By Rev. Dr. Molly Scherm. (View the sermon and worship here).
As we continue our journeys through the narratives of scripture, this week our readings present us with a fascinating pair of “call stories” – incidents in which God’s children are suffering and in need, and God summons leaders to assist with the work of deliverance.
Moses and Peter are, of course, at-least-eventually heroic leaders who play critical roles in the stories of the faith community: their experiences can perhaps speak to us who are called to be leaders in responding to the suffering of God’s children and God’s world today.
Moses’ story is more obviously one of call to leadership. The children of Israel are suffering oppression under the rule of a king who sees them as a threat. Conscripted into forced labor, their conditions are more and more harsh, as we heard in last week’s passage from Exodus.
Moses is hardly a likely candidate for leadership in Israel’s deliverance. Raised apart from his own people and forced into exile after committing a criminal act, in today’s passage we find him occupied with tending his father-in-law’s flocks as he stumbles into an encounter with the voice of the God of his ancestors, that voice summoning him to return to Egypt to confront Pharaoh with demand for the release of the children of Israel.
Many generations later, in the larger context of today’s gospel reading, Israel is still suffering hardship, now under the rule of Rome. Beset by oppressive social and economic conditions, the community again longs for deliverance.
Peter’s very uncomfortable exchange with Jesus in today’s gospel isn’t so obviously a call story. It is, though, as the continuation of the conversation begun in last week’s reading, in which Peter recognizes Jesus as “the Messiah, the Son of the living God”, and Jesus names Peter as “the rock” on which “I will build my church.”
So here is what Moses and Peter have in common: they are both hearing something that they don’t want to hear, and they both respond with denial.
Moses doesn’t care for the summons to leadership at all, and who can blame him, with an assignment like the one he’s given?
Rather than objecting outright, Moses responds to the voice from the burning bush with a series of objections, questions, and obstacles. We hear the first two in this passage, and the others follow:
I can identify with Moses’ feelings of inadequacy: I’m sure we all feel them sometimes. I’ll never forget the terror with which I faced – but also avoided whenever I could – my first “field education” placement in seminary, in the chaplaincy at Mount Auburn Hospital in Cambridge. I was 23 years old and didn’t have a single clue what to say to people who were sick, or to their worried families. I simply didn’t see myself as having anything to offer.
For Moses, and for many of us facing calls to leadership, the task just feels too hard. Realistic about the difficulties that would be entailed, the opposition and the suffering, Moses didn’t, and we don’t, feel up to the job. How much easier to stick to his ordered (if uninspiring) life as a keeper of sheep, rather than sticking his neck out in what was sure to be a no-win situation.
Peter’s difficulty with the call to leadership is basically the opposite – he apparently doesn’t object to taking the assignment, but he doesn’t like the job description. Peter is not interested in hearing that the one he recognizes as the Messiah, the one whose followers Peter has been called to lead, is prepared to undergo suffering at the hands of his detractors and be killed, before being raised. Peter, apparently, has a different script in mind.
If Moses’ weakness as a leader is his lack of faith in himself, Peter’s is his excessive confidence in his own vision: he has assumptions about how the long-awaited Messiah will redeem the community, and he is not open to having those assumptions challenged, even by the one he claims as Messiah. This is such an easy hole to fall into when we assume the responsibilities of leadership - losing sight of the bigger picture and rigidifying our own position, rather than valuing ideas that challenge us.
I can identify with Peter as I did with Moses. In the middle 1990s I was appointed to a leadership team of “School Deans” responsible for redesigning curriculum of the boarding school where I served. We developed what I still think was a wonderful, visionary, outcome-driven curriculum model, but the process was not inclusive of other faculty voices, and it wasn’t transparent enough. When we finally rolled out our new curriculum model, with great pride, it was met with intense resistance, and almost failed.
I don’t need to remind you of the ways in which God’s children are suffering today, and in need of leadership. Beyond the horrifyingly evident frequency of abusive relationships between law enforcement and black communities in the US, so many of us have had our eyes, our ears and hearts opened to the ways in which our siblings of color continue to suffer the impact discriminatory systems from which those of us who are white benefit.
We are watching what appears to be the accelerating pace of climate change and environmental destruction, as competition for economic gain and decision-making that serves short-sighted goals of human convenience exploit, poison and squander the riches of the planet on which we live.
And lest we miss it, let’s also note the pattern in which both persons and nature have been viewed as expendable, available to be used for the benefit of those who hold power.
In the Moses and Peter call stories, both are thinking and reacting based on experiences of the past – knowing the way things have always worked, fearful of failure, rejection, and death, both are frightened of risk.
For them, and certainly for us, God is pointing toward a new future that is different from anything they can imagine, and that is scarey.
The lessons in these and other “call stories” in biblical tradition offer us the same truths:
Moses and Peter both accomplished more than they could have dreamed in the initial moments we see in today’s texts. They both experienced loss, heartache, conflict along the way, but with God’s help, both served in God’s work of healing the world.
May we meet our own challenges with faith. May we be willing to step forward, to conquer our fears and open our vision. May we remember that we are never alone.
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