19th Sunday after Pentecost
September 30th, 2018
Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29
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Today begins the 19th week in the season of Pentecost. Outside in the world it’s almost October. The season has changed from summer to autumn. Helene and I took out our fall decorations, and Gwendolyn’s been going around the house with a book about Charlie Brown and the Great Pumpkin. But here in the Church we’re in the long slog of green, and we will be until the end of November. Last night at our Michaelmas Eucharist we got a little peak of white, and in October our Thursday Eucharist will see both white and red, but, really, we’re not going to see other colors for a while. The season of Pentecost is called Ordinary time, but it often seems like just Normal Time or, really, Boring Time.
But, in truth, the season of Pentecost is the season of fire. Look at your bulletin inserts. Look at the title there on the front: sure it’s green with white lettering, but the image on either side is of flames. Pentecost, if you remember, is the birth of the Church, it’s the coming of the Holy Spirit as tongues of fire upon the heads of the disciples. This season is the season of the Holy Spirit, where we are moved to ministry, to our work with a hurting world, and to the growth of Christ in our hearts.
As Christians, the Holy Spirit is what we live in – or, as we hear in the Book of Acts: in Him we live and move and have our being. And, often, the Holy Spirit is like water for fish: we don’t see it because it’s all around us. We often don’t notice the Spirit because he is, often, elusive. He can’t be bound up in a nice, tidy definition. We can’t hold on to him and study him. He is a bird, a dove, a flame, a breath, a gentle wind upon the heart or a great rushing gust that blows us over. The Spirit is the glue that holds us all together, that holds the Church together, and leads us forward. The Spirit is like the side-kick who ends up having the greatest wisdom. Look at the hymn we just sang, hymn 371. The third verse is all about the Holy Spirit, and all the verbs are active and moving. The Spirit doesn’t just stay in one place, but pushes and urges us on. The Spirit is that part of God that reaches out to us, holds us together, and urges us, pushes us, to overcome divisions.
When we do work – when we live as Christians – we are called by the Spirit into a partnership with not just all Christians, nor with just all people, but with all of Creation. Recently, I’ve been preaching on the seeds that God has planted inside our hearts; but the funny thing about them is that seeds that we must nurture and tend and encourage, but these seeds will not grow without the growth of the seeds around them.
This is not, of course, how normal seeds work. Normally, you can’t plant seeds too close to one another, and you have to weed around them, so that the seeds have enough room to grow. Plants need their own nutrients, and they don’t need dandelions stealing their water and soil or big trees stealing their sunlight. Our seeds, the seeds of Christ, work just the opposite. Christ-seeds need to be around one another, and they need to work with one another in order to grow big and strong. Our hope and joy and love of God, and the good works we do, are food for each another. They need to be fed by the Spirit.
Now, Jesus puts this in a really beautiful way. For the disciples are so full of joy in their ministries. They go out and do works of healing that are making a difference. Perhaps some of them had, before they met Jesus, seen the corruption of the world and despaired. Maybe they saw the needs of the world – those desperate needs – but could only shake their heads. “What can I do?” they might have wondered. “Me? Just a little fisherman? I see the world turning to darkness, but I can do so little.” But now, with Jesus, they could do something. All that pain they saw, all that sorrow and depression, finally they could do something about it all. With Jesus. With the power that Jesus had given them.
And yet, then, here come others. Other people they don’t know doing the same thing they’re doing. And the worst part is that they’re doing it all in Jesus’s name, even though they aren’t Jesus’s disciples or even one of the seventy. “Who are these guys?” they wonder. “Who are these who weren’t given the power to heal from Jesus himself?” And for a moment, for one terrifying moment, the disciples sound a bit too much like, the Pharasees: if these people don’t have my authority, they must be with another, more sinister authority.
Now, Jesus’s response here is perfect: “whoever is not against us is for us. For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lost the reward.” You see, Jesus’s disciples are playing what’s called a zero-sum game. They’re treating the power of Christ like it’s money: there’s only a limited amount of it in the world, and if someone has a lot of it, then that must mean that other people don’t have any. It’s like a birthday cake split in eight slices for ten people. Two of those people just aren’t going to have any cake.
But Jesus lives in a different world. Jesus, breathing the Holy Spirit, lives in a world where giving doesn’t mean that you have less – it means that you have more. Imagine if you gave someone $10 and suddenly had fifty more in the bank. Or that in feeding people who are cold and hungry you realize suddenly that you yourself are full, even though you didn’t eat a thing. Or that spending a day with your kids or grandkids you come home exhausted but with a full and glorious heart. This isn’t how our human systems work; this is God’s system, and Jesus is saying that maybe yours ought to work a bit more like our Father’s in Heaven.
Sometimes we allow jealousy to get the best of us. Sometimes we struggle so hard to get something that we think we own it. But our Christian lives aren’t ours to own. They belong to the sick, the destitute, the abused, and the lost who we pray for every week. These vestments, the pews, the altar back there, they’re not ours; they belong to the hungry and the thirsty. And the Eucharist feeds us because it feeds the person sitting next to you, and because it feeds our hope to heal and love more fully. And when we ourselves lose hope, when we fall into despair, or are cold and alone, it is the Eucharist and the love of the Church that heal us. For the Spirit breathes through them all, and they are Christ’s arms to hold us.
So have no fear. Love with reckless abandon. For that well of love shall refresh us more than any water, and fill us more than any food.