Sunday, February 25, 2024
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“Clearly, Not in Riddles”
By Rev. Dr. Jason Byassee
Sunday, February 25, 2024
Reading: Numbers 12:1-15

After church last Sunday a group of us went to lunch. And like you do when you’re with church people we had some suggestions for improvements. At one point someone made a motion. Someone seconded. And we passed all our suggestions into church law. . . And we all laughed. Of course we can’t do that. We don’t have the authority. Whatever organization we’re part of, we complain about structure, regulations, minutes, Roberts’ Rules and all that. But they’re all there to keep one group from forcibly taking over at the expense of the others.

In our story for today, one group rises up against the others in Israel and tries to seize the wheel of the ship. And this uprising is no fringe rebellion. This is close to the heart. Miriam, Moses’ sister. She’s the one who watched the basket her baby brother Moses was in float down the Nile, who bravely proposed to Pharaoh’s daughter to get a nursemaid from the Israelites and brought their mom so Pharaoh’s undoing would be nursed in his own house, on his payroll.

Miriam also celebrated the Israelites’ deliverance at the Red Sea with tambourine and dance: “Sing to the Lord, he has triumphed gloriously, horse and rider he cast into the sea.” Historians think that might be the oldest verse in the Old Testament. Miriam the seer, the celebrator and song leader, Moses’ big sister. And Aaron, Moses’ big brother. When Moses objected to God sending him to Pharaoh, he said he didn’t speak well. Me no talk good. God said, okay, take Aaron, your brother, he talk good, he’ll be your mouthpiece. Aaron becomes the first priest in Israel, his sons will tend the altar on behalf of the people. The stained glass behind me has Jesus dressed in Aaron’s breastplate. One gemstone for each of the twelve tribes. A priest wears Israel on his heart in God’s presence.

Miriam and Aaron are giants in Israel. There could be no more important leaders, except for Moses himself. In the book of Micah, God recounts his goodness to Israel: “I brought you up from the land of Egypt and redeemed you from the house of slavery; and I sent before you Moses, Aaron, and Miriam.” A family of liberators. . . And two rise up against the one, the elders against the youngest.

We’re in a series on sibling rivalry at our church. If you’ve ever struggled with a sibling, and I know you have, you’ve told me, these stories are for you. Everything human is in the Bible: all our violence, our depravity, our lostness and brokenness, all here.[1] You know what else is there? God’s repair. Healing. Restoration. Where we don’t deserve it. Moses must have looked at Aaron, his big brother, Miriam, his big sister, the way Jesus looks at Judas. My beloved, my best ones, betraying me. This Bible is an honest book. There is no pretense that leaders are pure, or that anyone is. Aaron had already led a rebellion in Israel before, making a golden calf to worship instead of God. In that story Aaron takes no responsibility, ‘hey, I just took people’s gold, threw it in the fire, and out jumped this calf!’ Miriam wants to seize her brother’s glory. Moses himself has an anger problem, attacking when he shouldn’t. One scholar says this: That the sins as well as the accomplishments of these important leaders within Israel are so candidly treated is a hallmark of scripture; there are no illusions about the perfection of Israel’s leaders.

These stories show why organizations have annoying rules: none of us can be trusted with unilateral power.

I’ve spent some time in academia, like some of you, so many of my stories come from there. Those of you in other fields will have to imagine the equivalent. In academia we say the feuds are so bitter because the stakes . . . are so small. In elite academia I’ve noticed many people resent their institutions. They look like they’ve made it. But they fume. You have to be really accomplished to get there, usually the smartest one in the room your whole life. But once you’re there, everyone’s used to being the smartest in the room, so everyone fulminates. How come I’m not the smartest anymore? Everyone here is smart and accomplished – take a number. Parker Palmer says he flirted for years with wanting to be a university president. But he realized he didn’t really want that job. He just wanted to be recognized for getting the job. To see the press release, to have old friends congratulate him or else fume in jealousy. The real job: being a dressed-up beggar, putting out PR fires, dealing with the squabbling faculty and entitled students, nah. The news clipping to his mother, that’s what he wanted. It takes a certain strength of ego to recognize that. Most of us just grouse that the clowns in charge don’t know what they’re doing.

Miriam and Aaron do more than grouse, they make their move for power. And you know what they say: if you strike for the king, you better kill him. They attack Moses at what they take to be a point of weakness: he has a Cushite wife. It’s not 100 percent clear what this means, but here’s a try. Cush is a region in Africa. Moses, they charge, has married outside Israel. And he has married a darker-skinned woman. Now careful here: modern scientific racism doesn’t exist yet, ancient Israelites don’t have scientists teaching about genetics, claiming to prove one race is superior to another. And all the characters in this story are likely darker than we imagine. But every culture has prejudices, many superficial. But that’s the charge: ‘Moses what’s up with the black wife?’ Notice God doesn’t critique this. But God’s rebellious people do.

Here in February, black history month, this story is frighteningly on point. Our moral disease in the Atlantic world for the last 500+ years, has been to evaluate lighter skin as morally superior to darker and then arrange whole economies and moral orders around that lie. A buddy of mine grew up in an immigrant family from India here in the GTA and he would look for ways to lighten his skin. Painful ways to be less himself, look less like his parents. That’s in the 2000s y’all, and it’s not unusual. When I’ve traveled in Africa folks have said things like “your black people in America are criminals.” Uh, no, why would you say that? Because of your movies. Yikes, God forgive us North Americans for exporting our racism. A month like this is a good thing to say that black is beautiful, mocha is miraculous, brown is luminous. And we see some resources for that here in our story this morning.

God says to all three siblings, you, three, with me, now. God puts on the mom voice. The three siblings gather to take their medicine. And God explains that Moses is indeed closer to him than any other. To most, God speaks in riddles. To Moses, God speaks clearly, face to face. The Hebrew is literally God speaks to Moses “mouth to mouth.” Awkwardly intimate. Miriam and Aaron: y’all are great. You’re number two and three. Don’t forget it. And so they won’t forget it, Miriam is suddenly leprous. Her skin is diseased, white with deformity. She is unclean. Aaron worries she looks like a baby stillborn, flesh half rotted. She’ll have to leave the camp.  

Now some terms. Unclean. Most cultures have notions of ritual cleanliness. It doesn’t mean good and bad. To be unclean is like having a cold for us. Don’t shake hands with someone, you just pass on the germs. After COVID we all have a deeper notion of clean and unclean. Just think how you feel if someone is coughing away in an enclosed space. To be unclean is no moral flaw, it’s a ritual category. But there is poetic justice in Miriam’s punishment. You’re complaining about the darker skinned wife? You feel superior and lighter skinned? Okay, here’s ghastly white skin. Leprosy. You’ll disintegrate. Do you remember Saruman, the villain in the Lord of the Rings movies? He’s played by Christopher Lee, the original Dracula. Someone said of Lee that he was in every bad British monster movie for 75 years. He’s Saruman the white. A powerful image of white meaning disorder, death. Miriam gets karma, poetic justice, what she asked for: you want white? You got it.

Here’s a problem. Why is Miriam punished and Aaron is not? She is struck with disease, and even when restored has to spend seven days outside the camp. Aaron gets off scot-free, no punishment at all. God explains that a parent can spit in a child’s face as a sign of disowning them, another troubling image. The Bible shows human brokenness, not just God’s repair. This is why you can’t just quote the Bible and say, ‘go do this.’ No, often the Bible shows us moral horror and expects us to be horrified. Like here. Hey, not fair, Miriam gets blasted, and Aaron gets nothing? Sexism, racism, again it’s like the Bible is reading our headlines.

Aaron is horrified. Moses, make it stop! Calls him “my lord.” Aaron immediately recognizes there is someone with more influence than him or Miriam, namely Moses, the one they were rising up against. When things get serious, Aaron defers to his baby brother; begs for help from the only one who can give it: Moses, God’s mouth-to-mouth friend. The rebellion is off. In an emergency, you realize why you need authority in the first place: no time to argue when the ship is going down. This is moral improvement for Aaron. At the Golden Calf, Aaron took no blame. Just like Adam and Eve in their fall who blame everyone else: no, God it’s not my fault, the woman, who you made, God, she tempted me. No, God, it’s not my fault, the snake you made God tempted me. Aaron: it’s not my fault, these people, and the fire, it all just sort of happened. But today, Aaron begs forgiveness. He’s grown up, matured, morally.

This may be why Aaron is not punished. It’s not that he’s male and Miriam is not. It’s that he repents, and she does not. There are other explanations, there are always multiple interpretations. Aaron is also Israel’s priest. If he’s unclean, who is going to pray in the tabernacle for the rest of us? No priest and we’re all without a prayer. But I prefer the repentance explanation. Some in our tradition say if Adam and Eve had repented immediately, we would all still be in the garden.

There is a famous medieval painting of Jesus at his crucifixion. It’s called the Isenheim Altarpiece, by Matthias Grunewald. Jesus is in real agony, which is a little rare in art. He has a skin disease called St. Anthony’s fire in the Middle Ages. Today it’s called ergotism, cleared up quickly with antibiotics, back then you could die. This painting was in a hospital for patients suffering from this ailment. Jesus bears our diseases. His skin is ghastly like Miriam’s. He is a high priest unfit to serve, for he takes on our diseases to give us healing.

There is a strange superstition among those in leadership that if you apologize, you look weak, and you lose authority. That’s exactly backwards. Real strength is in admitting wrong, begging forgiveness, becoming new people. Miriam, Israel’s songsmith and prophetess, is so important that the whole camp waits until her seven days are over before they move on together. ‘We can’t leave without her; she makes us us.’ And Moses, who had once been saved by his big sister, returns the favour and asks for her salvation. Aaron worried Miriam would be like one stillborn. But now Miriam waits to be born all over again.[2] So Aaron begs: Oh my God. Do not punish us for a sin that we have so foolishly committed.

Aaron’s progress comes via humility. He’s learned how to repent. That’s how you really lead.

In 1970 the chancellor of West Germany visited the site of the Warsaw uprising in World War II. The Jewish people forced into the ghetto in the Polish capitol rose up against their Nazi captors. They said they would choose how they would die, and they held out against the Nazis for weeks. In 1970 Chancellor Willy Brandt visited the site to lay a wreath and in an unplanned gesture, Chancellor Brandt knelt. He knew how to repent. Now the Nazi atrocities were not his doing personally—Brandt had been in the resistance during the war. But as the holder of Adolf Hitler’s old office, he had something to repent for, on behalf of his people. Back in Germany one in two polled said this was too much. This groveling. Surely others are at fault too, not just us. But for us Christians, this is real leadership. Real strength. On the knees.

And Moses all during this rebellion is unperturbed. There are other stories where Moses lashes out. Not this one. “Now the man Moses was very humble, more so than anyone else on the face of the earth” (12:3). Tradition says Moses wrote the first five books of scripture. But you’ve got to grant, yeah, Moses probably didn’t write that line. You can’t brag about how humble you are (sort of disproves the point). But Moses shows his humility when he doesn’t defend himself from his siblings’ attack. He prays for his sister’s restoration, crying out for her. He shows real strength of character in not fighting back or raising his voice. Another glance at real leadership: it’s not defensive. Someone wise said if you ever get your dream job, on day one, write your resignation letter and seal it away. It’ll remind you this will come to an end too. And the organization may need to move on one day. That’s okay. Hold honours lightly. Sarah Coakley, one of the greatest theologians alive, has dozens of honorary degrees from universities all over the world. You know where she keeps them? In her guest washroom. You know, in case someone runs out of toilet paper. Honours are trash. Hold plaudits lightly. No one is as good as we think we are on our giddiest days. Or as bad as we fear we are on our worst ones.

Okay, there’s the story, all the pieces laid out on the board, time to start the sermon. Nah, we’re almost out of time. But we have to treat this: God speaks clearly to Moses. To most, God speaks in riddles, dreams. But to Moses, God speaks without obfuscation. This is interesting. Remember Jesus learns everything he knows bouncing on Mary’s knee. She teaches him the stories and songs and sighs of Israel. And what does Jesus do when he teaches? Uses parables keeps us guessing. Paul is clearer what faith means for identity. Liberals in our culture tend to say not to see difference, we’re all the same—that’s 80 percent or so of Canadians. Trumpy types play footsie with racism and sexism and try to benefit from stirring resentment. The gospel does something more interesting.

On gender: two of Jesus’ closest friends are Mary and Martha, and these women never abandon him, it’s us boys who grasp for greatness and flee when we realize he only has crosses to give out. On religion: our faith is a Jewish renewal movement that fails to renew many Jews and accidentally renews gentiles–outsiders. That’s awkward. On race: whoever we are, Asian, European, indigenous, black, brown, white, we all have to repent out of our identities and into Jesus’. We become one body of Christ. And that might be hard. We men become a female bride of Christ. Women become a male body. All of us gentiles become in him a Jewish body. Following Jesus changes our most fundamental identity, challenges our deepest held understandings of what it means to be human.

On those ghastly government forms where you’re supposed to check what gender or race or ethnicity or religion you are, I’m always tempted to answer the opposite. Not gentile, Jewish. Not European, middle eastern. Not male, not female, sort of something else altogether, I don’t know. Can I just write in a box that says Jesus of Nazareth? Middle eastern Jewish failed messiah who seems male but never had a girl, so we don’t really know? Always fraternizing with the wrong people. All the boxes, all other identities, disintegrate when we repent on our knees.

And our siblings. Our poor siblings. They make us us, and then unmake us. Good luck spending a minute in therapy without your siblings coming up. ‘He hit me on the head with a train when I was three.’ Dude, you’re 75. Still there. Well. The church is a new set of siblings. New sisters and brothers. Different races, religions, genders, the new humanity in Jesus Christ makes us all one. Now be careful: we’ll hurt you in here too! Everything human is in church, like it is in the bible. And Christ is working here, to heal all our hurts with resurrection, to restore all our leadership, all our siblings, with mercy. Lord, bring that day soon. Amen.



[1] I’m borrowing this language from Blair Odney on social media.

[2] This stunning image is from Dennis Olson’s Numbers commentary.