March 8, 2020
Jethro, the priest of Midian, Moses’ father-in-law, heard of all that God had done for Moses and for his people Israel, how the Lord had brought Israel out of Egypt. After Moses had sent away his wife Zipporah, his father-in-law Jethro took her back, along with her two sons. The name of one was Gershom (for he said, ‘I have been an alien in a foreign land’), and the name of the other, Eliezer (for he said, ‘The God of my father was my help, and delivered me from the sword of Pharaoh’). Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, came into the wilderness where Moses was encamped at the mountain of God, bringing Moses’ sons and wife to him. He sent word to Moses, ‘I, your father-in-law Jethro, am coming to you, with your wife and her two sons.’ Moses went out to meet his father-in-law; he bowed down and kissed him; each asked after the other’s welfare, and they went into the tent. Then Moses told his father-in-law all that the Lord had done to Pharaoh and to the Egyptians for Israel’s sake, all the hardship that had beset them on the way, and how the Lord had delivered them. Jethro rejoiced for all the good that the Lord had done to Israel, in delivering them from the Egyptians.
Jethro said, ‘Blessed be the Lord, who has delivered you from the Egyptians and from Pharaoh. Now I know that the Lord is greater than all gods, because he delivered the people from the Egyptians, when they dealt arrogantly with them.’ And Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, brought a burnt-offering and sacrifices to God; and Aaron came with all the elders of Israel to eat bread with Moses’ father-in-law in the presence of God.
The next day Moses sat as judge for the people, while the people stood around him from morning until evening. When Moses’ father-in-law saw all that he was doing for the people, he said, ‘What is this that you are doing for the people? Why do you sit alone, while all the people stand around you from morning until evening?’ Moses said to his father-in-law, ‘Because the people come to me to inquire of God. When they have a dispute, they come to me and I decide between one person and another, and I make known to them the statutes and instructions of God.’ Moses’ father-in-law said to him, ‘What you are doing is not good. You will surely wear yourself out, both you and these people with you. For the task is too heavy for you; you cannot do it alone. Now listen to me. I will give you counsel, and God be with you! You should represent the people before God, and you should bring their cases before God; teach them the statutes and instructions and make known to them the way they are to go and the things they are to do. You should also look for able men among all the people, men who fear God, are trustworthy, and hate dishonest gain; set such men over them as officers over thousands, hundreds, fifties and tens. Let them sit as judges for the people at all times; let them bring every important case to you, but decide every minor case themselves. So it will be easier for you, and they will bear the burden with you. If you do this, and God so commands you, then you will be able to endure, and all these people will go to their home in peace.’
So Moses listened to his father-in-law and did all that he had said. Moses chose able men from all Israel and appointed them as heads over the people, as officers over thousands, hundreds, fifties, and tens. And they judged the people at all times; hard cases they brought to Moses, but any minor case they decided themselves. Then Moses let his father-in-law depart, and he went off to his own country.
My first experience with interfaith work came while I was preparing to spend a month in the State of Israel and Occupied Palestine. It was my first semester of Seminary. Our Professor, a Jewish Episcopalian, had prepared us well. She was clear with us that proselytizing was a non-starter, that our job in these encounters was not to argue that our faith was somehow better, that our goal wasn’t to point out the parts of another’s tradition that we didn’t like. Our class of twenty fresh-faced seminarians felt ready at the end of the first few months of our classes to encounter those from other traditions, to be surprised, to see the differences in our faith traditions, and to not try and always process other religions through our Christian lenses of understanding. But when a Muslim couple came to share about their experiences, I wasn’t prepared for their advice for engaging in interfaith dialogues and relationships. They were asked what the most unhelpful thing Christians do in these kinds of situations, and they laughed. They looked at us, and smiled, and their voices got low, like they were letting us in on a secret about ourselves “Christians, don’t try to be someone you’re not. Don’t quote our texts to us. Don’t try to cover up what makes you different from us. We need you to bring your tradition to the table. Jesus, Peace be upon him, is a peacemaker. Can you be people of the Prince of Peace? Don’t lose what makes you unique.”
Being part of a dominant religion in America, and with many of us being identified as White, is that we have a special kind of privilege when it comes to interfaith encounters. We have the freedom to be who we’d like to be. We don’t have a lot to lose during an interfaith encounter. If we share an unpopular opinion, if we’re not at our best, our entire tradition isn’t going to be judged for it. Our religious stories, our holidays, parts of our culture, have shaped the overall culture of the country we live in. And it can be tempting to think “Well, everyone’s like us.” In reality, we live in a world that our ancestors have shaped to our tradition, from when schools have vacations, to the decorations in department stores during the winter, to our political discourse. And yet, when our tradition is seen as the “default,” it can be tempting to think that we have nothing unique to add to the conversation. It can also make us think that we don’t have any ways to grow. And yet, if we are open to it, we can be called to go deeper in our own faith tradition, through encountering the faiths of others.
In her book, Holy Envy: Finding God in the Faith of Others Barbara Brown Taylor shares that “Once, at the end of a field trip to the Atlanta Masjid of Al-Islam, the imam ended his meeting with students by saying, ‘Our deepest desire is not that you become Muslim, but that you become the best Christian, the best Jew, the best person you can be. In the name of God, the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful. Thank you for coming.’ Then he was gone, leaving me with a fresh case of holy envy.”
Holy Envy, Taylor Explains, is the experience of encountering part of another’s tradition, and wanting it to be a part of your own spiritual experience. She shares that when she first began teaching Religion 101, students would sometimes tell her that they were scared to study other religions because they were afraid of losing their own faith. At first, she thought this was an odd fear. She writes, “Would studying Spanish make them lose their English? Would traveling to Turkey cost them their US passport? I had a stock response to their concern: engaging the faith of others is the best way to grow your own.” But now, she has a greater respect for this fear. Quote “To discover that your faith is one among many – that there are hundreds of others that have sustained millions of people for thousands of years, and that some of them make a great deal of sense – that can rock your boat, especially if you thought yours was the only one on the sea. If your faith depends on being God’s only child, then the discovery that there are others can lead you to decide that someone must be wrong – or that everybody belongs, which means that no religion, including yours, is the entire ocean.”
Now she has a different response ‘Engaging the faith of others will almost certainly cause you to lose faith in the old box you kept God in,” she says “The truths you glimpse in other religions are going to crowd up against some of your own. Holy envy may lead you to borrow some things, and you will need a place to put them. You may find spiritual guides outside your box whom you want to make room for, or some neighbors from other faith who have stopped by for a visit. However, it happens, your old box will turn out to be too small for who you have become. You will need a bigger one with more windows in it – something more like a home than a box, perhaps – where you can open the door to all kinds of people without fearing their faith will cancel yours out if you let them in. If things go well, they may invite you to visit them in their homes as well, so that your children can make friends.”
Jethro is a friend of Moses, along with being his Father-in-Law. He’s a priest of a different tradition, and he wants Moses to be the best Hebrew he can be. From outside of the tradition, Jethro is able to speak truth into Moses’ life and community, about the living God. Moses is overwhelmed with the task of Shepherding God’s people, but Jethro can see that the tradition of the Hebrew’s is ready to grow. It’s outgrowing the box that God has been placed in. There’s only one leader, but Jethro can see that, when we let God to be God, Moses can trust that the Holy One is at work in the lives of others. Jethro sees the strength of the Jewish people to step into leadership, to practice wisdom, to encounter the Living God, and be shaped by the encounter, so that they can shape the life of the community they live in. Being the best Hebrews means inviting more folks into the work of figuring out how to be the best Hebrew community. This wisdom doesn’t come from God in this story; it comes from the priest of another tradition, who sees what is best in the tradition, and wants to bless these strangers. In a world that needs more wisdom, Jethro is willing to share, for another tradition to grow, to bloom, to find itself being more authentically itself.
I can relate this week to Moses. He’s not the hero of this story, and he’s feeling pretty overwhelmed. He’s having trouble trusting that the Living God is at work outside of what he is able to do. The past few weeks, I’ve been feeling pretty overwhelmed. Between COVID-19, trying to figure out how to lead us through a time of fears and concerns around the corona virus, stepping temporarily into the role of choir director, and cultivating our book study and interfaith encounters, I’ve felt a kinship with Moses. And yet, with this story flowing through me this week, I’ve seen God being God, at work in the lives of others, at work through and among you.
COVID-19 is a challenge for leaders of houses of worship. Many of our congregations are at elevated risks, with folks who are immunocompromised, elderly, or who work shift work that might be highly disrupted if we enter a period of proactively isolating from one another. I’ve been getting bulletins from Presbyterian Disaster Assistance about how to prepare, about how we might respond, and to say that I’ve felt the weight of this feels like an understatement. But what I love about our tradition is that, while part of my job as a Pastor is to be a shepherd, to care for you all, I’m not the only shepherd in this community. Tomorrow evening I’ll be gathering with our Elders, our elected leaders in this place. There is so much wisdom in the room when we come together. We’re going to be making plans for how to care for one another, how to set up communion so it is safe for us if there is an outbreak in our midst, how to decide when we might need to worship remotely through phone lines and live streaming. Our Presbyterian Siblings in Seattle decided to not hold worship today. But they decided to stay connected, and we can learn from their experiences, and be ready. And it’s not just the wisdom of this place, and our fellow Presbyterians, even our fellow Christians, we can rely on. Yesterday I went to Hinenu for Shabat, and Rabbi Ariana preached on the Torah portion for the day. In the story, Amalek attacks the people as they journey under Moses’ leadership, attacking the back of the community, where the most vulnerable would be walking. She reminded us that sometimes we need to circle around those who are most vulnerable in our communities when there are threats. I found myself being reminded that our most vulnerable, those of us who are elderly who live alone, who don’t have the services of a retirement community, those who work shift work that shut downs would hurt economically, are where we can focus our resources. If you’re someone who is concerned about how you would access food or are worried about what will happen if you don’t get shifts at work, let myself or our elders know. I’ll also be reaching out, because we can be proactive, and make sure that we care for one another.
Our Choir, and Deep Rooted Folks, now with Patrick, reminded me of the gifts of musicians, of creatives. Music to me feels like a sacred mystery, and yet when I asked this team for help, well, you’ve heard what they can do. I’m learning to rely on the skill and gifts of this community, while we explore how to praise God, and draw one another closer to the divine through song.
And finally, there’s our book study. This week I was able to bask in the warm glow of your stories about encountering other faith traditions. I could listen to y’all share your wisdom for hours. I found myself listening with all of myself, soaking up being in your presence. You filled me with life this week, made me laugh, reminded me that in our interfaith work, our biggest asset, is each of you. What our world needs, we have, in who you are, your stories, your warmth, your wisdom.
Beloved, my dream for us, for myself, is for us to be the best Christians we can be. We can be a people who take care of the most vulnerable among us, stay connected no matter what happens in the weeks and months ahead. We can worship God with the gifts we have been blessed with, we can be disciples of reconciliation in our world. It’s not up to any one of us, but of all of us together. What we need, what our world needs, is in this room, for the Reign of God to bubble up and bless our world with living water. I thank God for the Jethro’s of other traditions that remind us to let God be God, at work in the lives of each other, and indeed those of other faiths. Let us build a house, a home, not a box for God. May our children become friends with those of other traditions, and may they learn that God gives us what we need, through our tradition and the wisdom of other traditions. In the Name of God our Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer, in the Name of the Prince of a Peace that surpasses all understanding, Amen.