Sermon at Closing Eucharist of Montana Diocesan Convention

Holy Spirit, Missoula, Proper 21B
September 27, 2009


I was in Japan last week to join the Japanese church in celebrating its 150th anniversary. Missionaries from The Episcopal Church were responsible for beginning the Nippon Sei Ko Kai. In 1859, soon after Japan opened its borders, two priests and a physician went to Japan, from where they’d been working in China. They couldn’t work as ordinary missionaries, because the Japanese government didn’t permit open evangelism for quite a long time. Those missionaries went to work on education and health care. One of the results is Rikkyo University, which today serves 20,000 students of all faiths and none.

I also visited St. Luke’s Hospital. It was started a little over 100 years ago by another missionary, who went to Japan in 1900 almost immediately after he graduated from medical school in Atlanta. Today it is a teaching hospital with 200 doctors, 300 nurses, and 500 volunteers, and it serves 2500 people every day. It also has a nursing college preparing more than 500 students.

Christians constitute less than one percent of the population of Japan, and Anglicans are a small part of that one percent, but the mission work they do has a significant effect on the whole nation. Both the university and the hospital employ chaplains, whose mission is to serve all the people those institutions meet each day.

The hospital in particular has reached out into the community to find several hundred unexpected mission partners, volunteers like Eldad and Medad, who serve its patients and staff. They are not all Anglicans or even Christians, yet they share in the Christian mission to heal the whole person.

Joshua gets ticked off because Eldad and Medad weren’t among the chosen and designated leaders, and John has a similar reaction when he discovers somebody healing in Jesus’ name – somebody who isn’t part of their inner circle. The divine response in both instances is, “get over it. Anybody who’s doing my work is on the right track.”

The reaction of John and Joshua is not unknown in The Episcopal Church. We can get pretty uppity about how people are properly designated for different ministries – and not just ordination. But it’s not just about recognizing or refusing to recognize God at work in unexpected ways. I think we’re actually supposed to go looking for the Eldads and Medads and the unnamed healers – part of God’s mission is to discover those unexpected recipients of the spirit.

The ability to do that has something to do with humility, and recognizing that God works in ways that are always going to surprise us. As long as we’re focused on defining who’s in and who’s out, we’re going to miss those other healers and prophets. That focus on definition is related to the stumbling blocks that Jesus talks about. Woe to you, he says, if you cause others to stumble. Stumbling block here means anything that gets in the way of doing the work of the kingdom – like deciding that God can’t call unexpected people to join the labor force.

It’s human nature to draw those boundaries, but not the best of our human nature. I’m reading a book about the first African American congregation in New York, which had its roots in the mission work of a Huguenot (a French protestant). He was jailed and also enslaved for being a protestant, and when he was freed he came to New York to work with others who had been slaves. He wasn’t an Anglican, but an English mission agency hired him anyway. He started his work in 1704, but it took 150 years before the congregation that resulted was eventually recognized by the Diocese of New York. In those days, hardly any Episcopalians thought black people could be full and equal members of this church.

Stumbling blocks are still with us – sometimes cultural, sometimes highly personal. I was startled to see an article in the New York Times last week about a high school classmate of mine, somebody I hadn’t seen since we graduated. It was a story about his successful career in the fashion industry, and then how he was repeatedly laid off in a series of corporate restructurings. He spiraled into depression and hopelessness, and in spite of the labors of his brothers and friends, he committed suicide last spring. This gifted gay man never found the Eldad or Medad or the healer he needed.

I met some of those unexpected healers on Friday at the Partnership Health Center. Mostly they aren’t health professionals – they haven’t been to medical or nursing school and they don’t have degrees in psychology or social work. But they are helping to heal the folks who come there – in a great variety of ways, like welcoming the clients, filing and making phone calls, writing grant proposals to raise money. There are more of them, too, who aren’t Episcopalians or even Christians, but they’re doing Jesus’ work.

You and I are here because we’ve signed up to join that work. The surprising part is that God has spread a whole lot of spirit around out there, and we don’t always recognize it. We’re supposed to go find it and figure out how to bless it and join it, and keep spreading it around.

Friday afternoon, one of you told me about a couple of hundred men in another town who gather for prayer every Friday morning – in a tavern. The reporter’s take on the group is that they’re more interested in deciding who can’t be part of their team than looking for unexpected partners. It seems that they’ve cornered the local market in stumbling blocks.

Somehow, God seems to use even stumbling block honchos. What had Eldad and Medad and their 70 fellow prophets been up to, after all, but complaining about their current circumstances? They’re tossing stumbling blocks like gravel. They have to have been part of the uprising, saying it was better to be a slave in Egypt than to wander around in the desert with only this nauseating whaddyacallit to eat. They’re yelling, “we just want to go back to our nice comfortable jail,” forgetting that Pharaoh tried to murder their children and keep them from worshipping God. They’re afraid of freedom. Those 72 elders certainly weren’t doing anything to turn their people around, until they got a healthy dose of spirit, either at the meeting house or in the camp.

Well, those 200 guys on Friday morning are also potential prophets, even if the only spirit they seem to have found in their meeting house is what comes out of the beer taps. How might our attitude – our own stumbling block – change if we saw them as potential prophets and healers? Their angry fence-building comes from fear, just like the Israelites and the disciples: â€œsomebody is out to kill me, starve me, or push me out.” They, too, are afraid of their freedom to build a different kind of community – because it might include people they don’t understand or don’t want to meet.

But fear isn’t the basic problem. The failure to act is, for we can act, even when we’re afraid. How can we help remove those stumbling blocks? The only real stumbling block is assuming that somebody else is unworthy of God’s love and attention – or ours. As soon as we begin to reach out, the stumbling block begins to disintegrate. We’re meant to live in hope that all God’s people can be prophets and healers – and they’re all God’s people. Which stumbling block are you going to tackle this week? Who’s the most challenging person in your life right now? Can you reach out, even through your fear?