This reflection is excerpted from my sermon delivered on August 4. You can read the full manuscript at pastorfrankdrenner.com
Christy and I love El Paso. She lived there for two years and studied at Lydia Patterson Institute, or La Lydia as it is known locally, a United Methodist mission school. More than twenty died and dozens more are in hospital after a murderous rampage there two weeks ago. Prayers for peace are not enough. We must take meaningful action to stop the hateful rhetoric targeting vulnerable communities, easy access to military grade weaponry, and the apathy that compels us to look the other way when we see and hear violent behavior.
The book of Numbers is one of those Old Testament books people tend to skip over. It is a sort of re-telling of Exodus, but without all the Egypt stuff; no pharaoh, no plagues, no baby in the basket. It takes place after the people have received the law from God. The first half of the book shows the Israelites in the wilderness. The second half deals with the plans to enter the Promised Land. It’s called Numbers because one of the first tasks Moses is assigned is to count the people. Throughout the book, when God is ready to share a new set of expectations or worship practices, God will say to the people, “Make yourselves holy.” It’s a ritual of cleansing and readiness.
As they journey, they eat manna from heaven, but it gets old pretty soon. They begin to complain. They want meat to eat. They want to return to Egypt, where at least they had edible food. Moses listens to this complaining for about three minutes before he himself begins to complain to God. “I didn’t ask for this! I miss my simple shepherd life.” God tries to comfort Moses by promising to send quail for the people to eat. When the quail arrive, it is an understatement to say they swarm the place. We’re told the quail were stacked everywhere three feet deep. The people gather up the small birds. The fewest collected by an individual was 10 homers, equivalent to roughly 580 gallons. That would equate to approximately 1900 birds per person, or more than 1 billion quail — enough to circle the globe five times if laid out beak to tail. The God of abundance provides super-abundantly.
What’s happening in the wilderness is the story of a people wandering through scary territory into an unknown future. There literally is no road map. All they have is the guidance of a guy they didn’t know a few years earlier. The familiarity of the past, even with its cruelty, draws them backward. It’s the covenant with God that compels them forward. They’re still trying to figure out what it means to have a covenant relationship with God, and honestly, God is struggling too.
Perhaps we are more like the Hebrew people of Numbers than we realize. Maybe as a people we still haven’t reached the Promised Land. Slavery, genocide against native people, white supremacy, fear of the other, the list goes on and on. The violence and hate must be stopped.
I took my kids back-to-school shopping the last two Saturdays here in town. We made it home safely. Families doing the same thing in El Paso will never be the same again. It’s time to make ourselves holy, so that we may receive the courage and strength from the Holy Spirit to do and say what is right. Join me in lamenting the lives stolen, and pray that the God of abundance will super-abundantly bring healing and comfort to those families, the courage and will to act to us, and continued guidance for our common journey together.
They called the wilderness place with the quail Kibroth-hattavah, which means “graveyard of cravings.” People are remembered by their actions and appetites. If we continue to allow hate-filled speech and violence, plus easy access to the weapons of war in our country, how will we be remembered?
Frank Drenner was ordained in 1998 and has served as pastor of Grace United Methodist Church in Sherman since July 2016. He is married to Christy, and together they have three sons. Find more from Drenner at http://www.pastorfrankdrenner.com. The views and opinions expressed here are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Herald Democrat.