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United Church of Christ

533 Route 28, Harwich Port, MA 02646 | Phone: 508-432-1668

Recipe For Greatness Part 2: We Need One Another

Exodus 17:8-13

Recipe for Greatness Part 2

We Need One Another

Rev. Dr. Susan Cartmell

Sunday July 10, 2016

Pilgrim Congregational Church


            This month our sermons revolve around the topic of Greatness. What does it mean to live with purpose, and how do we achieve our potential?  How do we get the most out of our lives?  Most of us don’t think all that much about being great. We assume that other people are great, because we usually confuse being great with being famous. We assume that considerations of greatness are for people who perform on life’s big stages and have a large following. We associate greatness with thought leaders, and newsmakers and stars. People who are great get awards and walk down red carpets while other people take their pictures.  So most of us as confusing greatness with being famous. But our faith teaches that being great has nothing to do with fame or fortune. It has nothing to do with our prospects or our class or our wealth. The Bible turns the world’s values upside down.

The Bible sends the world’s ideas of greatness spinning on its head. Stories like David and Goliath remind us that no account little boys can slay a mighty warrior in an improbable matchup where the child uses a stone to kill a hulk of a man. Supposedly great warriors terrorize the Israelites with threats until a small shepherd hits Goliath with a stone than ends the debate of who is greatest.

            The Bible upsets the world’s notion of greatness by telling the story of a Galilean carpenter from a no account village who lived in the Roman occupied territory but was not afraid to speak his mind, or criticize the rich. This rabbi who preferred the poor to the rich and defied all the odds by coming from the humblest of backgrounds to change the world as we know it. No one expected him to be newsworthy or notable or great.

The Bible says that God gives each of us the potential to be much greater than we imagined. We, like Jesus have with us the seeds of greatness. But true greatness is a sly and subtle quality. It often hides in humble people. True greatness shies away from hubris. There are no shortcuts to great character. IT is a lifelong journey, this building of character.  It takes a level of persistence. We are always tempted to take the easy path or to pander to the world’s values.

Though most of us think of greatest people as solitary leaders, or even lonely historical figures who changed the world, the Bible offers us a very different perspective of greatness and we see it in today’s story about Moses. Now of all the people in history who might be known as great Moses was on the short list. He parted the waters of the Red Sea. He got the Ten Commandments. He led the people through good times and bad. But here in this story we see a fuller picture of what made Moses great. Let’s take a closer look.

In the first place, the story of Moses tells us that great people know their strengths.  Do you remember when God called Moses to bring the people out of slavery, Moses was nervous. He did not think he could speak to Pharaoh. He may have wondered how to inspire his people to follow him. But over the years Moses grew in stature and confidence.  He began to trust his abilities as a leader. He began to recognize his unique contribution to the progress of his people because after all they had been through together he could inspire them. Moses could stand and they would recognize his authority. He could hold up his rod and they would be reminded of his spiritual power and his connection to God. His great stature as a leader could inspire confidence and grit on the battlefield.

Moses came to recognize that this was his great strength, his ability to inspire others. He tested and honed this strength throughout the time when they were making their way through the wilderness. Now when we imagine this journey we may assume that these Hebrews were traversing uninhabited desert. But they were often crossing through territory that brought them into inevitable friction and outright conflict with local people. Among these were the Amalekites, fierce fighters who defended their turf.

In this confrontation, instead of a full-on slaughter, they arranged to have elite troops meet on a battlefield to determine who would prevail. So, the Hebrews chose this Hebrew version of the Navy SEALS and appointed Joshua as commander.

Knowing his ability to inspire people, Moses elected to climb to the top of a hill overlooking the battlefield and announced that he would raise the rod of God to inspire his forces. If you Google “know your strengths:  you find 16 million hits. Business articles and self-help books by the score tell people that they maximize their competence when they know their strengths. People like Marcus Buckingham have built a reputation in management consulting by advising people to know their strengths so that they can play to them, and navigate around their weaknesses. Knowing yourself is the first step in living into your God-given potential. 

In the second place the story of Moses also tells us that great people know the limits of their strength. They know their weaknesses.

Moses’s skill was the ability to see what the people needed, and to find a way to strengthen them when they were weak, or to inspire them when they were down. Moses does not try to go hand to hand with the Amalekites.  He would have been slaughtered early on, and then his strength would be lost to the people. He does not try to be everything to everyone.

Moses cannot stand up for hours so they get him a rock to sit on and he accepts a seat when he is tired. Moses realizes that he can only hold his hands up for so long and so he needs the help of others to hold his arms aloft.  Moses also accepts help when his arms are weary.

Great people are folks that allow others to help them because they recognize their human limits. Last Thursday as many of you know Peggy and I moved to Harwich from Boston. Despite all our preparation and hard work, like most moves, not everything went according to plan. There were unexpected delays and some glitches, so we did not arrive until dusk and then the movers had to unpack in the dark. Needless to say, it was a long day. Though we had a lot of adrenaline going throughout Thursday, on Friday morning I was becoming well aware of how tired and disoriented I was.

We had pastoral duties yesterday; Peggy led the funeral for Marion Marsh and a wedding on the beach. I wanted to be prepared for Jazz Sunday. But on Friday evening two of you came over to our house threaded your way through the boxes and cleared rooms, set up shelves, and put furniture together. One of you brought us dinner on Friday and we cleaned space to eat together and we sat in the chaos leisurely after supper as through everything was normal.

One of our deacons offered to come and help us unpack and bring a friend from the church. She told Peggy “You can’t do this alone.” You reminded us that we all need help, especially when we move. It was a good lesson, because it is so seductive to try to be a hero.

Finally, the story of Moses tells us that truly great people understand the power of teamwork. Most of us think of history as a story of heroes, because that is the way it is written. Most of the heroes turn out to be average people, who have a talent that they play to, and have found a great PR person.

            The Bible is not the history of heroes but the history of a community of people who know how much they need one another. Noah was a middle aged man who risked everything to build the biggest boat he could. Peter started as fisherman who wanted to follow Jesus but often did not understand him. Esther was a beauty in the King’s harem who overcame her fears to advocate for the Jews. Moses was a middle aged man who knew how to pray and was willing to face highly improbable odds that the greatest empire of their time would release their slaves.

            What made these men and women great is the same thing that makes for greatness today; they were brave and scared, strong and flawed. But as a community they realized they would only make it through the wilderness of this life if they learned to lean on one another. 

Greatness is often the ability to be part of something bigger than yourself.

We think of greatness as the ability to run the race of life alone. But it is often the ability to be part of a relay team, a team in which we realize that we may be the best as the crawl stroke but someone else rocks the butterfly.

            This week our nation has been rocked by the gut-wrenching grief of three public acts of outrageous violence. Two Black men were killed by police- Alton Stirling in Baton Rouge Louisiana and Philandro Castile in Minnesota. Both shootings of unarmed Black men were captured on videos that went viral. The public horror of these acts of un restrained violence was shock, horror and outrage.  Then a sniper, himself upset by the police violence against Black citizens, took his anger out on by killing five white Dallas police officers. Today’s New York Times leads with a story about how fractured and divided out nation is. In our grief and confusion people are tempted to divide along racial lines. Now the group Black Lives Matter is being challenged by another group called Blue Lives Matter. In this moment, it will be tempting to go against one another when what we need most is to find our common ground. The Bible teaches that all life matters.

As we pause to worship in the middle of one of the bloodiest summers most of us can remember, we will need to ask many questions. I imagine that it will be tempting to try to find heroes and to blame others. But such simplistic approaches to complex issues into public life have not served us well. The Bible points to another way - what the Bible says about human community. 

Posted: Sunday July 10, 2016