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.”
The collect for today from The Book of Common Prayer:
Grant us, Lord, not to be anxious about earthly things, but to love things heavenly; and even now, while we are placed among things that are passing away, to hold fast to those that shall endure; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
On the positive side, the side of “things heavenly,” there is what James calls the “wisdom from above [which] is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy.” On the negative side, the side of “things that are passing away,” there is “wisdom [which] does not come down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, [and] devilish.” The text from Jeremiah and the Gradual Psalm remind us what this sort of “negative wisdom” leads to. How do we learn wisdom and how do we learn to choose one sort over the other?
You, who are on the road
must have a code
that you can live by.
And so become yourself
because the past is just a good bye.
Teach your children well . . . .
If you are as big a fan of the folk rock of the 1970s as I am, you will recognize the opening lines of Crosby, Still, Nash & Young’s 1970 hit Teach Your Children. Graham Nash who wrote the song has said that it was inspired by a 1962 photograph take by Diane Arbus of a young boy in New York’s Central Park playing with a toy hand grenade. I have no reason to disbelieve that, but I wonder also if today’s lesson from the Book of Deuteronomy, Moses’ farewell address to the people he has led through Sinai to the brink of the Promised Land, might also have been in Nash’s mind. The song is a neat paraphrase of what Moses says.
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.”
In 2014, Evie and I were privileged to join a group of other pilgrims from Ohio and Michigan and spend not quite three weeks in Palestine and Israel visiting many of the sites we hear about in the Bible, especially the Christian holy places of the Gospel stories. One of those was a hilly place overlooking the Sea of Galilee called Tabgha. Until 1948, when the Israelis uprooted its residents, a village had been there for centuries; now it is simply an agricultural area and a place of religious pilgrimage.
The name is a corruption of the Greek name of the place, Heptapegon, which means “seven springs;” its Hebrew name is Ein Sheva, which means the same thing. It is venerated by Christians for two reasons; on a bluff overlooking the place is where the feeding of the multitude is believed to have occurred and on the beach is where the Risen Christ is thought to have had a grilled fish breakfast with Peter during which he asked him, three times, “Do you love me?” At each location, there is a shrine and a church: the first is called The Church of the Multiplication; the second is called Mensa Domini (which means “the Lord’s Table”) and also known as The Church of the Primacy of Peter.
A Fourth Century pilgrim from Spain named Egeria reported visiting, in about 380 CE, a shrine where the Church of the Multiplication now stands; in her diary, she tells us that the site had been venerated by the faithful from the time of Christ onward. Shortly after her visit, a new church was built there in which was laid a mosaic floor depicting the loaves and fishes. That floor still exists today and a graphic of that picture of loaves and fishes is on the front of your bulletin.
It had gone on so long she couldn’t remember a time that wasn’t like this. She lived in constant fear. She wasn’t just cranky and out-of-sorts; she was terrified. Her life wasn’t just messy and disordered; it was perilous, precarious, seriously even savagely so. It was physically and spiritually draining, like being whipped every day.
Many in her situation might have given up, given in, curled up, and died. But not her. She was determined to stay alive. She was, after all, a daughter of Eve, created by God to join her husband as partners with God in conceiving, bearing, and giving birth to other human beings. She had had those children and now she had to look after them, to raise them, to ensure their survival.
But . . . she was going to die. She was convinced of that. If she continued to live in those circumstances she would die. There is simply no doubt about it.
Our Old Testament lesson this morning is a very small bit of the Book of Job, that really sort odd bit of Biblical literature that tells the story of a wager between God and Satan. Some scholars believe that it may find its origins in an earlier Babylonian work known as the Poem of the Righteous Sufferer, that the Jews in Exile became familiar with the older Babylonian story and adapted it to their own theology.
Job begins with a scene in the heavenly court where God is in conversation with character called, in Hebrew, ha-satan which is translated into English as Satan. However, this is not the Devil of later Christian mythology, the ruler of Hell portrayed by Milton or Dante or even Walt Disney (in the Night on Bald Mountain sequence in the movie Fantasia). Rather, ha-satan is a sort of heavenly district attorney or prosecutor who goes “to and fro on the earth, and … walking up and down on it,” scoping out sin and iniquity and bringing it to God’s attention for judgment.
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.
Every year, for as long as any of us can remember, on the Second Sunday of Easter the church has told the story of Thomas, Thomas the Doubter, “Doubting Thomas” who wouldn’t believe that Jesus had risen, the poster child for those who are uncertain. But, believe me, Thomas gets a bad rap! He was no worse a doubter or disbeliever than any of the others, including Peter!
Consider this from the end of Mark’s Gospel:
Now after he rose early on the first day of the week, he appeared first to Mary Magdalene, from whom he had cast out seven demons. She went out and told those who had been with him, while they were mourning and weeping. But when they heard that he was alive and had been seen by her, they would not believe it. After this he appeared in another form to two of them, as they were walking into the country. And they went back and told the rest, but they did not believe them. Later he appeared to the eleven themselves as they were sitting at the table; and he upbraided them for their lack of faith and stubbornness, because they had not believed those who saw him after he had risen.
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.”