Dr. Steve Lindsley
(Exodus 18: 1-27)
It is good to know who you are, but sometimes it’s even better knowing whose you are. When my wife used to teach in our Weekday School, there was a notable transformation that took place when I crossed the breezeway into the Fellowship Hall building, and especially whenever I entered the L-building where her room was. I was no longer “Pastor Steve” – instead, I became “Mrs. Lorie’s husband.” I rather liked it. This sort of thing is not uncommon – I’ve also been known as “Connor’s Dad” following one of his high school choral concerts or “Hunter’s Dad” at his basketball games. When we go to my parent’s mountain house for a little R&R, folks up there know me as “Derek and Carolyn’s son.” Sometimes it’s better to know whose you are.
Today’s passage is about Moses’ father-in-law. That’s whose he was. Who he was was Jethro – a name we may not be all that familiar with, like many in our bible. For every Moses, Isaiah, Mary, Jesus, and Paul, there are dozens of others whose names we may not know but who nevertheless play an important part in our story of faith. That’s why, as we begin our two months of worship in the Fellowship Hall, Rebecca and I are beginning a fun little summer sermon series we’re calling, “Bit Parts In The Bible.” Taking a longer look at some of the lesser-known characters who made a big impact even if we don’t know what that impact is.
So today we look at Jethro. Who, let’s be honest, we only know because of who his daughter Zipporah marries. That would be Moses – and we know all about Moses. A Hebrew trapped in an Egyptian world, caught in the middle, eventually choosing to shed his imperial identity and go all-in on leading God’s people out of Egyptian bondage. It is after he has left his old life behind for good that he meets his future wife, when he intervenes in a little water dispute at the well in Midian; some random shepherds unfairly driving a bunch of women away. Women who happened to be the daughters of the local priest; a priest named Jethro.
Grateful for his intervention and support of his family, Jethro welcomes Moses, by now a man without a home, into his home and gives him a job shepherding his flocks. And from that day on, Jethro supports Moses any way he can. When he asks for his daughter’s hand in marriage, Jethro grants his blessing. When Moses eventually discerns his call to go back to Egypt and plead to Pharaoh to let God’s people go, Jethro does not stand in his way.
But Jethro’s biggest moment comes later – after the plagues have plagued, after God’s people win their freedom. Moses leads the people out of Egypt, across the bed of the Red Sea, and into a journey that, unbeknownst to him and everyone else, would clock in at forty years. Forty years. That is a long time. This past week my Mom informed me that the dryer at their mountain house finally kicked the bucket. It had been there for over forty years. That’s a long time for a dryer, even one that only gets used once a month or so. You know what it’s an even longer time for? Hundreds of thousands of people on a massive road trip making their way to their forever home. Forty years is a long time for that.
Now if this sounds like a mess in the making, you’d be right. During those forty years, the people complain – a lot. They complain that it’s too hot. They complain that it’s too cold. They complain that they are hungry, longing for the five-course meals they remembered in Egypt that never happened. And when God answers their prayers and provides them with daily sustenance, they complain about the sustenance. It’s a hot mess of a journey, no doubt.
And it is here, in the middle of the wilderness, where our man Jethro becomes something more than just Moses’ father-in-law. God’s people have set up camp for a spell and Moses is holding vigil at the foot of a mountain. Jethro pays Moses a visit one day, just checking in. The two talk shop for a little, and Moses tells him all that’s going on. Jethro plays the wise old sage, listening and affirming Moses.
The next morning, Jethro finds Moses in a very different state of mind; consumed by one of the many hats he has to wear as leader, this particular hat being “judge and jury” for the Israelites. There is a line of people seeking justice for little discrepancies. The line is long – like I-77-at-Lake-Norman-on-a-Saturday long. It is grueling work, mediating for all of these folks, but Moses fulfills his duty. And when the day is over, when Jethro finally gets time with his son-in-law, he sees the wear and tear it’s having on him. He expresses his concern: Moses, this is way too much for one person. Why are you doing it all by yourself?
And Moses responds like the classic overachieving workaholic – Because these people need me, Dad. I’ve got to do this. It’s my job.
It’s so easy when we’re in some position of responsibility to make it all about ourselves, isn’t it? To take ourselves too seriously, to assume things rely and depend on us more than they actually do. It’s so easy to be like Moses. To become so enamored with our level of importance that we heap it all on our back, no matter how heavy the load. We’ll carry that thing forever; even forty years in the desert where we don’t have a clue where we’re going. People depend on us; we can’t let them down! It’s so easy to be like Moses.
And that is why I love what Jethro does here. He does not lay into his son-in-law, but does he let the moment pass, either. Instead, he speaks the truth in love: Moses, you cannot do this alone. More than that, you shouldn’t do this alone. You are no good to anyone if you’re no good to yourself. It’s Jethro who suggests that Moses find caring, competent people to help him. People he can delegate to. People who can share the burden so everyone plays a part, everyone has skin in the game, and Moses doesn’t wear himself out.
And to his credit, Moses listens. Moses listens because what Jethro suggests makes all the sense in the world. And I love the fact that Moses – the self-actualized, staff-wielding, water-parting, stand-in-the-very-presence-of-God Moses – even he cannot do it by himself, shouldn’t do it by himself. I love that he heeds his father-in-law’s advice.
Go, Moses. Go and lead God’s people. But do not – do not – go it alone.
I heard someone name it a few years back. Ike Kennerly, who at the time was the Executive Presbytery of Salem Presbytery, where I was serving. Ike came to my church and preached on the Great Commission, that lovely ending to the gospel of Matthew where Jesus says:
Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. And I am with you always, to the very end of the age.
Ike emphasized that the message of this passage is clear; that the working mantra, mission, vision of any church worth its calling needs to echo Jesus’ single command to GO.
Even though, Ike observed, it is not always what churches do. What we do is more of an inverse of the Great Commission. What Ike, a child of the south, described as Y’all come. Ya’ll come to church on Sunday. We’ll open the doors for you. We’ve got some nice chairs for you to sit in. We’ve got beautiful music and a good word to share. Heck, we’ll even throw in coffee and cookies afterwards, and you can take the bulletin home with you if you want. And next Sunday, ya’ll get to come all over again. Y’all come!
And while our open and hospitable attitude is admirable and very much needed, Ike said, we still wonder why the people are not coming. As one scholar puts it,
We ring our bells, conduct our worship services, provide baptisms, confirmation, weddings, funerals – and wait for the world to come to us. We mount pulpits and preach sermons as we’ve done for centuries. We pursue internal arguments over doctrine and order as though nothing outside has changed. But much has changed, and the people are not coming back.
Important note: while this scholarly assessment rings true for our current times, it actually came from a book written over twenty years ago. What we have become most acutely aware of since the pandemic, friends, has been going on for a much longer time.
“Y’all come” isn’t cutting it anymore – if it ever did. With “y’all come,” we just keep doing things the way we’ve always done them. With “y’all come,” the working assumption is that “they” should be coming to “us.” And as the church is seeing more and more these days, that’s a pretty huge assumption to make.
Now should we be hospitable, greet guests with a smile, serve the coffee, print the bulletins? Absolutely yes! “Y’all come” has a place, no doubt. But first, Jesus says, first we have got to go. GO. And it’s not just that we go – it’s how we go that matters. Namely, we go together. All of us. Not just a few. Not the usual suspects. All of us. Clergy and laity. Long-time members and new folks. Those who pine for days gone by and those who are thirsty for something different. Children and youth and adults. We go, but we must, we absolutely must go together.
I’m wondering if you’re familiar with the word “ubuntu.” It’s an African word, a beautiful word; so beautiful it actually takes five English words to unpack it. Ubuntu essentially means: I am because we are. Kind of a “who you are and whose you are” thing. While we are individuals with our own gifts and uniqueness, we can only come to know our most complete and whole selves when we are in relationship with others.
It was Bishop Desmond Tutu who unpacked ubuntu best when he said:
We think of ourselves far too frequently as just individuals, separated from one another. Ubuntu reminds us that we are connected, and what we do affects the whole world. We cannot be human by ourselves.
I love that last part: we cannot be human by ourselves. Honestly, it sounds a lot like church, doesn’t it? Not “y’all come” but “go together.”
And this is not some lip-service kind of together, either. This is not “sitting in close proximity on Sunday morning” together. This is a real, deep, connectional, lasting together where hands get dirty and feet get busy and lives get intertwined, and somewhere in all of that the gospel is made manifest through the presence of God among us. If our church is going to thrive, it is that kind of togetherness that will serve as its foundation. We go together.
We go together, to the people we are sent to, be it the children and families of the two schools on our campus, or those who use our space for meetings and music lessons and weddings, or whoever God has us meeting in the vision for our church that is soon to unfold….
We go together, into meaningful conversations about the vast resources we have in our midst and our undeniable charge to commit our support, individually and corporately, for the mission and vision of this congregation with time, talent and treasure….
We go together, as one body of Christ, one mind and spirit, to further not the agenda of a few but the world that Jesus sent us out into in the first place…
If he were here with us today, I have to think that Jethro would give us the same advice he gave Moses all those years ago. We who are given the joyful task of living into the mission and vision of God’s great church, to be the hands and feet and heart of our Lord in the world. We know who we are and whose we are. We are because the church of Jesus Christ is.
In the name of the Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer, thanks be to God – and may all of God’s people say, AMEN!
* Because sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation, the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.
 Darrell Guder, The Continuing Conversion of the Church (95-96).