Leadership Lessons

Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Deuteronomy 34:1-12

Let’s give credit where credit is due. I had never read the stories about Moses in light of what it means to be a leader of God’s people until I heard Lillian Daniel preach at an Ekklesia Project Gathering many years back. As a good seminarian I had only thought of Exodus as a witness to God’s preferential option for the poor or as a testimony to the fact that the people of God have always been whiny. Lillian delightfully re-narrated one of the Moses stories and suggested that if he were to be an effective leader he might need to take a course in anger management.

I suppose her humorous take on this “prophet like no other” stuck with me, germinating in the dark recesses of my mind, because as I’ve been preaching the Old Testament lections these past many months, I can’t help but read Exodus as a commentary on pastoral leadership. (The United Methodists lections deviate somewhat from the Revised Common Lectionary for the Sundays after Pentecost in Year A.) Maybe a pastor can’t begin to read Exodus in light of pastoral leadership until she’s been around the block a few times with the people of God.

I believe that the depiction of Moses’ death in the last chapter of Deuteronomy offers an opportunity to properly eulogize this reluctant leader.

To begin with, Moses doesn’t have any street cred with his people. He’s an outsider. He’s been raised by them. He didn’t endure the harshness of slavery in Egypt. Even though he didn’t have any choice in the matter, he escaped all that by living in luxury. And now this outsider is going to come and tell the Hebrew people what to do? In his first attempt to help them, they were quick to point out his sin (killing the Egyptian) and rebuffed him.

Moses has an identity crisis. At the burning bush, Moses was intensely curious and enthusiastically answered God’s call. Moments later, he hid his face from God. When God told him that he was going to lead God’s people, he claimed that he couldn’t because he was a nobody. A little later he tried to use the speech impediment excuse. This guy was happy to be with God, but had no personal sense that he should lead God’s people.

God had no time for that vacillation. God urges Moses to claim the authority that comes from God . Moses says, “If I tell your people that you sent me, and they ask me your name, what shall I say?” In the next three verses, God says to Moses three times some variant of “You shall say to them…” We know that the bulk of Exodus is God telling Moses stuff and telling Moses to tell that stuff to the people. But in this first interaction the exchange is powerful and the pattern is set. God could easily pop down to the people and tell them to respect Moses, but God doesn’t. God tells Moses to do the talking. God could have made water gush out of the rock in the desert, but he tells Moses to perform that action—in front of the elders. God calling Moses is all the authority that Moses needs. Moses has to claim that, though.

Moses knows that the Israelites are not his people, but God’s. Moses and God play hot potato with the people of God. God says to Moses things like, “Tell your people whom you brought up from the land of Egypt…” and Moses replies, “I will tell your people whom you brought up from the land of Egypt…” Moses’ uncertainty of his own worth concretizes his certainty that only God could do for Israel the things that have been done. Knowing that they are God’s people provides him steadfastness in the face of their almost-constant criticism. He asks them why they are complaining against him and Aaron when it is God who is guiding the action. Knowing that these people are in the hand of God also frees him to point to God’s action among them. Despite his telling these hungry people that God would give them something to eat, they still didn’t have a clue what that flaky stuff was on the ground. Moses said, “That’s the bread the Lord has given you to eat.” The knowledge that these were God’s people, not his, freed him to lead through pointing to God’s activity in their midst.

Moses learns to delegate and equip. At first, Moses tries to do it all. He listens to every single dispute that the people have amongst themselves while they are in the desert. A visit from his father-in-law straightens him out. Jethro tells him, “What you are doing is not good! You will wear yourself out. The task is too heavy for you to bear alone.” Jethro suggests a different plan, in which Moses would take on more of a teaching role, equipping God’s people. Then Moses should choose leaders to share the work of pastoral ministry. Moses listened and took Jethro’s advice.

Perhaps the reason I most respect Moses is that over and over again he prays on behalf of this sinful people he’s stuck with. Moses has been on Mt. Sinai for 40 days and nights, in beautiful communion with God. He’s been receiving directly from the mouth of God the instructions for shaping the life of God’s people. And while Moses is in the midst of this divine continuing education experience, God explodes with fury because the people have begun to worship the golden calf. Moses could be angry and resentful that the people’s blatant disregard of the commandments they’d repeatedly promised to follow has interrupted his time with God. But instead he intercedes on their behalf. I think he gets this leadership thing.

Moses’ obituary at the end of Deuteronomy reminds us that he never got to enjoy the fruits of his long labor. So many years with this people, trying to help them stay faithful to the God who formed them into a people and delivered them and provided for them. So many years trying to stay faithful in his own leadership. And he never got to the Promised Land. But he got to see it. He died knowing that God had raised up a new leader for the next generation who would carry on the work of God among the people. He was vigorous until the end, but his time was over. (Visitation was held for thirty days in the plains of Moab. Prearrangements had been made for the burial.)

Whether we are pastors or lay leaders in our communities of faith, we face many of the situations that Moses faced. In our own wilderness wanderings may we imitate Moses: spurred on not by “results” but by the resolve to remain faithful and to remember whose people we have been called to lead.

One Response to “Leadership Lessons”

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  1. Brent Laytham says:

    Jenny, this is simply lovely. I especially love the image of ‘playing hot potato with the people of God.’

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