Conflict and Selflessness
41 On the next day the entire Israelite community complained to Moses and Aaron, “You killed the Lord’s people.” 42 When the community assembled against Moses and Aaron, they turned toward the meeting tent. At that moment the cloud covered it, and the Lord’s glory appeared. 43 Moses and Aaron came to the front of the meeting tent, 44 and the Lord spoke to Moses: 45 Get away from this community, so that I may consume them in an instant.
They fell on their faces, 46 and Moses said to Aaron, “Take the censer, put fire from the altar on it, place incense on it, go quickly to the community, and seek reconciliation for them. Indeed, the Lord’s anger has gone out. The plague has begun.” 47 Aaron took it as Moses said and ran into the middle of the assembly, for the plague had already begun among the people. He burned incense and sought reconciliation for the people. 48 He stood between the dead and the living, and the plague stopped. 49 Those who died from the plague were fourteen thousand seven hundred, in addition to those who died because of Korah. 50 Aaron returned to Moses at the entrance of the meeting tent once the plague stopped.
In 2008, Central Washington’s softball team faced off against Western Oregon. It was a clash of small college rivals. On an ordinary day, no one outside of those two schools’ region would have known anything about this game, but you may have seen the story on the news. Sarah Tucholsky of Western Oregon hits her first ever home run, but as she closes in on first, ligaments in her knee tear. She can’t walk.
The rules of softball state that her teammates cannot help her in any way, but she cannot claim her run if she herself does not round the bases. In a show of compassion and love of the game, Central Washington’s players pick her up and walk her around the bases. National news learned about it, and we had a nice moment that reminded us that some things are more important than winning.
There is a common phrase we use for situations like this: the greater good. It’s a strong motivator. We see it all the time in movies and books and television where a character sacrifices his or her goals and dreams so that the collective benefits. Stories like these occasionally make it into our news stream as wonderful reminders that decency and compassion do still remain.
For these softball players, it was more important to give an opponent the opportunity to overcome a low moment to hold onto the high of hitting her first run. It could have cost them the game, but that didn’t matter – Sarah deserved her run. With so many of our youth and kids involved in sports and other competitive activities, it is important for all of us to be good examples of how to achieve personally while not sacrificing our ethics and maintaining a good attitude.
Sad to say, that is a very counter-cultural idea when we look how it is put into practice in the rest of the world. So many people view achievement as a matter of winning or losing and would gladly sacrifice integrity for the ability to claim victory. It is also sad to say that it happens in churches. I’ve seen it. When a person will sabotage another ministry or recruit against it so their pet project can win. Or in budget meetings when long-standing programs that are stagnant still demand every last dollar they can get.
Going through a vision process is something every church needs to do every so often to maintain their missional function which is the bedrock of the faith. The Great Commission found in Matthew says to make disciples of all nations, and that is a tall order by itself. When we do decide that we must go out and find people who aren’t disciples and invite them in, our own personal stories and motives have to direct where we start, but ultimately, we have to learn to share space with new people.
In a church I worked for back in Athens, a missional push almost split the church. The Youth Mission Team decided they wanted to do an afterschool study hall where the church bus would pick up students and would take them to the church two days a week to let them do homework, play some games, have dinner, then their parents could pick them up after work.
A few people were adamant that they swing through the nearby low income, predominantly black housing to pick up kids there. That’s what mission is about! Another group was concerned about this idea. Certain gangs were seen in the area, and church members were not sure if they could keep the church or the kids safe. Ignorance of crime statistics and pseudo-racism against black kids aside, there are two very present, and conflicting, points here.
It would be easy for me to tell you that they ultimately worked around the issue, picked up the kids from the housing complex, and all went well. But that’s not the point of the story. I’ll let you imagine what happened there. Instead, I want to focus on what happened next: the church members met, and talked, and planned, and finally, decided what to do.
I remember that meeting. Voices got loud, then soft. I heard anger, I heard passion, and I heard silence. I listened as people who had valid points were heard. I heard people who had not done a good job reflecting on their thoughts express them and be given space. I heard an apology or two.
This is the process of finding a greater good. Sometimes, it is hard to find it, because we have to listen for it after some really bad things happened. That brings us to today’s Scripture.
I don’t know if I have ever preached out of Numbers. It’s not what I would call a very happy book, but it tells the stories of how the leaders of the Hebrews were willing to overcome their feelings to save their people who had done some pretty terrible things that upset God. This story is meant to be a warning against losing commitment to the faith and how even one person can have a great impact on the community.
Prior to today’s passage, earlier in Chapter 16, many had been killed through divine wrath because they continually angered God through their blasphemy and complaining. Their bitterness continued, and God sent a plague among them. Aaron, the brother of Moses and chief priest among the people, took the holy elements and risked catching plague himself so that he could perform the rites of reconciliation. God saw this show of holy compassion and ended the plague.
Honestly, Aaron had every right to simply watch them die off. The complaining of the people and their impatience with God had already cursed them to never see the Promised Land. They had to wander until the last of them had died so their children could go in. Had Aaron simply watched, that process would have been much quicker and the kids could have gone on to Canaan. But what kind of leader would he be? Just? Definitely. Our understanding of justice is “you do the crime, you do the time.” Makes sense for him to claim what they were doing was essentially ancient treason.
Instead, he saw that they must learn what the greater good is. To do the just thing would also be doing the unjust thing. He had the power to save – to do the greater good – and not doing so would have been its own crime. Sometimes, the world is not as cut and dry as we think. Sure, we could say that God wanted Aaron to save them the whole time, but then why kill fourteen thousand of them first?
The story here is that sometimes finding the right answer isn’t a matter of correct or incorrect. It is a deeper experience. Those folks at my former church had good points on both sides. Kids need Jesus but kids also need safety. It would be justified either way, so we have to decide together, as a group, what good looks like here and not think our point of view is the only one worth considering.
Conflict is going to happen when competing points of view have limited resources. As we listen to the ideas being given to individuals in our vision process, and when we meet in April to discuss what vision looks like for the whole church, we are going to have to talk out where we are willing to give and how much we are willing to give. Some things will push ahead and others will have to wait for a time. So we all have to be like Aaron, who was willing to take risks to save as many people as he could. That requires putting what we want behind us and listening for what is good for the whole community, especially those who need to hear the good news that Christ wants them in the kingdom, too.
I ask you to pray earnestly for God to speak to your heart so you will know what God wants from you in this process. We are Methodists; we believe that we cannot simply sit in the pews and call it “good enough.” We are to work out our faith so that we can help others work our theirs. Listen to God, and you can be part of the greater good in the world.