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L’enfer, c’est les autres: The 19th Sunday after Pentecost

September 30, 2018
Numbers 11 (various verses)
James 5:13-20
Mark 9:38-50

There was a famous 11th century rabbi known as Rashi, and I came across a quotation, perhaps his citing of an earlier commentary on the Old Testament story we heard today, about God’s spirit being spread out from Moses and extended to the other elders: He asks — “What did Moses resemble at that time? A candle place upon a candelabrum; everyone lights from it, yet its brightness is not diminished.”

We actually kind of do something like that, when you think about how we sing Silent Night be candlelight on Christmas Eve. Where we start with one lit candle, and within a couple of minutes, the whole room is bathed in light.

Or another example that you may have noticed is at baptisms; a little technique I picked up at theological school. That’s the one time that we start with the candles around the altar unlit. The baptism eventually takes place, and the newly-baptized person receives a baptismal candle. During the offertory hymn they, or the parents or godparents, light their candle from the paschal candle, which represents the risen Christ, the light dispelling darkness. So the baptized person receives that same new life and light, and then they make their way up the aisle, and light our altar candles from theirs. It’s a symbol, then of the newly-baptized’s participation in the life of the Church, and with it occurring during the offertory, it’s a symbol of them offering their life as an offering back to God, by building up the Church and by living out the promises they’d just made. […and you just thought we’d forgotten to light the candles before the service!]

So that’s Moses: “A candle place upon a candelabrum; everyone lights from it, yet its brightness is not diminished.”

But that’s just a nice little quote I came across in some of my reading. The quotation that actually came back to me from my own head is a little less optimistic. It’s from grade 11 or 12 French class, when we read the play No Exit by Jean-Paul Sartre. “L’enfer, c’est les autres.” Hell is other people. That’s what came to mind when hearing about Moses and the Israelites.

Because the thing is, the reading we had was actually a really chopped up version of Numbers chapter 11. It’s a cut and paste job. All of chapter 11 would be a little long for Sunday morning, some would argue. And another thing, the reading kind of dodges some nasty bits, like at the beginning, people start complaining about the desert, and so God sends fire to burn up some of the rabble-rousers on the edges of the camp. Or later, when the people ask for meat, God says, OK, I’ll give you meat. I’ll give you so much meat that it’s going to be coming out of your nostrils by the time I’m done with you.” (An interesting image as we approach the Thanksgiving holiday.)

And as we heard, the people want more than meat. They’re exhausted and probably scared, from having wandered and wandered and wandered through desert, and there’s not much more in their immediate future than more wandering. And so some of them think back to the good old days when they were enslaved, yes, but enslaved with all-you-can-eat fish, and melons, and other things, with garnish and spice, like onion and garlic. Those were the days, they say.

But food isn’t really the issue. Usually when there’s a conflict, there’s typically an issue underneath the issue. And the issue seems to be that some of the people — the complainers — have a different vision than God. It seems that God wants them to grow and mature through their time in the desert. But the people, they want to press fast-forward; they think they’re ready for meat. One commentator puts it like this: God advocates breast milk; the people want meat. And Moses is caught in the middle. Moses didn’t choose this life and role; it chose him. (Well, God chose him.) And Moses didn’t create this people that are driving him bananas. It’s so bad that he says that he’d rather die than continue on, something that the prophet Jonah’s going to say years later when things don’t go his way either. L’enfer, c’est les autres.

But as I sit with this story, I realize that it’s easy to judge and dismiss the Israelites as complaining and disobedient. But most of us aren’t all that different. We all give in to that ‘grass is greener on the other side’ mentality from time to time. I remember when I was working in the store I managed a few years ago, there were times when I couldn’t wait to quit and go to seminary full time. I’d get an annoying email from head office, or deal with an angry customer, and I’d think back to my university days, where I only had to worry about my own work, and I didn’t have to follow policies, other than not plagiarizing. But then I went back to school, and on the difficult days of long commutes or all-nighters, I’d think back to the good old days of just working for a living. Where we didn’t have to worry about money. And when I went home, my work didn’t come home with me. It was a case of the grass always being greener on the other side. I think that’s what’s happening with the Israelites, in pining for the days back in Egypt. The desert isn’t a comfortable place to be. It’s a place of testing and temptation and death; something Jesus would realize for himself one day. But it’s sometimes the only way into the Promised Land. But it doesn’t make it any easier.

This difficult story from Numbers says something about how we all create, or buy into a narrative. We process the various things we go through into a narrative, a story. And sometimes it’s a big, over-arching, kind of world-defining narrative: a meta-narrative. A story that has to do with the way the world works, and how we fit in it. When the Israelites set off from their time in Egypt the narrative was one of being freed by the One God, and going to find what will become their homeland. As time goes on, this narrative gives way to the counter-narrative of ‘Egypt was perfect.’ Where there was infinite fish, and melons, and the rest. Our defining narratives help to interpret what we’re going through. The difficulties in the desert were worth putting up with when they were all onboard with the liberating God narrative. But not so much when the “grass was greener in Egypt” narrative becomes the dominant one.

And what’s interesting here is that the complaints of the people bring about both God’s vengeance and God’s grace. Divine fire burns up some of the complainers early on in the story. But God also sends quails, so that people get all the meat they could ever want. And more than that, the solutions, the graces, like the quail, end up bringing about their own set of problems too. This is what we read at the end of the chapter: “So the people worked all that day and night and all the next day, gathering the quails; the least anyone gathered was ten homers; and they spread them out for themselves all around the camp. But while the meat was still between their teeth, before it was consumed, the anger of the Lord was kindled against the people, and the Lord struck the people with a very great plague.”

God advocates breastmilk; the people want meat. And Moses is stuck in the middle. “Hell is other people” is one way of looking at this. That’s one narrative we can buy into. But in that same story, we also see how when God’s spirit is spread about the 70 elders, it lightens Moses’ load. So as annoying as other people can be, you can’t live with them, but you can’t live without them. We’ve all probably said, at one time or another, “it’s just easier if I do it myself” rather than work alongside someone else. But the reality is that, unless you’ve got the vocation of a hermit, we’re called to live in community. And as much as it sometimes feels like being with others is hellish, it’s in times of joy and times of grief when we realize the gifts of community.

Because we’re not alone, like Moses felt. We have others to share in those joys and in those griefs. “Are any among you suffering? They should pray. Are any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise. Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord.” Today especially, I think we’re mindful of the blessings of community life, as we give thanks for the love and commitment that Alf Brown [who, sadly, died this past week] embodied as part of this parish family.

Sometimes our experience with others feels like being lost in the hot desert. But at other times our experience with others is like receiving a cup of refreshing, life-saving water that sustains us in whatever we’re going through. In all things and at all times may we glorify God. Amen.

© 2018 The Rev’d Matthew Kieswetter