“Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his Spirit on them!”
Sermon preached by the Rev Dr Zachary Guiliano
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Sometimes, when you talk to a friend, you just know something’s wrong. Their face is flushed, their eyes red, they can’t meet your gaze. Perhaps they can barely speak at all, so overcome are they by their emotions. But when the words burst forth, they flash out like fire or cut. They accuse, they rage, they wound.
Is this what Moses looked like, in the scene recounted in our reading from Numbers? He seems to be at the end of his rope, with no idea of how he can serve the people he is leading. And he is displeased at their “craving,” even as the Lord is angry. He begins by accusing God of mistreating him; he ends by begging for death. This is not what Moses expected, when God called him to be a prophet all those years ago.
“Did I conceive all this people?” he says.
Did I give birth to them, that you should say to me, “Carry them in your bosom, as a nurse carries a suckling child,” to the land that you promised on oath to their ancestors? Where am I to get meat to give to all this people? … I am not able to carry all this people aloen, 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 favour in your sight—and do not let me see my misery.
These are not the kind of words we expect a man of God to speak. These are not hopeful words, impressive or weighty statements; Moses is not tranquil, floating above his circumstances and surroundings, undisturbed, untroubled. Quite the opposite.
This is a testament, not only to Moses’ humanity, which is just like ours, but also to the great weight he was bearing. All too often, it is only at moments like this, moments when people break down visibly, publicly, and horribly, only in those moments do we realize how bad things have gotten.
I was thinking that this week, as I followed the news, especially the developments surrounding the US Supreme Court nominee, Brett Kavanaugh, who stands accused of sexual assault by multiple women. I couldn’t bear to watch much of the testimony given by him and his primary accuser, Christine Blasey-Ford. It was just too raw. And this episode seems to have exposed many of the worst elements of American society and politics: misogyny and rape culture in elite schools, our senseless political divisions, and the will to achieve political goals in a way that destroys lives and communities.
I thought the same this past summer, as we heard testimony from Church of England leaders at the Independent Inquiry into Child Sex Abuse (IICSA) and as terrible accounts of priests abusing and torturing children came out of the Roman Catholic dioceses in Pennsylvania. Similarly stories have come out of Ireland. For me, it wasn’t simply the horror of the crimes that were being attested, but also the way some bishops and priests have tried to excuse the Church still, when the evidence of its wrongdoing is so clear. This is wrong.
There is a shame and even, I’ll confess, a rage I feel building up inside, as these sorts of things pile up. Look how bad it has had to get before these things get addressed: men’s casual abuse and assault of women; and adults, leaders, and clergy in the Church abusing children with such impunity and depravity – in each case, as if there were no good and evil, as if our fellow human beings are to be treated callously like objects, as if there is no God who will judge such sin.
As I read the Gospel a few minutes ago in this service, I knew many would hear the words of Jesus as unaccountably harsh. And they are among Jesus’ sharpest words of judgment, his clearest statements about hell. But what are they about? They are about the abuse of children.
If any of you put a stumbling-block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea. (Mk 9:42)
If you remember Anna’s sermon from last week, this statement comes in the context of Jesus’ words about what it means to be great in the kingdom of heaven and to be a disciple, to be a Christian, a follower of Jesus. We read last week of how Jesus
took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, ‘Whoever welcomes one such child in my name, welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.
When you put these two statements together, the message is very clear. Our attitude toward children and the vulnerable lies right at the heart of our faith. Do we welcome them? Do we treat them with respect, honor, and dignity? Or do we care nothing for them? Do we harm them or cause them to stumble, knowing what we are doing?
Jesus is clear: to welcome one of these “little ones” is to welcome him and God the Father; to harm a child is to bring yourself into the most horrendous judgment. We have a choice.
What do we do now in the wake of such horror, perpetrated in our society, in our Church, in our midst? How do we face it as people of faith? Let me say a few things, about authority, accountability, and grace.
First, authority. Remember again our reading from Numbers. As Moses and the people break down under the weight of their journey through the desert, God’s response is to lift the burden from the shoulders of any one person. So much abuse happens when people in positions of trust are allowed to be isolated in their authority and power, when people don’t ask questions. In Numbers, God spreads the responsibility for taking care of God’s people to a much greater number of leaders. 70 elders are chosen, and God puts his spirit in them. The same is true for us: all of us must take some responsibility for the culture of care and safeguarding. “Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets!” said Moses.
This kind of dispersed authority is what makes for accountability in any community or organization. No one can do whatever they want; no one is beyond rebuke; each person can be checked by another and helped by another. As the letter of James says,
My brothers and sisters, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and is brought back by another, you should know that whoever brings back a sinner from wandering will save the sinner’s soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.
The Church is meant to be a community where we hold each other accountable, where no one can wander into falsehood or sin without someone calling them back. This too is an element of our prophetic calling; for prophets speak the truth, always, whether it is to those in power, or to their neighbour, or to their friends and family. A community shaped by truth: that is what we must become.
And we have to be a community also that can make hard choices. Jesus said, “If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off.” This is not a literal command, but it does point to the radical character of the choices we may sometimes have to make in order, by God’s grace, to be the company of the redeemed, God’s church, God’s people.
These are practical steps we can take, just some – not everything we need to do, of course. There is a profound culture shift that has to take place around abuse; that is clear. And it’s why the Church of England continues to take new steps in safeguarding. We can address this, and make a new start.
Remember Jesus’ message: “The kingdom of God is near. Repent, and believe in the good news.” Addressing sin, amending our lives individually and corporately, and so seeking forgiveness – these are among the first steps of faith, and steps we return to again and again. Not forgiveness without discernment, or forgiveness without justice, nor forgiveness without repentance, but forgiveness for all who truly repent and believe the good news.
And we can pray. In the midst of an unendurable situation, Moses held out his hands and made his complaint, an honest and desperate complaint, to God. And the Redeemer of Israel listened, and advised, and acted, lifting the burden from his shoulders. He was not alone, and we are not alone in facing this crisis.
Are you angry about abuse or misogyny? There is an anger that is destructive, but there is another anger that is the zeal of the Lord, acting in our hearts by the presence of his Spirit to purify his Church.
Are you grieved? Are you humble and repentant? In all these attitudes and others, God himself is there.
As we seek to become what God has called us to be – the salt of the earth, the light of the world – we know that the Lord is here. He has promised to be here: judging, forgiving, empowering, pouring out his Spirit upon the whole creation and upon us. “Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets!” Moses said. “And that the Lord would put his Spirit on them.” That is what we are, if we will only take up our task: the task of bringing light into a dark place, of being salt that seasons and preserves, the task of speaking the truth and calling the wandering sinner back from death.
As we approach the altar of Jesus Christ, let us seek from him strength and forgiveness and healing, that we may fulfil our high calling and be his Church of holiness, truth, and love.