Sunday, September 25, 2011
Is the Lord with us or not? Exodus 17:1-7
This sermon was preached by Leo Hartshorn at Zion Mennonite Church, Hubbard, Oregon on September 25, 2011
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our Rock and Redeemer
I’m a bit surprised and perplexed that I am an interim pastor of this congregation after 9 1/2 years out of pastoral ministry. And even more so, since I have known of this congregation’s struggles over the past two years! You see, I left almost 30 years of pastoral ministry in 2002 with a sense of relief from the toll that leading struggling, and sometimes contentious and conflicted congregations, can take on a pastor. At the same time, I wondered if God was with me in my decision to leave pastoral ministry, since this same God called me onto this wilderness journey in the first place! Was it bad luck (or good luck?) that after seven years with Mennonite Mission Network my department was cut leaving me wandering in the wilderness without a job, disoriented, complaining and again wondering if God was with me or not. Then, I get this call about becoming an interim pastor for Zion Mennonite Church….
So, as I read this lectionary text in preparation for today’s sermon and I couldn’t help but notice that the relationship between Moses and the children of Israel was similar to that of a pastor and a congregation. How’s that, you say? Well, our story starts out with the Israelites being described as…. now get this…. a “congregation.” You’ve got to be kidding me! The Israelites are a “congregation”? Lord, have mercy on the pastor of that congregation. And the next thing it says about this congregation is that they quarreled with their pastor! Uh oh! This is not a good sign for my first sermon back in pastoral ministry at Zion! Or maybe it is.
I’ll have to admit that I identify with Moses in a lot of ways. Moses started out as a pastor, or should I say a shepherd. He tended the sheep of his father-in-law Jethro near Horeb, the mountain of God. The term “pastor” comes from the work of tending sheep, though some people might consider being referred to as sheep as a baaaaaad idea. Shepherding is used throughout the Bible as an image for leading people, like a pastor leads a congregation. Even the pope and his bishops carry with them a crozier, a shepherd’s staff, as a symbol their pastoral office. Ultimately Jesus is our Good Shepherd, even though there are shepherds or pastors who serve congregations through his leadership.
Some would say that Moses was a shepherd as part of his divine preparation for being pastor of a congregation. As a pastor Moses tended the flock of Israelites guiding them along the way, pulling them away from the dangerous places with his shepherd’s crook, feeding them when hungry in green pastures, leading them beside the still waters. Some experienced pastors might say that Moses also learned how to avoid stepping in the sheep “droppings” the flock left along their journey. I can identify with the image of a shepherd as the leader of a congregation.
I can also identify with the fact that Moses, as a pastor, was not perfect. He started life with a mixed up identity as an immigrant from Egypt, out of place, not knowing who he was, not knowing his own people, short tempered, a murderer, a man with a lot of excuses, yet with a passion for justice. Moses was initially reluctant to lead his own people, as I suspect some of you are reluctant to lead at Zion. Maybe there were some cantankerous sheep in Jethro’s flock that Moses would just as soon have turned into lamb chops!
Like many pastors Moses wasn’t good at organization or delegating responsibility. I can identify. Jethro, an experienced sheep herder, had to teach him how to organize the people and delegate tasks to be more efficient.
And Moses was not your eloquent preacher. Honestly, this guy had a problem with public speaking. He even warned God, “Gawd, I is sl-o-o-o-o-w of speech and I, uh…. uh…. I don’t talk too gooder either wise.” Some even suggest that Moses was possibly a stutterer. I mean, he was not your prime candidate for the church pulpit. And what does God say? “You’re just the pastor I want for my people! But…. on second thought, you might want your brother Aaron to preach for you.”
Besides that, Moses had a hard time obeying God’s Word. In another version of our story in the book of Numbers Moses was commanded by God to speak to the rock and water would come forth. Instead, Moses struck the rock twice. Moses was not a perfect pastor. That’s why I can identify with him.
At the same time, I can identify with the congregation of Israel. God promises to bring us to a land flowing with milk and honey and here we are with sand in our teeth, lips cracked and dry without any lip balm or mouthwash. Sheeesh! We could use a little Dasani or Aquafina right about now to wash down that dry-as-toast-bread that came down from the sky the other day. Bread and water, now really, that’s what they serve prisoners in solitary confinement. We were better off in Egypt with our gardens of cucumbers and melons and tomatoes enough to share with other members of the congregation. Get real, Moses! Our congregation was better off before you became our pastor.
Why did you bring us out here in the wilderness, just so we would end up in the bone orchard? Do you even know where we are going, Shepherd of Lostville? Didn’t you check Mapquest or consider bringing along a GPS before you thought about this so-called Freedom from Egypt project you hatched up for our congregation? What kind of leader are you anyhow?
I have to be honest. Who wouldn’t complain in those circumstances? I watched a movie entitled Thirst the other night about 4 young people whose vehicle broke down in the desert. And for over one excruciating hour I watched them die of dehydration and the wolves pick their bones. Hey, I’m with the children of Israel. Moses, get us outta here! The wilderness is no piece of cake….or glass of water. I can identify with the congregation of Israel.
Then again, I can identify with Moses. Sometimes pastors become easy targets for the stones of a congregation. Pastor Moses became an easy target, a fish in a bucket for the frustrations, anxieties, and differences within his own congregation. I’ve been in Moses’ sandals when he said to his congregation, “Why do you quarrel with me? Hey, you were all ‘Yeah, help us Moses, we want you to lead us out of Egypt’ when the whip was stinging your back. If you want to blame someone, blame God for bringing you out here in the wilderness.”
I’ve been in Moses’ Berkenstocks when he cried out to God, possibly pulling his hair at the same time, “What shall I do with this people! They are ready to take me to a Rock concert, and I don’t mean to listen to some hard music.” Get my tune?
I imagine that the complaints that came from the congregation to pastor Moses sounded something like this: “Pastor, some people in the congregation aren’t happy with your leadership. They say that you have led us out into the wilderness to die like a bunch of dogs. And we can’t ignore what people are saying, can we? They might withhold their offerings or threaten to leave.”
In a former congregation where I was pastor I used to refer to these invisible people as the “church ghosts.” These ghosts never spoke for themselves and would never bring their complaints to anyone face-to-face. They slithered around behind the scenes, like sssssnakes in the desert. But, they were always served by “ghost whisperers,” people who translate their ghostly messages and gladly pass along their complaints and objections to the church leaders, who would then pass them on to yours truly. Does Zion have any ghosts haunting these hallowed halls? Any “ghost whisperers” who like to pass on their messages? If it does, Zion needs to exorcise these ghosts, not exercise, in order to be a healthy congregation.
The Hebrew word used to describe the congregation’s complaint against Moses is the same word for “lawsuit.” Lord, have mercy! I am aware that broken pastor-congregation relations are not all that unusual, but this extreme takes the cake! I have heard of congregations that have actually brought lawsuits against their pastors. The children of Israel were ready to try Moses and have him stoned! Let me tell you, pastors can become the scapegoat for a congregation’s problems and anxieties. I’ll name it, if you claim it!
This idea of laying one’s own sins and problems on someone else is reflected in the ritual of the scapegoat or Azazel in the Old Testament. The priest laid the sins of the people on the head of a goat, which was led off into the wilderness bearing their sin. This scapegoat concept is the dynamic at work in the crucifixion of Jesus, who bears the sins of the people, that is, he becomes a victim of the violence, anger, frustrations, and anxieties of the people.
Rene Girard, a literary critic and philosopher, has proposed what is known as a “scapegoat mechanism,” to explain this widespread principle whereby human communities tend to place blame for their own violence, frustrations, divisions, and differences upon a scapegoat.
This dynamic is also known as “projection,” a theory developed by Freud. It is a defense mechanism whereby someone projects their own feelings, problems, and anxieties onto someone else.
Family systems theory also recognizes this phenomenon. When applied to congregations, the anxieties within the church family system are projected onto the pastor. Peter Steinke, an internationally respected therapist and educator in church family systems, even uses our story of the Israelites complaints against Moses to illustrate how a congregation’s anxiety turns into grumbling and division and is projected onto the leader.
Although this congregational dynamic is pervasive, this is not to say congregations never have legitimate issues concerning their pastors. Nor do these dynamics excuse a leader’s own inadequacies and problems. As I said earlier, pastors are not perfect….and neither are congregations. Placing blame for problems, troubles, and conflicts solely on the shoulders of a pastor or a congregation is not healthy.
When we find ourselves wandering in the wilderness and our resources run out, we may wonder if the Lord is with us or not. When the children of Israel were without water they complained about Moses and in so doing …. listen to this…. they “tested the Lord.” The problem was not simply that they had problems with Moses or the lack of water. They had problems with God. Their real problem was that they were testing God by their attitudes and actions.
Whether or not the children of Israel actually verbalized this question, the congregation raised this sour question by their attitudes and actions: “Is the Lord with us or not?”
Again, I can identify with the congregation. If I was dying of thirst, I would raise some thorny questions. Remember, I watched that movie. To be honest, I have raised the question of the Israel not only by attitude and action, but in loud cries to the heavens. When I was forced to resign from my home congregation by some underhanded actions of the leadership and ended up spending 3 years out of pastoral ministry, after 5 years of preparation for ministry and only two years in the congregation, I questioned the heavens: “Is the Lord with me or not?” When leading another congregation through a various divisions and conflicts over 6 years, at some low moments I queried the heavens, “Is the Lord with me or not?” And don’t you know that as I wandered in the wilderness over these past two years in Oregon without a job, starting my retirement, resigned to “the fact” the church ministry was over for me, more than once I asked the question with a bitter taste in my mouth: “Is the Lord with me or not?” I’ll name it and I’ll claim it.
But, during each of these wilderness journeys I had forgotten that eventually and unexpectedly a door opened, manna dropped from heaven, and water spouted from a rock. I can identify with the congregation of Israel who had forgotten that God had led them with a miraculous and mighty hand out of Egypt, had opened the Red Sea to pass through, and rained bread from heaven. Would not God provide water for them to drink? Would not God finally get them to the Promised Land?
Sometimes congregations need to remember from where they came and find a new direction. When we come to these times of trouble and transition, we need to remember that God will provide for us as God has provided for us in the past. Has the Lord been with us or not?
How long has this congregation been around? A couple years? Over a hundred years? Let me turn the question of the children of Israel on its head and ask you: Has the Lord been with us or not? During this long journey hasn’t God provided for our needs? Haven’t we seen the power of God’s hand to deliver at work? Has the Lord been with us or not? Haven’t we wandered in the wilderness? Haven’t you made it through church conflicts and difficult situations with other pastors? Has the Lord been with us or not? Haven’t we tasted the bread of heaven? Hasn’t our thirst for life been quenched with water from unexpected places? Has the Lord been with us or not? Haven’t we been able to find new direction when we lost our way? Haven’t our leaders stepped out before us and we followed them as if God were leading us? Has the Lord been with us or not?
If the Lord has been with us, then our pastors and elders will need to step out ahead of the congregation. The Lord said to Moses, “Go on ahead of people, and take some of the elders with you.” What a timely word for Zion! The pastor and elders of the congregation are to go ahead of the people. Isn’t that what leadership is all about….stepping out ahead of the people, leading them into their future. Their role is not to simply fill an office or support the status quo of things or keep the sheep grazing in one spot or allowing them to get stuck in the heat of conflict and complaints, but rather to “go on ahead of the people.” Show them the way forward. Learn the terrain of the future. Don’t just dwell in the past. That will get you stuck in the wilderness. Lead the congregation forward to Rock of all Ages. Lead the people away from Massah and Meribah, those places literally named “testing” and “quarreling.” Lead the people to the water of life, even Jesus Christ, where they can be refreshed for the journey ahead.
So, as we journey toward our new future, let us be assured that “the Lord is with us!” I’ll name it, if you claim it.
The Lord was with Moses, who was not the perfect pastor, but sought to listen to God and lead the people forward
The Lord was with the children of Israel, who were not a perfect people, even as they were complaining, quarreling, and testing God.
The Lord is with our leaders, pastors and elders, who are not perfect, as they go ahead of the people, leading the way.
The Lord is with this congregation, which is not perfect, yet stands firm on the Rock and drinks from the Water of Life. Amen?
This past week I stood with your former pastor, Todd Lehmann, on the other side of those doors and together we looked at the wall of pictures of your former pastors. Some have stern, serious faces, looking like they were weaned on dill pickle juice. Others with half-smiles or grins, expressing joy, even though some of them weren’t even getting paid! Can you imagine that! Serving God without getting a dime for their time? I don’t think I would have been smiling! Some were better pastors than others, some uneducated farmers, some highly educated ministers, some pastors chosen by lot maybe resenting the fact that they were called to be pastors by what seemed more a “luck of the draw” than God’s call, some leaving their posts before “the fullness of time,” none of them perfect, all too human, like Moses….. And yet…. “The Lord was with them.”
On another day I walked outside to get a breath of fresh air and looked out over rows of tombstones of former members of this congregation…. I imagined you all here united with them in spirit, a communion of saints, a cloud of witnesses together...similar in so many ways, and I don’t mean “dead,” some of them probably better Christians than others, some wishing they were out hunting, fishing, or farming rather than listening to a dry-as-a-cracker sermon, some with hopes and dreams for this congregation, just like you, none of them perfect, all too human, like the children of Israel….and yet….“The Lord was with them.”
Now, here we are, still making our way through the wilderness. Not yet arriving in the Promised Land…sometimes complaining, sometimes quarrelling, sometimes not trusting God with our futures, sometimes faithful, sometimes hopeful, none of us perfect, all too human…and yet…and yet….”The Lord is with us.”
There is more light and truth yet to break forth from God’s Holy Word.