Since returning to Kenya in March after a bout of illness last year I have spent a not insignificant amount of time and effort trying to keep a slum preschool in operation. This is not at all something that I would have chosen to do, and before this year I would have said that I was completely unqualified for such a task.
In Nairobi, we live in a rather affluent neighborhood called Karen. Both the university where I teach and the church where we serve are in Karen. Also in Karen is a small slum—the smallest of the slums of Nairobi, which is famous for having huge and sprawling slums. Our local slum is called Kuwinda. It covers an area of only 3 acres. In those three acres live around 7,000 people. The slum is tucked away in a neighborhood off the main roads, and many people who live in Karen don’t even know it is there. It is surrounded by large mansions, many on plots that are bigger than the slum.
Our parish of St Francis started a little chapel and a preschool as an outreach ministry in Kuwinda in 2006. I didn’t have much to do with it until a few years later when some people visiting from the US decided they wanted to contribute to the preschool by sending money for the children to have lunches every day. So for years we have been channeling about $100 a month to the Kuwinda Anglican Church of Kenya preschool. I wasn’t involved much more than that, aside from occasionally also transmitting some donations for things like a table-top cooker to cook the lunches on and mattresses for the youngest pupils—the one-year-olds—to take their naps on.
At the end of last year, just after Christmas, our parish of St Francis abruptly decided to shut the chapel in Kuwinda and discontinue the preschool. However, the teacher and the parents of the pupils and the donors in the US had other ideas, and so they scrambled to find some additional funding to keep the school going. When I got back to Nairobi in March, I was immediately involved in trying to figure out some way that the school could continue even though it was no longer attached to St Francis.
Now let me tell you why I am talking about this today. When I read the story from Numbers and the story from Mark, I felt a bit like I knew where Joshua and John were coming from. In both stories, God’s work in the world was set up to be accomplished in structures that God created for just that purpose.
In the Numbers story, God created a leadership structure designed to give support to Moses so that he wouldn’t have to bear with the complaining of the Israelites all by himself. But two of the leaders chosen for the job didn’t follow the prescribed procedure, for whatever reason—and the text doesn’t give any hint as to why Eldad and Meidad didn’t go with the others outside the camp to the meeting tent.
So when God’s spirit comes on Eldad and Meidad just like on the ones who followed the prescribed procedure, I can sympathize with Joshua’s objections. Joshua was a life-long disciple of Moses—you couldn’t find anyone who was more of an insider than he was. I can see why he thought that Eldad and Meidad should be stopped. We don’t want supposed leaders doing stuff in the camp when they are supposed to be in church.
In Mark’s story, John was just as much of an insider as Joshua was. The structure that Jesus set up, and explicitly attributed to God, was a mobile seminary: twelve students were to go around with Jesus and learn everything he had to teach them. John, like Joshua, was one of the inner circle, one of the first apprentice leaders to be chosen. I can understand why he would think that some random guy performing exorcisms using Jesus’ name was not playing by the rules that God had instituted.
I was a bit like Joshua and John this year in that I thought that this preschool, which started off as a ministry of a church in the Anglican Church of Kenya, should somehow be kept inside the Anglican Church of Kenya. So I tried. Together with another priest who had been one of the first curates at the Kuwinda chapel and had worked hard to establish the preschool in the first place, I contacted three different nearby Anglican parishes, to see if they would adopt our orphan preschool. Although there was some initial interest, and in once case even enthusiasm, it all came to nothing in the end. We finally had to accept that at least for the time being, this preschool is not going to be inside the Anglican Church of Kenya. This is somehow ironic in that the teacher and the parents of the pupils really want to be Anglican. The teacher was hired because she is a committed Anglican. The reason the preschool was set up is because many people in the slum have an Anglican background, and they wanted to send their children to an Anglican rather than a Catholic or Baptist school.
Neither Moses nor Jesus was bothered by ministry going on outside the institutional church. It is important that we recognize that this was not because they disapproved of or devalued the institution in any way. Both of them were committed to setting up and working within the institution created by God. But both of them also recognized that God was not obliged to work only in the church.
Here is something that is easy to grasp intellectually, but hard to incorporate into our lives practically: God is utterly free.
Earlier this week, when I was puzzling over these stories, and being a bit rueful over how hard I had tried to keep our little preschool in the Anglican Church of Kenya, I sent a WhatsApp message to Ali Sanogo, the man who has worked for many years with me in Mali on the Supyire dictionary. I asked him what he thought about what Joshua and John said. His reply was simple: Ǹdé l’a tààn Kil’a᷆ ke, lire Kile màha mpyi. Wà sì ɲ̀jà Kile kɛ̀ɛ̀nŋɛ̀ ɲ̀jàha ... ma yàbàŋí ɲyììwúúni m̀pyiŋí na mɛ́.
‛Whatever thing God likes, that is what God does. You can’t give God the task of doing your own will.’
That’s an interesting way to think about God’s freedom. You can’t appoint God to do some task for you. It’s God who appoints you, not the other way around.
Moses didn’t take Joshua’s advice, and Jesus didn’t take John’s advice. I have to report to you that God didn’t take my advice either. Our little preschool is in the slum, not in the church.
Jesus went on to say to John: Anyone who gives you even a cup of water because you ‛bear the name of Christ’ will be rewarded for that action. There is quite a bit in Mark chapter nine about doing things ‛in the name of Jesus’. Earlier Jesus, holding a little child in his arms, had said to John and the other disciples, anyone who ‛receives’ any child at all, that is, anyone who treats well and does good to a child, ‛in my name’, it’s counted as if they did that good thing to Jesus himself. In Jesus’ name—for Jesus’ sake, because Jesus wants it and appointed us to do it—that’s pretty powerful. Maybe I shouldn’t be so reluctant to go out from St Francis Church, out from the Anglican Church of Kenya, to do some little good to some small children in Kuwinda.
In today’s story, John is particularly scandalized that an unnamed renegade exorcist was performing exorcisms in Jesus’ name—that is, under the assumption that Jesus implicitly authorized it, wants it to happen, allows his authority to be invoked against the demons, and will accept the exorcism as done on his behalf. That’s the context for the minimalist saying about the cup of water. Whether you perform a ‛mighty work’—do some miracle or great good deed—or just give some small child a cup of water or a lunch of rice and beans—if you are doing it on behalf of Jesus, because he wants it and appointed you to do it, you have the approval of Jesus and you will get the reward he promised.
Of course we should be cautious. Not everyone who says ‛Lord, Lord’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, and not everyone who invokes the name of Jesus is in fact acting on behalf of Jesus. There are plenty of frauds out there.
But neither should we be fearful or overly critical either. Whatever thing God likes, that is what God does. We can’t appoint God. God appoints us. May God give us the discernment to see the things that are truly in Jesus’ name, and be willing to join in the good things that Jesus wants to do, wherever they are.
Let us pray.
Almighty God, help us to accept the appointment to do good in Jesus’ name, and grant that we may discern your actions wherever they are found. We ask this for Jesus’ sake. Amen.