The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks; The Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost—Proper 21—Year B; Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29; Psalm 19:7-14; James 5:13-20; Mark 9:38-50. Video.
Have you ever embarked upon some new journey, and you start off all excited—maybe what you are leaving behind was really bad, or maybe it was just time for a change, but you summon the courage to step out on a new path? Your energy is high, your step is light, the air is different, the smell of adventure is in the air. And then, you hit your first snag, your first barrier, and it gets a little scary. You start to second guess yourself and your decision. You throw a glance over your shoulder toward that place you left, but then, lo and behold, God gives you a sign that you are on the right track. That thing you needed, that way forward, it becomes clear, and it’s all good, and forward you go.
Then you get a little deeper into your new adventure, a little deeper into this unchartered territory, a little deeper into this wilderness. You are now in the stage of the journey where it’s a slog. You can no longer see that land you left, and the promised land is not anywhere close to being in view. You are just out in the middle of nowhere. And without the adrenalin of your leaving and without the excitement of your destination—in that uncomfortable in-between space—that’s when your deepest desires and longings can rise up, and that’s when nostalgia can swoop in and take over your mind, your heart, and your spirit.
And that’s where God’s people are today in Numbers. The rabble among them had a strong craving; and the Israelites also wept again, and said, “If only we had meat to eat! We remember the fish we used to eat in Egypt for nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic; but now our strength is dried up, and there is nothing at all but this manna to look at.” The rabble and the Israelites—this motley crew is a mixed multitude—about 600,000 in all—all sorts and conditions of people, scraped together, a ragtag group of people who had attached themselves to this band of Israelites making their way to the promised land. So this rabble had a strong craving—and we’re back to this desire thing again—deep, deep desire and longing, and the rabble isn’t the whole group—it’s just a part of the group.
Oh, this is a lesson in group dynamics. So, a small group starts getting all worked up, and pretty soon, the Israelites are all upset, weeping again! Oh, if only we had meat to eat…remember the fish we used to eat in Egypt (nostalgia), the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic; but now our strength is dried up (woe is me), and there is nothing at all but this manna to look at. Hello, the manna that God provided for them when they hit that first snag out in the wilderness, the manna that had sustained them daily ever since, the manna that was quite, quite substantial, that you could boil and make into cakes, and it would taste like a cake baked in olive oil? That manna?
It seems to be a human maxim that when we are moving forward and things get really hard, or the journey is just taking a whole lot longer than we would like, it seems to be a human maxim that we will long for Egypt. All those ways that we were held captive look better than this immeasurably uncomfortable unknown that we are slogging through. That daily manna that has been sustaining us, that gift from God that reminds us that we’re on the right track, all of the sudden, it doesn’t seem like it’s near enough. Food tasted better in that old life, never mind that the life that came with it constrained us and left our souls hungry.
And if you’re a leader—and let’s think broad here…this can be leadership you exercise in the classroom or at work, or leading a team in some aspect of ministry here at church or out in the community, or the ways we lead in our families or among our friends—if you’re a leader leading a group on this journey from what was to what will be, well, there is a special place of misery reserved for you. You have the duel role of hearing the weeping and longing and doubts of the people while at the same time processing your own grief and doubt. Oh joy. That can be a recipe for a down moment every now and again, and it doesn’t mean you’re a bad leader; it means you’re a human one.
So, it’s really helpful to see Moses have his dark night of the soul—here’s how his conversation goes with God: “Why have you treated your servant so badly? Why have I not found favor in your sight, that you lay the burden of all this people on me? Did I conceive all this people? Did I give birth to them, that you should say to me, ‘Carry them in your bosom, as a nurse carries a sucking child,’ to the land that you promised on oath to their ancestors? Where am I to get meat to give to all this people? For they come weeping to me and say, ‘Give us meat to eat!’ I am not able to carry all this people alone, for they are too heavy for me. If this is the way you are going to treat me, put me to death at once—if I have found favor in your sight—and do not let me see my misery.”
Yep, sometimes, leaders just want to crawl into their cave and not come out again. I love Moses, and I especially love Moses when he is raw and unfiltered, and he just lets it fly with God. The text describes Moses as displeased, but the hebrew word also means broken. The beginning of humility is to know that you can’t carry what you are holding in your heart and soul. And once we know that, and once we make that known to God, then God has some space to work with.
And here’s God’s answer: “Uh, Moses, you don’t have to carry this all on your own. 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. Moses, you’ve got to share the leadership. So Moses went out and told the people the words of the LORD; and he gathered seventy elders of the people, and placed them all around the tent. Then the LORD came down in the cloud and spoke to him, and took some of the spirit that was on him and put it on the seventy elders; and when the spirit rested upon them, they prophesied. But they did not do so again.
This is exactly what Jesus has done to us in baptism. That spirit that rested upon him, he has given it to us, fully and completely. We don’t do this work alone; none of us does this work alone; we have been given different gifts, but we are all gifted and empowered. Moses had to admit his need to God, but it was God who supplied the way forward—that divine spirit that animated him was shared and given around the circle so that the whole community could move forward toward the promised land.
And you get the sense that this whole sharing-of-power freaked the elders out a little bit. When that spirit rested upon them, they were speaking with courage in ways that they had never spoken before. It spooked them to feel that power and to speak that power out into the world. And they shut it down, at least for the moment. When this incredible power that we’ve been given hits us, it takes some time to figure out how to live in this new empowered normal; it takes time to appropriate this power and figure out how best to move with it and deploy it in God’s service.
And what happens next is so, so classic. No sooner do they feel the power than they start developing the right and wrong way to exercise it. Poor ol’ Eldad and Medad. They remained in the camp; they were registered, their credentials were in order, but for some reason, they had not gone out to the tent, and so they prophesied in the camp. And true to form, someone tattled on them. A young man ran and told Moses, “Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp.” And Moses assistant, Joshua son of Nun, he went straight up to Moses and appealed to Moses to stop them!
It’s that anxiety that gets going when we really empower people and tell them that they have the power and authority to act. When we decentralize in that way, it means some people are going to act in ways that aren’t going to be under central control. And some odd stuff might happen, even some great big crash-and-burns, but can we trust the greater vision of what’s at work? Can we accord people the best of motives? Can we exercise the virtues of grace and forgiveness with one another? Can we circle back and talk it through and figure out where to go from here?
And just as Moses was the exemplary leader in laying his weariness and misery before God, so he remains the exemplary leader now. Moses didn’t get flapped by Eldad and Medad. Moses understood the power of giving up control and letting that power go where God willed it to go. Moses saw what was possible if everyone claimed their share of the spirit and spoke that power out into the world in word and deed. Moses called Joshua on his narrow vision, “Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the LORD’s people were prophets, and that the LORD would put his spirit on them!”
Moses could see what’s possible when all the LORD’s people exercise the power that God has placed upon them. We, in this community, have just had a glorious example of what happens when power is shared and the spirit flows. Pat Kohles and Suzi Mills graciously empowered a whole lot of folks in this community and in the university community to be about the ministry of hospitality, and it involved a whole lot of letting go and trusting on their part. Pat could have managed the St. Luke’s side of the equation down to the ingredients in recipes, but she didn’t; she trusted all of you. And look what happened! A glorious, glorious experience of blessing unfolded for a whole multitude of people. Power was shared which freed power to flow, and we, the UniZulu Chorale, the ASU community, and the wider community of Boone and Watauga and Ashe Counties were all blessed in the process. It would have been too much to bear for any one person, and not near as much fun.
And Ted, you have been a glorious and gracious icon for us of sharing power. Musically and creatively, you have brought out the very best in all of us. It has never been about ego with you, but only and always about opening up mystical space; it has always been about opening up that space where people can encounter the spirit of the LORD. As we now part ways, I pray that you may continue to manifest God’s spirit and prophesy in the beautiful way that is uniquely yours. I pray that we may graciously release you for this journey trusting that it’s all good. I pray that when you, or we, hit those moments of longing for what has been, I pray that we both will trust that God will continue to provide us the manna we need—daily and in abundance. And even from afar, I pray that we, you and we, all remember that we are bound together in spirit and love and gifted for the journeys to which we now are called and which are now ours to travel apart.
It takes a community who is empowered to get to the promised land. We do the journey together, and when Egypt starts to look good, we help each other remember where we’re going and why. We’ll be doing that for one another here. Ted, trust the community that is waiting to embrace you and let them help you remember where you’re going and why.
Thank you for 12 ½ years of letting the spirit pour through you, and through your fingers and your fabulous feet; thank you for 12 ½ years of Sunday mornings and baptisms and weddings and funerals. Thank you for glorious experiments and pushing the boundaries and grounding us in the very best of the tradition.
Ted, thank you for more moments than we can name where you lifted our hearts and ignited our souls and gave us a glimpse of the promised land.
Words fall short; we love you more than we can say. Amen.
The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC
September 27, 2015