The Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Vivian Lewin, Spiritual Director in the Diocese of Montreal
One of the things I wrestle with in church life is the astounding number of different jobs that clamour to be done. Just Friday… fresh in memory… is needing to choose between the funeral of a former churchwarden with whom for many years I shared responsibility for saying morning prayer on Thursdays in this Cathedral … a form of public worship that was both consistent and well-nigh invisible to people in the world around us … and a climate march populated by many of our neighbours old and young, offering public witness to the urgency of international policy change. And on the heels of both, would I shop for ingredients for cupcakes to serve after Evensong today (yes) and zoom with someone I am committed to accompany spiritually this year, listening to and praying with them… (yes) and attend the World Revenant concert (sadly no) or go to sleep early so I rise extra early and figure out what to offer in this sermon, before turning up at 9:30 for Journées de la culture (yes).
If this sounds like its all about me… well, yes. And that’s the problem, isn’t it? Just because the things that need to be done are all good things, it does not mean that they are all mine to do. And it does especially not mean that it’s okay to let them become burdensome.
This brings us to today’s scripture and first, specifically to the predicament of Moses.
If we think this Covid thing is getting a bit old…(and yes, it is… I commend to you this essay by Anne Helen Peterson entitled “You’re Still Exhausted”)… if we think we are unaccountably exhausted after a year and a half of it … consider how long the Israelites… the ones chosen and saved by God… spent in the desert, wending their way out of Egypt.
The archetypal story of deliverance, the story of the Passover, doesn’t end when the Red Sea has been crossed. When, every year, our Jewish cousins mark the season, they recite a litany that contains the phrase “we were slaves in Egypt”… because liberation from any form of captivity is never instantaneous. It’s new every day and in every lifetime. Because captivity leaves a mindset behind, one that is a struggle to overcome.
So while it’s easy to sanitize our scripture readings any Sunday and speak just about the parts we can relate to and less to the parts that are difficult… we are also called to wrestle with what makes us uncomfortable. What in particular is causing us to lose focus and get cranky? This morning, out of so many possibilities and difficult portions, too, I’m going to focus on the crankiness.
In this morning’s selection from Numbers: The people are complaining that the food is boring. Even though God has been giving them miraculous sustaining manna every day, they begin to remember the tasty cucumbers etc of the land they grew up in. (I have to confess that my scanty knowledge of Hebrew makes me laugh every time I see the word manna because the very first word our teacher taught us was ma (what) and manna literally means “what is it?”)
Here, they are forgetting the source of this sustenance and getting all picky about the boring look and taste of it. And guess what… this short sightedness is completely contagious! It’s probably not surprising that Moses falls into the same trap, and complains to God about the people’s attitude and the burden he has to carry, complains in the strongest terms. “If you would deal thus with me, kill me rather, I beg you [v.15 JSB]”
Now, do notice that God does not smite Moses. Three verses before this section began, God had sent fire down on the outskirts of the camp because the people were complaining. But to Moses, God makes a practical suggestion: bring seventy elders forward. God’s work is bigger than Moses, and God will provide help. “I will draw upon the spirit that is on you and put it upon them; they shall share the burden of the people with you, and you shall not bear it alone [v.17 JSB].”
Our lesson from Mark depicts an analogous situation, in terms that are consistent, starting with this idea that the leaders who share in God’s mission are also empowered with the Holy Spirit… the Twelve have already been called by Jesus and given power to cast out demons … and in both Numbers and Mark we see that those who have been chosen and empowered get more than a little possessive about this authority.
In Mark, John says “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” Similarly in Numbers, “a young man ran [saying] “Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp” and Joshua… one of his chosen ones… said “my Lord Moses, Stop them”.
And in each case, the leader shows an equanimity and a largeness of spirit. Moses “Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, ”. And Jesus, “do not stop him, … whoever is not against us is for us.”
Marie-Noëlle Thabut points out beautifully that everything we read from here to the very end of our section in Mark points to the very last words of today’s Gospel: “be at peace with one another.”
This largeness of spirit—spiritual freedom, really—which springs directly from trusting God to do God’s work, is our hope and our model.
Some practical applications of this. I’m going to say it as advice to myself, because I have at least begun to learn that most preachers preach what they need to hear… but if the shoe fits, you might consider trying it on.
First, I’ll try to notice when I’m getting territorial about what really isn’t mine. Moses really nails it when he tells Joshua, “are you jealous for my sake?”
This means, at best, that none of us needs to fuss about other people and what they are or are not doing.
God’s mission is huge. I daresay it’s bigger than the whole church. How can I even imagine I know who’s called to accomplish what part of it, and when and where?
And it’s not my job to work about that.
Because God is faithful to me. How much time do I spend wondering about how faithful I am to God, while not giving any thought to God’s faithfulness. For sure, the Godlife we are called to isn’t a solitary one, it is for us as a people, people who are capable of relating to each other and caring for each other. But just as I need “daily bread”… food, clothing, and some sort of roof over my head, I am also being personally sustained. And you are being sustained. Even when we are all “still exhausted”, we are also all being sustained. And we share the joy of that. Thanks be to God.
The scriptures for today, September 26, 2021, the 26th Sunday after Pentecost, are: Numbers 11:4-6,10-16, 24-20; Psalm 19:7-14; James 5:13-20; Mark 9:38-50.