Sermon for the Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost

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

On Wednesday I celebrated twelve years as a priest, and I was reminded of how long and complex the ordination process in our church is. This is mostly to the good. While some people experience the process as inhumane, I was fortunate not to have artificial roadblocks set up against me when I was going through. That said, and this is sometimes a surprise to people, it wasn’t just a matter of going to seminary for three years. There are no fewer than three committees one has to meet with multiple times over the course of five or six years if the process is going at the most efficient clip, one has to write one’s bishop a minimum of four times a year (on the traditional ember days) throughout this period of time, there are standardized exams in the last year of seminary which one must pass (now there is the possibility of remediation if one or more fails one of the seven sections, but in my day one simply had to wait a year and retake them), and this is not to mention the battery of medical and psychiatric evaluations. I bring this up because in both the Old Testament and Gospel lessons today, we see some folks doing “the Lord’s work” without a long process or a bishop laying on hands or any other official licensing. We can understand why Moses’ men and Jesus’ disciples would have been a little less than thrilled.

First, in the passage from Numbers we learnt of Moses being overwhelmed by the demands set on him as God’s 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. 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, 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, forbid them!” he exclaimed. They had not been ordained properly! They had not signed the 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 upon 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 Spirit. 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’ to his countryman: “Do not forbid him; for no one who does a mighty work in my name will be able soon after to speak evil of me. For he that 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 bad. 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. 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. But, don’t let me withhold from you the ability to serve and to lead in ways which are meaningful to you. If I do, call me out on it, just like Moses did to Joshua and Jesus did to his apostles. I promise I won’t bite your head off, because I recognize how much this church means to so many of you. 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.