The Power of Receiving
The Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Revised Common Lectionary, Year B, Proper 21)
September 30, 2012
Marcella Rose Gillis, St. Mark's Director of Youth and Family Ministries
I’m often shocked by the amount of whining I see in scripture. Open any page and there’s someone complaining, finger-pointing, shaking their fists at God or at eachother. It’s full of Why me? and It’s not fair! While researching for my sermon this week, I actually found an online trivia quiz entitled “Whining and Complaining in the Bible.” The first question in the quiz references today’s text from Numbers:
No sooner had Moses led them out of the desert than the Hebrews began kvetching. They whined that at least in Egypt they had food to eat. What foods did they specifically remember eating? Was it milk and honey, quail and manna, or fish and cucumbers?
Internet Bible trivia aside, I’m much more struck by the complaining coming from Moses in today’s scripture than from the Israelites. He goes straight to God and turns on the waterworks. “Why have you treated your servant so badly?” he cries. “If this is how you’re going to treat me, I’d rather just die.” My gut reaction is of disgust; it’s embarassing and undignified. You are Moses! Do your job! His meltdown is pathetic, and it makes me want to look away.
Then, as I read it a couple more times, I start to think about how often I find myself in this exact situation. Having this exact same meltdown. I hit that point every couple of weeks, where the burdens of adulthood, of living in a city, of trying to have a job and a life at the same time just become unbearable. I end up in a puddle of self pity and perceieved unfairness, yelling at God, “Why did you give me all of this?” And I’m not even traveling through the desert with a group of hungry and scared refugees. I’m just trying to make sure we have enough water balloons for the Parish Picnic.
As I view this story through the lens of my own life, I begin to see something beautiful and raw and transcendent emerge. Moses in defeat. Moses asking for help. Moses saying, “I am not able to carry all these people alone, for they are too heavy for me.” That sentence is so powerful it almost burns through the page. He’s saying directly to God, “I can’t do it.”
Thismoment transforms from a shameful rock-bottom tantrum into something very profound and sacred. It illustrates the beauty and grace that are present in the act of asking for and receiving help. This is about giving up, letting go, and becoming vulnerable. This vulnerability becomes the space that allows God to enter the story. And once help arrives and the Holy Spirit is spread around to others in the camp, Moses isn’t possessive or jealous; he’s gracious and generous. “Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets!”
We see Jesus demonstrating a similar attitude in the reading from Mark. The disciples come to him complaining that someone else outside of their group is doing works in Jesus’ name. And Jesus says, “Do not stop him” and “Whoever is not against us is for us.” We see both Moses and Jesus in powerful leadership positions and both demonstrating a willingness to accept help in whatever form it comes in.
Vulnerabiliy, sharing power, asking for help: these are not American values. And they are certainly not Washingtonian values. We are a culture of winners, of overachievers and of perfectionists. We’re told to “suck it up,” “stop whining,” “failure is not an option.” Vulnerability is synonymous with weakness. So the concept of asking for and receiving help for many of us is a subversive act.
Not only subversive, but also very scary. Getting help means giving up control, and I know that I am not alone when I admit that I hate that. Even if I can feel myself heading towards a Moses-style meltdown, I still insist that its “easier,” more dignified, more adult, to just do it by myself.
You don’t have to be a biblical scholar to understand that success and perfection are not Christian values. Jesus is always pushing us to do what’s uncomfortable; pushing us into community with one another. The lesson that emerges from today’s scripture is about trust and faith in one another. Salvation through one another. It’s not “let go and let God,” it’s “let go and let eachother.” And to me, it’s clear that those two statements are not mutually exclusive.
The concept of “letting go” and of failing gracefully hit me pretty hard about a year in to my Peace Corps service (which by the way, will serve as sermon fodder for the rest of my life). I was having a very difficult time finding my place in my village in Nicaragua. My job was unfulfilling, I was depressed and lonely and didn’t know what I was doing there. I remember melting down on the phone with my mom and her saying to me, “You joined the Peace Corps because you love to help others; because that makes you feel good. Why would you deny another person the opportunity to help you?”
That hit me like a ton of bricks. I had such tunnel vision about what it meant to serve and to give that I had never even considered what a powerful thing it was to receive. I got off the phone with my mom, walked over to my neighbor’s house, burst into tears and said, “I’m scared and homesick and lonely and hungry, please help me.” Less than a minute later, I was wrapped up in a rocking chair with a baby in my lap and a plate full of beans and rice. It wasn’t until that moment, when I freaked out, gave up and asked for help, that the core of my “service” in Nicaragua came to life.
I experienced this same thing during our teen service trip to New Orleans this summer. It was hectic and hot and messy and a bit disorganized, but it was the same bottom line: our experience was defined just as much by what we received as what we gave. It wasn’t about how many bags of cement we carried or how many classroom hours we logged at summer school. It was about sharing stories, experiences, meals and worshipping with the people we met and worked with. It was about the little kid you played patty-cake with on the bus. It was about getting a glimpse into a life very different from our own. And most importantly, it was about those meltdown-moments that happened for each of us, where it became “too heavy,” and how we moved through those moments together.
This is the same lesson we learn from Moses and Jesus: to entrust ourselves not only to God, but also to one another. It’s about breaking down and opening up, about accepting help, even if it comes in a way that is unexpected or uncomfortable. It’s about the power of receiving. What these texts show us is that these moments are an essential part of living in Chrisitian community one another, and to quote researcher BrenéBrown, “connection is why we’re here.”