Today the Lectionary gives us what, at first glance, are two stories about leadership, but what they really are are stories of people trying to protect God (or God’s appointed leader) in inappropriate ways
First, we have the story from the Book of Numbers which tells of the complaints of hunger voiced by the Hebrew wanderers to Moses. I have to admit that, growing up in Nevada as I did, I always thought that “fleshpots” was a much more lascivious word than it turns out to be; all it means is “stewpots.” The people yearned for the foods with which they had become familiar in Egypt.
Living along the Nile, they had been able to fish and get that source of protein for free. When they worked on whatever project they were assigned as “slaves of Pharaoh,” apparently they were fed from the fleshpots. Bible commentator Adam Clark writes, “They were doubtless fed in various companies by their task masters in particular places, where large pots or boilers were fixed for the purpose of cooking their victuals.” They had grown used, perhaps, to receiving a ration of a stew probably made of lentils, some sort of grain, and mutton flavored with leeks, garlic, and onions. Even though they were getting manna from God, they longed for the familiar flavors of Egypt, the familiar certainties of slavery. As a colleague of mine has commented, “You can take the people out Egypt, but you can’t take Egypt out of the people.”
Children, as those of us who have had or who have been children know, grow in their ability to communicate. Vocabularies grow. Grammars develop. They move from simple one- or two-syllable concepts – such as “Mama” or “Dada” or “NO!” – to more complex ideas.
When my niece was a toddler, she put together two concepts – negativity and certainty – in a way that was confusing to some adults. When asked if she would like to have something, say a food, she would answer, “Not sure.” If she had understood sentence structure or the concept of adverbs, she would have said, “Surely not!” But she didn’t yet understand those things: she understood negativity – “not” – and certainty – “sure” – and put them together in a way that made since to her.
Not to her grandmother, however. My poor mother never did get it that “Not sure” didn’t mean that my niece was undecided, so she would try to convince the girl that liver or broccoli or whatever was something she should try. But “Not sure” did not mean indecisiveness; it meant quite the opposite. “Not sure” meant “Dig-in-the-heels screaming-fit absolutely not; don’t try to change my mind.”
At the end of our gospel lesson this morning, Jesus said to the crowd, “It is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” They said to him, “Sir, give us this bread always.” Jesus answered, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” This is the beginning of Jesus’ long discourse on bread which takes up nearly the whole of Chapter 6 of the Gospel according to John and of which we will hear parts for all of the month of August.
A few verses further on, Jesus will say again, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven.” And he will add, “Whoever eats of this bread will live for ever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh. . . . Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.”
The Jews, John tells us, disputed among themselves as Jesus was delivering this lengthy dissertation on bread. I think we can understand why! The very idea of consuming human flesh is off-putting, even disgusting, and would have been extremely objectionable to the Jews; no wonder they grumbled and mumbled, complained and disputed. Even as a metaphor, the statement demands a lot from Jesus’ followers!
Our kids this week have been “Shipwrecked,” but they’ve also been “rescued by Jesus.” They’ve been learning the truth of that promise emblazoned on neon crosses at innumerable inner-city rescue missions in nearly every English-speaking country in the world, “Jesus saves,” through the metaphor of being lost at sea and washed up on a deserted island. That’s something that happened to St. Paul at least three if not four times!
But, unfortunately, St. Paul’s experiences at sea are not in the lectionary this week. Our readings from the bible have nothing to do with ships or the ocean or being lost or getting rescued and aren’t really easy to tie to what the kids have been doing with all these shipwreck decorations in the church. Instead of shipwrecks, the readings this week give us trees. Ezekiel reminds us of one of God’s metaphors for Israel, the noble cedar planted on a mountaintop spreading its branches to provide homes for the birds and winged creatures of every kind (which represent all the nations of the world), producing mighty boughs and the plenteous fruit of righteousness and justice.
In 2011 a young man in New York City named Gabriel went to a party. While there, he drank some of the alcoholic punch being served. Unknown to the young man, the punch had been spiked with a drug called Gamma-Hydroxybutyric Acid, commonly called GHB. Prescribed as Xyrem and also called by a variety of “street names,” it is known as a “date rape” or rave drug. It comes as a liquid or as a white powder that is dissolved in water, juice, or alcohol. In most people it produces euphoria, drowsiness, decreased anxiety, excited behavior, and occasionally hallucinations. For Gabriel, however, who suffered from medication-controlled epilepsy, it caused a seizure. Apparently interacting with his regularly prescribed medication, the GHB he had unknowingly consumed caused a fatal convulsion.
Across the Kidron valley from Jerusalem, at the foot of the Mount of Olives, is a small grove of olive trees. In the midst of it is a church called “The Church of All Nations” and in the center of that church, surrounded by a low wrought iron fence sculpted to resemble brambles and thorns, is a large, rough, flat rock. It is called “the stone of agony” and tradition tells us it is the place where Jesus prayed on the night before he died.
Our gospel lesson for this evening, for Maundy Thursday, does not mention that olive grove, that stone, or Jesus’ prayers. Our gospel lesson on this day is always the same from year to year. We rehearse John’s story of Jesus washing his disciples’ feet. John’s Jesus is self-assured and in control. He “knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father.” He knew “that the Father had given all things into his hands.” “He knew who was to betray him.” He gives his friends a “new commandment” (which, as a colleague of mine noted in our on-line bible study, isn’t really all that new): “Love one another.”
Here they are. The “Big Ten”! The words of Exodus that Right-wing fundamentalists want to chisel in granite and put in American courthouses unless, of course, they prefer the similar (but not quite the same) version in the Book of Deuteronomy.
My sort of go-to guy on the Old Testament is a Lutheran scholar named Terence Fretheim, who is Professor Emeritus of Old Testament at Luther Seminary, Saint Paul, Minnesota. My first grounding in the Hebrew Scriptures was from a short, two-volume study guide he wrote with co-author Lutheran pastor Darold H. Beekman entitled Our Old Testament Heritage. A couple of years ago, Fretheim wrote a short online commentary on today’s Old Testament lesson in which he said:
The Ten Commandments are not new commandments for Israel (see Exodus 16:22-30), but they are a convenient listing of already existing law for vocational purposes. Moreover, the Commandments were not thought to be transmitted in a never-to-be-changed form. They were believed to require adaptation in view of new times and places.
This is why the version set out in Deuteronomy is slightly different.
The past couple of days, Friday evening and most of the day on Saturday, the vestry and I were on our annual retreat. Our retreat leader was the Rev. Percy Grant, who is on the diocesan staff as the bishop’s canon for ministry. Percy’s been on the diocesan staff for about ten years in basically the same job, but she’s had three job titles.
Initially she was the “deployment officer.” Deployment is a word the church used to use to describe the process of placing clergy in congregations and our deployment officers assisted our bishops in that process. But we realized a few years ago that there was a lot more to the process that simply placing clergy. Congregations had to prepared to go through it. Parish had to be coached in how to end one relationship and prepare for and begin another; pastoral care, liturgy, and parish administration are on-going and have to be overseen after one priest leaves but before another comes. And after the new priest is in position, both she or he and the congregation need support and assistance. The entire process came to be seen as a time of transition, and so our deployment officers became “transitions officers.”
As I pondered our scriptures for today I was struck by how different, how utterly foreign, one might most accurately use the word “alien,” the social landscape of the bible is from our own. We, children of a post-Enlightenment Constitution which makes a clear delineation, almost a compartmentalization, between the civic and the religious, simply cannot quickly envision the extent to which those areas of human existence were entangled and intertwined for those who wrote and whose lives are described in both the Old and New Testaments. I tried to think of an easy metaphor to help illustrate the difference between our worldview and that of either the ancient wandering Hebrews represented by Moses in the lesson from Exodus or of the first Century Palestinians and Romans characterized by Jesus, the temple authorities, and Paul.
The best I could come up with was this. First, as a representation of our viewpoint, consider a mixture of water and vegetable oil which, as I’m sure you know, is no mixture at all. The oil will float on the water and no amount of mixing, shaking, or stirring will make them blend; the oil may disperse in small globules throughout the water, it may even emulsify temporarily, but eventually (without the aid of a stabilizer) the oil will separate from the water. In our constitutional society, religious institutions and political entities are supposed to be like that; just as there is a surface tension barrier between the two liquids, the Constitution (in Mr. Jefferson’s memorable phrase) erects a “wall of separation between church and state.”1
“The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king . . . .”
This is an ugly parable that Matthew reports in today’s gospel. It is similar to a parable that is related in Luke’s gospel, but Matthew adds details that challenge us deeply, even to the core of our faith, to the center of our being as Christians. When Luke tells the story the host inviting his neighbors to dinner is not a king; he’s just “someone.” (Lk 14:15) When Luke’s host sends his servant to tell the intended guests that all is ready, they offer only excuses; no one “makes light” of the occasion and no one seizes, mistreats, or kills the slaves. (Mt 22:5-6) Luke’s host gets angry, but only Matthew’s king sends an army “destroy the murderers and burn their city.” (Mt 22:7) Both hosts send the slaves back out to invite others from the streets and highways; Luke’s dinner host adds an instruction specifically to invite “the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame.” (Lk 14:21) In both stories the banquet hall is filled, but only in Matthew’s story is there the judgment, not mentioned in Luke’s, that the substitute guests include “both good and bad.” (Mt 22:10) And, finally, Matthew’s Jesus adds the detail about the man present without the proper wedding garment who is thrown into the “outer darkness” (Mt 22:13) and that final warning, “Many are called, but few are chosen.” (Mt 22:14)