Eighteenth Sunday After Pentecost
Twenty-sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Years ago in a cartoon in the Houston Chronicle, in the first frame was a man, obviously an American middle-class male, standing next to his car, saying to it, “Because of you, the air is foul. The globe is warming.” In the next frame, the man is pumping gas into the car saying, “Because of you I’m entangled in the affairs of countries that cause me headaches.” Next frame, while he is slumped in his seat in bumper-to-bumper traffic, “Because of you our central cities are empty and I waste half my life in traffic to the burbs.” Next frame, kids are getting in and out of the car, “Because of you my family is one big frantic snarl of hectic schedules.” Next frame, while holding his paunch with littered paper cups and french-fry containers around him, “And because of you I’m an obese drive-thru addict, a coronary just waiting to happen.” In the last frame, the man is hugging his car, “What would I do without you?”
Now what do you call it when we love what is killing us and we can’t let go of it? We call it addiction. The great Church Father St. Augustine said that we have “disordered desires.” Our desires are out of order, messed up. From our perspective, addiction is primarily a health concern and depending on the kind of addiction, it can be a public safety concern. We think of addiction as an individual, internal, private concern. But the Bible does not see it so simply and the ancient church did not, either. For the ancients, desire does not exist as simply some kind of internal feeling or passion or habit or chemical imbalance. Desire can never be isolated from a “telos” or purpose or end. Desire cannot be isolated from the One who gives us purpose and gives the desires the reason for their existence. For the Biblical people the question was always, “a desire for what end?” Or, “to what does the desire point you?” We Christians know that our purpose is in God. The God we know in Jesus Christ gives us the proper perspective, the proper humility, where everything fits, where everything coheres, including our desires.
Our reading from Numbers is about the people on the way from Egypt to the Promised Land desiring meat and the foods they were addicted to in Egypt. Their desires are out of control. They are still addicted to the Empire and it shows up in the food they want. And whether we call it disordered desires, or call it strong cravings or call it addiction, this old Bible story calls it trouble.
Well, God is angry that they want meat. And God is angry not simply because they want something besides manna to eat but because he knows that their cravings have them yearning to return to Egypt and to the ways and foods and gods and oppressive violence of Egypt. But God is trying to lead them to a new start in a new land with a new way of living and the journey through the wilderness is God’s “de-tox” from the ravages of Egyptian bondage and Egyptian addiction. And it is tough! It takes a whole generation, 40 years, for them to make it, and a whole lot of them don’t make it.
In this story, God says, “Okay, you want meat! I’ll send you meat! You’re going to get meat until it comes out your mouth and your nose!” And God begins to send quail. Covies and covies of quail land around the encampment and the people run out and start stuffing themselves. Engorging themselves. And while they are eating the meat until it comes out their mouths and noses, a plague hits them and they all die. Everyone who had a strong craving died that day. And they buried them all and called the place “the graves of the cravers.” In other words, you follow your disordered desires and it’ll kill you and it will kill others.
The end of addiction is destruction. If I keep on eating fried foods and fatty foods, this addiction will lead to a heart-attack; it will kill me. Drug and alcohol addiction will result in someone getting killed. Disordered desires and disordered relationships will kill the relationship and it doesn’t matter if it is a friendship or a marriage, it will kill it. And a whole lot of people have died and continue to die because of our country’s oil addiction.
Understandably so, Moses tells God that he is fed up and worn-out and that dealing with all of these people is more than he can do anymore. He’s discouraged and tired. So God tells him to gather 70 of the elders, 70 of the wise leaders, and bring them to the tent of meeting and tell them to get ready because they are going to get some of God’s Spirit. So Moses did as he was told and the 70 elders gathered in the tent of meeting and God’s Spirit came upon them and turned them into prophets. Out they went prophesying the Word and the Will and the Way of God. Out they went telling the truth of God in the midst of a disordered people.
Over in one end of the camp were two fellows, Eldad and Medad (they had to be brothers) who started prophesying, too, even though they were not a part of the other 70. Joshua the Son of Nun saw them and came running to tattle to Moses, “There are two guys who are prophesying without proper sanction.” Moses replies, “Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his Spirit on them.” (Numb. 11: 29).
This is a great story of what it means to be the church. We, the people of God, the church are called to be a prophetic people. The prophet is not an individual but a people. God’s will is for all of us to be prophets. To be a people called and consecrated by God’s Holy Spirit who stand up in this consumeristic society to proclaim a different way. A people who live a different way. Who live rightly ordered lives with their desires rightly ordered because they rest secure in God. God calls us to live together in such a way that our addictions, our disordered desires, become ordered in serving and loving God and taking care of God’s good creation. Together, God calls us and sends his Spirit so our addictions are transformed and healed and re-directed and so we can proclaim this new Way to the wider disordered world.