I absolutely love this reading from the Book of Numbers.
First of all, the People of God are doing what they always do in Numbers, and if we’re really honest about it the People of God have done throughout their history.
After all God has done, the escape from slavery in Egypt, crossing the Red Sea and watching an army bent on their slaughter being swallowed up in it. Being given water to drink from a rock and manna to eat from the sky.
God’s People respond to all of this with, “God, Really, no meat? You couldn’t come up with a cucumber or two and little garlic? Man, those melons in Egypt were really great.”
And that’s just how we are.
Each of us, every one, from age five minutes to age 90 years has been touched, profoundly, by the God who has created and sustains the Universe in which we live. We are immersed within and upheld by God’s infinite grace.
And each one of us, every one of us rabble, somewhere in our hearts has a strong craving. “Really, God, there’s just this one more thing…Trust me, God, it’s the last one I’ll ask for.”
On this point, I think the economists have it right– we are insatiable in our desires.
And then, there’s the beautiful candor with which Moses talks back to God. And you know it must have been accompanied by great gestures.
“Seriously, God, are these guys MY fault? Did I give birth to them, that you should day to me ‘Carry them in your bosom, as a nurse carries a sucking child…’ Really, God, why don’t you just kill me right now.”
On the one hand Moses’ lament captures so beautifully, one of the eternal truths of our existence: people can be such a pain in the Schwanz! And, truly, if we have ever exercised any kind of leadership: if I’ve ever been a dean, a pastor or a prioress, if I’ve led a work team, been a union officer, been a member of a parish council or organized a bake sale, I know exactly what Moses is talking about. “These people God, the ones YOU gave me…Don’t even get me started.”
But, aside from being such a wonderful, almost comic expression of how difficult all of us can be to work with, as I read and thought about Moses’s conversation with God it struck me on a much deeper level. It is a conversation that has parallels the books of Jonah and Jeremiah and throughout the Scriptures.
It is a conversation that captures something that I aspire to. One of the things that is so striking about this passage is Moses’ absolutely wonderful sense of familiarity with God. Gone are the fear and propriety that were so evident when Moses comes before God in the burning bush.
Here, Moses, is so comfortable with God, comfortable enough to leave behind all pretense and formality. Comfortable enough to come before God just as he is and lay it all out.
In Moses’s prayer today we have both example and invitation. To come before God just as we are: without pretense or polish. To share our concerns, frustrations, even our insatiability.
And, after Moses vented at God, after he had laid out all of his frustrations, God responds. And here, the account in Numbers really gets interesting. In both Numbers and in a parallel telling of this story in Exodus, God responds by sending flocks of quail. And, in the way these stories are always best told, the quail are so abundant, that the in the end, the people are just stuffed with quail.
But, in the Numbers account, the quail are not God’s first response. In the Book of Numbers, God’s first response is to send her Spirit so abundantly, that even some who are not on the official list are chosen to prophesy-to manifest God’s presence. This bothers Moses’ assistant greatly, (Just as it bothers Jesus’ disciples in today’s Gospel that a guy not on the “list” is successfully casting out demons in Jesus name.)
But Moses is not bothered at all. (Nor, interestingly, is Jesus.) There is something about this intense level of comfort with the God who created the universe that invites a kind of generosity of Spirit, a recognition that God’s gifts are shared with absurd abundance.
That abundance invites me come to God, just as I am. That abundance invites me to look for God everywhere and in everyone, even (perhaps especially) those, who for whatever reason, I didn’t consider to be on the list.