Open/Close Menu A ReconcilingWorks (RIC) Congregation in Charlotte, NC

During the first Christmas break after I started seminary, I was home with my family for the holiday. I had formed some great friendships with a great group of people over the first several months of school and we found ourselves touching base frequently by email over the break. Through those emails we discovered that something very strange was happening to almost all of us.
We had suddenly become the target of everyone’s religious questions. Who was the “historical Jesus”? How did the books of the Bible end up in the Bible? What did Paul mean when he said _________ ? One of my friends was asked to perform a baptism in the kitchen sink. Almost all of us became the designated pray-er at family meals. It was if, suddenly, there was a switch that flipped somewhere and we were the only people who had any authority to talk about, or to, God. This baffled us, because if four months of seminary coursework does anything, it reveals just how much you don’t know.
And something about that still baffles me. Just a few weeks ago, on my way into church on a Sunday morning, I drove through Dunkin’ Donuts for some coffee. I had on my clerical collar, which the drive-thru attendant immediately noticed. “You’re a preacher?” he asked, “Pray for me” he then added. I said I would, and I did, but I still wondered: why doesn’t everyone feel empowered to pray or speak some good words about God to others?
I wonder if that sentiment was not behind Moses’ complaints in the wilderness about the people he was supposed to be leading, or at least not behind his affirmation of Eldad and Meded, that dynamic duo off doing their own prophesying in the Israelite’s camp.
That detail–the camp–is important here. If you remember, at this point in Israel’s history, they are in the midst of their 40 years spent wandering in the wilderness, between having left Egypt and settling in the promised land. While they’re in the wilderness, they receive very specific instructions for setting up camp along the way. They are to camp with their various tribal groups, but in the middle of the camp, they were to place the tent, which contained the ark of the covenant, that is, the ten commandments that lay, literally, at the center of their relationship with God and one another. The tent was where you went if you wanted to encounter God and only the priests could actually enter the middle of the tent, the holy of holies. And that’s why it’s important to note that Eldad and Meded were not there. They were on the outskirts, and yet were still encountering God and helping those in the camp encounter God as well.
If we were to come up with something comparable to the tent and camp today, with a narrow lens, we might think of the tent as the altar or the chancel and the camp as the sanctuary. But I’m thinking of it with a broader lens. I wonder if a better comparison today is not thinking about churches themselves as the tent and everything else as the camp. After all, we all, every single one of us, are children of God and, in this time of COVID, are we not camping in the wilderness, unsure of what the next day will bring and lamenting all the good things we had pre-COVID?
For the Isrealites in Egypt, it was the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic. Perhaps for us it’s the festivals, the busy schedules, the social gatherings, the vacations, life without masks or social distancing, less anxiety and worry. I’m hoping that this time of COVID wilderness won’t last for 40 years like the time the Israelites spent in the wilderness, but I don’t know, the past two years feels almost as long.
Which is another reason that the detail of Eldad and Medad in the camp, and not the tent, is important. For the Israelites, the wilderness was a time when their relationship to God and to the covenant was tested. It’s why they’re grumbling in the first place. In the wilderness, they forget who they were as God’s people. It’s why, so often, God asks them to remember who they are: that they are God’s chosen people, delivered from slavery and promised, over and over again, life.
I wonder if our communities today have not also forgotten this a little bit. I wonder if our communities have not also forgotten that we are people chosen for love and life. And that’s why I think we need Eldad and Medad. We need people in the camp, not in the tent, because right now, a lot people, or at least a lot of Americans, have given up on going to the tent.
Now, admittedly, though I have a foot in the tent and a foot in the camp, let’s face it, because I work for the church, I spend most of my days in the tent. This story of Eldad and Medad, then, speaks to me. It calls me out from my comfortable little tent and out into the camp. But I’m wondering if you hear that call in their story as well? Because you, my friends? Most of you spend much of your time in the camp, with ample opportunity to speak good words about God and about the mission we share with God of loving not judging with those who may never make it to the tent on their own. That mission is incredibly comforting and liberating and you and I have opportunities to share it every day.
I know, it can be scary. I, too, was once scared of talking about God to other people, people I was afraid might make assumptions about me that were not correct. I didn’t want to be labeled as a Bible thumper or a Christian who was judgmental and not accepting. I didn’t want people to assume the worst about me because I was religious and followed Jesus.
And then, after a little bit of work, I realized that I could and would speak about God and Jesus in a way that was comfortable for me. Because I am more familiar with Jesus’ grace and mercy than judgment, I become more and more confident that t could speak, in the camp, about a loving and merciful God. You have that ability, too. You have that call.
You may wonder by what authority you are able to do so. You may feel like all those people after my first semester of seminary who turned to us seminarians for all the work of answering questions, and praying, and saying good things about God. But, as Eldad and Medad show us, the authority to prophecy in God’s name does not come from school or even from ordination. That authority comes from our identities as children of God and further from our baptisms and the covenant made in those baptisms–the promise “to proclaim the good news of God in Christ through word and deed.”
Over the next year, as we continue our COVID wilderness wanderings, we’re going to practice this. We’re going to practice talking about our faith in both a way that is comfortable for us and in a way that pulls us out of our comfort zones a little.
Don’t worry. We’ll do it together and I have something to help you. With Sally’s help, we’ve created business cards for you to give to people whom you think need a safe, inclusive, non-judgmental space to be the people God created them to be. The cards have our mission statement on them, along with our worship times so you don’t really even need to say anything other than, “I recommend this space to you, as a welcoming place to be you.” That’s all. Does that sound scary? I didn’t think so.
“Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit on them!” Moses said, in response to the complaints against Eldad and Medad. I feel the same way. The Holy Spirit does not descend only onto people who have been ordained. That Spirit is limitless, unrestrained and has descended upon you as well. We have a wonderful story to share, both our story of the wideness of God’s mercy and our story of Holy Trinity. Would that all of us–including you– were prophets so that none of God’s children feel alone in the wilderness. Amen.