Sermon for Pentecost 19 2018

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

A week ago was the ninth anniversary of my ordination to the priesthood, and I was reminded of a moment during the liturgy that some of you know about. After the oath that I believed the Old and New Testaments of the Holy Scriptures to contain all things necessary to salvation (the one uniquely Anglican theological oath a priest-to-be has been require to make consistently throughout the last half-millennium) and the promise to conform to the doctrine, discipline, and worship of the Episcopal Church and to obey the bishop, the ordinand is supposed to sign a physical copy of that declaration. I believe obedience to just authority is a most important thing in the church, so it was not my scruples but my nerves which made me accidentally sign not in the space reserved for my own signature, but in that reserved for the bishop’s.

Of course, the Declaration of Conformity got signed properly later, everything’s legal, I assure you, and it was not the my taking that oath (as critical as it was and is), but the bishop’s prayer and the laying on of his hands that made me a priest. But in today’s Old Testament lesson and today’s Gospel we hear of some prophets who failed to do anything like attempt to sign a declaration to make things official, and they certainly didn’t have a bishop lay on hands.
First, in the passage from Numbers we learnt of Moses being overwhelmed by the demands set on him as God’s vicar, His agent, among the children of Israel. So, God had him appoint seventy men and He put some of the spirit that rested on Abraham and placed it upon those seventy, that they might share in the administration of His people. This is a foreshadowing of the priesthood which was to develop in the early church.

A bit of history: while at first there were only Apostles and those who came to replace them, known as bishops, there came a time in which the Christian population grew so large that they could not do all the work of the Church. So, they let some of the spirit given to them—the Grace of their ministry—rest upon qualified, designated people who came to be known as presbyters, elders, or priests.

Anyway, Moses ordained those seventy men to help him in carrying out God’s work. But then, as we heard, there were two elders of the tribe, called Eldad and Medad, who began prophesying in the camp. They were not present for the solemn ordination liturgy that day in the desert, and yet they showed signs of the same Spirit, the same Grace, which rested upon the other seventy. This made Joshua most upset. “My Lord Moses, stop them!” he exclaimed. They had not been ordained properly! They had not signed a declaration of conformity! And yet, they were obviously given gifts to do God’s work among the people. Thus, Moses rebuffed Joshua; “Are you jealous for my sake?” he asked. “Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit on them.”
Perhaps Joshua had fallen victim to a certain kind of elitism, what today we would call clericalism, which holds that only those properly vetted and duly ordained can possibly be leaders of God’s people. Perhaps it was also a bit of legalism, an obsession with policy and procedure which can at times frustrate the actions of the Holy Ghost. Probably it was a little of both, and thank God Moses’ response was clear. He might as well have said, “Get over it! Your high view of your own position and your obsession with rules cannot stand in the way of God’s will.”

Jesus’ response to the apostles was very much the same. The apostles didn’t much care for this other chap who was casting out demons in Jesus’ name but who lacked the proper credentials to do so. Jesus’ response was much like Moses’ response: “Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. Whoever is not against us is for us.” Perhaps the disciples also had fallen victim to that elitism, which today we would call clericalism. Perhaps it was also a bit of legalism. Probably it was a little of both. And one way of interpreting Jesus’ rebuke of the apostles is the same as how we might interpret Moses’ rebuke of Joshua: “Get over it! Your high view of your own position and your obsession with rules cannot stand in the way of God’s will.”

The message I get from these texts is that clericalism is deadly and an inordinate reliance on rules is deadly. This isn’t to say we ought not to have a high view of the priesthood. It is a gift from God to the Church. This is not to say that rules about how the life of the Church proceeds are all meant to be broken. There are certain Sacramental functions and certain areas of Church leadership in which only a priest is permitted to function for very good reasons. However, this text is a warning to me, lest I become so enamored with clerical authority that I withhold the privilege to serve and to lead from all of you, by either being an autocrat or by just doing all the work because I think I’m the only one who knows how to do it the right way. This last is a particularly difficult lesson for me, but I’m always trying to get better at it. These texts should also send a message to all of you. I think the message is something like: “Don’t get complacent!”

Certainly, you can be happy, if you wish to be, that you have a priest here to do the priestly work of preaching and teaching and dispensing the sacraments and providing pastoral care and leading this parish. On Thursday I had my monthly lunch with other clergy from around the deanery, a number of whom are Interim-Rectors or supply clergy, who shared with me the difficulty their parishes were having due to going a year or two without permanent, instituted clergy leadership. That, I’ve gathered, was a frustration here for you, too, before I came here two-and-a-half years ago. In all events, you’ve got what amounts to tenured clergy leadership (and I hope not too much buyer’s remorse), but, don’t let that or me withhold from you the ability to serve and to lead in ways which are meaningful to you. If I do put the kibosh on such service and leadership I’d better have good reason, and if not, you should call me out on it, just like Moses did to Joshua and Jesus did to his apostles. I promise I won’t bite, because I recognize how much this church means to so many of you. It means so much to me, and I’ve not been here as long as many. I realize how dangerous it is to preach a sermon like this, but take it at face value, because I really believe that any one of you might be an Eldad or a Medad, like we met in today’s Old Testmant, or an unlicensed exorcist, like we met in today’s Gospel. Step up and look around. There’s plenty of work to do.

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.