Reflection: Who Is With Us?

September 26, 2021

We have just passed the 20th anniversary of the terrible attack on the World Trade Centres on September 11, 2001.  One enduring image of the time immediately afterword is then American President George W Bush, at the UN, in a speech to Congress, and in conversation with French allies, declaring to the world, “You are either with us, or against us”.  I couldn’t help thinking of that moment when I read the passages from Numbers and Mark’s Gospel today.


Every human community or organization has a sense of who is part of that community and who is not, who is an ally and who is opposed to that community.  There are often different levels of belonging, based on various conditions such as how much you support that community’s goals and values, how much you fit the description of who that groups is geared for –– and so on.  As a benign example, chances are pretty good that a school district would not put a 55 year old who could not read or write into a kindergarten class with 5 year olds, even though they are learning the same things; the 55 year old would not be one of the people that program was designed for.  At a malign level, people are denied citizenship and basic human rights in their own countries due to their ethnic background or religious commitments, every single day.  Sometimes “full inclusion” is not appropriate or desirable; at other times, it is the only way to justice.


The community of those committed to the God we encounter in the Bible, the God revealed to us in Jesus, the one whom we know through the power of the Spirit – that community has something of a dual identity.  It is both initiated by Jesus the Christ when he called his disciples and bade them to make disciples as well – but it is also a human institution that has many different forms of organization and understandings of who fits within those forms.  Today’s passages present a bit of a conundrum for me – one I’d like to share with you and give you a chance to reflect on as well.


Let’s start with this from the perspective of a leader of a religious movement.  Moses was such a prophet, called and ordained by God.  He had a mission to the people who had come to Egypt generations before and then became enslaved by the Egyptians.  These were his own people, as he was a child of Hebrew parents, though raised by Egyptians.  He had the ability to function in both of those cultural groups – and perhaps that’s why when he led the people out of Egypt, some of the people who came along were NOT Israelite descendants at all.  It was a hard journey, but perhaps even harder for those who didn’t have the traditions and teachings of their elders to rely on when Moses spoke about this God YHWH and what God wanted for them.  Who knows what faith had been passed down – even by the Israelites! – after generations in Egypt.  The cultures would have mixed and mingled, and I imagine the belief system that came out of Egypt was probably rather different that that of those who first settled on the plains of Goshen.


Jesus, too, was a divinely ordained leader of a religious movement – in his case, a reform movement within Judaism.  Christian teaching says he was also more than that – that he spoke and acted with the authority of YHWH, Godself, in what he did and said.   He too called people to follow – at first, Jews like himself, but he also did not turn away those who came to him from other cultures and traditions.  As his disciples made new Christian disciples, this circle widened and what became known as Christianity was as much a GrecoRoman phenomenon as a Jewish one – so much so that at a certain point, it retained Jewish Scriptures and some traditions, but left the religion itself behind.  Its leaders came from all walks of life and all ethnic backgrounds.  From a somewhat uniform group it became hugely diverse – and this is the church we know today.


Going back to Moses: he is in what we might call “burn out” mode in today’s story.  He has had it with the whining and complaining and grumbling from ALL of the people, Hebrews and others, and says to God “Come on, do I have to carry all this by myself?!”.  And God responds by widening the circle who carries the responsibility of leadership.  The Holy One appoints many others to share in the spirit of prophecy and leadership given to Moses.  Any leader can tell you that having folk to share the tasks and duties of leadership can be a huge relief.


But what happens when there’s some seemingly “unauthorized” leadership happening?  What do you do when those who weren’t “officially” ordained or commissioned start behaving like they too, are called and divinely chosen leaders!  Joshua clearly expects Moses to rein them in.  But Moses is overjoyed that so many people have been called to lead – and he doesn’t care that these folk didn’t quite get their calling the same way as anyone else.  He recognizes the commissioning of YHWH, and that is enough for him.  Hallelujah! Now they’re a team!  As a church that believes strongly in the priesthood of all believers, we in the United Church see ministry and service as something we ALL do.  It’s not volunteering – it’s living out our role as disciples called and commissioned by Jesus  to serve the world. And God calls whomever God will.


So let’s go to the story about Jesus.  Jesus has sent his disciples out on a kind of “training run”.  He’s sent them out to preach, teach, heal and even take on evil face to face just as he does, while he’s still there to debrief, teach and assist them.  That’s what we call “mentoring” these days.  But the disciples come back with reports that those not in the mentorship program are also defeating evil.  “Come on Jesus! These folks aren’t authorized! They shouldn’t be doing this!”  As a leader in a human organization, I’d probably be at least a bit worried.  How do we know what these unknown folk are teaching?  How do we know that they are not doing harm to others?  Where are the checks and balances to make sure that no spiritual abuse is occurring- or from a contemporary perspective, if there aren’t serious mental health issues involved?


But as a leader in a divinely-initiated religious movement, Jesus has the discernment to know the hearts of those who are casting out demons in his name.  After all, they are doing good deeds, and they are doing it in imitation of him, and in a sense, with his authority.  Jesus says in effect “By doing good in my name they have declared themselves allies – they’re not going to turn around and do evil soon after!”


Both of these stories seem to say that, “Those who are not against the work of God, are FOR the work of God.”  From a contemporary perspective, one might call these folk “allies”.  Allies may have no interest in ever becoming part of the leadership circle in a religious organization, but they have a ministry of service in God’s name or in the name of what they understand to be Good and True, just like anyone else.   We find allies in other faith organizations, in other non-profits, in all sorts of places, including right beside us here in the church building. In every congregation I have served, there have been those involved in the church, not due to reasons of faith, but because they supported the values and the work the church was about.  I respect, admire and value all of them.


What’s interesting to me, and something that makes me stop and ponder, is that in both of these Biblical cases, the groups of people who were not technically a part of the main religious community or the main leadership circle, still prophesied, healed and led by the Name that was sacred to those religious communities – and were understood to be called by God by those communities’ leaders, who affirmed their ministry and service.  What happens when those folk who are doing these acts of service do NOT have any connection to – and perhaps may not care to have any connection to – the Holy around which those communities are centred?  Do people remain valued allies alone – or can they step into the leadership circle, because they are “for God (or what God values) and not against God.”


Every human institution, including the church, has rules for membership and involvement, and the United Church of Canada is no exception.  Over the years, we have found the old categories of member and adherent less and less useful.  But what to replace it with – that we haven’t yet figured out.  Currently, to be a full member in the United Church, you need to make an adult (or teen) affirmation of faith – or have transferred from another church where you have made such an affirmation.  Yet at the same time, we are not a credal church – we are not a church that says you have to believe X, Y, Z to belong!  So we have some contradictions to wrestle with.


Does God call, claim and commission those who simply cannot accept the understandings of the Trinity, – Creator, Christ and Sustainer –  held up by Christian tradition?  And exactly whose interpretation of Christian tradition are we talking about anyway?  I know of a church in which they had an extremely active Muslim adherent.  He was there at first because he was married to their minister; but when he and the minister divorced, he remained an adherent of the United Church of Canada, because his values were very similar to UCC values as presented and lived by that congregation.  That may not have been the case in another Christian congregation.


If indeed God does call those who are not people of Christian faith to work alongside and within the Christian church, then how do we include EVERYONE in the fullest way possible, without losing our core identity as a community of followers of Jesus, the Christ?  Currently our human organization draws some lines that say that those who have not made a profession of faith at some point in their life are welcome to fully participate in nearly all aspects of the life of the church.  But when it comes to leadership on issues of faith, worship, Christian education, etc – issues that directly relate to faith in the Holy One we know in Jesus – then in those places, the United Church of Canada asks that folks have made a profession of faith in God and commitment to the life of the church.  Do you think that’s right?  Or in this as in so many other things in the church, do we need to make the circle even wider, and welcome all people of good will, allies and adherents, to leadership in all aspects of the church’s life?


Those are the questions raised for me by the readings today – and in a few weeks time I’m going to ask you what you think about some of what these readings raise.

  • What does being a Jesus follower (a Christian) mean to you?  Is that the same as being a member of a church?  What’s the difference, if any?
  • Does one need to be a person of faith to exercise leadership in a Christian community?
  • How do we know if someone exercising leadership is truly called to that ministry by God? CAN we know?
  • What checks and balances are necessary in the church as a human institution regarding the leadership we all share?
  • What ministry are YOU called to in the church and the community, and how do you know this to be true?

I don’t ask much, do I?  You can blame the text – the Bible does that sometimes, raise more questions than it answers.  In the meantime, I’m going to have Rose print those questions in the announcement sheet for the next couple of weeks, and we’ll come back to them together.  May God bless your reflection with insight.  Amen.




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