Eldad and Medad Remembered

A Sermon Preached by Rev. Osy Nuesch at
Point Pleasant Presbyterian Church on May 31, 2020

Number 11:24-30, Acts 2:1-21

While serving my last congregation, I learned about a Korean tradition. A baby’s first birthday is often the most celebrated birthday in Korean families. Dol, or doljanchi is a ceremony in which the child is blessed with a prosperous and happy future. A child’s dol is an important milestone. Before modern technology, many children never saw their first birthday, and a lot of children died before they turned one, so if you made it to 1, you had a much better chance of survival and to live to a ripe old age. Much of what happens at a child’s dol is centered on dreams, visions and hopes for the child’s future. Fruit and colorful rice cakes are stacked high on plates to symbolize a life of prosperity and abundance. The child wears a tradition outfit called a hanbok, usually made out of a Korean fabric of many colors – rainbow stripes. Also scattered on a table are assorted object that represent other elements of prosperity. They are placed in front of the child; the family watches to see what the child will pick. Depending on what he or she picks is what her or his future will be like. A paintbrush or book stands for wisdom; money stands for wealth; a long piece of thread means long life. Whatever the child chooses is the destiny the child claims for self. Nowadays, people add to the table other objects that may represent a variety of vocations or jobs. A ball may indicate a future in sports or an athletic disposition; an instrument anticipates a musical talent; and many more. Our son told us about a dol he attended where a little girl decided to choose none of the intended objects, instead she went straight for a plate of grapes. What could that mean? Her mother hoped it meant that she would always have a healthy appetite or an appetite for healthy things. Or better yet, that she will always choose the least obvious path and determine to find her own destiny.

Today, we celebrate the birthday of Jesus’ church. Now, it’s not its first, that’s for sure. But it is kind of a first of its kind. We haven’t experienced a Pentecost like this. If you had to choose a future for our congregation, what would it be? What would it look like? Our vision for a good, healthy and effective future is going to have to be revised and re-thought. But that doesn’t mean that we have to stop dreaming. The Holy Spirit is always surprising us with new things – as we learn from what happened on the Day of Pentecost some 2,000 years ago! And to that, I want us to add the incident reported in the 11th chapter of Numbers, which is also instructive, and especially relevant to our experience these days.

For you see, the entire book of Numbers is set in a journey through the wilderness. In the Hebrew Bible, the title of the book is not ‘Numbers,’ it is ‘In the Wilderness’. When we read Numbers, we automatically think journey – journey through the wilderness of life.

And as you know, Moses, was the leader singled out by God and endowed with God’s Spirit to lead a nation out of slavery through that miserable forty-year journey through the desert to an unknown future – armed with the dreams of freedom, prosperity, health and abundance. Realizing the challenges of leading so many people, through that experience, it was decided that Moses needed help (and there are different accounts of how that decision came about). The outcome is that 70 elders were chosen to take on leadership roles. In today’s lesson we heard how God’s Spirit was present in Moses, which gave him the moral authority to lead the people and judge their disputes. Now that Spirit was going to be transmitted to the select group of 70 elders. They would share in the leadership tasks needed for the community’s survival. A suitable ordination and installation ceremony was planned to give legitimacy to the process and the decision. The elders stood around the tent of meeting. A cloud, representing God’s presence, descended on those gathered and “the Lord took of the Spirit that was on Moses and put the Spirit” on the elders. They knew that the transfer had been successful because they prophesized – a sign of the Spirit’s presence. The text implies that this was some ecstatic prophecy, the kind in which people are seized and overpowered by divine spirit.
The one feature that has intrigued readers, teachers and students through the ages, is the mention of the two men, Eldad and Medad. I’m going with the theory that they were two of the 70 elders to be installed, may be #69 and #70. And that for whatever reason they couldn’t be physically present at the service. But the Spirit, who is not restricted by distance, descends on them too – and they are included. They give manifestation of the Spirit’s presence in their lives, validating their new roles, too.

That becomes important to us during these days of wilderness life: We too are distanced these days. You are all circling this place of meeting. And the Spirit of God is present in each of your homes as we share in this time of praise and adoration to God. For God, the distance that separates us is not an issue. The Spirit is always uniting, unifying, bringing together into community. One congregation in multiple sites; one church around the world.

In this passage we meet Joshua for the first time in this book. Here, Joshua is introduced as Moses’ young and eager assistant. As such, we may assume that he was a bit inexperienced, a little green, still wet behind the ears. Some day, Joshua will also inherit Moses’ spirit and lead the people (as we saw in last week’s text). But right now, Joshua’s immaturity is in full display. “My Lord, Moses. Stop them!” he complains. What prompted this unfortunate charge from young Joshua? Was it fear? Concern? Is there a past history? Was there animosity between tribes? We know that sometimes people get excited and over-protective and they can only see their own little worlds. “These two did not follow the rules! My Lord, Moses, stop them! They don’t belong! They should not have the same privilege accorded to others.”

There are always objectors to the moving of the Spirit. And while the work of the Spirit is to unite and unify, the human default tendency is always to protect and isolate.

And Moses replies: “Who are you trying to protect, Joshua? Stop thinking just about yourself and don’t be an obstructionist. The Spirit is moving! So Rejoice!”

We stop to ask: What leads people to exclude, to alienate, to discriminate? I don’t need to tell you that this has been a hard week for our country. You don’t have to live in Minneapolis to see how obtrusively and insidiously actions and decisions are influenced by prejudgment, discrimination or racism. Those out on the fringes cry out to be recognized, to be accepted, to be included – to be treated like everyone else. Eldad and Medad had as much right to belong as the other 68. In the eyes of God. they belonged. The Spirit made sure of that. Sacred history made sure that we would remember Eldad and Medad. We don’t know the names of the other 68, but these are remembered because they were kept out – discriminated against. Just as America will remember George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Eric Garner. Because their deaths proclaim that there is a virus still infecting our minds, our culture, our re-actions.

“Racism is as virulent as covid-19, infecting people who seem to have no outward symptoms, until behavior reveals their disease. The vaccine for racism is justice, the cure is equality, and the prevention is love.” (Steven Charleston posted in Clergy Coaching Network, 3/29/20)

I missed singing a refrain that I have used every Sunday of the Easter season for years. I love the way Desmond Tutu stubbornly affirmed: “Goodness is stronger than evil; love is stronger than hate; Light is stronger than darkness; life is stronger than death.”

The objection raised by the young assistance becomes the opportunity for Moses to do two things. First: he stops the mistaken notion. One must stand up against injustice. Benjamin Franklin reminded us: “Justice will not be served until those who are unaffected are as outraged as those who are.” Second: Moses express his fervent wish. The wish is really a prayer: “I wish that all of the Lord’s people were prophets and that the Lord would put his Spirit on them” (11:29).

Those words are still echoing in our ears as we open the book of the Acts of the Holy Spirit through those first disciples. On that occasion, the Spirit descended on the entire community with extraordinary signs (fire and wind and flying tongues). With God’s Spirit, the small band that Jesus had trained – now numbering about 120 – is able to do what they would have never imagined! Those simple people were equipped to spread the message of the universal availability of God’s grace and salvation. Sons and daughters, men and women, fishermen and peasants, slaves and free, all received God’s Spirit and somewhere from the beyond the sunset Moses rejoiced because his prayer had finally been answered.

There were objections on the Day of Pentecost also. Amazed and perplexed at hearing these Galileans communicating in languages that they had never studied, some people sneered: “They are filled with wine.” Peter intervened, trying to explain what God was doing.

What the Spirit and the Church remind us today of all days is that everyone belongs. You and I do fit in. We have something that the world desperately needs and may not realize it desires. A minister, who for a year and a half, worked part time as a youth minister and part time as a barista at Starbucks wrote about his experience in a blog. “What I learned about the church from working at Starbucks.” (Rev. Lacey Brown). She drew three conclusions: (1) People are desperate for authentic relationships; (2) People need to express their individuality and have it affirmed; (3) People want to be a part of something bigger than themselves. And we have that!

(1) Each of you is an essential part of the Body of Christ, learning together how to be faithful daughters and sons of God, belonging to one another in relationship. We still depend on each other. We need for each one to do their part so the body can function well (as we heard from Paul’s Epistle to the Corinthians). And we need to make sure that no one tries to stop you.
(2) We realize that each person is an exceptional individual, one of a kind, with talents and eccentricities unique to you – and we still love you and appreciate you despite, of because of, your eccentricities.
(3) You are part of something bigger, much bigger. You’re not just a part of Point Pleasant Presbyterian Church this morning, not just part of the Monmouth Presbytery, not just one of the almost 1.4 million Presbyterians in the USA. You are also part of the Christian Church around the globe learning to care about the things that God cares about. We are in an unbroken line of believers who trace their history through 2000 years back to the vision and mission of Jesus of Nazareth, and even further back to one Moses, and who knows how many years back to an Abraham and Sarah. And you should have no doubt today that you absolutely fit in God’s great plan and wish for the future. You hear each week that you belong to God, that you are part of God’s family, that you will always have a place in the community of the faithful. But that should never become an excuse to keep others out. We rejoice today in that Christ has made us all brothers and sisters in a spiritual fellowship that encompasses the world and spans the centuries. Thank you, Holy Spirit, for the one, holy, catholic/universal church.

And so, we turn to the Confession of 1967, for it as relevant today as it was during that chaotic decade, setting for us a vision for our word, even in its present predicament. (Confession of 1967, 944.a, inclusive language version)

“God has created the peoples of the earth to be one universal family. In reconciling love, God overcomes the barriers between sisters and brothers and breaks down every form of discrimination based on racial or ethnic differences, real or imaginary. The church is called to bring all people to receive and uphold one another as persons in all relationships of life: in employment, housing, education, leisure, marriage, family, church, and the exercise of political rights. Therefore, the church labors for the abolition of all racial discrimination and ministers to those injured by it. Congregations, individuals, or groups of Christians who exclude, dominate, or patronize others, however subtly, resist the Spirit of God and bring contempt on the faith which they profess.”