Sermon preached by the Reverend Richard Tombaugh
May the words spoken and heard hear today be spoken and heard in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.
In all fairness to the Israelites, life in the wilderness could not have been easy – very little water and food. The manna which came down from heaven must have seemed like a true miracle at first, but a few months of manna every day starts to feel like cold oatmeal 247 days in a row! “Not manna again,” the people groan
And so they slip into nostalgia, whining about how hard the present is and how wonderful the past was: “the good old days.” Remember the fish and cucumbers and melons and leeks and onions and garlic of Egypt? Now our strength is dried up and there’s nothing at all but manna to look at. Oh, if only we had meat to eat.
Moses missed his opportunity to offer a reality check with a question: “ Does anybody here remember how ruthlessly oppressed we were in Egypt? Anybody remember we were slaves? Anybody remember how bitter and miserable our lives were?” But Moses didn’t say anything like that. Like any all-too-human leaders, he took the complaints personally. Moses was tired; tired of what seemed like aimless wandering, tired of waiting. So Moses got sucked into it all. Rather than telling the Israelites to grow up, Moses took it out on God. “Why have you treated me so badly, God?” “Why have you laid the burden of this people on me? Am I their mother? Did I conceive them-give birth to them-nurse them? Where am I to find meat for them to eat?”
The book of Numbers from which this story comes is called “Numbers” because it describes several censuses of the people. In Hebrew it is called bemidbar, which means “in the wilderness.” Bemidbar is probably a much more appropriate name, as we can see from today’s text about leadership in hard times.
Today’s story is in between the dramatic escape from Egypt with Moses leading a band of slaves being chased by Pharaoh’s army through the Red Sea and the entrance of the Israelites into the Promised Land “flowing with milk and honey”- a land of hopes and dreams. Today’s story is in between, bemidbar – “in the wilderness.” This is where the people of Israel spent an entire generation trying to make the transition from slavery to chosen people, trying to grow in their faith. We might well ask what their struggles have to teach us.
Moses was suffering from burn out. After all, he didn’t ask for this job. God called him – even compelled him-from a burning bush.
A great many of my colleagues feel the same way these days, when our Church itself is bemidbar –in the wilderness. Too many clergy are trying as best they can to minister to unhappy, nostalgic congregations who long for the “good old days” when, apparently, the Episcopal Church was a synonym for the kingdom of God and there were no conflicts. Moses speaks for burned-out clergy everywhere when he cries out in despair: “I am not able to carry all this people alone…they are too heavy for me. If this is the way you are going to treat me, God, put me to death at once. I’m tired. I’m spent. I’m out of ideas.”
What follows in the text is vintage Yahweh. There are two parts, one about leadership and a second, quite funny part, about meat, which the lectionary scholars cut out from today’s readings, but which I am going to restore.
In part one, we might expect the Lord to chide Moses or perhaps give him a pep talk. Instead he offers Moses a new way to think about ministry: “Gather for me seventy of the elders of Israel, whom you know to be the elders of the people and officers over them; bring them to the tent of meeting, and have them take their place there with you. I will come down and talk with you there; and I will take some of the spirit that is on you and put it on them; and they shall share the burden of the people along with you so that you will not bear it all by yourself.”
Then in part two Yahweh addresses the peoples’ complaint about wanting meat: “And say to the people: consecrate yourselves for tomorrow, and you shall have meat; for you have wailed in the hearing of the Lord, saying, ‘if only we had meat to eat! Surely it was better for us in Egypt,’ Therefore the Lord will give you meat, and you shall eat. You shall eat not only one day, or two days, or five days, or ten days or twenty days, but for a whole month – until it comes out of your nostrils and becomes loathsome to you…”
Ya want meat; I’ll give you meat,” says Yahweh. He also shows Moses and the people a way to move forward. He gives them a chance to move a few steps closer to the Promised Land. He tells Moses to stop being a benevolent dictator. He asks him to find some people in “the congregation” and to equip them for ministry. He says that ministry must be shared if it is to be effective. Sound familiar? A significant part of the vitality and strength of St. Paul’s is that Father Lang understands the importance of this simple, yet powerful notion of leadership. Like the Israelites of old, St Paul’s is being challenged to respond to a new reality. And in my opinion St Paul’s is meeting the challenge.
Moses had to let go of an old model and so did the people. They were called to respond together to a new challenge. Moses had been like the “little red hen,” trying to do it all by himself. Now he is being asked to learn to let go and do things in a new way and the people are being challenged to grow up and to share in the joys and responsibilities of ministry. Together they embarked on a new, shared style of leadership, familiar to us here at St. Paul’s today.
There is a final quite instructive twist to today’s lesson. God asks Moses to gather the seventy elders for a training session. We would call it training the laity, and Yahweh came down and put some of his spirit on the seventy elders, who began to prophesy Two guys, Eldad and Medad didn’t show up for the training event. Perhaps they had another appointment. They, too, began to prophesy and a young man ran and told Joshua, Moses’ assistant. This report made Joshua who was a control freak absolutely crazy and he shouts to Moses to stop Eldad and Medad.
Moses finally gets the message. God’s spirit will move where it will. You take help where you can get it. So Moses says “would that all of the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit on them!”
In these days when our Church finds itself “in the wilderness,” sometimes nostalgic for the “good old days,” we must learn to pray this prayer with Moses: for our parish, for the Episcopal Church, for the Anglican Communion. “Would that all of the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit on them!”
The problem with nostalgia is that it locks God into the past and makes it impossible for us to imagining God doing anything new in the present day or the future. The text from Numbers challenges nostalgia for the past and points to the dawn of a new day. It asks us to imagine a God who is involved with our community of faith in its growth toward maturity. It asks us to imagine a God who is always with us on out journey, ready to empower all of the Lord’s people for ministry and to lead us out of the wilderness.
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.