Saturday Night Theologian
11 May 2008

Numbers 11:24-30

Recently the New York Times reported that several dozen retired military who had been hired by various broadcast media outlets for their expert opinions on the Iraq War had been receiving talking points straight from the Pentagon, who viewed these military figures as "message force multipliers." Several of them also had ties to military contractors, yet they spoke on the air as supposedly neutral experts. The news organizations that hired these so-called experts apparently didn't know about their continuing ties to the Pentagon or to military contractors, but when they found out, few of them made any mention of the scandal on the air. It appears that they were embarrassed to call attention to their gullibility and mistaken judgment. In other words, they just didn't want to look bad. The inability of the broadcast news media to be self-critical is unfortunate, but it is not a surprising trait. Most individuals find it difficult to admit mistakes, either in themselves or in the groups with which they identify. In today's reading from Numbers, Moses found himself overwhelmed with the decision he had to make on behalf of the people, so God decided to share the burden among seventy elders of the people. When God sent the spirit on these men, they began to prophesy, a clear indication that God had chosen them. When Joshua noticed two men in the camp who began to prophesy, he asked Moses to stop them, but Moses replied, "Would that all the Lord's people were prophets, and that the LORD would put his spirit on them!" As modern, progressive Christians, God calls each of us to speak prophetically. Sometimes it's not easy, as when we have to admit out own mistakes or call attention to the mistakes of our country, our church, or our favorite political candidate. Nevertheless God does call us to speak and not to be silent.

Psalm 104:24-34, 35b (first published 15 May 2005)

Just over two weeks ago, the Nature Conservancy and the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology announced that the ivory-billed woodpecker, whose last confirmed sighting occurred about sixty years ago and which was thought to be extinct, has been observed and photographed in the Big Woods region of Arkansas. "Nature gives very few second chances, but this may be one of them," said Carter Roberts, president of the World Wildlife Fund. Despite this exciting discovery, the ivory-billed woodpecker remains critically endangered, and hundreds of other endangered and threatened species--including such familiar animals as the tiger, the black rhinoceros, and the whooping crane--are also in danger of extinction. What is unique about the ivory-billed woodpecker? It is the third largest woodpecker in the world, and the largest north of Mexico, with a height of 45 to 50 cm and a wingspan of up to 80 cm. Though similar to the smaller pileated woodpecker, its size and coloration mark it as a distinct species. Scientists estimate that each pair of ivory-bills requires a territory of approximately six square miles, and one of these birds may have a lifespan of 20 to 30 years. The rediscovery of the ivory-billed woodpecker caused great joy among birders and conservationists, and there is a valid theological motivation for their happiness, whether they realize it or not. The psalmist says, "May the glory of the Lord endure forever; may the Lord rejoice in his works." Diversity of species and habitat is a natural part of the created order, and human destruction of either, whether intentionally or accidentally, is an affront to the Creator. The diversity of nature is one of many ways in which nature itself praises God. Human indifference to the disappearance of species is one of many ways in which humanity disrespects God. The beauty of nature is part of the glory of God. May the diversity of nature, and the ivory-billed woodpecker that represents that diversity, continue to bring glory to God.

Acts 2:1-21 (first published 15 May 2005)

There is nothing more exciting than starting a new venture with friends and colleagues who share a common dream. Whether it's a computer company started in someone's garage, or a political movement that begins with the identification of a widespread problem and an imaginative solution, or an innovative approach to solving a seemingly intractable social problem, starting a new work is exhilarating. The possibilities fill the participants with wonder, and the expectations inspire commitment to the dream. And a dream is exactly what it is. It is not yet realized, and it may seem unreachably remote, but that's where the dream comes in. The church was born on the Day of Pentecost, but it didn't all begin there. For fifty days prior to Pentecost the followers of Jesus had gathered together to pray, to talk, to fellowship, and to dream. How can we channel the power of the resurrection into this new body, the church? What goals should we set? What in our wildest dreams do we think we can accomplish? How will we know when to start this new work? These might have been some of the questions that Jesus' followers asked themselves in the days leading up to Pentecost. They might not have had a blueprint for the expansion of the church, but they did have dreams. They dreamed of a world in which the kingdom of God that Jesus preached about would be realized. They dreamed of a world that embraced the spirit of love and justice that Jesus himself had taught. They dreamed of a world where saints and sinners worshiped God together. What kind of a world do Christians dream about today? Are we satisfied with the status quo, or do see a need for radical change? I for one dream of a radical change, one that is rooted in the teachings of the Old Testament prophets, and especially in the words and deeds of Jesus. I dream of a church that welcomes saints and sinners into its arms and loves them. I dream of a church in which the intolerance of narrow-minded, self-righteous pseudoprophets is rejected and tolerance of those with different points of view is not only promoted but even superseded by respect and love for our fellow human beings. I dream of a church that sees the suffering in the world and resolves to do everything in its power to meet the needs of the poor, weak, and sick. I dream of a church that rejects nationalism as a form of prejudice in the same way as it has already rejected racism and sexism (in theory at least). I dream of a church whose leaders courageously speak out against violence and hatred, which seeks to make friends rather than persecute enemies, and which is perceived by those outside the church as characterized by love. The church was born at Pentecost in the midst of many dreams, and it needs to be re-born today--and in every generation--in the wake of new dreams. The church needs new dreams and new dreamers: are you up to the challenge?

John 7:37-39 (first published 15 May 2005)

In mid-February, former Haitian prime minister Yvon Neptune, claiming that he was a political prisoner, began a hunger strike, which lasted until he was rushed to the hospital on March 20 and agreed to begin eating again. On April 17 he recommenced his hunger strike, and though he was on the verge of death at last report, his hunger strike continued in mid-May. Under ideal circumstances, a healthy person can survive for a few weeks without food. However, no one can survive without water for more than a few days. During the Feast of Tabernacles, a pitcher of water was carried from the Pool of Siloam to the Temple as a reminder of God's provision for the Israelites in the desert, in particular, the story of God's providing water from the rock. When Jesus proclaimed himself to be the source of living water during the Feast of Tabernacles, he was reminding the people of God's provision, but he was also claiming to be a unique source of life and refreshment. "Living water" is an expression that means "flowing water," water from a stream or a spring rather than a stagnant pool. Thus, it is water that is cool and refreshing, as opposed to the tepid water that often came from a cistern. "Living water" also implies water that restores life, evoking images of the 23rd Psalm or of a cold glass of water offered to a thirsty traveler. The evangelist interprets Jesus' statement as referring to the gift of the Spirit, which the glorified Jesus would impart to his disciples, an act traditionally associated with Pentecost (although presented differently in the Gospel of John itself). Jesus says that he is the source of this living water, but notice what else he says: "Out of [the believer's] belly shall flow rivers of living water." The water is not just a gift that believers receive, it is also a gift that they pass on to others. An encounter with God is not something to be horded, but something to be shared with others. As we celebrate the gift of the Spirit during the season of Pentecost, and as we are grateful to God for touching our lives, we must also ask ourselves, in what way are we sharing God's spirit and touching the lives of others in Jesus' name?