Numbers 6-8, Psalm 42, Mark 16
We are designed to offer something to others and to God
Numbers 6 – 8
There is nothing like an unsolicited gift! Chapter six begins with the elders of the tribes coming forward to make an offering to Moses for the tabernacle. The leaders must have communicated carefully because each essentially offers the same gift – a silver plate weighing 130 shekels, one silver basin weighing 70 shekels, a young bull, a golden dish weighing 10 shekels, five male goats, five male sheep and five male lambs. Each gives equally, and all give publicly.
That is something for us to ponder as Episcopalians. We pledge, and we speak about our pledge being between God and us. No one, except the church treasurer, the stewardship chairman and possibly the rector, are supposed to know what our pledge is. Many parishioners want to keep it this way. After all, if no one knows, we can give as little as we like. I have found as a rector that it helps to know what parishioners pledge. It’s a good read on where their heart is. Sometimes, it is shocking how little someone gives, who is so active in the church. Other times, it is surprisingly high.
I know a multi-millionaire from whom it is a struggle to extract a gift of $100 or $200. I used to feel angry at his miserliness. Did he not like the church or me? Over time, I learned from others that he is chintzy with every organization. Sadly, there are always folks like this. You have to feel sorry for them, because we were designed to experience God’s joy from being generous.
When Princess Diane died, thousands of Brits lined the M1 to toss a rose or a bouquet on her hearse as it passed. Others piled flowers in from of St. James’s Palace in London. Most humans have a built in need to make an offering. We were designed to be generous, but our generosity can become corrupted.
Most children have a generous instinct. Parents can nurture or squelch this gift within their children. Some parents teach their children a mentality of scarcity, and some grow up with clenched fists as a result and give very little to anything. Others teach their children the need to bless individuals and institutions and to return a fair portion to God of all that God has given to them.
When I lived in Kenya for a summer, I attended several harambees. A harambe is a public celebration where community members gather to give gifts to help build a new church or to put a roof on a church or a school that only has walls. One by one, people come forward and present their gifts. Some present a gift for their parish, family or community. Others give a personal gift. Some, who have little money, offer a basket of eggs or a huge cluster of bananas. It’s a wonderful sight to behold.
It is public and visible and people are proud to be able to give. Joy fills their heart. No gift should ever be received that is given by a stingy heart. It’s better to reject a gift, than to deepen the miserliness of a miser. In the Sioux nation, the most-esteemed men and women are those who give away, not amass, the most of their possessions. Americans fawn over the top 100 richest people in the United States. If we fawn over anyone, it ought to be the person who gives away the largest percentage of their wealth.
Chapter eight speaks to us about priestly matters and was most likely the handiwork of the Priestly writer, one of the four main contributors to the Pentateuch along with the Yahwist, Elohist and Deuteronomist. In Numbers 8:7, we are told that the priests were to have water sprinkled upon them, shave every body hair and wash their clothes to insure their purity.
Several years ago, I led a group from our parish to worship at a mosque and speak with their Inman as an effort to learn more about Islam and develop a bond with a local Islamic community. Before we worshipped, we purified ourselves by performing ablutions. We had to wash our hands and feet and splash waters three times behind our ears. The process was intended to cleanse our bodies and our senses and ready us for worship.
The priest, according to Numbers is “to make atonement for the Israelites.” (Numbers 8:19) He is to be pure. But “What is purity?” and “Who is pure?” The concept has changed greatly over the centuries. In parts of Africa, a woman is not considered pure during menstruation. Hence, she cannot be a priest.
In the United States, African Americans were deemed impure because of their dark skin. Hence, they could not serve as priests. Roman Catholics believe that celibacy is crucial for maintaining purity. A married priest cannot stand at the altar, represent God to the people and atone for the sins of others.
More recently, gays and lesbians were seen and still are by many as “impure,” because their lifestyle. Hence, they are unable to serve as priests or worship leaders and atone for the sins of the people. Oddly, many of the churches who maintain this belief have no problem with hiring a gay minister of music, or having gay members and gay couples in their church. Hmmm!
This is one of the most beautiful psalms of the Bible. Years ago, I memorized it, which is not hard to do. It reads like a beautiful poem. “As a deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God.” (Ps. 42:1) The King James Version reads, “As a deer longeth for the water brooks, so longeth my soul for thee.” Some things are more beautiful in older translations. Psalm 42 is one of them.
Psalm 42 is one of the recommended psalms for the Burial Office, because it brings great comfort. Though not chosen as often as the Twenty-Third Psalm, this psalm is worth turning to as we face challenging moments and times of trial. It is one of the ten finest psalms in the Psalter.
The Psalmist writes, “My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.” (Ps. 42:2) There exists a hunger within each of us that only God can fill. All is not cheery, however, in the author’s life. “My tears have been my food day and night,” he says (Ps. 42:3), adding, “Why are you so cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me?” (Ps. 42:5) Sometimes, this is exactly how we feel when we are dejected.
The author then offers one of the great lines of the Bible. It is a mere four words, which we could easily glance over. “Deep speaks to deep.” (Ps. 42:7) When a person has suffered and been broken, he or she no longer lives on the surface of life and responds more deeply to the pain of others. Ernest Hemingway wrote, “The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong in the broken places.”
Despite being broken, disquieted and feeling as though his soul is cast down, the author notes, “…at night [God’s] song is with me, a prayer to the God of my life.” (Ps. 42:8) He admonishes us to “Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my help and my God.” (Ps. 42:11) The Psalmist is aware that God will be with him throughout all his trials just as God has always been with him.
Mark’s Gospel has an abbreviated final chapter, which still packs a punch. On the first day the week, when an earth-shattering discovery was about to be made that caused the world to look at life in a completely new way, splitting time from B.C. to A.D. and moving the Sabbath from Saturday to Sunday, three women trekked forward in the darkness. Mary, the mother of our Lord, Mary, from whom Jesus drove out demons, and Salome made their way to anoint the body of their dead beloved one.
They worried about who would roll away the stone. Why is it that we always worry about the wrong things? We move to a new community and fear not finding a job as good as the one that we used to have only to land a great job, but struggle for years to make good friends. We worry that our spouse has a drinking problem only to learn that she is clinically depressed but her drinking is not an issue. We fear that our son is doing poorly in school, but remain unaware that he is being bullied everyday by schoolmates. We must be careful about what worries we allow to preoccupy us.
They, however, are filled with “terror and amazement.” It is a sure sign that they have encountered the living God. This is no fiction. This is also where Mark’s Gospel ends, according to the oldest versions that we possess. Someone along the way the Early Church decided that this was just too abrupt of an ending. So, 12 more verses were added. They are important and good.
They tell us that when the women shared the Good News, the disciples did not believe them. After all, this news was too incredible. After all, they were women. After all, a woman’s testimony was considered so unreliable in ancient Palestine that women were not allowed to testify in court. After all, the disciples were grieving. People who are mourning are doing hard, emotional work. They sometimes cannot hear and see what others are trying to communicate with them.
Then Jesus appeared and upbraided the disciples for their lack of faith and belief. Had he not prepared them all along for this moment? Why could they not believe the women’s testimony? Why could they not see the signs that he was showing them?
Then Jesus speaks words that travel down through the centuries as he commands them to “Go and tell.” Two thousand years later, we are commanded to do the same thing. Go and tell that Jesus rose from the dead. Go and tell that nothing can separate the living and the dead, if we accept Jesus into our lives. Go and tell that death has been conquered. Don’t whisper it. Scream it out! Shout for joy!
Then Mark tells us that we will “speak in new tongues,” “pick up snakes in [our] hands” and be able to “drink any deadly thing, and it will not hurt [us]” and lay [our] hands on the sick, and they will recover.” (Mark 16:18) I am writing this in Tennessee, where my wife and I are visiting our daughter at college. I used to live here. In some hollows of Tennessee, they believe all of this. There are snake handlers and people who drink snake venom as a test of their faith in Jesus. Oh boy! You do not have to do any of that. Some parts of the Old Testament cause us to shake our heads and wonder. There are also parts of the New Testament where we must wonder as well. This is one of them.
But the gift of tongues, which is called glossolalia in Greek, is a gift that has been given to some across the centuries. Likewise, some have been given the gift of healing. Whenever I pray with hospital patients, I thank God, the author of all healing, who works through each faithful physician and nurse and has inspired those who have produced remarkable medicines. God is involved in every healing.
As the conclusion, Jesus ascended to heaven, making him accessible to every person in every place at any time who seeks his strength, guidance, healing, wisdom and comfort. Empowered by this realization, the disciples “went out and proclaimed the Good News everywhere, while the Lord worked with them and confirmed the message by the signs that accompanied it.” (Mark 16:20)
As a deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God. (Ps. 42:1)
My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. (Ps. 42:2)
Deep speaks to deep. (Ps. 42:7)
And they went out and proclaimed the Good News everywhere, while the Lord worked with them and confirmed the message by the signs that accompanied it. (Mark 16:20)
What is purity for you? Who is pure? Who is impure? Must a person be pure to offer atonement for the sins of others? Is anyone without sin except Jesus? For what does your soul long? How do the depths of God speak to the depths of you? Is there any aspect of God’s presence in your life that terrifies you? What aspects of the Christian story do you not believe? Are you like the disciples who doubted what the women who visited the tomb had to share? Are you willing to go out into the world and proclaim Christ to others?
Gracious God, you call us your own and you nurture, heal, guide and inspire us in order that we might go forth and proclaim you to everyone. Help us not to rest in our safe harbors, but to venture forth and program the majesty of your love and grace to others. In Jesus’s name we pray. Amen.
© The Rev. Marek P. Zabriskie
Rector of St. Thomas Episcopal Church
Fort Washington, Pennsylvania