By Pastor Tracey Leslie
Scripture: Exodus 18:13-27
My sister, Vicki, was a preschooler when, one day, my dad returned home from work to discover his darling daughter up to her elbows in “mud pies.” My dad was affectionately dubbed “Mr. Clean” by our family and, horrified, he said to my sister, “Vicki, there are germs in that mud” to which my sister very innocently replied, “It’s OK, daddy; when I’m done, I’ll put them back.”
Healthy human creatures, even from a young age, have a sense of responsibility: a desire to please those who care for them; an awareness of the need to do what is right; an obligation to help, not harm, other creatures.
But it is easy for our sense of responsibility to get out of balance. Every day my inbox and postal box are filled with financial appeals. Judging from those letters the fate of the world depends upon my bank account. I am responsible for saving rhinos, elephants, and countless ecosystems; providing care for abused or neglected puppies, kittens and children; housing the homeless and feeding the hungry; putting bullet proof vests on police dogs and training assistance dogs. It’s too much! I frequently click delete without reading the appeal. I do open the mail when the envelope has a plastic window in it so I can trash the envelope but recycle the paper contents… after all; I am responsible for the environment!
This morning we continue the current sermon series “Response Ability” as we consider our responsibility toward others, particularly in the context of leadership. I’ve titled this sermon “Moses and the Messiah Complex.” We don’t have communion this morning so there is no Prayer of Confession but if the statement I am about to make applies to you, just respond with the words, “Lord, have mercy.” Are you ready? Reply “Lord have mercy” if you have ever caught yourself making the statement, “It’s just easier to do it myself.” LORD HAVE MERCY, right?
“Messiah complex” refers to those who feel they bear the weight of the world and that their actions are the catalyst for changing the world into a better place. But their passions are out of balance such that they often find it hard to live present to the present moment. They brood over the uncertain future. They do not truly enjoy the good they do but feel that they have no option than to do what they fear others cannot or will not do.
Now, in truth, it is hard to know why Moses fails to delegate in the morning’s bible story; why it is that Moses assumes an unsustainable and unhealthy amount of responsibility; but this is an interesting story. Many of you have heard me say before that we need to exercise caution when we look at these earliest bible stories. Many were written down centuries, even millennia, after their occurrence; they are stories of origin and meaning springing from cultures whose understandings of science and history were very different from our understandings today. There are two peculiarities in this morning’s story.
The first is that Moses references the statutes and laws of God. Yet, within the narrative, the Israelites have yet to receive any laws from God. That will, in fact, occur in the very next chapter, Exodus 19, when Moses climbs Mt Sinai to receive what we generally refer to as “The Ten Commandments.”
A second curiosity in this morning’s story is that this explanation of Israel’s governance structure reappears in the book of Deuteronomy, chapter 1. And in Deuteronomy’s rendition of the story, it is not Moses’ father-in-law who comes up with this brilliant idea of delegation of authority. According to Deuteronomy, it is Moses who comes up with the idea. Nevertheless – although Exodus and Deuteronomy – give credit to two different characters (in Exodus, delegation is the brainchild of Moses’ father-in-law and in Deuteronomy, it is the brainchild of Moses himself)… Nevertheless, the very fact that the story is repeated emphasizes its value and importance.
This morning’s story is a story about what Life Together in the community of God’s people is to be like. Let me say that again: this is – even more than a story about leadership – a story about what life together in the community of God’s people is to be like. It is to be characterized by order and fairness; justice and right judgment. Life in the community of God’s people will always involve differences and even disputes; but it must also involve a sense of clarity and justice in addressing and resolving those disputes so that the end result is peace and authentic community. When the Israelites were back in Egypt as slaves, there was no justice; there was no fair hearing; there was no peace. Now, things are different: problems are addressed head on and examined in light of God’s word and will and resolved in ways that promote justice and peace.
But a wrinkle has clearly appeared – a bump in the road, a disruption in process – and it is as simple as this: Moses is trying to do everything by himself and it is taking too long and wearing everyone down. Nevertheless, the practice persists until an outsider comes into the community and observes with fresh eyes. Jethro is the father-in-law of Moses. He comes from Midian where he is a priest. But, although we often don’t think about it, the Israelites worshipped Yahweh (God’s name in the Old Testament)[i] as a “local god,” so to speak. Gods were associated with geographical localities, cultures and populations. So Jethro is no Israelite and Yahweh would not have been his god. However, when he arrives at the Israelites’ camp and Moses explains to Jethro everything that happened when they made their successful exodus from Egypt, Jethro is so amazed that he worships Yahweh; he praises God as a god like no other and offers a sacrifice to Yahweh. So Jethro is portrayed as someone who is both an outsider, but also supportive and embracing of Israel’s religion. So, why does that matter? Well, because – according to Exodus – the entire governance structure of ancient Israel can be attributed to this foreigner who is a new convert, so to speak.
How often within church and many other organizations do we take the attitude that people who are new have to prove themselves; they have to know how it’s done around here before they can recommend any changes? Whether it’s a new church attender, a new employee, a new board member, a new neighbor, a new family member… whatever the context might be, we are often reluctant, even resistant, to the recommendations of those who are new; those we may perceive as outsiders. Fortunately, Moses didn’t have that bias.
So, what exactly happens in the story? Well, initially, Moses is listening to every concern anyone in the community has and Moses is individually rendering a judgment. And this is all he’s getting done. He sits around listening to disputes all day long… doesn’t that sound exhausting? And the people have to stand in line and wait to talk to him. And everyone is getting frustrated, exhausted, impatient and worn out. This is bad for Moses; but it’s really bad for everyone. Very little else is getting done. But there is a better way: responsible delegation; shared authority.
As I say, this morning’s story is important for the church but it is applicable in any context. Many of you are leaders here at church; but I would guess that nearly all of you exercise leadership in some context: perhaps on a board of a charity; or over a department or a project at work; as a supervisor; within your home owners’ association; as a leader of a student group, a professional sorority or fraternity; as the matriarch or patriarch within your extended family; a parent teaching and shaping a young child’s values; even if your leadership is simply about inviting others to join you in carrying out a particular task here at church like setting up for our Garden and Grill meals. Whatever your leadership context, you and your group will be at their best if we learn to delegate authority effectively and responsibly and not exceed our own response-ability. We can bring God’s values of justice and righteousness and peace to bear in any context or circumstance, if we follow Jethro’s lessons in leadership. We cannot bear the weight of responsibility on our own and any attempts to do so are not only self-destructive but hurtful to the organization of which we are a part.
So it seems to me that Jethro recommends three steps.
First, leaders do matter. You shouldn’t abdicate or neglect your position of authority. Moses was called by God to lead the people. He does, in fact, have a unique role. It is his role to teach them the word of God; to teach them what God says their community should be about. As a church, we need to fully understand our mission and vision. Without that, anything we do is just busyness. Leaders at Trinity should know, understand and affirm our vision of “growing in love and service through relationships with God and community.” Moses needed to be sure his leaders knew God’s Word and had allowed it to shape their life and conduct. We need to be sure Trinity’s leaders know our mission and vision and core spiritual practices and will allow them to shape their lives and service.[ii] Likewise, in other organizations, we need – always – to effectively communicate mission, vision and values to those we invite onto the team. Otherwise, it’s busy work at best and chaos at worst. As a leader, always take time to clearly and effectively communicate mission, vision and values to folks when you invite them onto the team.
So, the first task of effective and responsible delegation: teach and communicate mission, vision and values. Make sure volunteers know what it’s all about.
Second, delegation isn’t about rounding up warm bodies or getting names on a form or filling a slate. Those to whom we delegate authority must be of good character and have the gifts and skills appropriate to the task. These guys Moses recruits need to reveal through their lives and their actions that they understand the meaning of justice. If they don’t have the gift of exercising right and unbiased judgment, then they shouldn’t be asked to join that team. Whether you’re putting together a team at work or at church, in your neighborhood or your community, don’t just look for warm bodies; take the time to seek out those who have the gifts and passion for the task at hand. Get – as the cliché goes – the right people on the bus and in the right seats.
Finally, have an effective structure for your team. Apparently some of these guys couldn’t have managed more than a few disputes a day for whatever reason. I mean, who knows? Maybe they had a lot of kids to look after. Maybe they took a long time to process information. Maybe they were chatty. Whatever it was, their work load is lighter and they have someone above them to go to if they need help.
These guys appear to all be connected in a kind of structure where their work – their personal responsibilities – matches their capabilities. You could put this into an org chart, right? And people need a clearly delineated structure. People need to be clear about who to go to if they’re having a problem and who they can call on if they need support. There needs to be accountability and healthy – not stifling – supervision.
Friends: this morning is a good time to look within ourselves and consider how we work with others and how we build teams. Do we suffer from a messiah complex? Do we too often and easily decide that it will just be easier to do it all ourselves? But, it won’t. Sure, recruiting and training and building a structure take time. But in the end, it will be so much better. And when we fail to share and delegate authority – when we take on an unhealthy sense of responsibility – when we succumb to the messiah complex and our responsibility has become a compulsion – we will, in time, burn ourselves AND those around us out. We will wear out ourselves and others and it will not be good. In the words of Jethro, if that’s your thing, then “the thing you are doing is not good.”[iii]
Others have the gifts to serve; and when we are leaders, we need to invite them. The quality of our life together – here at church, at work, on civic boards, in our neighborhoods – the quality of our life together is the responsibility of ALL of us. We are in it together. It takes all of us doing our part to create a community of justice, righteousness and peace; a community with a healthy – not compulsive – sense of response-ability.
[i] See Exodus 3:13-15, the story of God revealing the divine name to Moses at the burning bush.
[ii] To view Trinity’s mission, vision and values, go to: http://www.trinitylafayette.org/about.html
[iii] Exod 18:17
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