Sermon #243 St. Martin’s #2 (Main Church #1) 9/26/21
The rabble among them had a strong craving; and the Israelites also wept again, and said, “If only we had meat to eat! We remember the fish we used to eat in Egypt for nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic; but now our strength is dried up, and there is nothing at all but this manna to look at.”
Moses heard the people weeping throughout their families, all at the entrances of their tents. Then the Lord became very angry, and Moses was displeased. So 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? Did 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? Where am I to get meat to give to all this people? For they come weeping to me and say, ‘Give us meat to eat!’ I am not able to carry all this people alone, for they are too heavy for me. If 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.”
So 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.”
So 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. Then 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. Two men remained in the camp, one named Eldad, and the other named Medad, and the spirit rested on them; they were among those registered, but they had not gone out to the tent, and so they prophesied in the camp. And a young man ran and told Moses, “Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp.” And Joshua son of Nun, the assistant of Moses, one of his chosen men, said, “My lord Moses, stop them!” But Moses said to him, “Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit on them!”
Good morning everyone. If we haven’t met, my name is Wesley Arning, but my official title these days around the church is “the new guy.” Which I must say I’m okay with, just because of how many clergy are running around this campus. It really is unbelievable.
But I must admit to you I’m a little nervous. This church has such a gifted and talented clergy team that it feels a little like joining the Beatles during their heyday…and I’m not planning on being Yoko.
One of the things I really appreciate about St. Martin’s is your willingness to be bold and take a risk. It really was a brave thing in Texans’ country to hire a Tennessee Titans fan. As a native Nashvillian I want to personally thank you for sending Bud Adams and the Oilers to Tennessee. Yes, we were one yard from winning a Super Bowl in ’99, but at least I can say that’s closer than the Texans have ever been.
In all honesty, I can’t tell you how grateful my wife, Megan and I are to be here at St. Martin’s with you. From day one you all have been so kind to us.
Earlier this summer when Russ told you all we were coming, we got a letter or two in the mail from parishioners, and that just made our day. We got out some cards and began to write back.
But then the next day the mailman brought three or four more, and then, even more, the next day. It was like when Harry Potter got his acceptance letter into Hogwarts; we were getting letters every-which-way for two straight weeks!
One thing you’ll learn about me over time is that I have a deep love for the Old Testament. I believe if we are to understand Jesus’ words and actions in their proper context, let alone Paul’s densely packed letters, we need to have a firm grasp on the only Bible they had in their hands—the Hebrew Scriptures.
I doubt anyone would say the Book of Numbers is their favorite book of the Bible, it sure isn’t mine, and it’s obviously not popular with the committee who created our Sunday lectionary readings because it is so rarely presented as an option for us.
Numbers is an underdog, and so I can’t help but talk about the underdog this morning.
The long passage that we just read actually has a lot to teach us—much more than could be preached in five sermons let alone one. In it, there is a lesson about leadership and boundaries, about the Spirit of God moving as he pleases, but the one theme that stuck out to me above all others is a question of where do we find God when we are at our limit?
We see the great leader Moses at his wit's end. Things had been somewhat calm while they camped at Mount Sinai—there had been a few issues—but overall things were good.
Our lesson picks up with the Israelites having just packed up their camp at Mount Sinai and beginning their journey again through the wilderness. The thought of more aimless wandering and limited resources—with no end in sight—causes the Israelites to long for the abundance of Egypt. But for the Israelites, Egypt was always supposed to remind them of slavery.
The great irony is that they miss the land of enslavement simply because of their appetite. Yes, they were in bondage, but at least they had their fill of fish and fresh vegetables. They looked back at those awful days in Egypt with rose-colored glasses.
And of course, Moses is fuming about this. He is demoralized that they have so quickly forgotten all that God has done for them. “What’s the point?” Moses must be thinking. “These people are so ungrateful. Why keep going?”
Our passage from Numbers shows a very human portrait of Israel’s great leader. Moses is at his breaking point. The weight of leadership, of keeping a positive outlook on a people who now want to return to slavery, is disheartening. He feels more isolated than ever before.
“What’s the point? Why keep doing this?”
These questions have not just been asked by Moses or leaders of great movements or even heads of organizations, but by anyone who has looked out at what seems to be a hopeless situation. And for many of us, the past 18 months have brought its own forms of darkness and isolation.
One person comes instantly to my mind.
I met Sam a few years ago when I was studying abroad, he was actually one of the adjunct professors at the college. As Americans in a faraway place, we quickly became friends; we had a lot of the same interests, and I respected how much he knew about the Bible.
We then kept in touch once I came back to the States. When his time at the college had ended I encouraged him to move to Nashville so that he could finish up his Ph.D. and start making connections with different colleges and churches in the area…and he actually took me up on it.
He found a good church home and began teaching as an adjunct at a local college. But then things started to go downhill. His marriage fell apart, he was working as a barista to pay for the student loans he had accrued while getting his masters and working on his Ph.D. Because he was so busy working, he had little time to actually write his dissertation, and after another year he had lost the hope of ever finishing it.
Every time we hung out it seemed like he was getting a little more hopeless. He was overwhelmed by the monthly bills piling up, the divorce, and recently he was denied the opportunity to pursue ordained ministry. My friend felt utterly rejected.
He soon moved to another state for a fresh start. He got a decent job, but one that he said gave him no meaning in life. When he would visit Nashville I noticed he had gained some weight—he had always been as skinny as a rail. I then learned he had been drinking, a lot. It had been a way to cope during the stressful times until it had formed into a daily habit.
And then the pandemic came. Physical isolation added to the ongoing psychological isolation that had been growing in his mind for years. Life was not going as planned, and you could see the disappointment written all over his face.
Sam and I weren’t phone buddies, but we always found time when we were in the same city. It wasn’t even a question—we were going to hang out.
But I didn’t know just how deep his darkness was. I want to say that I didn’t see the signs because I’m an optimist, and I always see the best in people. But it was denial. Denial that things were that bad for Sam, that his addiction had utterly consumed him, and that being alone for months on end could bring nothing good.
And so I went under our big, beautiful Hickory tree in the backyard and cried when I got the call that he had died. I cried for the friend I had lost, the brilliant scholar that would never again grace a classroom, the man of God that had so much more to teach me. But I couldn’t help feeling the overwhelming sense of guilt and shame of being a bad friend who could’ve done more.
I could’ve called more, I should’ve seen the signs…Megan found me under the tree, my shirt soaked in tears, muttering “could’ves” and “should’ves” under my breath.
Mental Health in America
One study last year reported that 40% of American adults were struggling with mental health or substance abuse (CDC). Depression and isolation were some of the leading causes.
Weekly prescriptions for antidepressant and anti-anxiety medications increased 21% another study found (Express Scripts). Suicidal thoughts have significantly increased over the past year and a half, especially in my age demographic (BMJ). And while so many businesses were going under, liquor stores made record profits (Forbes).
And sadly, we’re not out of the woods. Researchers will be studying these detrimental effects for years to come.
Where is God?
And so, where do we find God when we are at our limit? When we are at our wit's end, stressed out, overwhelmed, and the darkness seems to be closing in, where is the Almighty?
Our passage from Numbers tells us that God is THERE. When Moses says, “I am not able to carry all this people alone, for they are too heavy for me. If 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.”
God answers him—he reminds the exhausted leader that he is not alone, and that it was not all on his shoulders to begin with. God reminds Moses that wherever we are—no matter our state of mind or mood—he will be there too. Nothing will stop him from being there FOR US.
To Moses’ credit he goes to God. Yes, angry and frustrated, but he goes to God, nonetheless. He realizes that if he is to continue on he will not be able to do it alone.
His words are brutally honest, but in that honesty is the recognition that he is helpless and in desperate need. To get back on the right track he is going to have to surrender to One greater than himself—all of those worries and disappointments must be laid before the throne of God (Rutledge).
Moses gives all of us a model when we are faced with darkness and despair. It is in the act of coming before God with heartbreaking honesty that we can begin to see the light, God’s light, breaking through the darkness. God’s answer to Moses and all of us is that darkness does not have the last word, it will not, it cannot win.
And I believe with all my heart that even in my friend Sam’s darkest moment, God was there. In his deepest pain and sorrow God had not abandoned him, and at his death I know our Lord welcomed him into his arms, healing his weary and broken soul with one touch.
And so my friends, where are you today? Have you been overwhelmed by the cares of this world; feeling as if it’s all on your shoulders? Have you lost hope, or has the darkness begun creeping in? I am here to remind you that none of us are out of the reach of God’s wondrous light and his redeeming love, and it is before his mighty throne that we lay down our burdens.
As the hymn goes, “In him there is no darkness at all. The night and the day are both alike. The Lamb is the light of the city of God. Shine in my heart, Lord Jesus.” Sometimes the simplest, yet most necessary prayer we can pray is, “Shine in my heart, Lord Jesus.”
18th Sunday after Pentecost. Year B. Proper 21. Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29. And God Spoke to Abraham, F. Rutledge.