Summary: Grasping after power that belongs to God is not only wrong, it's dangerous.
This is communion Sunday. Here on the table are special elements set aside for worship. In the Presbyterian tradition, only a minister of word and sacrament is authorized to consecrate the elements. And only ordained officers of the church are granted the privilege of distributing the elements to the community.
The elements need to be consecrated - that means to be set aside for a special use - because they are ordinary, the stuff of every day life. As we go about our daily lives, we eat ordinary bread, we drink ordinary juice or wine. These too are gifts of God, and as such are to be received and used with gratitude. But when we take communion, we bring a higher purpose and a deeper meaning to the table we share. And to remind of us the special significance this moment of remembrance and reconsecration has for us we restrict its use.
Even though in our polity elders have equal authority with clergy in most areas - and veto power over some issues - it takes special action by a Presbytery to authorize an elder to administer the sacraments, and permission would absolutely never be granted if clergy were available. We have boundaries. We accept them as appropriate. I have never even heard of an elder insisting on her equal right to all pastoral functions. And even if it were to happen, it would simply be dealt with by pointing to the appropriate passage in the Book of Order, and the decision would either be accepted or the individual would move to a denomination where the boundaries are differently drawn. But the situation that long-ago day in the wilderness of Sinai was much more serious than that.
Imagine, if you will, that this morning someone who is not an ordained deacon or elder were to come forward and try to take the plate of bread from one of the designated servers. Imagine, if you can, that they each have hold of the plate and are trying to get it away from the other person. The bread spills. Perhaps they knock the table over and the juice cups scatter as well, leaving large purple puddles on the carpet.
Pretty shocking scenario, isn’t it? Never happen - not in a Presbyterian church! "Decently and in order" is our motto. And if it were to happen, it could only be because someone had totally lost it, and would not only be put out of the congregation but would likely be hauled up on charges of disturbing the peace,
aggravated assault, or even put away in a home for the terminally bewildered.
Numbers 16 is the most dramatic chapter in an already very dramatic book. If you recall, last week we saw that the Israelites fear of the so-called "giants" who inhabited the Promised Land led to God’s decision to delay the occupation until the current generation had died and a new generation - hopefully one more given to trust and obedience - had taken their place. But that sentence has only temporarily silenced the rebels.
The disgruntled faction - what Scripture calls "the rabble" - have already proposed choosing a different leader to replace Moses and Aaron. Their discontent surfaces again in this passage, this time infecting the leadership as well, and a new twist is also added. Not only is it just a matter of second-guessing
Moses' political leadership of the community, they are now demanding equal access to God. And so this chapter weaves together two kinds of conflict, one political and one religious.
The challengers come from two tribes, Reuben and Levi. As Reuben was the eldest son of Jacob, he had some claim to primacy - if leadership was to be inherited, father to son, as was customary in those days and times. So Dathan and Abiram’s primary grievance is purely about who’s going to call the shots for the tribes. Recent polls show that the majority feel that the people are going in the wrong direction, that Moses’ leadership has brought them to the brink of ruin.
"Is it too little that you have brought us up out of a land flowing with milk and honey to kill us in the wilderness, that you must also lord it over us? It is clear you have not brought us into a land flowing with milk and honey, or given us an inheritance of fields and vineyards." [16:13-14a]
Lee did not read this portion of the text for you. And the reason she did not is because this political conflict is secondary. And yet almost every source I looked at focused on the political rebellion rather than the religious one. One reason, of course, is that it’s much easier to find a contemporary application for this kind of conflict, and pastors from one side of the country to another use this text to rebuke congregations for grumbling about their leadership. But aside from the fact that I don’t have quite the clout that Moses did - disagreement with me does not equal disagreement with God - I also don’t think it’s the main point of the