Among the many threads that has stretched through the lectionary readings over the past several months is that of grumbling or complaining. Back when we were stuck (interminably) in the "bread of life" discourse I grumbled about having to preach on the same thing for weeks in a row, but, in those readings, we heard about the Israelites grumbling in the wilderness as they searched for food and Jesus' contemporaries grumbling about how he identified himself as "the bread that came down from heaven." Even the disciples grumbled or complained (same word in Greek) about this difficult teaching. All that whining, and we're still not through with it.
This Sunday, now reading from Numbers 11, we hear, yet again, that the Israelites wept because they did not have any nice food to eat--only the heavenly manna: "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." They were sick of manna, and I might be sick of reading about it, but Moses was sick of dealing with it. Described in the NRSV as "displeased," he approached the Lord and said,
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.Moses preferred death to continued subjection to the people's grumbling. Anyone else in ministry ever felt like that? Anyone ever felt like God had laid the burden of a difficult people on his or her shoulders? Anyone ever prefer escape at any cost over repeated confrontation with an unhappy rabble?
God's solution, of course, isn't to kill the Israelites or mercifully take Moses' life. Instead, he tells Moses to gather seventy elders of the people together so that God might take some of the Spirit that had been placed upon Moses and redistribute it among the others. This first part of this lesson is also one of options for the first reading at a priestly ordination, which make sense--being an elder means sharing ministry. And the fact that the sharing of the spirit was real not only in a psychological manifestation of shared authority is expressed in the prophecy of Medad and Eldad, who missed the meeting but still managed to receive a share of God's spirit. For us, then, we must ask to what extent ministry and the authority and responsibility that come with it must be shared, and we must seek God's real and actual help in redistributing that Spirit-given power.
This morning, I had a conversation with a parishioner who recalled a conversation he had with another rector several years ago. At the time, he and his wife were new to the Episcopal Church, and, curious about our church's polity, he asked the rector, "Who is in charge of this church?" The response of the rector, as relayed to me in the story, was "I am." We joked about that for a little while--me always conscious of how that episode might have been repeated in inexplicit ways during my own tenure--and eventually I confessed to the parishioner that I'm still learning about that.
I've been ordained for over nine years now, and I've served as a rector for almost four of those years, but I am only just beginning to learn to focus on the parts of my vocation--my calling--that are unique to priestly ministry and to let everyone else be in charge of everything else. The obvious point is that I should spend less time chairing meetings and working on budgets and more time preaching, teaching, presiding at worship, anointing the sick, hearing confessions, and the like. Shared ministry isn't supposed to start when we're fed up with the congregation we serve. It should begin from a place of health and mutuality. It should be rooted in each of us discerning what specific gifts we have been given, what authority has been entrusted to us, and how God is calling us to serve.
Moses got help at his breaking point. God was faithful and made it possible for his ministry to continue successfully. But why would we wait until we're ready to run away or hide under our desk in the fetal position before we find ways to ask God to share his Spirit of leadership and authority with others?