Sunday, September 27, 2015

Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Numbers 11
10 Moses heard the people of every family wailing at the entrance to their tents. The Lord became exceedingly angry, and Moses was troubled. 11 He asked the Lord, “Why have you brought this trouble on your servant? What have I done to displease you that you put the burden of all these people on me? 12 Did I conceive all these people? Did I give them birth? Why do you tell me to carry them in my arms, as a nurse carries an infant, to the land you promised on oath to their ancestors? 13 Where can I get meat for all these people? They keep wailing to me, ‘Give us meat to eat!’ 14 I cannot carry all these people by myself; the burden is too heavy for me. 15 If this is how you are going to treat me, please go ahead and kill me—if I have found favor in your eyes—and do not let me face my own ruin.”

According to the latest polling data from Nanos/EKOS/Ipsos Reid, Israelites in the desert listed fish, cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic as the most frequently missed foods, 19 times out of 20, accurate within two foods. In the “most hated food category,” manna was rejected by the majority, with a small minority reporting that it was okay if you added cheese sauce.

Reading this Numbers 11 poll, I took the liberty of adding these ingredients to the recipe search page at, a very helpful resource if you are confronted by a fridge full of random items and no clue what to make. It seems some lists can be too random, since SuperCook made only two suggestions: Grilled Sweet Maui Onion and Summer Medley Salad—obviously served with fish.

So back to our poll results. While a vocal minority (called “the rabble”) were busy generating food lists and trashing the government's manna programme, a representative from each family were heard wailing at the entrance of their tents. This riding by riding expression of discontent was far more troubling to the Moses Government than random food lists, forcing Moses to confer with the Most High.

Sources close to Moses report that the famous liberator questioned the Most High on the poll results, wondering if he had failed God in some way—even questioning the fairness of burdening him with these infantile Israelites. He admitted his inability to meet their incessant demands for meat, and was reported to have uttered the now famous phrase “Lord, kill me now.”

Finally, a settlement was reached whereby God offered to appoint 70 elders over the complaining Israelites, with the power to ignore their demands. A transfer of the Holy Spirit was reported, with Moses and his deputy leader Joshua left to work out the details.

Now, like all media reporting, something is inevitably left out. If you look back at your bulletin, you will notice that poor Bob was assigned a bit of a hodge-podge: 4-6, 10-16, 24-29. This, of course, is common enough in the three-year table of Bible readings we call the lectionary: take a longer reading and edit it to illustrate a theme or convey a story. Sometimes, like manna, you can get too much of a good thing, and you need to edit it make it more manageable.

Unless you’re hiding something. And then the edited lectionary can serve to highlight an acceptable theme while downplaying or eliminating an unacceptable one. And Numbers 11 is a case-in-point. So here is a breakdown of the chapter, alternating between the missing bits and the bits that are present. Beginning at verse one, we start with what’s missing:

Tired out by the constant complaining of the Israelites, God is already busy burning the edges of the camp (missing). Their complaining includes specific foods, largely a summary of the Egyptian diet (present). Manna is explained, including how to prepare it and what it tastes like (missing). A comparison is made between the Israelites and infants, along with the famous “Lord, kill me now” (present). The Lord promises an abundance of meat (surprisingly missing, more on that in a moment), and the seventy elders are appointed, with a transfer of the Spirit (present).

Before I continue, I don’t want you to think that the good people who maintain the Revised Common Lectionary are secreted away in a room somewhere thinking of ways to deceive us. Quite the contrary, they are mostly trying to make the themes of the various readings line up, and open up the Bible so that preachers and congregations address most of the Bible and not simply the half-dozen readings that the minister loves.

Having said that, we can acknowledge that there are occasions (like this one) where the editors will look past the fires and the smoting and give us a somewhat neutral theme instead, like sharing the Holy Spirit. In other words, rather than face God’s anger head on, we are given an edited passage that fits with the Gospel lesson of the day (unread) that anyone who is doing good in God’s name is a friend of God. Hence the transfer of the Holy Spirit to the 70, appointed to do good in God’s name.

But what about the anger? If we had the time, we would get Bob back up here, and he would share one of the missing bits—one of the most powerful passages in the story of Moses. Here it is:

[God says] “Tell the people: ‘Consecrate yourselves in preparation for tomorrow, when you will eat meat. The Lord heard you when you wailed, “If only we had meat to eat! We were better off in Egypt!” Now the Lord will give you meat, and you will eat it. 19 You will not eat it for just one day, or two days, or five, ten or twenty days, 20 but for a whole month—until it comes out of your nostrils and you loathe it—because you have rejected the Lord, who is among you, and have wailed before him, saying, “Why did we ever leave Egypt?”’”

If we were going to add another deadly sin to the list of seven deadly sins, I might suggest ingratitude. This is the God who heard the cries of God’s people, found a prophet (a prince of Egypt!) to lead then, sent plagues, defeated Pharaoh, parted the sea, set them on a path, gave them food, gave them the law, and did everything in God’s power to make good on ancient promises of posterity, fidelity and a land (Clines).

And the Israelite response? “We want meat! We want meat!” I’d love to see the Nanos/EKOS/Ipsos Reid numbers on God’s favourability numbers at that moment, because I’m sure the vast majority of onlookers would choose the righteous anger of a just God over the selfish demands of a bunch of ungrateful wanderers.

And why is God just? God is just because God keeps promises. Even in the face of disobedience and utter foolishness, God keeps promises. God promised Abraham and Sarah innumerable descendants, and now nearly four billion people belong to an Abrahamic faith—Jewish, Muslim, or Christian. God promised fidelity, maintaining the covenants that define us from the rule-of-law to freewill. And God promised a land—a promised land—which for us is all around.

So why the ingratitude? Why the cry for meat? Think of meat as a metaphor for everything we wish we had beyond everything we have already. We are the envy of the world: with prosperity, security, and a generosity of spirit that defines us. If, however, you listen to our leaders, they will tell you that we need more prosperity, that our security is constantly at risk, and that maybe we’ve been too generous, generous to the point of being duped by bad actors.

“Give us this day our daily bread.”

We say it a lot, but do we reflect on it’s meaning? Remembering that our faith exists outside of time, and that Abraham, Moses and the Most High were fully present to Jesus the day he prayed that prayer, we understand that ‘our daily bread’ is one omer of manna, no less and no more.

New every morning manna would appear, six days a week, with a double portion before the sabbath. Collect too much and rot sets in. Collect too little, and the pots were made equal, because no one was going to starve under God’s government. And this, then, is the heart of Jesus’ prayer: give us our daily bread, give us what we need—not what we want—give us what we need.

The Israelites, as foolish as they were, understood that they lived in the tension between the promises of a generous God and the anger of a continually disappointed God. We might do well to walk with them.

As we ponder the future of our country, the choices we make and the directions we take, we should be thinking how to be faithful, how to respond to God’s fidelity, and how to live knowing that we have already entered the promised land. Amen.


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