Wednesday, October 05, 2005

you cannot do it alone (exodus 18)

The people have left Egypt. They have lived through the plagues. They have come to the river and passed through it. They’ve wandered in the wilderness. Their leader, Moses has been with them. God has been with Moses. A guiding hand has been upon them all, and they’ve made great progress. Just prior to our passage is a brief but important incident in Exodus 17. Israel is in battle with their enemy, Amalek. Moses stands on the hill, looking out on the people. Whenever he holds up his hand, Israel prevails. Whenever he lowers his hand, the enemy advances. And so the friends of Moses take a stone and put it under him, for he is weary. Then Aaron and Hur hold up the hands of Moses, one on each side. And his hands are steady until the sun sets. Israel prevails.

It is a story about endurance, about overcoming, about hanging in there and keeping our eyes on the prize. Moses is the leader, but there are many who contribute to the final outcome. Now we come to our passage. Jethro, the father in law of Moses, comes to visit, bringing his daughter, the wife of Moses and their children. He has the kind of outside perspective of a wise consultant. And he immediately pinpoints the problem.

He notices, first, that Moses is overwhelmed. He says, to Moses:

What you are doing is not good.

You will surely wear yourself out.

The task is too heavy.

You cannot do it alone (18. 18).

Moses, the father in law says, “you are overwhelmed. This is not a sustainable way to live. You can’t keep this up!” Maybe you are sitting here, this morning, and you have heard the wisdom of Jethro coming through the voice of a spouse, or a co-worker, or a friend:

What you are doing is not good. You will surely wear yourself out.

Of course, your intentions, my intentions are good, right? We are trying to save the world. Moses is trying to lead his people to freedom. There is a lot at stake. But it helps to remember that most of what is at stake is beyond us, beyond our powers. We are not superman, or superwoman. That realization reminded me of an incident that made the rounds a few years ago.

Mohammed Ali had boarded a transatlantic flight. As the plane was making its way out of the gate, the flight attendant went down the aisle make sure that everyone had their seat belt fastened.

When she came to Ali, he was reading a magazine and had not buckled his seat belt. So she said to him, very courteously, “Pardon me, Champ, but you need to fasten your seat belt”. Ali kept right on reading his magazine and didn’t even look up, but he did say, to the young flight attendant, “Honey, Superman don’t need no seat belt”. And the young woman was just great. She was quick with her response; she said, to Ali, “Honey, Superman don’t need no airplane”.

We sometimes operate under the delusion that it is all about us. I use the image of a funnel. We sometimes think we are the funnel through which it all has to flow. This was where Moses was. Was he superman? Maybe…some pretty amazing things had happened in his life, and because of his leadership. But he was human, just like you and me. The words must gotten through to him:

What you are doing is not good.

You will surely wear yourself out.

The task is too heavy.

You cannot do it alone.

You cannot do it alone. I know that I am privileged to preach to a congregation of people who have been given resources in this life, opportunities in this life, in part because of where you were born in this world, in part because of your efforts, in part because of God’s grace. You are people who bear responsibilities, sometimes heavy responsibilities: in this world, in the workplace, in the community, in the church, in the home. And many of you are motivated, either explicitly or implicitly, by a simple but tough teaching of Jesus: to whom much is given, much will be required.

And so you want to do what is right: Because you are conscientious, and because you know that there is a lot at stake, whether you are thinking about the livelihoods of hundreds of people or the future direction of a city, or the environment of a school or the life of a child.

Moses was there, working all day long, from morning until evening. Have you ever had one of those days? It starts early, ends late, the origin of what we call “burning the candle at both ends”. But there is a problem: It is not working. It is not a sustainable way to live. Sooner or later we experience, in the words of Ron Heifitz of Harvard, “the cost of doing it alone”.

What you are doing is not good.

You will surely wear yourself out.

The task is too heavy.

You cannot do it alone.

Many of us have carried heavy things in the last few weeks: mattresses, washing machines, chests of drawers, couches, tables, chairs. You know what it is like when you carry something by yourself, and then how different it is when someone is carrying that with you.

The task is too heavy, the voice says to you. You cannot do it alone.

It’s not Lent, but if you wanted to give up something, today, right now, it might be the idea, the assumption that I have to do it alone. You cannot do it alone. Ron Heifitz says, again:

the myth of leadership is the myth of the lone warrior:

the solitary individual whose heroism and brilliance enables him to lead the way. This notion reinforces the isolation”. [251]

There is another problem, because it really is not about you or me. When we live in this way, when we lead in this way, other people are affected. Exodus 18. 13, 14 tells us that

the people stood around from morning until evening”.

The needs of the people go unmet. When leadership is flawed, the people suffer. They are standing around, from morning until evening. but nothing is happening.

Moses is exhausted.

The people are frustrated.

Moses is overwhelmed.

The people are neglected.

Does this sound like life as we know it? Here is the insight. God is not limited to what Moses can do. As great as Moses is---and we learn at the end of the Torah that “there has never arisen a prophet in Israel like Moses, who knew God face to face”, as great as Moses is, God is not limited to what Moses can do. And God is not limited to what you and I, as individuals, can do.

This is both a source of critique and comfort to us as leaders. Critique, because we are not ultimately in charge, in control. When we say “Jesus is Lord”, we are giving up on the idea that we are in charge, in control. That comes to us as bad news---we really would like to be in control---and good news---deep down, we know that there is so much that is beyond our control.

And so Jesus comes to us and says “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me…for my yoke is easy, and my burden is light”. His yoke is easy, his burden is light.

Do you know what a Messiah complex is? It is the belief that we are here to save the world. Christians, of all people, should know that the Messiah complex is a form of heresy. We believe that the Messiah has already come.

The Messiah complex is not about wanting to improve or repair the world, or make it a better place. We all want to do that. A messiah complex is all about the idea that I am personally sent into the world to redeem the world, to save the world, that it all depends on me. And, of course, we are bound to fail at this. Because we believe that the Messiah has already come. Jesus is the Messiah.

And so Jesus says, take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for my yoke is easy and my burden is light. He is the savior, he is the redeemer, he is the messiah. We do not take his place. We join in the work that he has already started, a work that began before we arrived and will go on long after we have departed.

The heresy, that it all depends on me, that I am the funnel, is one that causes suffering in the lives of other people. Moses is the only judge, the sole source of authority, and it is not working for him or for the others. The needs of the people are going unmet. And so Jethro says to Moses, here’s a solution: look for able people, and set them over groups of thousands, and hundreds, and fifties and tens.

Call it decentralized government.

Call it delegation of authority.

Call it flattening the organization.

Call it empowering other people.

Call it what you want.

Jethro says, “Let them do the stuff you don’t need to do. If it is important, let them bring it to you”. It will be easier for you, and they will bear the burden with you (18. 22).

If you do this, Jethro continues, you will be able to endure, and these people will be able to go to their homes in peace.

Moses, wise leader that he is, follows the advice of his father in law. Surely this is one of the miracles in the Book of Exodus!

Three wonderful things happen here: First, Moses finds a way to stay in the journey. He is able to avoid the fatigue and exhaustion, and the expectations others have of him. Second, the people benefit. Their needs are met, their voices are heard. And third, other gifted people are called forth. It is not just about one person, one leader. It is about the gifts and commitments and callings of many leaders and servants.

One question occurs to me: why did Moses listen to Jethro? Leaders are not known for acting on this kind of feedback, or wanting to hear it. Maybe Jethro was the one person who could tell him the truth. Family members have a way of doing that! Maybe he was at the end of his rope, so exhausted that he needed to try something different.

Another question arises out of this passage for me. Why did the people remember this story? Maybe it had to do with our tendency to place all of the focus on one person. We do, in our culture, tend to focus on the leader: the president, the quarterback, the mayor, the coach, the CEO, the school superintendent. But there is a truth that great movements are about people working together, sharing the responsibility.

I grew up as a big fan of the Boston Celtics basketball team. Don’t ask me why. Anyway, I remember an interview once with Robert Parrish, the stoic center for the Celtics, nicknamed “The Chief”, after the Celtics had defeated the Chicago Bulls. Michael Jordan had scored 61 points that game. Did the Chief have any comment about Michael Jordan. He’s great”, Parrish said, “but it is hard for one player to beat a whole team”.

You cannot do it alone. There are people in this world who need our gifts, but we will be of no enduring good to them if we don’t hear this word. None of us is superman, or superwoman. The messiah has already come, two thousand years ago. If we are in it alone, that is a clue that something has gone wrong.

It’s not about one player, it’s about a team.

It’s not about one leader, it’s about a movement.

Israel was able to reach the promised land, in part, because they remembered the encounter between Moses and his father in law, and the lesson.

Perhaps there is a lesson for you and me, self-sufficient North Americans, leaders, people on the move, writing out our goals and working toward them, making the world a better place. Perhaps there is a still small voice speaking to us, too.

What you are doing is not good.

You will surely wear yourself out.

The task is too heavy.

You cannot do it alone.

***Let us pray:

I invite you to say these words, silently:

God, I need your help.

My life has become unmanageable.

I cannot do it alone.

Come into my heart, and change me.

Come into this world, and use the gifts of all of your people.

I cannot do it alone. Amen.


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10:41 AM  

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