Numbers: 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29
Ordinary 18B; Proper 21
“The rabble among them had a strong craving; and the Israelites also wept.”
What a beginning! Clearly Moses has a situation on his hands. This Sunday’s lectionary passage from Numbers 11 highlights the challenges and the burden of leadership — challenges and burdens leaders today know all too well.
“I did not realize when I entered the ordination process that I was signing up to be a chaplain to the apocalypse.” This funny/not funny tweet showed up in my social media feed multiple times last week, passed from pastor friend to pastor friend needing a dose of humor in the midst of their stress. As the delta variant spreads and COVID-19 cases rise again, leaders are once again pressed to make complicated decisions for the health and safety of their communities. Should we mandate masks? Should we return to virtual worship? Should we cancel the covered dish? Whatever decision these leaders make, someone will be unhappy. Some fraction of the community will organize to rabble-rouse. Others will cry and complain. What can a leader do to stay sane in a situation like this?
Moses turns to God. He is beyond irritated with the pressures of leadership. He’s at the end of his rope with those complaining about the manna God had given them to eat and those craving the fish, cucumbers, melons and leeks they ate back in Egypt. Moses tells God he is ready to die if no relief comes. Why have you treated your servant so badly? Why have you laid this burden on me? I am not able to carry all this alone. This situation is too heavy for me.
I love moments like this in Scripture. Clearly, it’s okay to get real and get frank with God. Also, clearly God listens.
God responds to Moses by giving him help — 70 elders newly ordained and blessed with Moses’ spirit of prophesy, 70 leaders who will help bear the burden of the people. Moses is relieved, but Joshua’s not sure about this solution to their problems. When two men of the community, Eldad and Medad, are unexpectedly given the gift of prophesy outside the tent of meeting, Joshua wants Moses to stop them. He implores Moses to control the spilling of the spirit outside the tent and onto men in the camp.
Moses rebukes Joshua. “Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets!” Moses knows that he needs help. Moses also knows that he can’t let his ego, his jealousy or his desire to control get in the way of accepting the help God provides. No matter who they are and how they lead, all the Lord’s people can do something to help.
Last week I received a phone call from Bob Beck, clerk of session at Kirk in the Hills Presbyterian Church in Bloomfield Township, Michigan. Bob was concerned about his pastors, his church’s elders and deacons, and the support staff who keep everything running behind the scenes. Having watched these leaders struggle through an unprecedented 18 months, Bob wanted to brainstorm ideas about how the church could better support its leaders during this stressful time. “I worry about them,” Bob said. “They come to work on Monday and they don’t know what curveball’s going to be thrown at them that week.” Bob wondered aloud about different models for leadership, what kind of support organizations could be created to lighten the load of the few who take on more than their share of the burden. Bob added. “Sometimes I think we just need to sit back, take a breath and ask ourselves who’s doing what, if we have the right people doing the right tasks and what we could change to offer more support.”
Bob’s concern for his leaders is shared by others. A church near me in Illinois recently rallied to keep their worship and ministry going when their pastor had to go on emergency medical leave. Bruce Reyes-Chow, former Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) General Assembly moderator and pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Palo Alto in California was hospitalized with a breakthrough case of COVID-19. It appeared as if the entire PC(USA) rallied behind Bruce, praying for him and caring for him and his wife, Robin, as he struggled to recover. These are stories of people being the church, of God responding to leaders’ needs by anointing others to help.
In such a time as this, the burden of leadership cannot be carried alone. All the Lord’s people are needed. And all the Lord’s leaders must recognize their need and accept the help God provides.
Questions for reflection:
- What feelings stir within you as you read this passage?
- Who comes to your mind as you consider the burden of leadership?
- What steps can you or your church take to support the leaders in your church? What models of leadership should be reevaluated? Where can you do more? Where do you need to do less?
- What resources, or potential leaders, have gone unrecognized in your church? How can these resources be tapped? How can these new leaders be encouraged?
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