I preached this sermon to the good people of the Episcopal Church of St. Martin, as part of Campus Ministry Sunday.
Grace and peace from God our Creator, hope in our Redeemer Jesus the Christ, and the promised gifts of the Holy Spirit are with you, always.
As advertised, I am Pastor Casey Dunsworth, and I serve at the Belfry, your Lutheran Episcopal Campus Ministry to UC Davis. The Belfry is also home to the Lutheran Episcopal Volunteer Network, abbreviated LEVN, a young adult service corps made up of college graduates from around the country, not UC Davis students. There are some students and some LEVNeers in the house this morning, as well as my colleague Emily Hyberg, The Belfry’s Executive Director. We’re all grateful for the invitation to be here with y’all.
It’s the tail end of Welcome Week for UC Davis, so we have been busily meeting new people and reuniting with people we hadn’t seen all summer or perhaps even longer. The start of a new school year is such a joy for me, anticipating all of the young adults who will come through the door of our little yellow house, to join in prayer, and in service, and in free food.
Our text from the book of Numbers this morning features the Israelites whining about the free food they have received in the desert. “If only we had meat to eat!” they cry, “We remember the fish we used to eat in Egypt for nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic; but now our strength is dried up, and there is nothing at all but this manna to look at” (Numbers 11:4b-6). Moses is rightfully exasperated, given that he has done everything in his power to liberate his people from slavery, and only by the grace of God do they even have that manna to whine about. There is some back and forth about gathering up elders, and the spirit of God moving through these people. Someone is prophesying who is not supposed to be, and someone is tattling to Moses. The passage ends with Moses crying out, “Would that all the Lord's people were prophets, and that the LORD would put his spirit on them!” (Numbers 11:29b).
Next, the text from James gives advice for communal life, offering suggestions for how to behave in various favorable and unfavorable circumstances. “Confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed” (James 5:16). I am reminded that the power of prayer is not that it changes the heart of God to whom we pray so much as it changes the hearts of we who pray.
It’s why Jesus suggests that we pray for our enemies and for those who persecute us, so that we might be released from our own hatred and fear of them. And if all of us engaged in this communal confession and prayer, how many of our conflicts might we resolve? These two passages, from Numbers and from James, tell us about the type of community members we ought to be and to encourage, the type of leaders we ought to be and to encourage.
Annually, The Belfry invites a Christian scholar to campus for our St. Augustine Lecture. Many of you have probably attended one in the past. Were you here in 2015 when the Rev. Eric Law was our guest? He has written several books and is the executive director of the Kaleidoscope Institute, an organization that invites ministries and leaders into new ways of being. Pastor Pamela told me that in this season of stewardship, you are benefiting from the wisdom in his book Holy Currencies: 6 Blessings for Sustainable Missional Ministries. Holy Currencies was his newest book when he visited in 2015, and I found it very engaging. Thank you for offering me this opportunity to crack it open and review all the notes I scribbled in the margins and all the ideas I had for our ministry! This week is centered on chapter nine of Holy Currencies, “Gracious Leadership”. This is an excellent turn of events, because in our Gospel lesson for this morning, Jesus’ disciples are offering a wonderful example of decidedly ungracious leadership.
The disciples actually have a habit of this, especially in the Gospel According to Mark. In last week’s text, they argued over who was the greatest. In our story this morning, they’re tattling on somebody who is doing the same good work they are doing but whom they have not personally authorized to do that work. “But Jesus said, ‘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’ (Mark 9:39-40). The disciples are concerned about the power they wield, and about who else gets to wield that power. They are blinded, it seems, by their desire to be the most powerful, that they cannot see that others are doing the same good work as they are doing.
Here’s where Eric Law comes in. “Gracious leadership,” he writes, “is not about holding power over others; it is about knowing how to empower others to share their gifts and experiences and to do that which is beneficial to the community. They do not hold onto authority; rather, they share authority with those who are in community” (Holy Currencies, 93). “Power” and “authority” are words that we often ascribe to God the Creator and to Jesus the Christ and to the Holy Spirit. Our responsibility as Christians, as bearers of the good news to the world, is a share of that power. We who know the truth have the power and the responsibility to go out and make sure that everyone else knows, too. This is a scary little thing we sometimes call evangelism.
Evangelism happens in what Eric Law calls the Grace Margin. Very briefly, the Grace Margin is the space between the “safe zone” and the “fear zone” wherein the most growth is possible. If we are always in our safe zone, we never grow. If we are tossed directly into the fear zone, we never grow, either. There has to be a gentle give and take, of things that are familiar and things that are new, before our safe zone widens and our interest in moving toward that fear zone grows. I was recently invited by a colleague to consider making myself “mildly uncomfortable” for the sake of growth. Not too cushy, not too scary. Mildly uncomfortable. I’m not sure that this colleague has read Eric Law, but I think he was inviting us into a Grace Margin.
Talking about God in public may not be your idea of a good time, but believe me when I say that it sure can be. As part of our Welcome Week festivities, we had our first Public Theology event on Thursday night. In partnership with Lutheran Church of the Incarnation, we are gathering at Three Mile Brewing a handful of times this quarter to talk about issues and ideas that impact our lives, from the perspective of our faith. Somewhat presciently, Pastor Dan Smith and I chose a topic for this first meeting: “What is truth?” we asked. We wondered about what our scripture says about truth and what our public intellectuals, poets, authors, and politicians say about truth.
We wondered about this at 8:00 on Thursday night, after a very long day. You may have watched in horror, as I did, as Dr. Christine Blasey Ford bravely testified in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee about Supreme Court Nominee Brett Kavanaugh. You may have witnessed her courage, her voice shaking as she read her prepared opening statement. As she swore to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.
Dr. Blasey Ford told the story of the worst day of her life in front of a panel of US Senators on live, national television. She did this because a lifetime appointment to the highest court in the land requires a thorough background check and interview process, and she had information that she thought the Senate should include as they made their decision. Dr. Blasey Ford testified in the interest of truth, fairness, and justice. Her testimony was largely disregarded by the committee, and they voted down party lines 11-10 on Friday to send Judge Kavanaugh’s nomination forward to the whole Senate.
Using the metrics laid out in our scripture this morning, the 11 members of the Senate Judiciary Committee by whose votes Kavanaugh’s nomination process continues are not practicing gracious leadership.
Jesus says, “If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea” (Mark 9:42). Jesus rarely minces words.
These men have placed a stumbling block before every American who has survived assaults like Dr. Blasey Ford’s and has not been believed. Millions of Americans listened to the allegations against Judge Kavanaugh, and then listened as those allegations were dismissed. Millions of Americans have heard truths told that sound just like the truths of their own lives, and have heard their leaders dismiss those truths as lies. Millions of Americans have stumbled over this this week, unsure of their value to their country and perhaps even their value to their God.
Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, Deborah Ramirez, and Julie Swetnick have told their truths at great personal risk, and have been rewarded by our nation’s leaders with vitriol meant to shame them into hiding. Wielding power to make others feel powerless is not gracious leadership.
Throughout Jesus’ ministry, he spoke to and on behalf of marginalized communities—women, lepers, widows, orphans, children, the poor and the oppressed. When those without power in his society told the truth about their lives, Jesus believed them. Jesus believed them, and then empowered them to keep telling their truths until they were believed by those in their communities who had the power to do something about it.
In our own lives, when we experience great trauma and tragedy, God knows and sees and hears us. When we feel like we are screaming into the void, God knows and sees and hears us. When we feel like we might go blind with rage, God knows and sees and hears us.
As the body of Christ in the world, as the Church on earth, we, too, have the power to know and to see and to hear the truth when it is spoken to us. We have the power to speak the truth, even when our voices shake. We have the power to say, “I believe you” to someone who fears the worst. And we have the power to denounce the powers and principalities that would say otherwise. We have the power to be gracious leaders and to speak up when our leaders fail us.
Or, have you yourself placed a stumbling block in front of someone else? Have you used your power to limit someone else’s freedom? Then, as it is written in the letter of James, “confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed.” Now is the time, my dearest siblings in Christ, to slough off what has been weighing you down. If you have never before been an outspoken defender of the truth, there is no time like the present. If your own past makes it hard for you to feel justified in speaking out, do what you need to do to put it right.
Just as Jesus so graphically puts it, “If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; ….And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out” (Mark 9:43-46). It is better for you to go boldly into this world newly absolved, newly liberated, than to relegate yourself to an unexamined life. “Whoever is not against us is for us”, Jesus says. We are all in this together.
Being a guest in someone else’s pulpit is not always the safest place to express rage. But as a called and ordained minister of the church of Christ, it is my duty and my joy to use my power to empower you. It is my duty and my joy to ensure that any one of you in those pews who has felt hopeless, who has felt fearful of what our nation’s leaders have done and continue to do, knows that you, too, have this power. You, beloved children of God, can tell the truth. Remember Moses, who cried out, “Would that all the Lord's people were prophets, and that the LORD would put his spirit on them!” Dear ones, the spirit of God is within you and among you! In your baptism, you were liberated from the poverty of sin and death, set free to claim your wholeness and live your truth! What are you waiting for?!