July 13, 2014
It was a great experience at camp last week, although I am really feeling it this morning. Today, and next Sunday, I am doing something that I rarely do – I am recycling old sermons. I don’t like to reuse sermons, just as I don’t like to eat leftovers, because once I’m done with a message I move on. As we are between sermon series, however, and as I was at camp all of last week, it seemed to be the prudent thing to do. As usual though, when I use an older sermon, I find that I spend a good deal of time changing and rewriting it.
In our nation, we have a time-honored tradition of the dissenting opinion on our Supreme Court. And we can recognize how important those dissenting opinions – those minority reports – can be. The Dred Scott Decision, for instance, handed down on March 6, 1857, in a 7 – 2 decision, ruled that African-Americans could not be citizens. That ruling is widely considered to be the worse decision in the history of the Supreme Court.
That was a time that needed a blistering dissenting opinion.
There are times when we need a dissenting opinion, and those dissenting opinions generally come as a “minority report.” Imagine where we would be as a nation if not for the minority report. The Abolition movement, women’s suffrage, and the Civil Rights movement all began as a “minority report.” Today, there are still voices – too often in the minority – that continue to call upon us to live up to our ideals of freedom and equality.
This morning, our Scripture reading tells us about a “minority report.” The passage comes from the Old Testament, where we have been spending a good deal of time as of late. One of the reasons why I have spent a good deal of time in the Old Testament in recent months is because we too easily ignore so much of what it has to teach us. We are, we often say, “people of the New Testament” and forget the many valuable lessons found in the pages of the Old Testament.
Numbers 13:25-33 –
25 At the end of forty days they returned from exploring the land.
26 They came back to Moses and Aaron and the whole Israelite community at Kadesh in the Desert of Paran. There they reported to them and to the whole assembly and showed them the fruit of the land.
27 They gave Moses this account: “We went into the land to which you sent us, and it does flow with milk and honey! Here is its fruit.
28 But the people who live there are powerful, and the cities are fortified and very large. We even saw descendants of Anak there.
29 The Amalekites live in the Negev; the Hittites, Jebusites and Amorites live in the hill country; and the Canaanites live near the sea and along the Jordan.”
30 Then Caleb silenced the people before Moses and said, “We should go up and take possession of the land, for we can certainly do it.”
31 But the men who had gone up with him said, “We can’t attack those people; they are stronger than we are.”
32 And they spread among the Israelites a bad report about the land they had explored. They said, “The land we explored devours those living in it. All the people we saw there are of great size. 33 We saw the Nephilim there (the descendants of Anak) come from the Nephilim). We seemed like grasshoppers in our own eyes, and we looked the same to them.”
In three brief points, I want to share with you about the importance of the minority report –
Caleb and Joshua were an important voice for the minority report. They were part of a group, sent by Moses, to spy out the land of Canaan – the Promised Land. Most of us know the Hebrew people spent forty years wandering in the wilderness before entering the land, but you may not know the people were on the borders of the land not long after gaining their freedom from Egypt.
It is not a long journey from Egypt to Canaan. Even traveling by foot, the Hebrew people were able to reach the borders of Canaan in a relatively short period of time. Upon their arrival at the borders, Moses sent in the group of spies. When they returned, their report was very discouraging. The land was, as promised, flowing with milk and honey and other bounty, but the majority of the group felt they could not enter the land because of the power of those who lived there. Caleb and Joshua provided the minority report, convinced they could – and should – enter the land. But the people went with the majority, which condemned them to a generation of wandering in the wilderness, and with the exception of Joshua and Caleb, none of them would enter into the Promised Land.
We often talk about the principle of majority rule in our political system, but we must always remember that the majority is not always correct. This is why the majority is not permitted absolute rule, because there is such as things as the tyranny of the majority, where the rights of the minority can be trampled upon. The majority rules in terms of our electoral process, but the majority cannot infringe upon the rights and freedoms of the minority. This is an important point to remember when we hear the voices that criticize activist judges who overrule certain majority decisions. If the majority wields their power to infringe upon the rights of the minority, that minority must be protected.
Sociologists tell us about something called the plausibility factor. The plausibility factor is a tool that helps us to understand the ways in which groups of people think. Because we tend to reflect the thinking of those with whom we surround ourselves, we might not realize when we take upon ourselves a way of thinking that is harmful to others. This is when we need the minority to remind us that the majority is not always correct.
In one church I served we never had a unanimous vote. If it appeared an issue was going to be decided unanimously one hand always went up in opposition. Once, when the issue was so innocent and innocuous – and with the traditional, single no vote – I was amazed that anyone could vote against the issue. A few days later, when I asked him why he voted against everything, he said I’m not opposed to most of it. I just don’t think anything should be unanimous. Everything needs a little opposition.
In retrospect, I understand his point, because, as I have said, sometimes we need to hear a voice of dissension. I should hasten to add, however, that just as the majority isn’t always correct, neither is the minority. Some people just don’t like change and they’ll do whatever it takes to prevent it.
When I was in seminary, a professor gave us some helpful advice. He said there will be 5% of the people in the congregation who will think you walk on water. Another 5% will think you don’t have the sense to come in out of the rain. The other 90% just want to get out of church on time. After all these years I’ve decided that outside of perhaps quibbling about the percentages, he was correct. I also have learned that you can apply that formula to just about anything in the church. About 5% will be out on the leading edge, pulling the church forward, and another 5% will be against just about anything that is proposed. Sadly, many churches play to that 5% or less who are always trying to stifle progress and forward movement.
So if the majority isn’t always correct, and neither is the minority, how do we discern the difference between what is right and what is wrong in the life of the church?
As people of faith we say that there is a standard by which we measure truth, but who gets to determine that standard? We will turn to the Scriptures for guidance, but who gets to determine the proper interpretation of Scripture?
The answer, I believe, is working it out in community, as the body of Christ.
How many of you, if I asked to give me three occasions when you were wrong could do so in five seconds? You might be able to tell me when you acted incorrectly, but how many could tell me when your point of view was wrong?
We all say I’m not always right, but the reality is, we have a very hard time figuring out when we’re wrong about something. This is why I am not much on solitary faith. Although I believe we can worship on our own, and should, I don’t believe it leads to a healthy faith if we do not gather with others. It is in the give-and-take, the living and striving together, that we discern what the Spirit is calling us to be and do. There is a pull and pull, a give and take that exists among a group of people, and it is a healthy and needed dynamic.
At camp last week I witnessed an interesting moment. When you spend a week with junior high students there is always the potential for some kind of crisis, especially with the boys. One day, something happened that required discussion at the daily staff meeting. We wondered if something should be said or if it would be best simply to ignore it. We decided to let it go and not say anything about it. The next day, it happened again. We couldn’t ignore it the second time, so Rob, the camp director, gathered the guys together. Rob was not a happy camper, so to speak. He told the boys they had to work it out and sent them off by themselves.
After thinking about it for a few moments, I thought that it might be best if one of the camp staff was nearby, just to keep an eye on them. I stood at a distance where I could still here, but most of the guys didn’t notice me. It was interesting as one of the guys – who could be a challenge – rose to the occasion. I was worried that the group might unfairly blame one of the campers and take it out on him in an unhealthy manner, which is how it appeared might happen. There were some recriminations being offered, but the one young man rose to leadership, pulled them together, and they worked it out very effectively. I was impressed with the manner in which the problem was handled.
It was a minority report that saved the day for the young men, and reminded me that sometimes all it takes is for one person to speak up and an crowd of people can be directed in the proper direction.
As we worship together as God’s people, may be strive together always to be under the leadership of his Spirit.