SCRIPTURE: Numbers 11:26-30; I Corinthians 12:4-11
In the name of the God who creates us, redeems us, and gives us life. Amen!
The month of June is the time for most graduations. Today, we salute graduates and pray God’s blessings upon them. Today is also Father’s Day, so we salute all dads and pray God’s blessing upon them as well. The message today has relevance for grads and dads, and for all the rest of us.
A number of years ago, the Actor Tom Hanks, spoke at his daughter’s commencement ceremony from Vassar College. These are some of his words:
Some folks concocted a computer simulation of gridlock to
determine how many cars should be taken off the freeways
so that they are free-flowing and not jammed up. The results
were startling. Four cars need to be removed….four cars out
every one hundred…if four cars were removed, our freeways
would flow freely and there would never be any stoppage.
Call it the Power of Four. If merely four people out of one
hundred can make gridlock go away, imagine the other changes
that can be wrought by just four of us out of every one hundred.
Take, for instance, one hundred musicians in a depressed port
city in Northern England, and choose from them four people –
John, Paul, George, and Ringo – and you have a worldwide revolution
in music. Take one hundred computer geeks in Redmond, Washington.
Send ninety-six of them home, and the four remaining become Microsoft.
It is truly amazing what one, or two, or three, or four people can do, especially when they are passionate and they have some talent.
The biblical theme that we are looking at today is ministry. The concept of ministry is that everyone one of us is gifted, and every one of is called. Not four percent of us, not ninety-six percent of us, but every one of us. We are all necessary for “body building.” Now I am not talking about working out. I am talking about building up the body of Christ, bringing our unique gifts together so that we strengthen the witness of Christ in the world today, so that we give life to others.
In our passage today from Numbers, there are two stories that are woven together. We really need to separate them so we understand what’s being said. The people of Israel are in the wilderness, and they are complaining. It is stated the rabble (vs 4-6) portion of the population is craving meat. These are their words: “If we only had meat. We remember what we used to eat in Egypt, and it was free. We remember the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic. Now our strength is all dried up, there is nothing at all but this manna to look at.”
They were remembering all the ingredients that went together into creating a savory, seasoned meat dish.
I suppose our parallel would be if we had food being prepared down in the kitchen during a worship service and a whiff of some great aroma came up the stairs to the sanctuary. I must confess it would be hard to stay focused in prayer or preaching just then.
It doesn’t matter whether we are in the Sinai or in the sanctuary, our cravings lead us away from God. Our cravings get in the way of our faithfulness to God. The people of Israel spent forty years in the wilderness for a reason. They had to unlearn everything they had known before. They had to learn to follow God in a new way.
What the people of Israel wanted was gratification not growth, and spiritual growth is slow process of learning what it is that God can mean for us, and what our lives can mean for God’s ministry.
Cravings today that lead us away from God may be money, or employment, or social prestige, or any number of other things. Whenever we crave something, what we do is we take God’s providence and commodify it. Such serves only our self-interest, and is a rejection of God and God’s call to ministry.
God’s response to these people who were craving in the wilderness has a real humorous tinge to it. God says, “You want meat? I will give you meat. I will give you so much meat it will come out of your noses.” God is a God of abundance, but when we misuse God’s abundance, it works ill in our lives.
The rabble could not conform to God’s timetable. They wanted things now, and so they were purged from the community. They were purged by their own actions, not by God. Those who remained in the camp and ate the manna continued to journey with God. To be in ministry is to be focused on God and what it is that God wants for us, not what we want God to do or give to satisfy us.
The second story in the Numbers account, God instructs Moses to gather seventy elders. God will take the spirit that has been upon Moses, and separate it out on all of them, leaving some for Moses, but giving it to all the seventy as well.
Two of those selected did not go into the sanctuary, but remained in the camp. Their names were Eldad and Medad. They began to prophesy because they had the spirit. Joshua, hearing about them, runs to Moses, and says, “We have to stop them, because they are not here with us.”
Moses’ response is a great response: “Would that all God’s people were prophets.” This is a precursor to Paul’s concept of the “priesthood of all believers.” It is a precursor to our understanding of ministry that everyone is gifted and differently everyone called to do God’s work.
There is a parallel to this in the New Testament, in Mark, chapter 9. The disciple John comes to Jesus, and says, “There is a man who has been casting out demons, and he uses your name Lord, but he is not one of the twelve. We are going to try and stop him.” Jesus says, “Don’t stop him. Whoever is not against us is for us.” We may do things differently. We may have different understandings, but we all serve the same God, and our purpose is to give life to people.
Paul really drives this home in the passage from 1 Corinthians. He gives us the idea that every single one of us is gifted, every single one of us is called. He says, “There are a variety of gifts, but the come from the same Spirit. There are varieties of services, but they are moved by the same Lord. It is the same Lord who activates all of them in every one of us. To such is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.”
We aren’t all the same, and we don’t have all the same gifts, but we are called. Paul is consistent. He is a great list maker. He makes several lists about the nature of ministry and the nature of gifts for ministry. There is one in Romans 12, and then there is this one here in 1 Corinthians 12. Listen to the variety of gifts listed here: wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, miracles, prophesy, discernment, tongues, and the interpretation of tongues. Paul says off of these are for building up the body of Christ, of making strong our witness in the world, of giving life to others.
Friends, not a single one of us, not the most devote, not the most intelligent, not the most hard-working, not a single one of us can truly see ourselves as we are. We need help from those around us to understand our true nature, our needs but also our gifts. We are here together for a purpose: to encourage each other to use those gifts in other people around us are used in God’s service, even the people we dislike, even the people with whom we disagree, even the people that we think might be theologically challenged.
Ministry is not about promoting any single one of us. Ministry is about building up the witness of the church, and we do that by offering our gifts in union and communion with each other. The body of Christ is for everyone: for children, youth, and adults. Children are gifted and called. Youth are gifted and called. Adults are gifted and called. We are to use our gifts for God’s work.
Let me give two examples, one of a young person, the other a retired person. One is a whole life work, the other is a moment in time. A young woman named Anna Rudberg graduated from college and really didn’t know what she wanted to do with her life. So she volunteered to be in mission for the united Methodist Church in Warsaw, Poland. She taught English (her gift is linguistics), in conversational classes at the Methodist Language College of Poland. She also taught at several other English schools across Poland.
Ms. Rudberg is also active in the Methodist Church in Warsaw, where she teaches language to older members of the church, specifically technical, medical language so that they could get the kind of medical care they needed. She teaches Sunday School and is active in a women’s group. She volunteers in the community in the cancer ward of a children’s hospital, at a local orphanage, as a translator for non-profit corporations such as Habitat for Humanity, and as a narrator for Methodist information on the Polish national TV station.
Anna Rudberg is gifted with the gift of linguistics, and she has shared her gift in the most marvelous way. This is a form of ministry.
A retired United Methodist pastor from Arizona, by the name of Buzz Stevens, tells this story. He and his family were visiting London and were at the Tower of London. The family wanted to go see the Crown Jewels. Rev. Stevens had already seen the Crown Jewels, so he decided to sit out of that part of the experience. He found a park bench in the tower complex. There was a man sitting at one end of the bench. They nodded to each other as Rev. Stevens sat down.
They fell into a pattern of conversation that went like this: long periods of silence, then a few words; long period of silence, then a few words. It repeated over and over. Rev. Stevens learned some things about this man. He was German. He was retired. He had been a doctor. Rev. Stevens figured from his age and appearance that perhaps he had been in World War II. “Yes, but I don’t want to talk about it.”
Then Rev. Stevens said that after a very long period of silence, the man began talking. The man had been on the Russian Front, two years of constant service, every single day, seeing body after body of soldier and civilian, of Russian and German, and many others that he could not identify. He was there as a doctor following the call to mend bodies and give life. He said the carnage was unbelievable.
Buzz Stevens said that it was obviously difficult for him to put all this into words, and yet the words just flowed out. Finally, the man said, “I have told you things that I have never even shared with my wife”. About that time the man’s wife and adult children came back, and he stood and walked away with them. Rev. Stevens reflected, what had he done?
He just sat there and allowed a sense of silence to engulf this person beside him. In that warm silence there was healing. There was the pouring out of all the pain that the man carried for so long. Rev. Stevens said, “My guess is he hadn’t even admitted most of that to himself until that time.”
Friends, ministry --- ministry for grads, ministry for dads, ministry for all of us --- gift and call ---takes on many shapes and sizes. It means many things. It can mean full-time service, or it can mean a few moments of silence shared on a park bench. God gives us a variety of gifts. God calls us to a variety of service for the common good, for building up the giving of life to others. Thanks be to God.
MAY THESE THOUGHTS GIVE YOU STRENGTH