“The Gift of One Another” – Room to Breathe Sermon Series
“The Gift of One Another”
September 26, 2021
Dr. Bobby Hulme-Lippert
Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29
The people are tired.
“Our strength is dried up” the God’s people in Numbers chapter 11 declare to Moses amid their weeping. They are sick of being in the wandering wilderness that has been their reality after crossing the parted seas and being freed from slavery in Egypt.
They want real food, real meat – not this flimsy manna from God.
You heard, they tell Moses how they used to eat fish and vegetables of every kind back when they were slaves in Egypt.
Tiredness has a funny effect on how we remember some of our yesterdays.
And Moses for his part, he’s downright frustrated.
“Why, God!” He cries out, “Why have you treated me so badly that you lay the burden of these people upon me?!”
And he really digs in when he observes, “After all…Did I conceive these people? Did I give birth to them?”
And the implied answer is, “No. You did, God. You should be carrying them in your bosom as a nurse carries a child. You are being a neglectful parent. You find this meat they crave. You carry this!”
And then making clear just how deeply this burden is being felt, he tells God, “They are too heavy for me. If this is how you are going to treat me…put me to death at once. Do not let me see my misery.”
- The people are tired and complaining. They just want to go back to how they remember the good ol’ days in Egypt.
- Moses is done and complaining. He just wants the weight of it all lifted, released, taken…and he is open to any measures.
- And one way or another the basic fact of this predicament is this: Everybody wants out of the current situation.
Who among us does not know something proximate to this very thing?
Maybe it’s the exhaustion of this pandemic…
Or a certain ailment or illness?
Or trying to find a home?
Cannot we go back to how we remember ‘normal?’
Or maybe it’s the weight of responsibility we carry for another person
or family members…
or on a board or…
Cannot we just have the weight lifted? Released? Taken somehow?
Perhaps we like Moses have offered rather honest and raw prayers from this desire to get out of, get beyond, get through, get over whatever it is.
Has God responded?
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.”
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.”
I remember doing this thing called X-team Fitness when we lived in Richmond, VA. Michelle and I would get up for these 6am workouts with a group of other people from all over Richmond.
And we would do these workouts each morning that were always creative, different, a bit off-the-wall.
One morning, our instructor had us doing some running and then pushups and sit-ups and the like – and then he points over to this telephone pole lying sideways along the side of the street. No wires connected to it anymore – just a massive, wood telephone pole.
“Ok. You all are going to pick that up and carry it to the end of the street.” So, maybe 25 yards or so.
Now, I have no idea how liability should or could have played into this moment, but I’ll simply say that at 6 or so in the morning most folks are not thinking clearly…. so the 50 or so of us there all gathered along either side that wood telephone pole.
And you better believe it took every last one of those 50 people to lift together at just the right time and then start carrying.
I could feel in my hands that what I was doing mattered (there was weight there) but I could also feel that what I was doing was laughably insignificant if it were not for the other 49.
I would be literally crushed without them.
The people are tired, the burden weighs quite heavily on Moses…and God does not breathe refreshment upon the people. Nor does God lift the telephone pole weight off of Moses.
God calls people from among God’s own people (particularly those who are already elders, leaders), God calls 70 of them and has them brought forth to share in the carrying of the burden of the moment.
This is to say: the burden is not taken away, but now the burden is shared.
Or, put another way, they are not given room to breathe by being swept into that dream of how they remembered Egypt or taken out of the responsibility amid hunger and complaining… the room to breathe, the room for hope…that opens through God drawing those already there, God pouring God’s Spirit upon them, that they might share in the ownership of the challenge.
How does that reframe where we are today and what God might be calling among us?
At this moment in Numbers chapter 11, it’s a one-time thing.
We read that these leaders are anointed as prophets whose words and actions can and do uniquely lead the people. But…at the end of our passage Moses makes clear that this glimpse of shared leadership, sharing the burden, being in it together…this glimpse has created a longing within him:
“Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit on them!”
“Would that every impossibly heavy burden, crisis, every season of grief, every famine, every border crisis, every relationship challenge, every season fraught with anxiety…would that all of God’s people be anointed to carry!”
One of the distinct temptations of our time is simply to find a way out….because the things before us in the world, our nation, our community, our church, goodness our families and lives…it just gets to be too much.
And so we can be tempted to find ways just stay outside of the fray… never getting too close to anything we see out there,
never get too close to the unsettled within,
never getting too close to the mission of the church,
the people of the church…because we know that eventually if you lean in, you try and care, you try and examine this inner disquiet, you try and help, you try and be a friend, an advocate, a leader…it just, it’s going to get heavy, difficult.
CS Lewis once painted a rather creative and convicting picture of Hell in his 1945 book The Great Divorce. His narrator is riding a bus through Hell, and observes a seemingly nice, large city but where are all the people?
The guy next to him on the bus says this:
“As soon as anyone arrives he settles in some street. Before he’s been there twenty-four hours he quarrels with his neighbor. Before the week is over he’s quarreled so badly that he decides to move. Very likely he finds the next street empty because all the people there have quarreled with their neighbors and moved. So he settles in. If by any chance the street is full, he goes further. But even if he stays, it makes no odds. He’s sure to have another quarrel pretty soon and then he’ll move on again. Finally, he’ll move right out to the edge of the town and build a new house. You see, it’s easy here. You’ve only got to think of a house and there it is. That’s how the town keeps on growing.”
The picture of Hell is people constantly checking out, moving further and further from the latest troubling neighbor, the latest challenge, the latest fray. This is to say, it’s a picture where people increasingly see themselves without any sense of connection or belonging to one another.
Do we find ourselves moving in or out these recent days?
The pastor and author Eugene Peterson once wrote about a difficult season in his life as a pastor, perhaps feeling something akin to the burden Moses knows and in a season where he was often tempted to just try and be alone and disconnected. And he put it this way:
“I didn’t come to the conviction easily, but finally there was no getting around it: there can be no maturity in the spiritual life, no obedience in following Jesus, no wholeness in the Christian life apart from immersion and embrace of community. I am not myself by myself. Community, not the highly vaunted individualism of our culture, is the setting in which Christ is at play.” (Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places (2005))
Here’s the thing: that moment when 70 elders were anointed by the Holy Spirit to carry to burden for that one time alongside Moses…that was a glimpse, a foreshadowing, a sign of what would eventually become God’s fundamental way for seeing God’s work carried in this world.
For God sent God’s own son in Jesus who said “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest….my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”
And then Jesus’s Spirit does faithfully carry our burdens – those of sin and death he takes upon the cross.
And the trials and tribulations of our day he carries most centrally in and through his body on earth today.
How does Paul famously state this most basic truth about the church:
“Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.”
We are a body.
By the power of the Holy Spirit who has baptized us and called us…we belong to one another. Think about what that means for a moment…
It’s not simply that we need one another (and we do), but even more…we belong to another (those who went on retreat recognize I am underscoring a key theme of that time together).
- Do we know that to be true?
- To whom do we sense ourselves called as we think about the fact that we who are children of God really do belong to one another?
- Who needs a call or a letter?
- Who needs an advocate?
- How might we name our own need for others?
- And then thinking bigger picture: what issues around us – homelessness, schools, healthcare, immigration – what issues are overwhelming to address on our own but yet we cannot help but recognize that placing our hands on our portion of the pole makes it clear that are we are needed…even as we definitely need the other ones?
This truly may be the most fundamental gift the church could recover among itself in these coming days and the most fundamental gift it could offer.
“You belong for who you are and the gifts you have. We belong for and with one another. Red and Blue, Rich and Poor, Citizen and Foreigner…In Christ, we belong to one another. The burdens of this world and even our lives are far too heavy…but Holy Spirit through our hands and feet together…
Willie Jennings is a theologian at Yale Divinity, and in a recent book of his, he writes this poem about dying to the “dream” of individualism. Of doing life by ourselves and on our terms and with our preferences. And embracing another dream…the dream of a life lived in community. Belonging in Christ.
Listen to the poem:
He blessed it and broke open God’s dream, one part in each hand.
To those on his left and to those on his right, he said the same thing
as he handed them his dream, “Eat this dream,
and it will kill the dream that kills.”
Hands trembling, they wondered which of their dreams
would die and which would grow stronger.
There is a kind of dream that wants to escape to the way we remembered Egypt. Or wants to escape the burden of life or leadership in community. There is a dream of steering clear of any houses with neighbors who might just be too much. It is a dream that takes the soul.
Eat this dream…this dream of God’s body carrying the impossible and showing for God’s kingdom on earth…eat this dream and it shall consume the other dream.
“Would that the Lord would put his spirit on all of his people!” Thanks be to God, The Lord has done just that. Amen.