Rev. Joel L. Tolbert
Give Us Leaders
Sermon Series "How God Moves Us" week 4 of 4
Four weeks Fall series from the book of Exodus
Preached September 27, 2020 for the 9:30am Worship
Today we finish our worship series from Exodus: How God moves us. We’ve been remembering the story of God moving the people of God from slavery through the waters into the wilderness toward the promised community.
Three weeks ago, we heard how God creates moments of urgency. Despite Egypt’s resistance and Israel’s fear, God made it so urgent that staying still or leaving things as they’d been was no longer an option.
Two weeks ago, we heard how God clears a path. There was great pressure from behind to go back and great fear of moving ahead. Still, God blocked and protected them from going back, and parted the waters to give them a way forward.
Last week, just a little bit into the wilderness, we heard how God provides enough. The people were complaining against God and Moses for moving them out of slavery and were beginning to fear they wouldn’t make it. God didn’t appreciate their complaining but did listen and provide enough to keep going. Some wanted more than God provided, and some wanted extra for themselves, but God provided just enough for everyone as a way of teaching them to share and to be satisfied with enough.
How does God move us? God creates moments of urgency making us move, then clears a path for us to move along, and provides enough for us as we move. This week, we learn the fourth and final lesson of How God Moves Us.
Let’s pray and listen for the word of the Lord…
Scripture Exodus 18:13-27
13 The next day Moses sat as judge for the people, while the people stood around him from morning until evening. 14 When Moses’ father-in-law saw all that he was doing for the people, he said, “What is this that you are doing for the people? Why do you sit alone, while all the people stand around you from morning until evening?”
15 Moses said to his father-in-law, “Because the people keep coming to me to inquire of God. 16 When they have a disagreement, they come to me and I (have to) decide between one person and another, and I explain to them the statutes and instructions of God.”
17 Moses’ father-in-law said to him, “What you are doing is not good. 18 You will surely wear yourself out, both you and these people with you. For the task is too heavy for you; you cannot do it alone. 19 Now listen to me. I will give you counsel, and God be with you! You should represent the people before God, and you should bring their cases before God; 20 (you should) teach them the statutes and instructions and make known to them the way they are to go and the things they are to do. 21 You should also look for able ones among all the people, ones who fear God, are trustworthy, who hate dishonest gain; set such ones over them as officers, (some) over thousands, or hundreds, or fifties, or even tens. 22 Let them sit as judges for the people at all times; let them bring every important case (up the chain even) to you, but decide every minor case themselves. So it will be easier for you, and they will bear the burden with you. 23 If you do this, and God so commands you (to), then you will be able to endure, and all these people will go back to their homes in peace.”
24 So Moses listened to his father-in-law and did all that he had said. 25 Moses chose able ones from all Israel and sat them as rulers over the people, as elders over thousands, hundreds, fifties, and tens. 26 And they judged the people at all times; harder cases they brought to Moses, but any lesser cases they decided themselves. 27 Then Moses let his father-in-law depart, and he went off to his own country.
(This is the word of the Lord… Thanks be to God!)
When God is moving people from where they used to be to somewhere new, from how they used to do things to some new ways, it’s never easy. To be moved is to be changed, its different, and as human beings, different for some reason is hard. God loves God’s people and wants them to move for their own good, but that doesn’t make moving, changing any easier for the people being moved and changed, even if they try to love and trust God.
For the people of God in today’s scripture, they might have been stuck in slavery had God not created that moment of motion and urgency where something different was possible for the first time in a long time, where they had to get up and go forward into the unknown.
They might have lost their nerve just a few steps into the new way at the water’s edge had God not put a pillar of fire behind them and parted the waters in front of them. God cleared a path and gave them only one uncomfortable choice, to move forward.
Even safely separated from Egypt, the people might have given up moving forward and gone back to the fleshpots and stale bread of Pharaoh had God not provided manna with the morning, quail in the evening, and water from a rock.
This God works so hard to move God’s precious people where God knows we need to go. Do you feel God moving us lately?
In your own life, in your family, in your career, school, or retirement time, does it feel like the things you used to do, the ways you used to them are changing and you’re being pushed into moments and movement, into change?
In our church, does it feel like things are being moved? Over the last few years, change has come upon this church. Everyone is getting a bit older. Toddlers are in school, kind of. Youth are at college, kind of. Retirees are moving to retirement homes. We’ve had changes of pastors and staff. Now, we have changes from the pandemic. Is it feeling like going back to the ways things used to be is blocked and the path forward feels different than we thought it would?
In our country, do we hear the complaints of some who would rather go back, back to how it was in the 2000s, or 1980s, or 1950s? Do you hear voices worrying we might not have enough to make it through these times, not enough income, not enough wisdom, not enough patience, understanding, or compassion, not enough leadership, compromise, or character?
It seems to me God is doing something, moving us. It feels to me like this church, this community, this country, and even this world are being moved to make decisions and walk a new path. We are grieving the loss of how things used to be, complaining about how things are, and worrying about how things might become. I am sensing folks are quick to complain or insult, quick to cancel or write off, quick to attack or defend, and it seems to me like this season of wilderness is magnifying our disputes and disagreements.
Let’s notice in today’s scripture when God’s people are moved and we find ourselves in the wilderness where the old ways are gone and new ways are undefined and uncomfortable, the people of God dispute and disagree with one another about what to do or how to do things now. Let me say that again, in the wilderness of change as God moves us from where we were to where God is wanting us to be, there is confusion and chaos along the way, and we will be in disagreement and dispute with one another.
Moses’ father-in-law Jethro has some wisdom about that. He isn’t upset with the people being moved for having disagreements and disputes. They are in the wilderness of change. Dispute and disagreement mid-move, mid-change are normal. People who have been moved by God from where they were toward where God wants them to be will disagree and dispute what we should do and how we should do it, and we will need guidance and wisdom and leadership through God’s moving of us. That’s normal, and Moses’ father in law doesn’t expect Moses or anyone to rid the people of all their disagreements or disputes.
Moses’ father in law is upset with Moses for trying to settle all the disagreements and disputes by himself. The people are tweeting and emailing and texting Moses with their disagreements and disputes about what we should or should not be doing, how we should or should not be doing it. Moses is sitting in his chair from sun up to sun down and making judgments, judgment calls, on what to do and how to do it, as if he has the right answer for every problem, and as if eventually the people will run out of problems if he just answers them all.
Jethro knows better. People in the midst of being moved and changed will disagree and dispute, and will not run out of disagreements or disputes. Jethro doesn’t want to stop that. He wants to stop Moses from burning out. Moses has been training the people to ask him everything. Later, when their leader burns out, quits, retires the people will be in trouble, with no habit of resolving disagreements or disputes with one another without their leader in the middle of it all.
Jethro’s advice is to gather others from the people whom the people respect and consider wise, who are honest and not interested in personal gain or profit but servants of good character, and give them the responsibility to discern and measure the peoples’ faithfulness to God. Let them make many of the judgment calls. Build a structure of responsibility and accountability so that most things are handled by those elected leaders in smaller groups, some things are handled by them in larger groups and have Moses always ready to help them discern and decide the tougher, more nuanced issues of the community.
Moses and the people abide by Jethro’s advice. They lift up leaders and give them responsibility for certain people and certain tasks of the community. Because of this beautiful shared structure, it takes a while, a generation or two, but the people make it to the Promised Land.
When God moves us, we will be pushed to moments of urgency, of decision and action. We will be blocked from going back to how things were, and we will find an uncomfortable but safe path forward. We will worry and maybe complain about not having enough, but God will provide enough for everyone, everything we really need, but maybe not everything we want.
And, we will find ourselves disagreeing and disputing with one another what we should do and how we should do it. But God provides leaders from among the people who honor and respect God’s ways, who are trustworthy, who hate dishonest gain. They will help God’s people discern faithful ways to become more and more like God’s kingdom on earth as it is in heaven.
In this church, community, and country, may those leaders rise up. May they help us settle our disputes fairly, justly, so we can all go to our homes in peace.
To God be all glory and honor, now and forever. Amen.
Now, Blessing, laughter, and loving be yours, and may the love of a great God, who names you and holds you as the earth turns and the flowers grow be with you, this day, this night, this moment and forevermore.
Rev. Joel L. Tolbert
Pastor, Presbyterian Church of Chestertown