Today the Lectionary gives us what, at first glance, are two stories about leadership, but what they really are are stories of people trying to protect God (or God’s appointed leader) in inappropriate ways
First, we have the story from the Book of Numbers which tells of the complaints of hunger voiced by the Hebrew wanderers to Moses. I have to admit that, growing up in Nevada as I did, I always thought that “fleshpots” was a much more lascivious word than it turns out to be; all it means is “stewpots.” The people yearned for the foods with which they had become familiar in Egypt.
Living along the Nile, they had been able to fish and get that source of protein for free. When they worked on whatever project they were assigned as “slaves of Pharaoh,” apparently they were fed from the fleshpots. Bible commentator Adam Clark writes, “They were doubtless fed in various companies by their task masters in particular places, where large pots or boilers were fixed for the purpose of cooking their victuals.” They had grown used, perhaps, to receiving a ration of a stew probably made of lentils, some sort of grain, and mutton flavored with leeks, garlic, and onions. Even though they were getting manna from God, they longed for the familiar flavors of Egypt, the familiar certainties of slavery. As a colleague of mine has commented, “You can take the people out Egypt, but you can’t take Egypt out of the people.”
So they complained to Moses and Moses, as he often did, set the pattern for religious leadership for generations, for millennia to come: he complained to God. “Why did you call me to this ministry?” he asked. Or, as the Bible quotes him: “Moses said to the Lord, ‘Why have you treated your servant so badly? Why have I not found favor in your sight, that you lay the burden of all this people on me?'”
The Lord’s instruction to Moses is the same advice which has been given to leaders, especially religious leaders, ever since: Don’t try to do this all on your own! Share the burden. Empower additional leaders to work with you. This is not new advice to Moses. He’s already been told this by his father-in-law, Jethro the priest of Midian.
Moses when he fled Egypt after killing an Egyptian guard, went to work for Jethro and eventually married Jethro’s daughter Zipporah. When Moses went back to Egypt follow God’s command to set the people free, he apparently sent Zipporah and his sons to live with her father, but once Moses and the Hebrews had left Egypt and camped at the foot of Mount Sinai, Jethro brough Zipporah and the sons back to Moses. While there, he observed Moses in his work as leader of the people and then became the world’s first recorded corporate management consultant.
He gave Moses some advice about how to avoid burn-out in the 18th chapter of Exodus
When Moses’ father-in-law saw all that he was doing for the people, he said, “What is this that you are doing for the people? Why do you sit alone, while all the people stand around you from morning until evening?” . . . Moses’ father-in-law said to him, “What you are doing is not good. You will surely wear yourself out, both you and these people with you. For the task is too heavy for you; you cannot do it alone.” . . . So Moses listened to his father-in-law and did all that he had said. Moses chose able men from all Israel and appointed them as heads over the people, as officers over thousands, hundreds, fifties, and tens. And they judged the people at all times; hard cases they brought to Moses, but any minor case they decided themselves.
So, here in the Book of Numbers, sometime later in the exodus story, we have the Lord basically affirming Jethro’s advice: You can’t do it alone. Others must also participate in the servant leadership of God’s People.
God has Moses gather seventy good and capable people (“men” it says in the less-than-gender-inclusive language and social context of ancient Hebrew scriptures) in the tent of meeting. As they are assembled there, God takes some of the spirit of leadership, described here as the power of prophecy, from Moses and gives it to them.
But there are two others back in the camp, men named Eldad and Medad, who also receive that power, that spirit of servant leadership, and somehow this immediately apparent to those around them. So a young man runs from the camp to tell Joshua, the son of Nun, Moses’ assistant, and, when Joshua hears this, he wants it stopped. He wants Moses to protect God. God’s plan, as Joshua understands it, is not being followed and Joshua wants Moses to protect God.
He complains to Moses: “Stop them! They’re not following the rules! They aren’t doing things according to the rubrics of the Book of Common Prayer. They’re not following the canons. They’re not doing it the way you or I would do it.”
Moses takes the wiser course. Here are two more potential servants of the community; rather than stop them, Moses embraces them as two more servants of the people ready to help in community leadership. In fact, Moses voices his preference that God would empower more servant leaders: “Are you jealous for my sake?” he asks. “Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets,” he says, “and that the Lord would put his spirit on them!”
In our gospel lesson today, we have another story of someone trying to protect God. Today’s reading from Mark is a continuation of the story we started last week. You’ll remember that in last Sunday’s reading, Jesus and the Twelve were walking along through Galilee headed for Capernaum and when they arrived Jesus asked them, “What were you talking about while we walked along?” The disciples don’t answer; they are embarrassed because they’d been arguing bout who among was the greatest.
Jesus knows this and so he teaches them about leadership, that the one who would be the greatest must be the one who is the servant of the community. He takes a child in his arms and places her among them and says, “The one who accepts the witness and ministry of a child, who witnesses and ministers like a child, is the greatest.”
As Jesus is saying this and demonstrating his point by holding a small child in his arms, John (probably uncomfortable with this talk of childlike, last-in-line leadership because, after all, he and his brother James have asked for the seats of honor in Christ’s kingdom) interrupts and tries to change the subject. “Hey,” he says, “we saw someone doing what we’re doing but he wasn’t one of us. He wasn’t doing it our way – he wasn’t following the rubrics in the prayer book – so we tried to stop him.” Just like Joshua, the son of Nun, coming to Moses about Eldad and Medad, John comes to Jesus seeking to protect God (or God’s appointed leader) from someone not following the canons, someone doing something John thinks is unsanctioned and therefore inappropriate.
Jesus’ answer is Moses’ answer. “Whoever is not against us is for us.” “Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit on them!”
Some believe that Mark’s gospel was written at a time when there were disagreements and rivalries between Christian groups who were telling the Jesus story in somewhat different ways, who were remembering and celebrating Jesus in differing ways. There was, perhaps, a little group of Christians in Jerusalem doing things the way they thought they should be done, while a day’s walk away in Bethlehem of Judea another group of Jesus’ followers were doing things their way and further away up in Galilee in Nazareth a third congregation was doing things yet another way. The situation was, perhaps, similar to our current division of the church into differing denominational traditions. The way we are doing things this morning isn’t the same as the way those folks called Presbytrians down on Route 18 are doing things, or those Methodists on Foote Road, or the Lutherans up Broadway, or the Nazerenes down on Wooster Pike. We’re all Christians, all trying to follow Jesus, but we are doing so in differing ways. That makes some folks very uncomfortable; they would prefer that we all look and act and think alike. “Jesus,” they say, “we saw someone doing things in your name, and we tried to stop him, because they weren’t doing it like us.”
Mark’s story in today’s gospel is a reminder that following Jesus is the important thing. The slightly differing ways we may do so are not important; in fact, they aren’t important at all. Focus on the big picture that unites us, not the little differences that separate us.
Jesus deals with John’s interruption and returns to his paradigm of servant leadership: seeing and accepting the world as a child does, welcoming the child – the insignificant other, the unvalued outsider – this is what Jesus wants us to do; this is what God is calling us to do; this is what God has brought us out of slavery to do. This is such an important part of servant ministry within the church and of the church’s witness to the world around us that Jesus uses this disturbing, graphic metaphor. “If your hand or your foot causes you to stumble, causes you to not do this important thing, causes you to fail to welcome the child or the unvalued stranger . . . then cut it off! It is better that you should be maimed or lame than that you should fail to do this. If your eye causes you to not see the needs of your insignificant neighbor or to fail to welcome the unknown immigrant . . . then tear it out! It is better that you should be half blind than that you fail in your ministry of service and hospitality.” That is the radical vision of Jesus, that cutting off one’s limbs or plucking out one’s eye is seen a better alternative than failing to welcome and minister to our neighbor, to children, and to the stranger among us.
Interestingly, the Lectionary editors chose to link the exodus story and this gospel text with a portion of Psalm 19 in which we sing:
Keep your servant from presumptuous sins;
let them not get dominion over me;
then shall I be whole and sound,
and innocent of a great offense.
The Psalmist plea is at the heart of these two stories: Save us from the presumption of protecting God!
The Lord doesn’t need our protection.
The Lord doesn’t need us to stop Eldad and Medad from prophesying.
The Lord doesn’t need us to stop those others who are following Jesus in or doing good in differing ways than we do.
The Lord wants us to spend our energies, the spirit of God which rests upon us, in other ways.
The Lord wants us to empower one another as fellow servants.
The Lord wants us to welcome the insignificant stranger and the undervalued other.
When we do that, we are “whole and sound;” we have no need to cut off limbs or pluck out eyes.
When we do that, we are “innocent of a great offense.”
When we do that, we “have salt in ourselves, and are at peace with one another.”
What happened here yesterday – our second annual Oktoberfest Medina – is a case in point! A project put together not by one person but by the church community as a whole, working together, welcomed more that 600 friends, neighbors, and strangers onto our church property for some fun and fellowship. Tim S_____ kept us organized, but for all we should sing Tim’s praises, he didn’t do it alone. At least fifty members of this congregation – and we really think the number of volunteers is closer to 70 – contributed to the success of Oktoberfest. And a huge success it was!
Our preliminary tallying of the income and expenses suggests that, when all is said and done, we will have netted in excess of $10,000 . . . but even if we had not made a dime, even if we had lost money, it would have been a success! We worked together; we welcomed our neighbors and a lot of strangers to our church; and everyone enjoyed the good feeling, the spirit, of community fellowship.
That, to use the Psalmist’s lovely poetic description, is “more to be desired are they than gold,” and is “sweeter far than honey.” That is what servant leadership in and by the Christian community is all about. Amen.
This homily was offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on the Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost, September 30, 2018, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.
The lessons used for the service are Numbers 11:4-6,10-16,24-29; Psalm 19:7-14; James 5:13-20; and St. Mark 9:38-50. These lessons can be found at The Lectionary Page.
Click on footnote numbers to link back to associated text.
 Numbers 11:11
 Exodus 18:14,17-18,24-26
 Numbers 11:28
 Numbers 11:29
 Mark 9:37; cf. Matthew 18:3-4 and Mark 10:15
 See Mark 9:38
 Mark 9:40; Numbers 11:29
 See again Mark 9:38
 See Mark 9:42-48
 Psalm 19:13 (BCP Version, The Book of Common Prayer 1979, page 607)
 Mark 9:50
 Psalm 19:10