26th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Numbers 11:25-29 | James 5:1-6 | Mark 9:38-43, 45, 47-48
Oh, God, manifest your almighty power above all by pardoning and showing mercy. Bestow, we pray, your grace abundantly upon us, and make those hastening to attain your promises heirs to the treasures of heaven. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God forever and ever, amen.
The image of that piece of music is so beautiful, because it captures the greatest of all the gifts that God has bestowed upon us, and that is forgiveness, total and complete forgiveness, mercy. It seems strange that people didn’t respond to it as if it was the great gift that it is. It’s almost as if you can listen to the story of salvation history and realize that, over time, it has taken them a very, very long time to understand what God is really up to. What’s he about? I’ve been preaching for over 50 years, and it’s only recently, after I’ve spent so much time reflecting and wondering and questioning my beliefs and trying to get to the heart of what I think is there, that all of a sudden, now things make sense. It’s like I’ll pick up a set of readings, like I did this week, and all of a sudden, right away, I see a theme that is being talked about from one tiny aspect of it, but if you don’t have an understanding of that fundamental theme that is going on, if you don’t understand the core of what God is up to, why he’s who he is and why we are who we are and what the relationship is all about, if you don’t, then these individual stories just don’t really make much sense. That’s why I love to have a chance, when I’m with you, other than on the radio, to do workshops like I did this summer in July. I have one in Fort Worth this weekend, and then I’m really encouraging you to come to the one that I’m going to do on October 4that the Eisemann Center at 8:00 in Richardson. It gives me a chance to give a longer, clearer understanding of the core of what this message is, and then it would seem to me, if it worked for me, it would work for you that all of a sudden then all the little stories begin to really make sense. So I love that chance of having a longer time to teach you, rather than just 15 minutes on a Sunday morning. So please come, 8:00 in Richardson. So much for my plug, but I really do love that opportunity.
But back to this set of readings, let’s look at them from the very perspective I just talked about. Forgiveness is the major theme in the New Testament. It’s radically new, radically new, and what we listen to is the essence of the ability for God to forgive us is a conviction that, if he lets us off the hook, which is what I think the Old Testament would be afraid of and even what religion today is afraid of, holding people to a certain way of living and then promising or rather prophesying or saying that, if they don’t do it, they’ll die — that’s using fear as a motive to make someone do something, and it works. But how do you use forgiveness as the motive and make it work? That’s the issue. That’s the mystery.
So let’s look at this first reading, because the first reading says something so important about what it is that God is trying to reveal to his people that has never been there before. For 2,000 years basically, the Old Testament took place, from the time of Adam, calling a group of people into a closer relationship with him, saying, “You’re my special group. I want to form you into a kind of community that supports each other, and I want to take care of you, and I want you to learn to trust me. But the most important thing you need to trust me in is my ability to accomplish what I’m promising. What do I promise? Freedom from slavery — freedom from slavery.” I don't know what you think about slavery, but I think you could see from the Old Testament very clearly that there was a slave master, and the slave master was the law. God didn’t push that agenda, but human beings certainly bought into it 100 percent. God gave us ten beautiful commandments that have to do with the nature of God, our nature and how we interact. They took that and tried to regulate it and make it into a kind of complicated system of laws and rules, 613 of them that manage every part of your daily life, and the burden was you must do that in order to be saved. And if you were doing it, it was so automatic that it almost had nothing to do with where your heart was or who you were. If you were just doing the things you were supposed to do, you were saved, and it was a disaster.
So God then introduces the thing that was always there in seed form in the Old Testament, and that is this mysterious thing called Spirit entering into humanity, a Spirit entering into humanity. What is Spirit? What is it? Is it us? Is it my will? Is it my mind? It’s some mysterious thing that changes the way in which we see ourselves and the world, and it opens an entirely new sense of what religion is calling us to, not a rigid set of rules and laws, customs, but a new life inspired by some mysterious power entering into us. So listen to this reading. It happens way early in the Old Testament where Moses is — well, I’d say God has chosen that Moses’ gifts that had been bestowed upon him that he’s been sharing with the world and with the world that he lived in — and when you sense what this Spirit is, it’s this power in you, and when he gives it to people, they’re able to prophesy. What does it mean to prophesy? Well, a prophet is the one that speaks the truth. So there’s some kind of mysterious Spirit that exists that can enter into a human being, entered into Moses, and now it’s time for it to branch out, and so it goes into all these others that are going to continue Moses’ work. So there’s a ritual, and the ritual, you imagine this Spirit, through the ritual, is being moved from Moses, not taken away from him, but it flows out of him and into these people, and then they’re able to speak the truth. There were two that weren’t in the ritual. They were just not there, and I think this is so fascinating, because we know how powerful ritual is. We know how powerful a group of people together praying is. We know what a sacrament and Eucharist, how powerful they are, but the shadow might be that, when you’re in those moments with God and you feel his presence so dramatically, it’s almost — well, it’s easy to think that, well, maybe then he’s not — if you’re not there with us, you’re not experiencing this, as if God can only work through a particular formula or a particular community. And right at the very beginning, when this transfer of Spirit starts spreading into other people, it’s clarified that, no, don’t get too hooked up or caught up in the ritual that it has to happen just this way, not just this way, not just this group, but this is the will of God, that his Spirit of truth, his Spirit of wisdom, his Spirit is being shared with us in ways never done before. And we see seeds of it in the Old Testament, but nothing is as explosive as this figure Jesus who comes in and says, “This is a gift to you.”
So you look at the gospel reading, and what it’s really saying is that — same thing. There’s a group of people following Jesus, and there’s some people doing something similar that they’re doing. They’re doing works, and the works are the manifestation of the truth. Anyone who has the truth has authority to change things, and the truth has a healing power when it enters into someone. So you get this image in the New Testament story, in the gospel story. It’s like, “Wait a minute. These people aren’t of our company. They’re not following you. They don’t claim you to be the Messiah, but they’re somehow doing the same thing we’re doing. And they’re having really effective results, and we should stop them.” Jesus smiles and says, “No. No, this is something that’s going to happen for everyone, for everyone.” Listen to that last line of the first reading. I think it’s so cool, because it ends by saying, “What if the Lord might want to bestow his gift on everyone?” Duh, yeah, he did. He does. All religions, all people that seek the truth, he’s there. He fills you with this mysterious power that enables you to see things clearly and to be given a kind of energy, grace. It’s hard to describe. It’s intangible, but you can feel it. There it is, this mysterious way of understanding who I am and what I’m here for and what we’re here for. There’s a truth we’re all invited to engage in.
So what’s interesting is that, in the old system, if you didn’t do what you were told, you were told that, if you didn’t, you would be punished. That was the main motive. So how do you change a system where the main motive is punishment to a new system where the main motive, the main teaching is forgiveness for the times you mess up? That’s radically different. If you’re worried about being punished for something and you’re told immediately as you do it that you’re forgiven, then you don’t have to be punished for it. Where does punishment go? Well, it’s like Jesus saying, “Look, we’ve got to drop this whole system, this — working so hard to receive the grace of God that’s going to save you is just completely out of balance. It is supposed to be a gift, and you’re supposed to receive it, and as you receive it, you’re going to try to use it. And as you use it, you’re going to make a lot of mistakes. You’re going to miss the point, miss the target. You’re going to sin, and so if I’ve given you a strength that you and only you know what it feels like, and it’s inside of you, and it’s from me, and it’s going to work, it’s going to take root in you, then you’ve got to learn how to use it.” It’s like being given some incredible form of transportation that sits in your house and you never get in it to go anywhere, because you’re afraid you’ll make a mistake. You’re afraid you’ll hit something. You’re afraid you’ll make a wrong turn. You’re afraid you’ll get a ticket. No, he wants you to use this incredible Spirit inside of you, and then the only way he can encourage you to take these risks and make mistakes is to say, “You’re forgiven. You’re forgiven.”
What’s he doing? He’s giving people an ability to not only receive but to work with a mysterious Spirit that makes a major shift within a human soul, and what is it? Moving from selfishness to selflessness, from using everything in the world to give you as much pleasure and enjoyment as you can to being in a position of finding the greatest peace and joy and giving and sharing stuff with other people. It’s a radical, complete 180. So it’s interesting that after he’s talking about this mysterious gift, he starts talking about what’s going to happen if you don’t do it, and so it’s like he’s taking those people who are — and this is such a beautiful image. He’s saying, “Anybody that takes one of these children, childlike figures who are just beginning to believe in me, and blows it out of them, better that they never were born. To that person who does that, who’s afraid of this Spirit, I want to tell you that I can use something else for you, and what I’ll use for you is the thing you understand. You don’t want to do what I’m asking you to do? I’m going to empower you to do it, but you don’t even want to participate in that? All right. Then I’m going to tell you, unless you start changing, you’re going to be forever in pain, unless you give up something.” And so he uses dramatic — “Cut off your hand if you’re a thief. Pluck out your eye if you sin that way.” It’s almost like he’s saying, don’t ever get in the way of this beautiful human race finally taking in this beautiful mystery of my Spirit in them that gives them the ability to live the life they’re called to, and whenever they make a mistake and I’m going to forgive them, don’t get in the way of taking that away. Because what you want to go back to is your old ways, and if you could avoid punishment by doing the law and get away with the most selfish behavior, you’ve found a system that you think you’ve figured out, and you think you’ve overcome it, but you’re going to be destroyed. What a gift, this new ways, this new life, this Spirit in you and me. What an incredible thing to come together and celebrate in community and also to know that it’s happening everywhere, everywhere where there’s people open, longing, seeking something that has been given to them, a tiny seed of selflessness that can blossom into the most beautiful, loving, forgiving life.
Father, your generosity is beyond our imagining. Your willingness to share your very self with us, your son, your Spirit dwelling inside of us, guiding us and inviting us into a life of true freedom, moving always from what is inside of us, knowing what we should be, knowing how we should act. It’s our inheritance. You’ve given us this gift, so let us delight in it. Let us feel its freedom, and let us feel the joy of entering into life as you created it, being your partner. And we ask this in Jesus’ name, amen.