"Two men remained in the camp, one named Eldad, and the other 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. And a young man ran and told Moses, 'Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp.' And Joshua, son of Nun, the assistant of Moses and one of his chosen men, said, 'My lord Moses, stop them!' 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!'"
--Numbers 11: 26-29
"John said to Jesus, 'Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop them, because he was not following us.' But Jesus said, 'Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of good in my name will be able soon afterwards to speak evil of me. Whoever is not against us is for us.'"
--Mark 9: 38-40
My hometown had a bunch of different churches. There was the Free Will Baptist, the Independent Baptist, the Primitive Baptist, First Baptist, and Methodist. I grew up in a place that had no Episcopalians, not even Lutherans or Roman Catholics or folks that even resembled my church. So it wasn’t uncommon for me to have fellow members of the Body of Christ tell me all the ways that I and my church were wrong: you have real wine at communion, your pastor’s a woman, your church welcomes gay people, you use that Catholic Bible, not the real Bible (that one’s my favorite). All of these were damnable offenses are far as some folks were concerned, and I remember thinking when I was a teenager, why are these folks so up in arms over my faith when it is actually the same faith that they have. We both believe in Jesus and the salvation that comes from his love. So why all the fuss?
We are often too apt to condemn that which we do not understand, even when it’s not so different from ourselves. Take the case of our stories from both our Old Testament text and our Gospel today. In both cases we see the two most important figures in their respective testaments—Moses in the Hebrew text and Jesus in ours—offer a bigger vision of what discipleship looks like. In Numbers the 70 have completed their prophecies, and while we don’t know what they prophesied, we know that once they were done, that was it. And then these two—Eldad and Medad—start to prophecy, and it gets the people rattled. Prophets spoke with authority, and in the case of the 70, that authority had come from Moses calling them together and praying for God’s Spirit to rest on them. But Eldad and Medad, it would seem, claimed no such authority. This makes them false prophets, so they people cry out for Moses to stop them. But rather than condemn them because they are acting in this unusual manner, Moses commends their prophetic spirits: “Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets!”
And the same goes for Jesus. John complains to him that there are folks casting out demons in his name, but they’re not among the chosen apostles. Like Eldad and Medad, they have not been given that special authority to go and do this work, and so John and the others would naturally expect Jesus to tell them to stop. But Jesus, like Moses, lets them continue on. Whoever is not against us, he says, is for us.
We've talked a lot lately about changing the narrative—redefining who we are and who we can be by saying that we will no longer accept and live by the dysfunctional standards of our past. The narrative Jesus changes here is that old narrative that if you’re not with us, you’re against us. We’ve heard it time and time again in a variety of settings. This narrative is the one that the Israelites in Moses’ time lived by—after all, they killed nearly every person who lived in Canaan when they arrived. It’s the narrative Jesus’ apostles lived by, and we see play out several times when women and Gentiles start thinking that they too are worthy of this message. And it’s the narrative so many folks I knew growing up lived by. It is an absolute. But Jesus changes the narrative: it’s not if you’re not with us you’re against us, instead it is if you’re not against us, you’re for us. Now the tent gets bigger, there’s room for multiple interpretations and manners of doing things. There are no more absolutes. Jesus, as we see so often, does not deal in absolutes. Jesus deals in tolerance.
To be tolerant is to admit that more than one possibility of truth exists. Every person has his or her own truth. You have yours. I have mine. Your truth is a shield, you lean on it, and it protects you. To practice tolerance is not to give up your truth but to admit that other truths besides your can actually exist and can actually be right. Both Moses and Jesus show us what tolerance can look like. Having the courage to say that there can be more than one truth besides our own is an act of humility, an admission that we might not actually know everything that we think we know. We might not have it all figured out, and there might just be some folks out there who have a different perspective, a different way of doing things, and I maybe, just maybe, that different perspective could teach us something.
Sometimes our perspectives can be too small, like some of those folks I knew growing up. But we must remember those words from Jesus: those who are not against us, are for us. If you’ve been following the news recently you may have heard that Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, is looking into possibly dissolving or redefining the Anglican Communion, that worldwide body of which we are a member. Basically, the new vision of the Communion would severe the ties between those members who have such strong theological differences. This would mean that the church here in the US would no longer have to worry about criticisms from churches in places like Nigeria and Uganda, who have strongly criticized the Episcopal Church for its ordination of openly gay and lesbian folks and its election of the first female archbishop. For the better part of 15 years we have butted heads with our brothers and sisters over these issues, and now Archbishop Welby is proposing an end to our partnership. The Lambeth Conference, the gathering of every single Anglican bishop in the world, which is held every 10 years is scheduled for 2018 and it’s looking less and less likely that it will happen. And while I have no say in the matter, I must voice my opinion and say that I pray this proposal does not go through. Folks on the extreme sides—both conservativee and liberal—hope that it does, so that we can get on with the work of the Gospel without worrying about the folks with whom we disagree. But I do not think that’s the answer. What makes our church so special is that we are made up of so many kinds of people with so many perspectives, so many truths. If we go out separate ways, we would be admitting that our perspective is just too small, that there is no room at the table for someone who does not believe what we believe. That’s not Anglican. The tent of God is big enough for all of us because we are bigger than our differences, no matter what they may be.
Pope Francis is wrapping up his visit to the US, and everyone has by now seen what he had to say to Congress. Folks commend the pope for all he has said, that he is taking the Church in a bold new direction. However, he has not actually DONE anything. Francis has said numerous times that the hot button issues, gay marriage, abortion, and women's ordination, are off the table. He's not talking about them because he knows that to talk about them will only create more conflict. So, he says, we should focus on the things that unite us, the things that we can actually agree upon--like caring for the poor, giving hope the those in prison, and leaving our planet in better shape than when we found it. Francis gets what tolerance looks like. It doesn't always agreeing, and it doesn't mean giving up on our own beliefs. It looks like moving beyond the differences to see that we are all part of the household of God, part of one great big family, regardless of what labels we give ourselves.