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Mike hopes to see the world turned upside down through local communities banding together for social change, especially churches which have recognized the radical calling to be good news to the poor, to set free the prisoners and oppressed, and to become the social embodiment of the reign of God on earth as it is in heaven. He lives with the blessed memory of his wife, in Durham, NC, and has three adult children living in three different states. He also shares his life with the Mt. Level Missionary Baptist Church in Durham, the faculty and students of Shaw University Divinity School in Raleigh, NC, and the faithful fans of Duke and Baylor Basketball in his neighborhood.

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Sunday, June 12, 2011

Pentecost and Education Day at Mt. Level Missionary Baptist Church

Numbers 11:24-30 (NRSV)

24 So Moses went out and told the people the words of the Lord; and he gathered seventy elders of the people, and placed them all around the tent.  25 Then the Lord came down in the cloud and spoke to him, and took some of the spirit that was on him and put it on the seventy elders; and when the spirit rested upon them, they prophesied. But they did not do so again.

26 Two men remained in the camp, one named Eldad, and the other named Medad, and the spirit rested on them; they were among those registered, but they had not gone out to the tent, and so they prophesied in the camp.  27 And a young man ran and told Moses, “Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp.”  28 And Joshua, son of Nun, the assistant of Moses, one of his chosen men, said, “My lord Moses, stop them!”  29 But Moses said to him, “Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit on them!”  30 And Moses and the elders of Israel returned to the camp.

Getting an education, going to school, is like having a job.  It has its good days and its bad days.  It has its steady tasks and its deadlines.  It has issues of getting along with supervisors and peers.  It requires an everyday dedication that at worst becomes drudgery and at best reveals new blessings from day to day.

In one way then, completing a course of study or finishing a degree is like finishing a task on the job.  Deadlines have been met.  The work has been approved. Catch your breath.  Okay, what’s next?

But in another way, finishing a course of study or a degree is a major crossroads in life.  It is both a consummation and a watershed.  It is an ending and a beginning.  It is a time of looking back and looking forward.

For this reason, we gather as a congregation to celebrate Education Day.  As God’s people, we gather today to consecrate the accomplishments and achievements of all who strive to better themselves through education.  As the body of Christ, we gather bearing sacramental witness to the work of the Holy Spirit who pours out grace upon grace into our community of faith. 

This Education Day is therefore both a joyous and a solemn occasion.  It is a joyous day of looking back as we remember the blessings of friendships, the fascination of new knowledge learned, the satisfaction of a tasks completed successfully, and the affectionate pride of our loved ones.  It is a solemn day of looking back when we remember the sacrifices required of us and others to reach this accomplishment, when we recall the many times when the line between success and failure was as thin as a hair’s breadth, when we relive the moments when the first try was not good enough, and when we meditate on the grace required to hold us up through the challenges we faced.

It is also a joyous and solemn day of looking forward.  It is joyous to revel in the knowledge that fifth grade or middle school or high school or a bachelor’s degree or a graduate degree is done and we never have to do that again.  It is joyous for many who have been waiting while studying, looking ahead to the opportunity of work or further education that can only come when this degree or course of study is complete.  We are joyful when we realize the possibilities for serving God that have become greater because of what we have learned and now know. 

It is also a solemn occasion of looking forward.  One segment of life is complete, and whatever comes next will have a whole new set of challenges.  It is solemn for those who move forward to jobs or further education, knowing the opportunity will still require striving and struggle.  It is solemn to look ahead and see that God’s purposes for our lives draw ever nearer and require greater faith and discipline than we have yet demonstrated in our lives.

Education Day, thus, is a day for celebrating the joy and reflecting on the solemnity we meet at the current crossroads of our lives.

You may not realize that this Education Day has also fallen on one of the high holy days of the Christian year.  By habit, Baptists are keenly aware of Christmas and Easter, but we often do not hold in mind the third great festival of the church, Pentecost.  On Pentecost we celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit with power to enliven and commission the church to be the body of Christ in the world, receiving the task of living out the very purposes of God for all creation.  On Pentecost, we receive the calling to break down the barriers of race, class, nationality, language, and any other superficial distinctions, and we become the family of God, a holy nation, a peculiar people who up until Jesus called us together were not a people.  We become a family, not by blood relations but by a new creation, united with Christ in his life, death, and resurrection as a new race of humanity from every tribe and nation, people and language.

As the festival of the Holy Spirit and the church, Pentecost has much to tell us about how to celebrate Education Day.  On Education Day, we don’t want to merely acknowledge accomplishments from a secular realm of life, say a prayer over them, and then let our education and worship part ways for the remainder of our lives.  As I said earlier, we celebrate Education Day as a consecration of the work we have done in school, not for ourselves, but for the good of all of God’s people and for the glory of God who made us able to learn, grow, and achieve.  In that way, the diploma or degree takes on sacramental significance.  Just as Jesus increased in wisdom and stature and in favor with God and humanity, so we mark our educational achievements as steps toward taking onto ourselves the full stature of Christ, bearing his image as a new creation.

The Old Testament lesson for this Pentecost Sunday speaks to our reason for celebrating Education Day.  It is a familiar story about Moses and the children of Israel during the time of the Exodus.  Moses, as the leader of a great crowd of people, often found himself overworked and worn out.  Perhaps Moses had the kind of personality that sometimes led him to think only he could do things right.  If you want a job done right, he might have said to himself, do it yourself.  Or maybe, and this hits closer to home for me, Moses tended to put off getting things planned and finished.  Dragging everything down to the last minute meant that when the crunch time hit, it was too late to get the help that he needed.  We don’t fully know the cause of Moses’ problem as described in Numbers, but we do know how his God recommended that he solve the problem.

God told Moses that he was not the only one who could do the important tasks needed to lead the people.  He was not the only one who could discern the will of God and speak a word from the Lord.  So God told Moses to select seventy elders from among the people to share the burdens of leadership.  Spread out the work, God told Moses, and don’t be surprised that there are many more gifted people out here ready to lead.

Well Moses was sick and tired of being sick and tired, and he eagerly did what God told him to do.  As Numbers puts it, God “took some of the spirit that was on Moses” and spread it out by putting some on each of the seventy elders.  It is a kind of crude image in a way, but it gets the point across.  If we imagine that Moses had power from God smeared around all over him, then what was to prevent sopping up some of that and smearing it around on a bunch of other folks? 

So there we have it.  Moses and God transferred some of the leadership responsibilities to others, and the story tells us that all of the seventy elders began to prophesy, just as Moses had been prophesying.  Now we don’t use the word prophesy very well in our time.  We tend to narrow its meaning to be the same as predicting the future.  But Numbers is not telling us that the seventy elders formed a psychic hotline and started predicting the future.  No, prophesy means first of all to deliver a message from God.  These elders became leaders who spoke the truth of God and guided the people in solving their problems and getting their lives moving the right direction.  These elders became servants of God to serve the common good.  They began to focus their life’s work around making everyone’s lives better.  With all of these elders serving the common good, less of that work fell on Moses.  And since it was no longer just one man’s job, probably a whole lot more got done.

One of the questions that came to my mind in reading this story has to do with the number of elders.  Now we know that symbolically, the number twelve is very important for understanding the people of Israel.  The twelve tribes are a constant organizing principle, and so we might have expected God to tell Moses to choose twelve elders, one for each tribe.  Instead, God told him to choose seventy.  Seventy is not even a multiple of twelve.  That would have been seventy-two, making six elders per tribe.  But the number is not seventy-two, it is just seventy.

If we analyze the number seventy, we can see some possible reasons for choosing that number.  The most obvious thing to see is that it is a multiple of seven.  With seven days of creation and Sabbath, a seven year cycle of debt remission and letting the land rest, a seven day week, and for many other reasons, seven is also a highly significant number.  It is a number that expresses completeness.  It is a number that implies a cycle of restorative justice.  It is a number reminding us never to get too carried away with our schemes and activities without stopping to devote ourselves to God and renew our covenant relationship.

So choosing seventy has within it a symbolism of completion, of divine remembrance, and of just social existence.  But Moses did not choose only seven elders, but seventy.  Now seventy is a round number, and round numbers have a biblical symbolism of many and plenty.  If seven is symbolic of completion, seventy symbolized complete and more, plenty to accomplish the task.  So what we see in Moses’ selection of seventy elders is choosing a number adequate to do a very big job.

Sometimes in church we get a couple of people together and just try to get by, do the minimum to say we have fulfilled our responsibility.  In this case, Moses is choosing enough to get the job done effectively and get the job done right.  This plan from God for Moses does not operate in an economy of scarcity, fearful that if Moses does not have most of the power, then these other leaders will edge him out or steal his turf.  It is not about jealousy and control.  This selection of elders is about what is good for the people.  And unless Moses wants to be a candle burned out by next week, it is also going to be good for him.

So on Education Day, we acknowledge with Moses that the work of God is far too great for Dr. Turner to do it all himself.  The work of God is far to vast for a few people to hoard all the power of God’s Spirit as if it were their personal possession.  On Education Day, and on Pentecost, we recognize that the Holy Spirit has come with power.  God has poured out the Spirit on all flesh, on the young and the old, on the women and the men, on the slave and the free, on the Jew and the Gentile.  By striving for knowledge and working to complete a course of study or a degree, we offer ourselves as servants of God, as vessels of the Spirit’s power.  Today, on Education Day, we gather to consecrate this commitment to serve God and to share in the coming of God’s Spirit with power on each of you who have offered yourselves as a living sacrifice to God.  You today stand in the position of the seventy elders of Israel.  The Spirit is calling on you to use your gifts to prophesy, to speak a word from the Lord, and to serve the good of all the people.

Now there is another interesting detail in this story of the seventy elders that we do not want to miss.  Joshua got very disturbed about one thing that happened.  He was a young man with a lot to learn.  As the story unfolded, a couple of the elders chosen to lead did not manage to make the official meeting at which they would be set aside for service.  We don’t know why Eldad and Medad did not make it to the big house . . . I mean the tent where they were supposed to gather.  Maybe they got preoccupied with work they were already doing.  [From the pew, Dr. Turner inserted, “Maybe they overslept.”]  Maybe someone told them it was a mistake that their names got on the list, and they should just go on home and not try to be uppity.  Maybe they never got the message that they were supposed to go to the meeting.  Maybe a family crisis came up, and they decided to give up their dream in order to support the family.  We don’t know why they did not show up.

However, when the meeting was held, and the elders were set aside for their task, the power of the spirit came upon all seventy of the elders.  That means that when the other sixty eight who showed up for the meeting started to prophesy, Eldad and Medad started prophesying, too, back in the hood.  It was such a big deal that a youngster got all excited and ran to the tent of meeting to tell what was going on.  Joshua heard the news and started worrying that Eldad and Medad were getting out of line.  He burst out to Moses saying, “This has got to be shut down.  We can’t have stray people prophesying here and there and acting like they are in our select, elite group.  There are rules and precedents to follow!”

I suspect Joshua was pretty surprised by Moses’ reply.  The Bible says Moses was the meekest man on earth, and here is one of the occasions when we can see what that means.  Moses did not need to be the head man in charge of everything.  He was happy to see the work of God done, no matter who was doing it.  He told Joshua that as far as old Moses is concerned, he wished everyone would become a prophet of God. 

Whoa, Moses!  Thank you God for setting Moses’ mind on You.  On the day of selecting the seventy elders, Moses has caught a glimpse of Pentecost.  He is looking for and longing for the day when God’s Spirit is poured out on all flesh.

Moreover, this day of setting aside seventy elders to lead and speak a word from the Lord also looks ahead to a day when Jesus gathered his followers and sent out seventy missionaries to all the towns and villages to tell them the good news of the Kingdom of God.  As it was when Jesus’ sent the seventy, the God of Jesus Christ is in the business of calling all of us out to take up the task of living and loving and bringing about the beloved community.  These elders could no longer live merely for themselves, but they now would live for the good of the entire community.  Eldad and Medad, back in the hood, would live for God and for the good of the whole community.  No more looking out only for number one.  Now they must look out for the way that we can all become one.

Some of you, in completing this season of school work, may remember bitter moments when you were told you were too dumb to finish school.  Maybe someone told you your clothes were too plain, your teeth too crooked, your hair too nappy, your skin too dark or too light, your speech too country, your voice too squeaky, your people too poor, your neighborhood to run down.  Maybe it was even someone with the status of Joshua who stood in your way and made you feel like you should not even try. 

But like Eldad and Medad, if you are here today, you have found the courage and strength to put that dispiritedness behind you.  You have risen over that adversity, using it as a stepping stone to remember that God has called not only this preacher and the teachers and the ministers and the deacons, but God has called you.  Maybe nobody wanted you to know that you could come to Moses’ meeting.  Maybe somebody got in your way.  But praise be to God that the Spirit is poured out on all flesh.  If God is calling you, nobody can stop the power of God from filling you with all that you need to do what God has for you to do.

On the Feast of Pentecost, we unite ourselves with the Holy Spirit who gives gifts to all.  The Apostle Paul, who sometimes reminds folks that he was a latecomer to his work, maybe like Eldad and Medad, wrote to the churches that we are one body with many gifts.  The Spirit gives each one a gift, and each gift is needed for the good of the whole community.  If you don’t cultivate your gift, grow it, and allow it to flourish, all of us will be diminished.  God’s Spirit is poured out on all of us, and our educational milestones of maturity are part of the process of learning to exercise our gifts for the good of all.

The Gospel Lesson for today comes from John, chapter 7.  In that passage, Jesus says to the crowds in Jerusalem that the day will come when the Spirit will work with power in the lives of all believers.  He says, “Out of the believer’s heart will flow rivers of living water.”  This is the work that the Holy Spirit is doing in all of us, and in all of you whom we recognize on this Education Day.  God is at work to will and to do in you what has not yet been seen or imagined.  The transformation of your life underway through the work of the Spirit will make you into a wellspring.  The gift of the Spirit will be the water of life for all those whom God sends your way.  Whether back in the hood with Eldad and Medad, or at the big meeting with the rest of the elders, you will be a vessel of the very life of God. 

Receive this work of the Holy Spirit.  Lift up your hearts to God.  You stand here today as a sacrament of the work of the Holy Spirit.  You are gifted.  Hasten to use the gifts you have received.  Amen.

1 comment:

Michelle said...

Reading this article was very timely for me. I was thinking about a sermon entitled, "Pick up your mat and walk". My focus is regarding the high school graduates, college graduates and those who don't want to work. I was thinking about creating a sermon focused on making people realize that they must work, sitting down is an affirmity, worse than the man who laid on the mat for 38 years. The man who laid on the mat had a reason to sit down. those of us who are able body, do not have an excuse.

Anyway, this article which was delivered on Education Day gave me an idea that I'll use my sermon for either Education Day or during Children's Hour. Your article gave me the idea of how to tie in the scriptures. Excellent Article!!

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