We have a great reading this evening about murmuring and discontent among God’s people from Numbers this evening, so I guess I better ask first if it is ok that I stroll? Or will strolling as I preach cause a bit too much conflict, too much murmuring? You all laugh nervously, but Holly and I know better, right?
Great. Thank you. I have not been able to stroll as I preach for over a year. I miss it. So I appreciate your willingness to indulge me on this night when you are installing Holly as your rector. I must confess a bit of nervousness over this particular sermon, so the walking will hopefully keep me focused and energized and coherent. I found myself engaged in a bit too much sermon prep, truth be told, in the days leading up to this event. Holly would be the first to tell you that I lean to the cynical side of things in the church. There’s not a lot I have not done. Given an unprepared Easter sermon? Check! Given an unprepared Christmas Eve sermon? Check. Buried someone I did not know? Check. Installation? Nope.
Realizing that, I reached out some colleagues. I learned quickly the purpose of these events. I’m supposed to set Holly up for success in her ministry among you. I’m supposed to remind you of what is really happening tonight in our liturgy. And I am supposed to remind Holly that God’s grace is sufficient for the task our Lord has given her and you here at St. Paul’s Evansville. Oh, and I am supposed to accomplish that easy task not knowing very much about St. Paul’s and in as short amount of time as possible. It’s ok, you can snort.
I do appreciate the opportunity to get back to the Midwest. And in that “we share this in common spirit” it is good to be among the fruit of Jackson Kemper. It’s tough being a rector when it comes to dealing with people’s memories of golden ages and beloved rectors. I can only imagine what it must be like to be a bishop following in the tradition of the legendary Bishop Kemper. No doubt Bishop Jennifer wonders from time to time how bishop Kemper found the time to accomplish half of what he did during his ministry here in what was or what became the diocese of Indianapolis, let alone all the other present-day dioceses in which he labored. I know I do. I still find it remarkable that Bishop Kemper built the first altar west of the Mississippi just a couple years later in Davenport, IA, not too far from where I served in Iowa, and on the very grounds where my children attended school.
As an aside, the story is told among faithful Episcopalians that Jackson Kemper is responsible for keeping tornadoes from striking Davenport. Because he built that altar there, so the story goes, God has blessed Davenport by protecting it against tornadoes, even though the community is in the heart of tornado alley! It is tough enough keeping up with the schedule of Bishop Kemper, but now we learn he controls the weather! No modern bishop will ever measure up! Add to that the grumblings of scheduling a significant service during the Olympics and during Duke-Carolina basketball, and, well, we can understand why bishops sometimes feel a tad put upon as congregants share their gripes! If it makes you feel better, bishop, and if God’s people in Numbers are any indication, had you scheduled the installation of Holly on a different night, there still would have been grumbling! But thank you bishop for entrusting me with this task.
I should also tell you that I am not uninformed about OH river city cultures. I grew up upstream in Huntington, WV. Like most cities along the OH, the 1937 flood was the EVENT that defined life for its citizens, at least until a terrible plane crash took out our football team and some of the leadership of our city. Yes, I understand the challenges and fears that old river towns face as a result of how our economics have changed. And the first parish at which I served was even further upstream, just at the bend around the northern panhandle of WV, in East Liverpool, OH. East Liverpool was famous for its kilns, and St. Stephen’s was, for much of its first 100+ years of existence, the spiritual center of the community. So, I may not know St. Paul’s specifically, but I like to think I know some of the fears and challenges which confront you, and I like to think I know why this moment is ordained of God, why Holly has been called to serve among you.
I have already hinted where I will preach from tonight. I take seriously Jesus’ instruction that the Old Testament is about Him. All that Moses wrote, all that the prophets wrote, all that the psalmist/s composed, even the wisdom literature pointed to Him. If we have problems finding the Gospel in the books of the Old Testament, the fault lies with us, with our discernment or our knowledge. And let’s face it, the Old Testament served as the foundation or instructional pieces of all that He taught while He dwelt among us. Besides, as Holly heard over and over in seminary, nearly 2/3’s of Scripture is in the Old Testament. Any pastor who avoids the OT keeps 2/3’s of God’s revelation from His people.
Of course, me stating that the Gospel can be found in Numbers may shock my colleagues from around this diocese. That same professor who encouraged us to preach from the OT also had some funny descriptions of the book of Numbers. In some ways, Numbers is like that desk or box or table or wherever you keep all your financial statements that might impact your taxes. I see the nods. We all have our unique piling . . . err, filing system, right? We have that place where we keep that stuff so we can find it if we need it. Sometimes, we wonder if that not what this book was for Moses. He had all these facts from God that really did not fit in the rest of the Pentateuch, so he wrote this book to get all those facts out there, much as a preacher will wow you with all the research he or she has done during one of those hour long sermons. I hear laughter. What, you don’t think that is a uniquely modern practice, do you?
In truth, Numbers is nicely organized. It’s really a story about two generations. The first part of the book is about the decision of the first generation of a freed Israel not to trust God. The second part of the book is about how the generation born into freedom will trust God. And so, in that way, this is a perfect place for us to begin the formal relationship of rector and a parish. Holly is trusting that God truly has led her here. You members of St. Paul are truly trusting that God has caused your search committee and Vestry to ask her to come and serve among you. And even Bishop Jennifer is trusting that both sides will trust that God was active in this process of discerning a new rector, particularly when someone reaches out to her in the midst of future conflict. No doubt she has terrifying stories about what happens when one or both sides of this relationship quit trusting in God. In many ways, a bishop is more an exorcist than overseer, right? In a couple years from now, count how many times you reached out to Bishop to compliment Holly’s work among you and contrast that with the number of times you have reached out to Bishop Jennifer to complain.
Turn in your order of worship, if you want to follow along, to the reading on Numbers. I’m going to guess, in good Episcopal fashion, that few of us present know the stories of Numbers, so we are not helped to figure out the context by all the skipped verses. In many ways, this story serves as some wonderful grist for the mill for professional and armchair theologians. The people are grumbling . . . again. The people have complained that Moses should have left them in Egypt because it was better to live in Egypt as slaves than to die during the hardship of a march. The people have complained that the on-coming chariots will no doubt destroy them, when their backs were against the sea, because Egypt’s army was too powerful. The people have complained because they lacked food to eat. The people have complained because they were thirsty. Because they were hot. Because Moses was the one leading them. Because they did not know how to live in communion with a righteous, holy God. And in the verses right before our reading tonight, they complained because they were sick and tired of manna. At least in Egypt, the fleshpots were full. Now, all they eat is the food of angels, ugh! I mean, it tastes like something made from olive oil, and they have to eat it every day. In short, the complaining and grumbling about which we read tonight is not new for the people of God.
Prior to our reading tonight, though, God has met the needs of Israel in a patient fashion. God held the chariots at bay while Israel crossed the sea on dry land and then used the sea to destroy Egypt’s chariots when they followed after. God gave the people manna every day but the Sabbath, for food to eat. God cause water to flow to water not just the people but even the animals. God even agreed with the people’s request that He send His instructions through Moses rather than making them hear His instructions from His voice. Yet our reading tonight follows God’s wrath literally burning against Israel. At the beginning of the chapter, the people complained about their hardships in the hearing of the Lord, so He sent a consuming fire that burned those on the outskirts of the camp. The people ask Moses to intercede, and he does, and the fire died down.
Why does God respond with fire and consume some? It does not say that the fire consumed only the lead complainers, so we are left to wonder whether those impacted were even part of the problem. And, to make you a bit more uncomfortable tonight, to give you what I like to term a spiritual wedgie, why is God mad about this complaining? What makes it different? Some scholars may point to the “it was within the hearing of the Lord” as the rationale behind the angry judgment, but tell me, when is our complaining or praise never within the hearing of God?
Now, this griping about a lack of meat has caused God to become exceedingly angry. At the beginning of the chapter, their complaining only causes God’s anger to be aroused, as if from a slumber, and fire destroys those on the outskirts of the camp. What will happen if He is exceedingly angry?
Moses, of course, knows he will bear the brunt of the pastoral care. God is furious with the people, so Moses is going to get to hear all about that. But whatever happens to the people will require a lot of pastoral care. Guess who gets to do all that?
Moses seems to think a good offense is the best defense. He asks God why God has brought this trouble on His faithful servant. Moses did not ask for this job; God called to him from the burning bush. Moses did not like speaking in front of people; God sent Aaron with him as a mouthpiece. Moses did not father these people, and he sure did not ask to be put in charge of carrying them, as a nurse carries an infant. Moses goes on and says to God that if He is going to continue to treat him this way, he would rather die. Can you imagine making that offer to God?
Moses rightly understands that the burden of the people is too much. Moses cannot feed them. Moses cannot water the people and their animals. In truth, Moses cannot really protect them from their enemies. Oh, he can direct the men in their fighting, but there is no guarantee that they will win. There is no indication that Moses is really a military genius. Amazingly, miraculously, God agrees. He instructs Moses to gather 70 of the elders known to Moses as leaders and to bring them to the Tabernacle. There, at that meeting, God will take some of His Spirit that is on Moses and give it to them. As a result, they will be able to share in the burdens of leading the people.
Now, this is not to say that God’s anger is abated entirely. In fact, we skip the parts where God teaches us to be careful what we ask for in case He decides to give it to us. God instructs Moses to tell the people to consecrate themselves because He is going to give them what they ask for. He will give them what they ask for in such quantities that they will begin to loathe it. They will eat meat not for one day, or two days, or a week, but a whole month. Imagine going to your favorite restaurant every day for a month. Think you would still like it? God promises them they will be sick of meat, a delicacy in the Ancient Near East, by the time the month is over.
Moses, understandably, doubts God. Yes, Moses has witnessed the plagues that attacked the Egyptian gods in their bailiwicks. Yes, Moses has witnessed God parting the Sea and using it to destroy the chariots of the super power Egypt. Yes, Moses has witnessed God providing manna and water. Meat? There is simply no way. Moses says he is among 600,000 men on foot. If Moses was using “men” in lieu of “person,” feeding 600,000 people meat every day for a month would see nigh impossible. If Moses means there are only 600,000 men on foot--besides old men, women, and children—then meat will need to be provided for over 2 million individuals! Think of how many hog lots or cattle farms or chicken barns or fish pulled from the Ohio River would be required to feed 2 million people! Who would not doubt? Who would not question God?
God, of course, asks Moses if His arm is too short. And He promises Moses that he will see whether what He promises Moses will come true!
Moses does as he is instructed—that’s often a good thing for us all, but especially clergy, those set apart, ordained, for the people by God. Moses brings the elders to the Tent of Meeting, and God took some of the power of the Spirit that was on Moses and put it on the 70 elders. The elders all prophesied, though they did not ever do that again. This was to confirm for the people that the elders had been set aside by God to help share the burdens of them.
Interestingly, but not surprisingly, a couple elders named Eldad and Medad do not make it to the Tent of Meeting. We are not told why they do not make it. Since God does not seem to be mad at them and does not think that Moses has wrongly discerned that they are, in fact, elders among the people, I am one to argue that they were likely held up for legitimate or holy reasons. Of course, their delay makes no difference. Even away from the Tent and about other business, God’s Spirit rests upon them, and they prophesy like the other 68.
Joshua of Nun, who will later take the mantle of Moses and lead God’s people across the Jordan into the Promised Land, reports this event to Moses and tells him to stop them. Again, we do not know Joshua’s motivation. Was he a guy who really liked to follow the Constitution & Canons to the letter? Was he a high Anglo-Catholic who preferred a certain order to things? Was he afraid that Moses was somehow diminished in the sight of the people? We don’t know. Scripture makes no comment on the motivation of Joshua. Moses treats Joshua’s statement as one of concern for his honor or position. “Are you jealous for my sake?”—suggesting that he thinks something has been taken from Moses that genuinely belongs to Moses. Moses responds that he wishes that all of God’s people were prophets and that His Spirit was on every one of them.
So, why is this a great reading for tonight? If I did my job praying over the reading and discerning a message from Him to us tonight, even though I am not intimately familiar with this parish or diocese, I think there are a couple important Gospel lessons, for you as the people of St. Paul’s, for Holly your chosen rector, and maybe even for my colleagues in this diocese and Bishop Jennifer. First, and the low fruit, conflict is something in the Church that cannot be avoided on this side of the grave. The problem with churches is that they are made up of human beings. The people who sit in the pews are human beings. The people who serve on Vestries and other committees are human beings. The people who wear collars reminding them they are slaves to the Lord are human beings. The men and women who wear pointy hats are human beings. And the people who visit us or seek us out from time to time are human beings. That means we sin. That means we make mistakes. That means we fail to love the Lord our God with everything and our neighbor as ourselves, way more often than we think they should.
Notice I said “they.” We sin for good reasons. I was tired and so my patience was running thin. He or she said something mean first, and I just responded. If he or she would just get with the program, things would go much faster, smoother, or gloriously. We have tremendous patience with our own failings, but we are quick to be riled up against the others in our life, especially those in the Church. We give little thought to the consequences of what we say or how we act, even though our Lord Christ laid it out there that we would sin against each other in Matthew 18. He reminded us that we should never be a stumbling block to others seeking Him, that we are to be seeking the wandering or lost sheep, and that we are required to show mercy at all times as a manifestation, to use that Epiphany term, of the heart and character of our Father in heaven. And then, when we realize we were a stumbling block, that we really were not interested in seeking His other sheep, when we realized that we were being unmerciful, he taught us how to solve our conflict. And all of that was in red letters. Yet how often do we fail?
I do not know St. Paul’s well, but I know parishes well. Right now, you are basking in the relief, the excitement, the joy of a newly called rector. If your search process dragged on a bit, you may have struggled with that “what’s wrong with us?” attitude for a time. Perhaps you answered the search profile questions the way you thought you should rather than the way you really think. No doubt part of your call of Holly was based in part in her 26 years of youth pastoring. If anyone can teach you how to reach young families, and what Episcopal parish does not want to reach young families—in their profile, it’s Holly. But how many of you will listen to a woman who has more than a quarter century of experience and expertise in doing just that? Do you even want young families? Do you think kids are noisy? Do you think young families are too poor to be meaningful givers to the annual budget? Are you envious of the resources spent on youth, in terms of finances and staff hours and office supplies and maybe groceries, because it takes away from those resources that should be spent on you? I see the squirming. I know that hits hard in some quarters. My hope is that, in the future, when those disputes inevitably arise, you will remember this reading even if you do not remember this sermon, that each one of you will remind yourselves that conflict is either rooted in sin or a failure to discern the will of God. And if you find yourself in conflict, work to solve it among yourselves. If you have an issue with Holly, go to Holly. If you have an issue with a member of the Vestry, go to that member. If you have an issue with another congregant, go to that congregant. In truth, reconciliation, true reconciliation is one of the greatest counter-cultural manifestations we have to offer the world right now, a world that is divided along racial and ethnic lines, a world that is divided along political party lines, a world that is divided along socio-economic lines, and even a world that is divided about “good manners.”
For my brothers and sisters in a collar, for those of us who are slaves, douloi christoi, but especially for Holly, our reading from Numbers ought to bring us great comfort. All of us who wear these collars do so with fear and trepidation. It takes, I dunno—mental illness, to offer oneself to the Church and the discernment process. Then, as we make our way through discernment committees, Commissions on Ministry, bishops, and seminaries and just begin to think we have a handle on what’s expected of us and to feel that maybe we can do this, we find ourselves serving God’s grumbling, murmuring people! The people who were most excited at our initial arrival were often the first to turn on us. The people in whom we invest the most of our time are the most ungrateful. We seldom find ourselves ever asked to celebrate the great blessings of life with our congregants. We find ourselves, instead, asked to help them find God in the midst of pain, of suffering, and death. Where was God in the midst of my spouse’s cancer and death? If God is good, why am I suffering? If God wants abundance for me, why don’t I have money for food, for my meds, for my utilities, or to fix my car? And then others have the temerity to ask why we are tired, why we are unhappy or depressed, or anything other than the happy go luck men and women they think we should be. And woe to the one who expresses any doubt to a bishop or to those whom we serve. We are supposed to have all the answers, and because of our “special” set apartedness, we are immune to the vagaries of life.
And who really needs time for sermon prep, anyway? We should know this stuff cold!
And for those of us with families, it’s a bit harder. Balancing family responsibilities and church responsibilities is tricky. At first, the congregation is thrilled about the new acolytes and the new member of the Men’s Club or the ECW. But then the family and the church responsibilities come into conflict. Pastoral emergencies happen during games, recitals, and date night. Children get sick during important committee meetings. Spouses may travel for jobs leaving us short-handed as we transport everyone everywhere and still try and fulfill our church responsibilities. Some kids may rather read than acolyte; some spouses may rather sing in the choir. Once those expectations are unmet, conflict ensues. Unfortunately for us, often that anger and conflict is directed at our families, causing us to wonder why we accepted this call, why we bother to pour ourselves out so much.
The great news is that Moses felt like this, too! If Moses felt like a failure in his ministry, we should not be too surprised at our own feelings of unworth. If God’s people failed to listen to Moses, he of the glowing face from the shekinah of God, why should we expect them to listen to us, none of us seem to be glowing, without arguing and complaining? If God’s people accused Moses of leading them into the wilderness to die, even though they had incredible miracles and signs of God’s presence like the parting of a sea or a theophany near Sinai, why should we expect them to listen to us unquestioningly, without grumbling, when are signs are, by comparison, a little more mundane? The value of Moses’ ministry was determined by God, just as God assigns the value of our ministries. He is the One who values our retrieval of a lost sheep. He is the One who values our ability to manifest His mercy. He is the One who values our work, whether the parish has grown to meet our expectations.
And, although I joked a bit earlier about Bishop Jennifer’s vaunted task in following a bishop like Jackson Kemper, she knows it was a joke with an edge. As much as we expect of our deacons and priests, we expect more of our bishops, our overseers! What worse for her and every other bishop, on top of getting to hear all the loud grumbling, either through phone calls, e-mails, letters, or coffee hour visitations, they have to listen to us clergy second guess everything and whine about how our congregations treat us. I have met few bishops and archbishops who do not long for the “simpler” cares of parish life. I have even met a bishop or two who would like to use the straight end of the staff to club some sense into their flock!
But what goes on tonight is an extension of Bishop Jennifer’s ministry among you. In reality, what relates us to other parishes, dioceses, and provinces is the ministry of Bishop Jennifer. To do that work, she needs someone she can trust working here. In a few moments she will give Holly sacramental authority and a share in her ministry here at St. Paul’s. She will instruct Holly to feed this flock, to baptize others into this flock, and to heal those in this flock in Christ’s name. She will charge Holly to study the Scriptures and to pray constantly, that this parish might participate in the wider ministry of the diocese and even the national church. She will even remind Holly that God’s grace is long enough for her, that He will accomplish all that He purposes during Holly’s time with you, if Holly is faithful and obedient to Him.
And make no mistake, Holly, you will need that encouragement in the months and years ahead. In some ways, you have been well-prepared for everything you will encounter at St. Paul’s, and not just through your time at Advent. It does not mean that activities here will not hurt; it does not mean that activities here will not conflict your heart. That preparation does not mean you won’t doubt yourself or need to howl at the moon. It means only that you well know the strength and provision of God’s arm, and that He will see you through those events just as He did during your time at Advent, at St. George’s, at Trinity, and everywhere else you have served Him.
I have painted a bleak picture, I think, as I look around at some faces. Perhaps I have afflicted the comfortable a bit too much this night. Perhaps I am bringing too much to mind the conflict Holly and I have experienced in her last ministry. I certainly wanted you all to be able to look back on this night and say you were warned, and not just because Holly is a self-described “Agent of Change.” No, I really wanted to prepare you all for the possibilities and challenges that lay ahead and to inoculate you against the dangers and pitfalls that will seek to distract and even trap you. You see, all of us gathered here share one important distinction from Moses in our passage. Each of us gathered here who have been baptized into Christ’s death and Resurrection now live in an environment about which Moses and the other Old Testament saints could only dream. By virtue of our baptism, brothers and sisters, that Spirit for which Moses longed to be present in all of God’s people rests on you and on Holly and on Jennifer. Whatever is necessary for this parish to glorify God in Evansville, in the diocese of Indianapolis, and maybe even in this country, is already here or on its way (think Eldad and Medad!). You need only to discern your calling and those gifts. The rest, as they say, is up to Him.
And that, my brothers and sisters, may be the best new of all tonight! Our vocations, our callings, are from Him. The same God who rescued Israel, the same God who raised Jesus from the dead, calls you to serve Him. No matter your failings, no matter your inadequacies, no matter your sins so long as you repent of them, He calls you. And just as He used an obedient Moses to glorify Himself in Egypt and among His people, He will use each one of you and the ministry of St. Paul’s to glorify Himself and His Son who is in you! It is that Spirit resting on each of us that makes it possible for us to hear God’s Word in our lives. It is that Spirit resting in us that causes that bread and wine to be changed into our Lord’s Body and Blood, that bestows upon us all the benefits of His passion. It is that Spirit resting in us that allows us truly to do the work that He has given us to do, in unity, constancy, and peace, as we like to say in our liturgy. It is that Spirit resting in us that reminds us, often over the cacophony of the world and the whispers of God’s enemy, that we are truly forgiven and truly loved by our Father in heaven. It is that Spirit resting in us that reminds us that we are called to put aside our differences and live as a people reflective, however imperfectly, of a God in Three Persons living in perfect unity, that all might be drawn into His saving embrace and the joys of His eternal presence! We might, like Moses before us, balk at the thought that these things can be accomplished in us; but we now know, through the work and person of Jesus Christ our Lord, that the reach and strength of our Lord’s arm is sufficient for all that He purposes!
In Christ’s Peace,