A sermon for Petertide 2020
I was ironing this morning, listening to an online broadcast of the Bible. I was letting the beautifully read words tumble round me, as a housework-doing lullaby, until my attention was caught. Now I quite like to hear (and better yet, read out myself) about some Old Testament smiting, but this story from Numbers 16 swiftly wound me up.
It’s thrown out my day!
For morning prayer soon become Morning Jaw Grind.
I’d forgotten this story of Moses and the Children of Israel. Wasn’t Korah right to question why all the leading of this nomadic tribe was done by one person, and his brother? According to the Jewish Midrash, which has extra details, there were many laws that Korah and others wondered about. Were all these procedures necessary?
And so what is usually spoken about as a rebellion occurs. Korah whips up considerable support.
And I felt myself wanting to join him. Had God really ordained only two nepotistic leaders out of this people?
Moses says that God says (mm) to gather before the Lord and he’ll show you. Only the right incense will burn. And then, to really prove it’s God, he’ll zap the offending parties by swallowing them into the ground.
This apparently is merciful: God at first wants to kill the whole tribe, sans Moses, who intervenes and says: will you destroy us all because of one person?
So God just isolates the trouble makers.
We’re supposed to gleefully glean: don’t disobey God then, and don’t question your leaders and the many rules you may have. What God ordains is how it should be.
The Midrash adds a bit about Aaron’s staff flourishing in the holy of holies, to extra prove the point.
I suspect that religious leaders love this story and would like their own staff (or mitres) to be put somewhere special for a miracle to occur. What a great support for theocracy! And for status quo.
But I felt really angry at this and once again wondered: who is this god of the Old Testament, and some of the new?! Why would I bother with him? He’s an unjust bully with none of the qualities that I’d expect in a real god.
Note that I don’t give that deity – if that he be – a capital letter, any more than I will the established church, which I recently publicly left.
I’ve got cross with this leading character in the Hebrew part of the Bible so often that I find it a hard book to read.
So I snapped to God whilst I pressed down on my clothes extra hard and swerved about with extra vigour, why did you do that?
And God said, That wasn’t me.
Phew, I thought so.
So who is this Yahweh of the Bible? I’ve long wondered if the two Hebrew names for God in the OT relate to two different deities, or sets of them. Elohim means Gods, plural, although I was always taught that of course there is but one God, triune and super powerful. But I’m wondering… Elohim is used when in English we see “God”. And then the other secret Jewish name is Yahweh or Jehovah, denoted by Lord in small capitals. Do these behave differently in the text? Are they the same God?
In my research, I am finding a picture that doesn’t fit with the monotheistic one.
The God of Israel sounds more tribal and local, just like everyone else’s god.
He sounds like the pantheons of gods in Xena: Warrior Princess – self serving, fickle and not entirely effective. And as I eat from bowls other than mainstream Christianity, I’m meeting various goddesses, sometimes with different names in different cultures. And the Christian/Jewish God has more in common with Zeus and Ares at times.
How would it be to follow a god who needed placating and who put many rules on you?
A god you couldn’t question or you’d publicly be executed?
Yet some believe we’re waking up to our own inner divinity and that we can do what gods can too, so there isn’t this unequal power balance out in the universe: serve me, or else.
I also believe that what Woo Woo people call Source or Spirit is the real God and the person whom Christians, Jews, and Muslims address. I think He/She picks up the phone to whomever dials.
But we have a holy book all about the shenanigans of someone else. In my second novel I say that we have to discern when God is speaking and when not. I hadn’t yet come up with the notion that there may be more than one god at work. I was aware that the human telling of God’s escapades is to self suit: so these sort of tales – and the Bible has many – appeal to autocratic governance, from justifying why Aaron was such a jobhog to 17th Century English Bibles, allegedly authorised by the king, who was established as head of the church as well as the state.
As we come to Petertide, when most ordinations take place, I am aware of two lessons from this dreadful story of Korah.
One is that many see humans as ascending, via this virus and proceeding problems. I’d like ‘don’t rise up and question authority’ leadership to be outmoded. We speak of living in democracy, but what we really have is a sham elected oligarchy, plutocracy and… I fear the attempts at technocracy. Korah was asking for a more people-led society where we all can participate. Not one where shows of strength silence dissent and that we claim we’re acting on the orders of someone or something intangible and unquestionable, and also dodging blame from us to either god or the tyranny of community (my phrase).
Petertide reminds me of the timing of my leaving the established church. I chose an ordination as my swansong service. The message I applied to my bosom, like Cleopatra’s asp, was The Priesthood of All Believers. This is what Korah seems to believe in too. Not just two out of a whole tribe who get to do all the talking to God and disseminate to the group, no questions allowed. So whereas this isn’t an attack on individuals and certainly not those I call friends, I do reject the notion of priesthood. And that also means ordination as priestess, for I do not believe that the hands of another – or their pronouncements or bits of paper – give me and not you permission to serve God in an especial way and to need a licence from someone in authority to speak or read publicly or wave my hands or pick up bread and wine. (I do believe in training for ministry, just not the bit of paper and the passing of authority.) I don’t believe in licenses, for anything.
I also recognise a bit of Aaron and Moses’s side. They were called, so the Bible says, and they had their share of suffering and courage to go from bulrushes to court of Pharaoh to burning bush and plagues and now live in the desert with all these challenges.
I’m thinking of my own long cherished vision to set up a new church and movement – not a chain, as I don’t do those – and that having the original idea, I hope from God, makes the baby feel all the more that it’s mine. I can see why Moses would resent someone coming to him, and with others behind him, and saying: We want in. We question what you’re doing.
I hope I would be willing to listen, especially to the questioning of the fiddly procedures. My group will be the opposite – I will resist as many procedures and rules as I can. I hope I would be willing for wide participation – that is an important precept of Between The Stools.
However, sharing the chair and being pushed off my perch are quite different. If you join a group, you accept its flavours and its leaders. You can influence, you can speak out, you can show your willingness to have a go. But the director – in this case, me – remains. I’ll not expect a flowering staff or swallowing ground to support me, and – unlike this God in Numbers – I’ll not ever do harm or judgement. (I don’t mean that leaders remain if they do harm… I think there is a time to stand down when a leader has behaved badly, but that’s not what we’re discussing here).
A mature leadership in that story would have tried to avoid the bubbling that led to the rebellion anyway, and those who wished to rebel would have shown earlier warning signs. They should have had a discussion – not been told that the Lord, their highest authority, wanted to see them for a sign of judgement, without appeal or even trial.
Who this God is will be a topic for further discussion, but this is not the God of All. Swift to Smite is not a god worth worshipping, or a very developed deity. Perhaps, when so many of us are still tempted to do likewise, it’s good that we don’t yet know our own power.
You can listen to me preach this (replete with smiting sounds) at
I’ll be looking at Peter and who I think ought to be the real founder of the church on July 22nd.
Next week will be a kick arse sermon on sovereignty for independence day – yours and mine