowered by God’s spirit in a new way.
Don’t we all know that there are powerful moments in life, that we have come at a later time (with deeper perspective), to believe are God-inspired and God-given? We are overwhelmed and blessed by such moments, and they have changed humanity.
But there are many at such times who speak out as purists, who are willing to proclaim that only those present in a particular place and time, only those who went through a particular experience or ritual are able to reveal and proclaim and, shall we say, “deliver” such a faith experience to others.
As a priest of the Church, I have had just such a reaction when something new arises that I do not understand. I, too, have wanted to be very cautious about trusting those who brought a very “new thing” to our thinking, who invited us believers to imagine God’s grace and redeeming power well beyond and way beyond our sense of deserving. As humans, our sense of fairness is always about the very most we can imagine as fair, yet we read and learn time and again in scripture that fairness is always about mercy. Mercy always opens the possibility of a new beginning. Is that “fair?” Well, if I am caught up in how much punishment or retribution someone deserves and should receive for whatever s/he has done, then I, of course do not want anything less than appropriate consequences, which always seem to mean the same degree of suffering that they have inflicted upon others.
In other words, as a human being, I want to call upon God to exact punishment in perfect retribution of the crime I believe has been committed; that is, make those folks suffer.
Yet I have been on the other side of that, too. In early 1993, during the search process and the many interviews several of us went through when the Diocese of Minnesota was electing a bishop, I said very clearly that I believed The Episcopal Church should ordain homosexual persons, even if they were in a partnership, and that we ought to bless those relationships. There were many throughout TEC who thought I should be punished for that, that I should not receive consents from bishops and Standing Committees in order to be consecrated as bishop because I was teaching something that was not part of the Church’s belief. I knew I was on the edge, but I had come to believe that if God created people who are homosexual, certainly God would want them to lead full and blessed lives as God wants for the rest of us.
Can you think of a time when you have caused so much pain and harm that you really wanted to make the consequences to you endlessly insufferable? I can never forget the time that I “failed” a parishioner miserably when I returned from a sabbatical during which her adult daughter committed suicide. During my first visit to her on my return, my response to her, though not blaming, so missed the possibility of being helpful to her that I failed in a way that I knew immediately caused more pain rather than alleviating it. I believed that God needed to make me suffer for that. However, even though I lived with the pain of that very difficult failure, God allowed me to be present with so many others in similar circumstances, times when I did not “mess it up.”
God is indeed gracious, and as we pray in the Prayer of Humble Access, God’s “property is always to have mercy.” I have known that grace and mercy and the peace that comes with it. Have you?
Let us pray.
O God of peace, you have taught us that in returning and rest we shall be saved, in quietness and in confidence shall be our strength: By the might of your Spirit lift us, we pray, to your presence, where we may be still and know that you are God; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. [For Quiet Confidence, BCP, p. 832]
Have a good day, stay safe, and may God bless and keep you always. +JLJ