I preached this sermon — in fact, I jettisoned a part in the middle for time — at Universalist National Memorial Church, on September 30, 2018 with the lectionary texts from Numbers and James.
I would like to thank Pastor Gatton for inviting me into the pulpit his morning, and to you, for welcoming me to the pulpit today.
A couple of weeks ago I got a partial root canal. It turns out that I’ve been grinding my teeth and eventually a cracked one of them. I may end up still losing the tooth. I might lose other teeth besides, because I keep gritting and grinding my teeth. Lately, I’ve been grinding my teeth every day. Perhaps you understand.
The last two times I preached in this pulpit, the president had done something awful and I thought it was my responsibility to address that in theological terms. The hearings of the Senate last week, including the harrowing testimony we heard, also counts as something awful. But I want to continue with my prepared remarks, and hope that what I have to say might spare me some teeth, and spare you some pain, by giving you strength and resources that the Executive, Legislature and the Judiciary can neither give nor take away.
I looked at the texts assigned for today in the Revised Common Lectionary, an ecumenical readings calendar that breaks up the bulk of the Bible into a three-year cycle. It’s online; you can search for it. You might be interested in the scope of readings, what thoughts and feelings they evoke and how the readings relate to one another. (It’s also a point of pride. The committee that produced the Revised Common Lectionary included Unitarian Universalist Christians, and we don’t often have a place at the ecumenical table.)
So, we have for today a lesson from Esther, about her daringly exposing Haman as the plotting enemy of the Jews, with a psalm to match, used today in the opening words. There’s a gospel reading from Mark, with teachings from Jesus, including the well-known phrase “Whoever is not against us is for us.” But to be frank, Esther’s passage ended in violent death for the baddy and Jesus teaches one of those passages that makes Universalists itch, and I did that last time. And I saw something the other two had in common: teaching about the practice of faith itself.
So, I’d like to visit some of the practical and pastoral guidance the Bible has passed down the generations, and pull out some parts that apply to us today. And while I already have the curtain pulled back, and looking at how the sausage is made, let’s be clear about about what we might find in scripture.
Despite how some big-platform preachers might act, there’s not a one-to-one correlation between what the Bible records and what people do, much less what people ought to do. The Bible, in this sense, does not speak. It is not a guide book, instruction manual or cookbook. When I was a youth in Georgia, there was a popular bumper sticker that read “The Bible says it. I believe it. That settles it” which is entirely the wrong approach, because that all too easily becomes “I believe it. I will show that the Bible backs me. Don’t you dare cross me.” We have to be continuously on guard against self-validating appeals to divine power: self-validation that empowers bullies and fanatics, and builds walls between us and where God might lead us. The world is loud and scripture whispers.
There’s another risk. Take the current political moment. I find it intensely frustrating and often frightening. It would be all too easy to withdraw from awkward conversations, rigorous engagement and public participation and enjoy a private life. That’s what the Amish did; they are descended from one of the most radical Christian traditions of the Reformation and were so brutally persecuted that they withdrew from society.
And one last thing. And if we’re honest, we know these works have been compiled and edited within a particular historical and cultural contexts. This human hand does not distract from its divine origin, but reminds us that while they were lived in the Iron Age, we do not. We have to interpret these words for our time. We have to figure out what these words meant in their time, and hear that anew. This is what distinguishes the liberal approach.
Now, let’s review the reading book of Numbers (Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29).
Numbers is the fourth book of the Bible, and in the Torah, the heart of scripture, so shared by Jews and Christians. The Hebrew name translates to “in the Wilderness” and the English name refers to the censuses recorded in it. On the whole, it can be drowsy reading; this is practically an action scene, so it does take special care to uncover its meaning.
If you have not read Numbers — there was no homework — have not read it, or heard much about it, the “storyline” follows much what we find in the second half of that monumental film, “The Ten Commandments.” The Hebrew people had been released from captivity in Egypt through God’s action. Numbers covers the time from God’s self-revelation to Moses on Mount Sinai to the entrance of the people Israel into the land of Canaan.
But what’s this “mixed multitude” really forty years in the wilderness? At least one English Baptist scholar (Harold Henry Rowley; see note in Plaut’s Torah, p. 1011.) thinks that the Exile in the wilderness was only 2 years long: the 2 years that are mentioned in Numbers as the first and last year. The other 38 years were slotted in between.
Why would someone do that?
The Exodus narrative here and in the book of Exodus show how the people stopped being slaves, went out of Egypt and became a people in their own right, seeking a new homeland. But that it was a challenge and a process, and that they failed to hear and mind God along the way.
It’s easier to believe this idea of a nation developed over the course of generations, and not a single trip through the scorching and hostile desert, however long. What the point of the story is to say that one generation died that another generation and people would live.
And the number 40 is important to suggest a long duration. Where else do we see this number? The 40 days of the flood. Jesus’s 40 days in the wilderness. A number which suggests a long time, and not to be understood literally. But the meaning is clear enough, once you understand the intent. It’s not a matter of deception or exaggeration, but coding the story with extra meaning. Which is fair, if you know what the code is.
One way to understand scripture is to understand where you are in the story. In this view, you have to think of yourself as being a part of the story rather than it happening to someone else. This way, we grow in empathy and see if there are parallels in how those people found God in their lives to see if we can find God in our own. A borrowed life lesson that provides a common language.
And also a link that provides context for other parts of the Bible. For example, Jesus would have known this passage, of course, and alludes to the manna in the sixth chapter of the gospel of John:
Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that believeth hath eternal life. I am the bread of life. Your fathers did eat the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread which cometh down out of heaven, that a man may eat thereof, and not die. (vv. 47-50, Revised Version)
This changes our understanding of John: that Jesus was the renewal of promise, provision for the liberated, and reward for the wandering. It makes comments about pride or cannibalism seem silly and doctrinaire.
So, a few passages before today’s reading, we headed out into the wilderness with the people Israel, from the mountain of the Eternal, following the cloud that rose from the Ark of the Covenant. They went out in ranks, like an army. The people moved, and encamped, and grumbled. A mixed crowd; a little bit of everyone. A “motley crew” long before that became the name of a metal band.
What makes this telling of the story different from the one in Exodus (or Cecil B. DeMille) is how it was edited and what it focuses on.
Also, since we ascribe great worth to the Bible, it’s worth knowing how it came to be. The usual, pious understanding is that the first five books of the Bible — the Torah — were written by Moses personally. But there have also been serious and faithful questions for hundreds of years. But a simple reading of scripture should throw that into doubt. For one thing, how could Moses be the author if it records his death?
The work of “lower criticism” looks at the books, their structure and vocabulary, and try to understand the sources that we were developed to make these works as we know them. Written works don’t last forever. We don’t have a “first edition” or manuscript of any part of the Bible, and until the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in the 1940s and 1950, the oldest portions of the standard Masoretic version of the Torah we have is about eleven centuries old. The oldest biblical text we have today — say, 26 centuries old — is a in a rolled up silver amulet, so fragile that it had to be read with modern imaging technology: a part of the priestly blessing, from Numbers.
According to lower theory, there are four main sources for the Torah. Two — known as the E and the J sources, based on how God in named in the text. A D source, for Deuteronomy, which seems to be its own thing, and a P, or “priestly” source.
(We see a similar kind of development in play in the the four Gospels.) So where critics of scripture see contradictions and foolishness we see development, versions and alternatives.
Numbers relies on the priestly source, suggesting the book is about 25 or 26 centuries old, and based on the older E and J sources. That is, the underlying question in Numbers is “what is the role of priests in the community?” That doesn’t mean so much for us today, but it means there’s an editorial viewpoint that means the text cannot be read at face value, leading us to the historical or “higher” criticism.
This is where we pick up our lesson. Our passage skips over the manna. This strange, monotonous food; I imagine it would be like eating nothing but chia seeds. And, what do we have now? What is this? But, oh, remember the food in Egypt! he people are on their last nerve, “the Lord was very angry, and Moses was distressed.” (11:10, Plaut trans.) Then the Eternal God bid Moses bring seventy of the “elders and officers” of the people to the presence of the Eternal God, with Moses so that he would not bear the responsibility of leadership alone. (10:17) Those gathered with Moses spoke in an ecstatic voice when the spirit of the Eternal God came upon them, but not those leaders alone. Two others, named Eldad and Medad, did too: Moses would not restrain them. And then the feast of quail come down — maybe 50, 100 bushels full. The people were hit with a plague, and the motley crew, having buried their dead at the place named “graves of craving” set out again.
And perhaps the hunger for meat meant a return the familiar life of Egyptian captivity. One of relative ease and luxury; something more than literal meat, and something manna couldn’t feed.
Dear friends, we have the ability to be a great blessing to ourselves and to others. We have within ourselves the seed of greatness; “the kingdom of God is within you.” This is not an escapist fantasy. It however does take imagination. An imagination that resists the deadening pall of convention and the limitations of second guessing: an imagination and a direction that bubbles up possibilities inside us, and that God has set before us. Possibilities that create a hunger for something different, and before you know it, this faith has us wanting something better and seeking to make it real. I believe that there is a Divine path that we can take — one that we have no monopoly over — and welcomes companions. A way described in our passage from James:
Are any among you suffering? They should pray. Are any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise.
Now, none of us alone can make the world right, but each of us can do our part to make it better.
As we proceed, we must ask ourselves: in what way do we mean better? A thin 51% control over the other 49%? Luxuries that we enjoy that others could not possibly also have? Sympathy that stops at the D.C. line or some other border? Lip service to full participation in the economic, moral, political and spiritual matters but acquiescence to the various systems that make this participation impossible? Not any of these, of course.
So taking the love of God, a humble and prayerful heart and a great deal of hard work; we must pray God to raise up scouts and guides for the journey, wherever they may come from; to apply ourselves to prayer and praise; confession and healing; guidance and counsel; and no less than all of these to use our minds and good sense to “prove all things; hold fast that which is good.” (1 Thes. 5:21)
This is what we may enjoy and offer future generations. May God bless us now and forever.