Monday, 06 June 2011 00:00

"Advice from Jethro", June 5, 2011

"Advice from Jethro"
Exodus 18:13-27    June 5, 2011
Diane K. Hooge

In order to fully appreciate all the dynamics that are a part of the setting and scene of this lesson, we need to back up to the beginning of the story.  Jethro, the priest of Midian, who is Moses’ father-in-law, has just escorted his daughter Zipporah and his grandsons back to be re-united with his son-in-law, Moses.  They meet at the wilderness site where Moses was camped at Sinai.

Jethro had welcomed back his daughter and grandsons into his home when Moses had received the call of God to lead the Israelites out of Egypt.  I suspect that it was for their safety that they had stayed with Moses’ in-laws.  Not only is Jethro Moses’ father-in-law and Granddad to Gershom and Eliezer, but he also appears to be a mentor as well as a friend.  Jethro had been a key player in Moses’ transition from the palace to the sheepherding business.  Whatever doubts Jethro may have had about Moses and his call and the radical change in his life-style, he appears to be extremely supportive and anxious to catch up with all that has happened to Moses since his departure for Egypt.

I can picture them talking far into the night as Moses filled his family in on the stories of Egypt, the plagues, the crossing, as well as the tough times and the celebratory times out in the wilderness.

In today’s lesson, we find the kinfolk again gathered around the campfire at Moses’ tent.  The family and guests were sitting together discussing the events of the day.  Jethro had been an observer for some time.  The timing seemed to be right as he cleared his throat and offered Moses a mirror of what he had observed.  He had watched him process information, had observed him listening intently to decipher the truth, and had witnessed him dealing with extremely complex issues as well as petty issues like too much noise coming from neighboring tents.


Jethro’s voice takes on strength as he discerns the crux of the issue and addresses Moses in love.  He is clear:  “What you are doing, Moses, is not good!”  You will surely wear yourself out—you are in danger of burnout.  This isn’t a good situation for you or these people.  The task is too heavy for you.  Quit trying to do it alone!  Jethro then laid out his plan:

1.     Educate the people; teach them the rules.  Teach them the statues and the instructions.  Make sure that they understand thoroughly so that they can do the task well.
2.    Look for leadership skills.  Those who honor God are to be trusted.  Look for those who hate dishonest gain, and set those folks over them as officers over thousands, hundreds, fifties, and tens.
3.    Let the developed leadership discern who handles which cases and which ones come to you, Moses.
4.    Jethro gave Moses the key—Let them bear the burden with you because then you will be able to endure and all these people will go to their homes in peace.

In managerial terms, Moses is to interpret and articulate public policy.  He was to move out of his role and set up a new infrastructure--  where administrators for different tribes could do the bulk of the work, and Moses could stay focused on the big picture, and take care of the more complicated cases.  Moses was to stop pretending that this was a Mom and Pop operation in a small town.  Scholars believe that the size of this group numbered somewhere around 80,000 people.

Now, if Myers Briggs had been a part of the business schools on the gulf of Aquaba, Jethro would have probably been labeled an ESTJ (extrovert, sensing, thinking, judging) He had the skills to know how to go about building the infrastructure that was needed for the next stage of the journey.  ESTJ’s are outstanding at organizing orderly procedures and in detailing rules and regulations.  They like to see things done correctly.  
Jethro had the wisdom to know that this body of people was at the point where there was a need for a paradigm shift.  The style of leadership that Moses had offered for so long had been what they needed to make the transition from slavery to the desert journey.  However, over the months and perhaps years, the people had grown in their ability to live in a community.  They were beginning to heal from life as slaves and were beginning to gain their sense of self worth, but, they were still fragile.  Jethro is able to give feedback to Moses indicating that the people are ready to be given some responsibility, some authority in order to strengthen them and to enable them to grow into their own gifts.  It was time to decentralize government.

It strikes me that Moses is being invited by God in this next stage of the journey to move out of his archetypal role of ruler to that of sage and teacher.  He is still the leader, but he does not need to lead in the same way.  The sage’s role on this wilderness journey is to find out the truth – to decode the clues.  He needs to learn to delegate.  Moses is being invited to shift for his sake as well as the people’s sake.  The next stage of the journey will demand that he listen to those being developed for their leadership skills.  He will be advising and pastoring the pastors.

Now, what our text doesn’t talk about is the transition – the period of moving to implementation.  What happened the first time someone couldn’t speak directly to Moses?  What happened when someone didn’t like the judgment they received over pasture negotiations?

What we know about human nature is that there was a time of change…a time of transition where it probably felt pretty rocky and I suspect Moses had many tempting thoughts of going back to the “old pattern.”  Training others to do the job is hard work.  Developing a new infrastructure is challenging and laborious.  Systems have to be monitored.  We can outgrow them and not realize it.  And, it sometimes takes an outsider to name what has occurred.

Douglas John Hall is a Canadian theologian who has spent a good portion of his life thinking about what Christianity means in a North American context.  He speaks about how the threat of damnation doesn’t seem to have much influence on our generation, nor does a fear of death.  What he does find that influences this generation is being deprived of meaningful work, meaningful relationships, and meaningful goals.  Hall believes that when we don’t find a purpose big enough for our capabilities, that we can become destructive.  This may become focused inwardly which can result in depression and addiction, or it can be channeled outwardly.  Hall makes the case that the threat of meaninglessness is our primary motive for repentance and salvation as we discover, or re-discover purpose for our lives. (Speaking of Sin by Barbara Brown Taylor, Chapter three.)

Today, on this Annual Meeting Sunday, we are reminded that our faith is constantly changing, evolving, and hopefully, transforming us to be new creatures.

In Barbara Brown Taylor’s book, Speaking of Sin, She offers this assessment of Hall’s belief. Hall “… believes that the church exists so that God has a community in which to save people from meaninglessness, by reminding them who they are and what they are for.  The church exists so that God has a place to point people toward a purpose as big as their capabilities, and to help them identify all the ways they flee from that high call.”  
Every generation must wrestle with their own understanding of God.  Every generation must discern where the faith “movement” is inviting them to not only define their faith but to commit themselves to the work of transformation.

When I was a young mother, and had gone back to church after seven years of not attending, I was drawn to a book study.  The title of the book was Eighth Day of Creation, by Elizabeth O’Connor.  O’Connor came out of the Church of the Savior in Washington D.C. The book changed my life.  Even though it was never on any reading list in seminary, I still believe that it has had a profound influence on my theology.  The whole emphasis on the Church of the Savior has always been and still is on the identification and exercise of one’s gifts.  O’Connor states that “A primary purpose of the Church is to help us discover and develop our gifts, and, in the face of our fears, to hold us accountable for them so that we can enter in to the joy of creating.”

It is this focus of creating space for others to be heard and to be respected and given opportunities for growth that Jethro encouraged.

I have found it far easier for churches to say “yes” to new ministries, than to say, “no”.  In my experience it is difficult for churches to prioritize.  There aren’t many books that offer rituals around celebrating programs that will no longer be provided, or classes that will no longer be taught.

One of the great gifts of this storytelling year has been to listen to the history of University Baptist and note where the energy used to be, where it still is, and to ask where God is calling this community to deepen the journey.  Just as I believe there is a blueprint built into each person, so I believe that there is a blueprint built into a community of faith.  As we prepare to enter the Annual Meeting, may there be a oneness of Spirit as we affirm God’s call upon University Baptist Church for another year.