Changes Along the Journey

A Sermon Preached by
Rev. Osy Nüesch at
Point Pleasant Presbyterian Church
September 30, 2018

Numbers 11:4-29 and Mark 9:38-50

I was so grateful to Rev. Linda Chase last Sunday for her thoughtful sermon where she reminded us that “there is a season for everything under the sun and each brings about change.”

Some changes are unavoidable; a few are necessary; most are unwanted.

When I described my position to a new acquaintance, she offered this understanding: “So you are a change agent.” I wanted to say: “yes and no.” My main drive is not to change things for change sake. But I think a lot of people expect a transitional/interim minister to change things – it’s unavoidable. You can’t introduce a new person into a family and expect everything to remain the same. You can’t introduce a new element into any system without creating some type of disruption. Even a solitary pebble thrown into the lake creates ripples that move ever outward.

Any leader will make changes when necessary. Our new Sunday School Coordinator made changes to our Sunday School program. A new Choir Director will soon, no doubt, make some needed changes. The last church I pastored for ten years got used to a fair number of changes. I was very aware that the congregation had to get used to a new accent right from the start, a different homiletical approach, faster hymns, stricter liturgical calendar observances. I remember we trained a number of children to light the candles at the start of the service. Acolytes felt too “Roman Catholic” for some people. For one person it was enough to make him transfer his membership. Others adjusted to the idea. Some parents even liked it. Three scripture lessons seemed excessive. Why do we need to hear so much scripture? (Because there is a lot of scripture we still don’t know). And then I introduced a new Psalter! “Why do we need another hymnal?” (Psalm singing in the Reformed Tradition had to be explained.)

Every change stretches the system. You add one person and dynamics suddenly change. You welcome different people and they come with new ideas and ways of doing things. Systems don’t like change. A system develops precisely to make sense of chaos and bring order to disorder. A system (be it a family/church/organization) doesn’t welcome new disorder.

The people of Israel wandering in the desert present a wonderful case study that is now being used in all kinds of businesses because it helps to explain what happens during periods of transition – periods that are often perceived simply as change. Today’s account comes from the Book of Numbers, which in the Hebrew Bible is not called “Numbers” but it’s entitled “In the Wilderness”. When we read Numbers we ought to think about a journey – journey through the wilderness, a journey through transitions, a journey through the changes of life.

“This wilderness setting presents problems and possibilities for shaping a community identity for the newly redeemed people of God. The period of wandering is a necessary buffer between liberation and [settlement] [between the end of something and the beginning of something else] for the sake of forming this identity. Such a process does not unfold easily for Israel or for God. The people have been taken out of Egypt, but it proves difficult to take Egypt out of the people. The familiar orderliness of Egypt seems preferable to the insecurities of life lived from one oasis to the next. They had been delivered from the slavery of Egypt but now they had to adjust to living and surviving through years in the desert. (adapted from Terence E. Freitheim, Commentary on Numbers 11 in 9/3018)

And changing times become stressful. People act in weird ways when they are stressed. In this passage we see how an irritated group started discussing how bad things were. Soon they are looking back to their past life with a certain degree of nostalgia. “If only we had meat to eat! We remember the fish we used to eat in Egypt for nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and don’t forget the garlic” (11:5). They longed for the good old days in Egypt! And we say: “You cannot be serious?!”

Had they forgotten their pain, their oppression, their prayers for deliverance from the taskmasters? Apparently all that was water under the bridge – gone – forgotten. What they missed most now was the cucumbers, and the leeks, and the fish, and the watermelons, garlic and onions. By comparison, the blessings of the present time seemed insignificant. “All we have is this lousy manna.” (That was the food from heaven that had saved their lives – but they had forgotten that part also!). They had no appreciation for the bread of freedom. Faced with the current changes, the past was now being painted in very rosy colors. People do that. The longer you live, the more memories you have to keep track off. And our minds seem to adjust those memories to our likings or dislikings. So it’s curious how some people have a tendency to remember the things they liked – those memories then become the best of times. Other people have a tendency to only remember the bad things; so the past was just terrible. We tend to remember all the wrong things: we remember our failures and other peoples’ failures. And how often congregations do that? Congregations have long memories. They tend to forget the challenges of the past and only remember the “good old days” when the sanctuary was full for every service, when the preacher was so good he hit it out of the park every Sunday, when we had so much money we didn’t know how to spend it. Maybe……?

I don’t remember who gave me this advice, but I thought it was very wise: The past was never as good as you remember it. Conversely: the past was never as bad as you think it was.

Faced with new circumstances, change was needed for the people of Israel. New systems were needed to cope with the new challenges. Even Moses, caught in the middle of a changing system realized that he needed help. Moses no doubt internalizes the complaining of the people and sees it as a criticism of his own leadership. So Moses in turn complains to God. Stress and frustration are contagious.

In desperation, Moses complains that the pressure of leadership is just too much. Notice vs. 15: “If this is what my life is all about, just put me out of my misery. Put me to death at once. I just want to die.”

So God introduces a new concept and changes the system.

Moses needed a new leadership model: one where he could delegate responsibility and authority. One person should not be in complete control. This is one of the passages that lends strong biblical support to the way the Reformed tradition decided congregations should be organized. But it represented a major change. It’s interesting to see how this change came about. Here it is due to Moses’ frustration level and God saves the day. But in Exodus chapter 18, Jethro comes to visit Moses and when he sees all that Moses did, he sat his son-in-law down and said:

“Why do you work so hard from morning until evening?….
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” (Exodus 18:14, 17-18).

And in that account, Jethro gave Moses some advice: “Look for able individuals among all the people, God-fearers, trustworthy, and set these people as officers over thousands, hundreds, fifties and tens” (21). (Don’t you love it when the Bible gives you several traditions to explain how things came to be the way they did? Two accounts of creation; two accounts of the conquering of Canaan, two accounts of how quail was given, and here two accounts of how Israel came to have leaders.)
Both accounts lead to the same solution. Exodus 18 and numbers 11.

In Exodus it was a wise father-in-law’s advice; in today’s passage it’s God’s plan. Two traditions: one emphasizes human agency, the other divine provision. How we account for so many changes: human agency/divine providence working together.

Of course, the new changes faced criticism from the beginning. Eldad and Medad were two of the chosen elders who, for whatever reason, did not make it to the ordination service. People noticed. Imagine: the order of service for that day clearly indicated 70 elders but only 68 show up. The 68 are ordained and installed and they give evidence of having the right spirit and they are properly welcomed by the congregation. Later, we hear about the 2 no-shows: Eldad and Medad. But they carried on all the same. Joshua, one of the chosen elders, didn’t like it. He complains to Moses that these two have not followed proper protocol. “We have a system in place and these 2 are messing with your system.” And Moses asks Joshua to consider the motivation for his actions. “Who are you protecting? What are you protecting? What are you so possessive of?” Those 2 elders were doing what they were supposed to do. And Moses, the prophet here, expresses a longing that would be fulfilled thousands of years later. “Would that all the LORD’s people were prophets, and that the LORD would put his spirit on them!”

We reckon that Moses’ prayer was answered on the Day of Pentecost when the Holy Spirit came upon the gathered company of disciples and the nature and constituency of the Church changed for good. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

Let’s move ahead anyway. From the Hebrew Scriptures, we move to consider how Jesus’ disciples have similar trouble with the change that they are part of. One of Jesus’ disciples brings up the fact that they had seen ‘someone’ casting out demons in Jesus’ name, and “we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” Jesus instructs: “Do not stop him.” And then he gives them this wonderfully inclusive dictum: “Whoever is not against us is for us.” What a wonderful way to think about other people!

The disciples wanted to protect their system. The stranger/intruder “was not following us.” Notice they didn’t say, ‘he was not following you.” It is “us” – Jesus and the disciples – that is a nice, intimate, closed system they didn’t want anyone messing with it. “We know each other and we know how things are to be done.” This intruder was irritating, not necessarily because for what he was doing – because he was doing good – but because he was perceived as a threat to their uniqueness.

Jesus deals with the situation without yielding to the disciples’ request for censorship. Instead he offered them a different way of looking at the issue. “Jesus displays and commands a generous openness to those who believe in him and are doing powerful deeds in his name.” (Stephen Fowl, “Search and Restore” in The Christian Century, September 19, 2006, p. 19.) Here we find our marching orders for embracing change, embracing different approaches, ecumenical relationships, even practicing radical inclusiveness. Jesus challenges us to recognize partners in ministry. When they do the right things, they are “for us” and “with us.” We are in the same team.

But when changes are involved, we seldom find the same generosity of spirit. For example, for us, Martin Luther was a God-led Reformer. From the point of view of the established Church, he was an intruder that dared change the system. Calvin’s reforms in Geneva which have become the basis for our practices were obstructed as often as the elders could manage it. We are proud of the slogan “The Church reformed and always reforming by the Word of God.” Remember what Hebrews says about the Word of God: Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow…” (Hebrews 4:7).

Reformed Christians understand the need to be flexible, elastic, adaptable and adjustable. Elements that threaten change should not be feared, but studied and even incorporated.

In a few moments we are going to recite one of our Trinitarian creeds. We love the Apostles’ Creed because of its brevity and the concise way in which it describes the unity of God. But even this document acknowledges intruders.

Q: Apart from God, the Father Almighty, Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit, who else is mentioned by name? (A: Mary and Pontius Pilate) Mary changes everything by giving birth to the Word in the flesh. Jesus “suffered under Pontius Pilate.” Pilate had the power to influence Jesus’ life. Pilate could have saved Jesus but he feared a riot. Pilate had a system to maintain. Pilate needed to keep the peace and stability of his region. That’s why he sent for additional Roman troops, to maintain the integrity of the area during emotionally charged times. Seen from Pilate’s perspective, it was Pilate who suffered under Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus intruded on the system Pilate was barely able to hold together. Even Pilate’s wife came to warn him “have nothing to do with this man” because he is upsetting my sleep patterns and he is going to upset more than that. But not even Pontius Pilate (representative of the mighty power of the day) was able to counter the transformation that Jesus Christ was about to bring to the world order.

Christ suffered to bring about a change that continues to create ripples that move ever upward. And we are part of that movement. Christ’s Spirit is alive in each of us. Each of us holds the potential to influence, change or transform that part of the world we live in. Deacons-Elect: You hold the potential to influence/disrupt systems for good or ill.

Every Sunday as we gather together we receive from the Spirit of Christ the gifts that empower us to be witnesses of Jesus – to serve with his humility – to love with his compassion – to be ready to bless others as we have been blessed. Let us determine then to be change agents by being a force for good, for blessing and for peace. The system can take it. The Lord Jesus will make sure of that.

May God grant us the wisdom to look at the present challenges with a vision of how God can change it to accomplish what God intends for us. And not only for us, but also to all peoples and nations of the earth. Amen.