I must say I didn’t expect it from him. I was caught off guard, surprised by what he said. It didn’t fit. This wasn’t supposed to happen. Not from him. Not from them. I wasn’t supposed to like what he said. But I did. I heard a most encouraging interview with a national Christian leader last week: Jim Daly, president of Focus on the Family. Yes, that right-wing evangelical powerhouse founded by Dr. James Dobson who was so aggressive in his mission.
Focus on the Family has been on my “other” list. I expect to hear things I strongly disagree with, or get mad hearing about from them. That in itself is a reversal. I grew up listening to Dr. Dobson and was positively nurtured by Focus on the Family as a child. But as a young adult I cut ties. I distanced myself so far from them that it is rather shocking to be impressed by and grateful for Jim Daly.
The interview is from the public radio show “On Being with Krista Tippett: conversation about meaning, religion, ethics and ideas.”1 The Jim Daly piece is part of their Civil Conversations Project which seeks to cultivate bridges, to have moral conversations on divisive political topics. They seek to be human, to be relational, to both listen and speak well across dividing lines. I highly recommend it.
We’re not good at talking to people with whom we disagree, especially strongly. We don’t listen. We try to stop them, shut them down. Like the disciples in our gospel passage this morning. They were so quick to divide up and limit the kingdom. “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.”2 He isn’t following. He isn’t in our group. He’s clearly not with us, so he must be against us.” Obviously the disciples speaking here are with Jesus. Obviously we are with Jesus. So that other guy, he’s suspect. He should be stopped.
But Jesus says, “No.” Don’t make such assumptions. “Whoever is not against us is for us.”3 The bigger problem, the one you should be worried about, is stumbling blocks, hindering someone, especially a child, from God. You don’t have a monopoly on the kingdom. You have a limited perspective and influence. There’s so much more to this. My Father and I include him and all sorts who are not in your group. Stumbling over your dividing lines is more of a problem.
The Bible is full of improbable people whom religious leaders consider outsiders or unworthy, yet whom God works and speaks powerfully through. Some of these are women, foreigners and those with particular sins. Consider Rahab the prostitute who helps the Israelites conquer Jericho and the Samaritan woman at the well who has such an extensive and articulate conversation with Jesus.
Consider Moses. Rescued from a basket on the river, he grew up in a palace then later fled as a murderer to hide as a simple shepherd. God sent Moses who complained that he couldn’t speak to the most powerful king with the message “Let my people go.” Moses led the Israelites out of slavery and on a long journey through the wilderness.
In today’s passage, Moses gets fed up with the people in the wilderness. Like many of us, since times are tough they gripe most about the food. Moses says “I’ve had it with all the complaining. God, these are your people. Why am I the one to act like their babysitter? I can’t bear them alone. This is too much for me.”4
God says, “Bring me seventy elders, and I’ll distribute the responsibility. They will share the burden with you.”5 Moses, the messenger, asks for help and notice how God provides: with people already there, people Moses knows. God seems to be saying, “Ok. There are good people right here with you. Invite them in. Show them your need. Share your work. I will help you through them.”
I wonder if Moses was surprised. He wanted a quick fix. Kill me or end the problem. I wonder what it was like for him to begin to share power with people he knew. We may long for some idealized rescuer or helper when there are loving companions right here with us. Not the people we would choose but the people already given to us, people right here, people both inside and outside the circles we’ve created.
God is so much bigger than the circles we create! God surpasses them. God surprises us by coming through the people we already count insiders but have to learn to share with like the seventy elders for Moses. God surprises us through people outside our circle like Rahab for Joshua and the Samaritan woman for Jesus’ disciples. God shows up today through the challenges of community life with our own families and people we had written off like Jim Daly. In whom has God surprised you recently?
Yesterday we celebrated St. Michael and All Angels. Angels are simply messengers. They aren’t necessarily heavenly. God has many ways, many angels, to convey messages. They are often improbable people, like Rahab or Moses or Jim or the stranger on the bus who acts weird and so I look away and pretend not to notice or the family member with whom I must interact but find so challenging or the neighbor with such a different lifestyle.
Angels are everywhere. God speaks in so many ways. Usually our lives are so full of noise and blocked by narrow assumptions. Noise and busyness that hinders listening. Assumptions that confine and restrict our attention. God is speaking everywhere in love. “God is love and where true love is, God himself is there.”6Keep your eyes open. Be attentive and listen. God has sent out messengers of love for you. They may be close by and they may be outside the circles we’ve created. May you be surprised how God comes to you today.
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