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Readings: 28 September 2012 - 17th Sunday after Trinity

21 September 2012


No bar to the King­dom: Alex Zanardi, who won a gold medal in hand­cycling at the Paralympics, removes his artificial legs so as to use his handcycle

No bar to the King­dom: Alex Zanardi, who won a gold medal in hand­cycling at the Paralympics, removes his artificial legs so as to use his handcycl...

Proper 21: Numbers 11.4-6, 10-16, 24-29; James 5.13-end; Mark 9.38-end

Almighty God, you have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless till they find their rest in you: pour your love into our hearts and draw us to yourself, and so bring us at last to your heavenly city, where we shall see you face to face; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

"WHO is one of us?" was a troubling question for the Early Church, and perhaps the apostles remembered the incident in the Gospel reading when deciding whether the Holy Spirit could have been given to Gentile as well as Jewish Christians (Acts 11.1-18). Neither Moses nor Jesus stopped someone who was not "following us" from emulating his actions if it extended God's blessing, despite the discomfort to people who wanted clear boundaries between insiders and outsiders.

Like it or not, among the people he was leading to freedom, Moses had a rabble, or, more politely, "a mixed crowd" (Exodus 12.38). Problematically, their selective memory of Egypt focused on cucumbers and garlic rather than slavery and oppression. Their complaints about the monotonous diet escalated, and set everyone wailing.

If we read aloud Moses's torrent of complaint, we get the full impact of his exasperation with them, and with God who had landed him in this mess. Borrowing St Augustine's words in the collect, Moses's heart was restless, and needed to find its rest in God.

God's response was not instant food to satisfy the people's craving, but shared responsibility to help Moses carry the burden. As long as Moses was worn down by the people's complaints, he could not rest in God. It was a higher priority to sort the leader out than to sort the people out. Quails would follow, and gluttony would be the death of people (Numbers 11.18-20, 31-34), but the answer to Moses's prayer came in the form of 70 elders who experienced, just once, something of God's spirit.

It is not clear how they relieved the pressure on Moses or why two remained in the camp yet shared the blessing, only that this was God's answer to Moses's need. Perhaps they were the able men chosen a year earlier to help Moses judge disputes (Exodus 18.13-26), who needed to be reminded of this role? Perhaps Moses was not good at sharing leadership, and this demonstration of God's power was God's reminder that he was not alone? We do not know. Like the manna that bemused the people and yet fed them, God made unlikely provision in order to draw Moses close.

Jesus was not averse to using figures of speech to grab attention. So, graphically, he announced that it was better to cut off a limb than miss out on life, even though, under the Law's holiness code (Leviticus 21.16-21), any physical imperfection disqualified a priest from presenting an offering; so to cut off a limb was to put oneself outside the cultic system. Jesus's new teaching was disturbing; people who had previously been excluded were now "one of us".

Like others, I marvelled at the Paralympics. Literally, rather than metaphorically, being limbless need not be a bar to full participation in life. How things have changed from my time in town-planning in the 1970s, when we had to plead - usually unsuccessfully - for the goodwill of developers to remove a step or provide a handrail. Years of negotiation and advising the Government followed, in order to change the legislation to require access provision.

For me, this often discouraging work, which sometimes felt like a journey through the wilderness, was motivated by God's purposes to deliver people from oppression and to give life in its fullness. Using the language of the Gospel, if being minus a foot, eye, or hand was no bar to entering the Kingdom of God, then I could try to stop its being a bar to entering a building. The Paralympics demonstrate that the past is now a foreign country; that early work has paid off. But now the excitement is over, we need to ensure there is no regression - no going back to oppression.

We never know how God can use us to liberate others. I never dreamed of an accessible Olympic stadium when trying to negotiate access to a corner shop. We are not told what the 70 thought when they were charged with sharing Moses's responsibilities - probably unenthusiastic, given the rabble - or how the elders in the epistle felt when asked to pray for the sick for the first time. However discouraging the situation and however mundane the task, in Christ we are all called to be agents of God's liberating love in our daily lives and work.

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