Today, we are going to look at religious community and its relationship with its leadership. Let’s begin with Numbers 11.4. The King James Version has it read, “And the mixt multitude that was among them fell a lusting…”. The New Revised reads, “The rabble among them had a strong craving.” You see, as the Hebrews left Egypt, a group of folks who weren’t a part of the group got swept up with them on their exodus. They’re called the ‘mixed multitude’ or rabble and even riffraff in some translations. It was the grumbling, complaining non-Hebrew rabble that was complaining about the poor food provisions in the wilderness that started stirring up the Hebrews and got them complaining, too. Just like a little spark can get a fire going, so can negative, complaining grumblers. Negativity is a dangerous virus. It is deadly and spreads quickly.
Beginning with verse 10, we find Moses dealing with the whiney multitudes. Hear the Word of the Lord.
Numbers 11:10-17, 24-25
10Moses heard the people weeping throughout their families, all at the entrances of their tents. Then the Lord became very angry, and Moses was displeased.11So Moses said to the Lord, “Why have you treated your servant so badly? Why have I not found favor in your sight, that you lay the burden of all this people on me? 12Did I conceive all this people? Did I give birth to them, that you should say to me, ‘Carry them in your bosom, as a nurse carries a sucking child,’ to the land that you promised on oath to their ancestors? 13Where am I to get meat to give to all this people? For they come weeping to me and say, ‘Give us meat to eat!’ 14I am not able to carry all this people alone, for they are too heavy for me.15If this is the way you are going to treat me, put me to death at once—if I have found favor in your sight—and do not let me see my misery.”
16So the Lord said to Moses, “Gather for me seventy of the elders of Israel, whom you know to be the elders of the people and officers over them; bring them to the tent of meeting and have them take their place there with you. 17I will come down and talk with you there; and I will take some of the spirit that is on you and put it on them; and they shall bear the burden of the people along with you so that you will not bear it all by yourself.
24So Moses went out and told the people the words of the Lord; and he gathered seventy elders of the people and placed them all around the tent. 25Then the Lord came down in the cloud and spoke to him and took some of the spirit that was on him and put it on the seventy elders; and when the spirit rested upon them, they prophesied. But they did not do so again.
It just takes a little spark to get the fire going the old folk Church song reminds us. It takes just a small group of people to set a whole community on fire with gossip, grousing, and complaining. Our story has three different complaints in it. First, the rabble and then the Hebrews begin complaining to Moses about the quality of their provisions. Next, God starts complaining to Moses about the peoples’ gross ingratitude for all the mighty works God has done to bring them out of bondage. And third, Moses hits the proverbial wall; he’s had it and complains to God for making him the leader of this loose group of twelve tribes of Jacob. In essence, Moses declares to the Lord, “C’mon, God, gimme a break! I cannot carry these people all by myself; I need some help!”
Today’s Story from Numbers is a story about leadership and its relationship with the faith community. Pastor and former editor of the Presbyterian Outlook, Jill Duffield, reminds us that by the time we meet Moses and the Hebrews in the wilderness, they are no longer being chased by Pharaoh and his army. The Egyptians are no longer a threat to the Hebrews; instead, “now it’s God’s own chosen ones who are posing the greatest obstacles in reaching the promised land!” Let’s first look at the issues of a community of faith and then we will look at its leadership.
As we look at the faith community, we see they were throwing up obstacles in reaching God’s goal of promised land.
First, in Number we hear in Numbers 11 of a longing for the things of yesterday; the problem is, it is a romanticized longing for what the Hebrews built up in their minds what they want to remember but what they remember is not really what was going on in real life. The riffraff and the Hebrews in verse 4 cry out, “Oh that we had meat to eat! We remember the fish that we ate in Egypt that cost nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic.” Is their memory that short? Have they forgotten they were slaves who worked under the whip? Have they forgotten their food was free because they were conscripted labor for Pharaoh’s army? The people have painted this vision of a yesterday that really never was.
One obstacle that inhibits a faith community’s progress and growth is that it’s always looking backward and comparing itself to yesterday. Churches are very guilty of this spiritual nostalgia. “I remember when…” “Well, we used to do such and such like…” “We used to have packed pews on Sundays…” Looking backwards to celebrate past successes is fine. Looking backwards to learn is fine. Looking backward with a nostalgic romanticism is counterproductive.
I remember when we had packed pews. But do you also remember the dissension among the members in the church pews and parking lot?
I remember when we gave XYZ to missions. But do you remember that the budget was carried by a few wealthy families so you didn’t have to give as much?
I remember when the Kirk Singers had 70 kids! But do you remember that back then, the pressures on young people were not as great as today? The demands of all the extracurricular activates, volunteer hours needed to graduate, homework, family time…it’s tough to be a kid these days.
A second obstacle inhibiting the community to move forward is that present troubles often overshadow the blessings a community has already been given. The Hebrews seem to have forgotten they prayed for and received deliverance from bondage and slavery. They seem to have forgotten how God parted the Red Sea and they escaped on dry land as they were pursued by an army. They seem to have developed amnesia about how God made water gush out of the rocks so the people could quench their thirst. They seem to have forgotten how when they were hungry, God provided manna, bread from heaven, to feed them on their journey. Beloved, when the going gets tough, what is it that we forget? What are the blessings God has provided us even in the midst of our church’s hardship?
The third obstacle inhibiting the community to reach the promised land is negative attitude that is underlying their questions. We are not to fault the Hebrews for asking, “Hey God, what’s up?” We cannot fault Moses looking heavenward and demanding to God, “Hey, Lord! Gimme a break!” What we can fault them for is the attitude that, “If I (personally) cannot see an obvious solution, there is no solution possible.” A negative, fatalistic attitude has the power to limit the scope of our vision and narrow down the possibilities. Negative attitudes move us to binary thinking whereby we see outcomes as either yes or no, this or that, it’s black or it’s white, it’s right or it’s wrong. Binary attitudes limit our scope and ability to see God’s visions.
This past week I was talking with a staff member about their ministry and they were lamenting the fact that because of the church’s COVID protocols, they were not able to serve food at their event. “If people cannot go through the line to get their food, it’ll be a problem. They love Chef Phil’s food! So, I guess we either have food or we don’t.” After a moment I asked, “What’s a third option? You can have food, or you can choose not to have food. What’s a third way?” You could see the lightbulb go off and they said, “We can prepackage the meals and bring them to their tables for them!” Bingo! The staff member took a binary problem and created a third way out of it.
Nostalgia, forgetfulness, and negative binary thinking are obstacles to the Hebrews and they are obstacles for any church. Moses was worn out from it all and needed help. So, because God is a God who answers prayers, God provides a solution.
The solution is that God had Moses call out seventy elders or officers from the midst of the people. God would take some of the spirit that was in Moses and distribute it to these elders and officers so that they too shall bear the burden and weight of responsibility of the people; Moses will remain at point but Moses is not alone anymore. Leadership is now shared.
This morning, you the members of this faith community called First Pres, will confirm God’s Spirit moving out over our people and choosing the next group of church officers. They are chosen, not because they are popular, not because they are rich, not because they’re spiritual giants…no, they are simply called as they are by God through the voice of this people to help carry the burden of leadership of this community. They are women and men who have said Yes! to answering the call of leadership.
But friends, you not only confirm their leadership; you also make a promise not to throw out those obstacles that hinder the community’s progress with distorted nostalgia, with your forgetfulness of the blessings we have been given, and with negative, binary thinking. And what does the people of God say? The people of God say, Amen.
© 2021 Patrick H. Wrisley, Pastor, First Presbyterian Church, 401 SE 15th Avenue, Fort Lauderdale, FL. 33301. Sermon manuscripts are available for the edification of members and friends of First Presbyterian Church, Fort Lauderdale, Florida and may not be altered, re-purposed, published or preached without permission. All rights reserved.
[1 ] New Revised Standard Version (NRSV). New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
 Connections: Year B, Volume 3 (Connections: A Lectionary Commentary for Preaching and Worship) (p. 337). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.