by Ellen Sims
texts: Acts 2:1-21; Numbers 11:24-30; 1 Corinthians 12:3b-14
George Williamson, the beloved pastor of our former church in Ohio and one of my spiritual heroes, used to describe the Spirit of God as dancing out ahead of us to expose injustice and lead us past religion’s boundaries. George criticized the institutional Church for the way it lagged behind the big movements for justice. He cited many examples from the last century when the Spirit of God was always several steps ahead of the church in fomenting, for instance, the Civil Rights movement, the anti-war movement, the Women’s movement, the LGBT movement. It’s not as if Christian clergy were absent in these justice movements. King and many other Civil Rights leaders were clergy, of course. But on the whole the official Church lagged far behind these movements. It took years before congregations and denominations supported the values being promoted by marchers and organizers and protesters, writers and artists and musicians.
Once the movements became tame enough, George Williamson said by then the Spirit had moved on to stir up trouble elsewhere. Again, it’s true some churches and Christian leaders were on the front lines when discrimination against those on the margins was strong, when campaigns for peace or the war on poverty or advocacy for immigrants were dangerously unpopular. But in general, when the Church has been most needed in the fight for justice, the institution has not acted for justice. Yet God’s Spirit WILL find a way. Like a current of water that meets an obstacle, the Spirit will eventually channel another path to continue its mission, flowing persistently toward compassion and justice.
We see the Spirit’s unpredictability and indifference to conventional authority in the story of Moses and the seventy elders. They were the official leaders, the obvious leaders. In verses just prior to today’s passage from the book of Numbers, Moses had been complaining to God that his leadership role was too heavy to bear alone. “So go get some helpers! Delegate!” God urged him. Moses responded by tapping the guys with the impressive resumes. He then lined up the elders around the tent, suggesting some kind of formal ritual. Surely those leaders and that formal ceremony were just what Moses needed to get organized. However, after the seventy prophesied once—the Spirit left them. Why?
Well, maybe because they remained in the tabernacle while people back in the camp were getting hungrier and hungrier. Undeterred, the Spirit left the tabernacle and the elders who’d hunkered down there–and moved over to the camp where ol’ Edad and Medad, two less-than-impressive lads with less-than-impressive names, were doing menial duties.
The Spirit came upon them and caused them to prophesy. Apparently they prophesied more than once because Joshua got wind of this irregularity and ran to Moses complaining, “Hey, Edad and Medad weren’t chosen to receive the Spirit, yet they’re back at the camp prophesying all over the place.” Moses must have said something like, “Really? You think I’m jealous of their leadership? We need folks stepping up to the plate here. We need God’s Spirit to light a fire in ALL of us!”
That’s how grassroots movements begin—as we’re seeing right now among progressives in our own city. Ordinary folks stepping up.
The Spirit of Justice stirs someone, and someone like Rosa Parks steps up—or in her case—sits down. But the Spirit of Justice gets channeled through someone. Many someones. Unexpected someones.
The Spirit of Justice often chooses the least likely at times—because the likely leaders are comfortable where they are, and the least likely have valuable perspective and gifts.
The Spirit of Justice is always just out ahead of us–so says my former pastor and today’s story of Edad and Medad–luring the unlikely leaders forward, enticing them into a frontier of justice. Of course, the larger culture may not feel they’re legit. A female pastor? A tiny church? A congregation that welcomes LGBTQ folks? A faith community that doesn’t even have a tabernacle of its own so it has to camp out on someone else’s property? But increasingly Open Table is “at the table” when the larger community gathers to dismantle unjust systems or meet needs. After all, the Spirit moves “as the Spirit chooses,” to quote from our Epistle reading.
One way we might test to see if we are responding to the Spirit’s leading is to ask if we are serving the “common good.” Paul told the Corinthians that there are many gifts, but all of the Spirit’s gifts are to be used “for the common good,” not for self-advancement. The Spirit will lead us to the camp where people are hungry and our gifts are used to meet the needs of those whom official leaders have forgotten about.
Here at the Open Table camp we try to listen for the Spirit’s call to us through prayerful group discernment. Early in our congregation’s short history, the book Grounded in God inspired us to use discernment-based decision making. Quoting from that book I remind you of that premise: “Spiritual discernment is a prayerful, informed, and intentional effort to distinguish God’s voice from other voices that influence us” (1). . . “ In classical spirituality, discernment means distinguishing God’s spirit from other spirits that are present in a given time and place.”
So we try to make our major decisions by spending time together listening to one another as if we are tuning into the Spirit’s station on an old radio. We have to tune out the static of multiple stations, dialing to the right when a baseball game bleeds into the Spirit’s song we’re trying to hear and then moving the dial to the left to avoid the hollering evangelist, eventually finding the sweet spot where we pick up a true signal with a message we need to hear.
Yes, it would be more efficient to make our decision by voting. We’ve chosen instead to make the big decisions through respectful consensus building. It means we listen actively to one another, paying attention to where the energy is stronger, noting patterns, until gradually an idea coalesces and the group says, in effect, “Yes. We feel led to do this new and needful and challenging thing.”
This Friday, J., D., and I will represent you at the annual meeting of the Southeast Conference of the United Church of Christ. J and I will lead a workshop about our Free2Be group, created because our church was able to follow the Spirit’s leading. We’ll include in our presentation a description of our three-month discernment process J led nearly three years ago that resulted in our ministry to LGBT youth as our signature ministry. This week, with the story of Edad and Medad in mind, I recalled a particular incident in our discernment process.
We were gathered on a fifth Sunday for our first Sunday potluck luncheon. We were nearing the completion of the discernment process to determine our focal ministry. At that point we seemed to be moving toward serving the local LGBTQ community in some way—possibly focusing on LGBT youth. As I do sometimes on fifth Sundays, I posed a question to start discussion around the table, this time to perhaps move us a little farther along in our discernment process. So I invited volunteers to share a memory of a time when they’d been a victim of prejudice or marginalization.
Now it’s true that even people who would ordinarily be classified as being in the majority (in terms of race, gender, sexuality, etc.) experience instances in which they’ve been in the minority in certain settings or for specific reasons—and may have experienced prejudice against them. But I was surprised that the first three people who, in quick succession, gave examples of times they’d been victims of prejudice were white straight men. These particular men, in sharing their stories, were not intending to equate the situations they described with more dangerous and pervasive instances of bigotry. All three are insightful, sensitive, and committed to justice and equality. But after hearing those first three stories, I felt a need to give space for different illustrations. I don’t remember what I said and I’m sure I could expressed my concern better, but I think I think I said something like: “I appreciate these good stories. But it’s interesting that three white straight males were the first who shared their experiences of prejudice.”
Almost immediately, as if they’d been waiting to jump in, K and S, very new at Open Table at that time, shared painful memories of being openly lesbian while in high school. K told us she had insisted on her right to invite S as her date to an Junior ROTC dance and fought through the school system to be able to do so, becoming an LGBT pioneer at her high school. That story provoked questions many of us had about how we could support LGBT teens. That young couple had ideas. And we had more questions. The energy in the room increased. We took a giant leap forward in our discernment process that day. We recognized how little support existed for LGBT teens, so we began envisioning a ministry to LGBT youth in particular. Before long we connected with James Robinson in Huntsville. What had seemed like insurmountable logistical challenges soon just fell away, one by one. The result is our Free2Be support group for local LGBTQ teens that meets every Saturday and which has now served over 60 high school students.
S and K that day were the youngest of the adults in that room. They are African American. They are women. They are lesbian. They had probably the least formal education and material resources of any adult present. And they’d only been attending worship with us for a Sunday or two! But they held forth with an unauthorized authority. They prophesied as our Edad and Medad. And this pastor and our council members and other “official” leaders needed to learn from them. What they said generated an energy that stirred our hearts and moved us forward. What energized us—in Christian parlance—was the unpredictable, unfettered Spirit that often works through those least expected and always for the common good.
The Spirit that was at work among the Hebrew people Moses led, that galvanized the Jesus followers gathered in Jerusalem after his resurrection and ascension, that bestowed gifts for the common good among the Corinthians—this same Spirit continues to inspire our imaginations and stimulate our thinking and propel us to loving action.
Pentecost is not a day on the church calendar; it’s a guide for how we live together in community, making decisions, seeing new visions, enacting justice, and trying to follow after that wild and elusive Spirit that’s always just out ahead of us.
Holy Spirit, come to us. Again and again. Amen
To learn more about the need for churches to take responsibility for the harm being done to LGBTQ teens–particularly about the high suicide rate among them–please take 17 minutes to watch this explanation for the connection between LGBT teen suicides and churches. This is why our congregation’s signature ministry supports LGBTQ teens in the Mobile area.