This doesn't seem to be a good day for anyone in any of the three scripture lessons we read today. Moses is mad at the Israelites. And what a wonderful description we're given of Moses! Imagine him standing before God with his hands on his hips and probably with a huge headache. "Why do you treat your servant so badly? Why have I not found favor in your sight, that you lay the burden of all this people on me? Did I give birth to them? If this is the way you are going to treat me, put me to death at once!" Well, God does deal with his problem, but he doesn't just say, "Fine, here's some meat."
No, God has Moses gather the elders so that they might learn to share some of the responsibility of leading the Israelites. It seemed like a fine idea, but once again human nature blinded people's eyes. Remember, God took some of Moses' spirit and placed it on the gathered elders, who then prophesied. But there were two men, Eldad and Medad, who stayed in the camp. They too received part of Moses' spirit and they too prophesied, which caused a jealous outburst from the elders. They seem to be saying, "Who let them in our club?" Moses is frustrated, and he fervently wishes that all God's people would be filled with God's spirit.
In the New Testament reading we heard James, like Moses, being very direct with his readers. He lets them (and us) know that God is ultimately in charge. Evidently his readers were acting very much like us, planning their lives to suit themselves regardless of how their lives affected others. He says to them, "Do not speak evil against one another . . .do not judge others." He warns them that riches will rot and that the poor will cry out against any of those who would harm them. Someone who knows the right thing to do and doesn't do it, commits sin. James makes us squirm--maybe a little more than Moses did.
And finally, when we think we've heard quite enough, Jesus lays out the problem and the solution in very clear terms. Today's Gospel reading starts much as the Old Testament story ended. A member of the "inner circle," the "club," was put out because someone outside that circle was also able to use one of God's gifts, and evidently without the "right" credentials. Both Moses and Jesus were faced with the same problem: their followers just didn't get it.
What the people in Moses' time, the people in James' time, and the people in Jesus' time didn't get was what it means to be a part of "the people of God." In any age, being a part of the people of God means taking upon oneself a certain lifestyle, a certain set of principles, the responsibility to live a certain way in community with others. It means looking always towards God and one's neighbor, and not towards oneself. In Mark's Gospel, when Jesus talks about this lifestyle he calls it "the kingdom of God." And this kingdom of God wasn't something to wait for--it was becoming a part of their lives right then.
Living in this kingdom means taking a whole different view of what it means to be successful. In his letter, James lambastes those who aren't living as the people of God ought to live. He lays their sins right in front of them and offers them an ultimatum. Jesus, too, uses some pretty harsh images to shake people up, to remind them that sin is serious and the consequence of sin is being cut off from God, much as a hand can be cut off from the body.
But Jesus doesn't leave us to think about the effects of sin; he offers us an alternative. And it's a quite simple one. In last week's Gospel, Jesus picked up a little child and said, "Whoever welcomes a child in my name, welcomes me; and anyone who welcomes me, welcomes not me but the one who sent me." Today, it might strike us as a charming thing for Jesus to do when he uses a child as an image. In that age, though, it was remarkable.
Children had absolutely no status at all. They represented the lowest of the low, not only the materially poor, but the spiritually poor as well. And here Jesus was forcing the adults to rearrange their thinking. He was forcing them to understand that unless they allowed themselves to go back to being as simple and innocent as children, unless they began to accept ALL God's people as part of their community, unless they began to live as if they really understood that the kingdom of God was in their midst, they were in danger of falling into serious sin.
But we don't really want to talk about sin today, do we? It's distasteful to us, and so we tend to ignore it. But it's part of us, and if we ignore it we're kidding ourselves. So what do we do? What can we learn from the lessons we have heard today? As we think about it, Moses was dealing with a disgruntled and ungrateful people and, perhaps basically, with the sins of pride and elitism. James laid out a whole list of sins he observed in the lives of his readers. We could certainly find something that would make us squirm in that list. But we can't stop with the lists. We have to look to the Gospel to put this issue into perspective, to help us know how to begin dealing with our sinfulness--because in this life, no matter what anyone says, we aren't going to get it completely right.
We can, as Jesus says, "become like little children." We can be open enough that God's word might still teach us something. We can be secure enough in our faith that our relationships with others, even those very different from ourselves, will enrich us rather than intimidate us and cause us to shut others out.
The secret is in understanding what Jesus' disciples were missing in today's Gospel: that the kingdom of God is here among us. Unlike those disciples, we know the rest of the story as Mark tells it, right down to the resurrection. So we shouldn't be surprised to hear that the kingdom is among us still. What we need to do is keep remembering to live it with each other. After all, that's why we come to church and read the Bible together in the first place, to help each other remember what it means to live the life of God in the world.