August 18, 2019
Then the daughters of Zelophehad came forward. Zelophehad was son of Hepher son of Gilead son of Machir son of Manasseh son of Joseph, a member of the Manassite clans. The names of his daughters were: Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah. They stood before Moses, Eleazar the priest, the leaders, and all the congregation, at the entrance of the tent of meeting, and they said, ‘Our father died in the wilderness; he was not among the company of those who gathered themselves together against the Lord in the company of Korah, but died for his own sin; and he had no sons. Why should the name of our father be taken away from his clan because he had no son? Give to us a possession among our father’s brothers.’
Moses brought their case before the Lord. And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying: The daughters of Zelophehad are right in what they are saying; you shall indeed let them possess an inheritance among their father’s brothers and pass the inheritance of their father on to them. You shall also say to the Israelites, ‘If a man dies, and has no son, then you shall pass his inheritance on to his daughter. If he has no daughter, then you shall give his inheritance to his brothers. If he has no brothers, then you shall give his inheritance to his father’s brothers. And if his father has no brothers, then you shall give his inheritance to the nearest kinsman of his clan, and he shall possess it. It shall be for the Israelites a statute and ordinance, as the Lord commanded Moses.’
“Why aren’t the kids from the Rio Grande Valley coming to Mo Ranch for camp?” It was a simple enough question that the camp staff thought they probably already knew the answer too. Was the cost of camp too high? Were the kids too busy with sports and summer jobs to take a week to go away to be with new friends and encounter God anew? Still, the Presbyterian Church camp risked asking the question, and listening. The answer they heard shook them to their core: border security.
As you drive north towards Mo Ranch from the Rio Grande Valley, border patrol has set up traffic checkpoints where drivers are interrogated about their citizenship status. People who are undocumented sometimes don’t go to hospital visits, or miss family events, because of the risk these checkpoints present.
And so the leaders of Mo Ranch faced a choice; they could let an oppressive system defeat their ministry, or they could change how they do camp. Sometimes the way we like to do life together meets the oppression of our world, and we face a choice; will we adapt and change, or stick to traditions of the past?
There are often good reasons for traditions, like going away to camp. There is a deep beauty associated with Mo Ranch, a sacred space that has been created over the generations, where people have encountered Jesus in new ways. But the leaders sensed that they were being called to do something transformative for young people who suddenly were being denied access to wholeness because of the sinfulness of our nation and culture. Sometimes what worked in the past suddenly becomes oppressive in the present. We can get defensive, and stick to the way we’ve always done things, or we can stop, check in with the living God, and be open to new life. That was true for Mo Ranch, and it was true for Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah, the Daughters of Zelophehad.
The patriarchal system of Hebrew inheritance always had its problems. But there is a certain logic at play that our modern feminist worldview might not initially pick up on. The Hebrew people have left slavery, and are about to establish an agrarian society in the Promised Land. Issues of inheritance and keeping a family name has less to do with who gets the trust fund, and more about keeping the social connections of clans and tribes intact. Patrilineal inheritance in these daughters and Moses’ society keeps farmlands and wealth connected to people who have had to work out how to live with each other. When people enter the land, they will divvy it up based on clans and tribes, so that all may flourish. Without their father’s name, these women would be rootless in the community, without a claim to the blessings of God provided through the soil. Without a tribe and clan, they would likely fall into poverty and isolation. If the family had an eldest son, he would know these realities, and would take on the responsibility of making sure that his family had access to a thriving life. When this text was written, this system works, most of the time, for most people. But it’s not going to work for Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah. They find themselves in a system that is not built for them, their experience, and their lived reality. And so they come to the Tent of Meeting and call out Moses and God in front of the entire journeying people. They lay out their case, and wait. Moses takes a moment, and goes to talk to God. Rabbis have said over the centuries that Moses does this to show honor to God, instead of just making a decision. But when I read this text I think Moses is at a little bit at a loss of what to do. The Law is the Law, right? Who is Moses to change it? Sure, it’s not working in this instance, but what would happen if he allowed change to happen?
Two weeks ago my mentor and friend Rev. Dr. Ken Evers-Hood preached for us at Brown Memorial Presbyterian Church, and afterwards shared about his work in Behavioral Economics. He shared how understanding our automatic responses, known as cognitive biases, can help us to pause and make more fully human decisions, that give us the chance to act from the parts of ourselves we want to live into. Leaders work with people, and are people ourselves, and we have ways that we can be predictably irrational, making decisions that are not always in our best interest, or the best interest of our communities. Irrationality isn’t all bad though. We can also be predictably irrational in ways that are beautiful and life-giving, like being selfless and charitable and generous. Our human nature can help us live into God’s dreams for our lives, and also create our worst nightmares. One of the challenges of irrationality that any community of people faces is that we don’t like to lose, even if what we are losing is something that’s not working. If we have a choice where we will gain something valuable, but we lose something in the process, we usually feel the pain of loss more than the joy of the gain. This can lead people to do some pretty harmful things to ourselves and our communities, like holding onto investments that we worked hard for in the past, irrationally hoping they will rebound. In Churches, we can continue to do things the way we always have, with worse results, because we don’t want to feel the grief of the loss that comes with change. I think Moses is struggling with the fear of loss and grief this morning. Here he is, seeing the unintended consequences of the law. But Moses has put a lot into this law that he received from God; he’s risked his life, left Egypt for it, gotten lost in the wilderness for decades, and recently seen a group of his fellow Hebrews rebel against it. A lot of folks just died in this story as a consequence of making poor decisions. Plus, I think Moses doesn’t want to lose the sense that the law is eternal, unchanging, and perfect. And yet, these women show up, and he has the courage to say, “Give me a minute. Let me run this by God.”
Beloved, we are in a time of change as a congregation. For those among us who have been here for decades, and those of you who have been serving since the moment you arrived, you’ve invested a lot. And we are seeing the fruit of your labor. It’s an exciting time as we grow, as we welcome new visitors, as we get ready to create new children’s and family programming. It’s an exciting time of change. But there is something we don’t often like to talk about that comes along with change; loss. When we do new things, we have to say goodbye to others. That’s part of being human; we’re limited, and we can’t do everything. And the pain of loss and grief, it is powerful. Which is why I give thanks for Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah. They have experienced the loss of their Father, and instead of keeping the status quo, they push for even more change in their lives. They step up and say, “We need a change so that we can be who God has created us to be.” And they risk asking for the community to give up the idea that the Law is unchanging, so that all may flourish. I give thanks that Moses doesn’t just react from his gut, but listens to their voices, and listens to God. He gets away and lays it out to the Lord. And I am thankful that we serve the Living God, the Holy One of what was, is, and is to be, who guides the people through change. God changes the Law for the people, because it isn’t working for the people it is to be a blessing for.
Our Elder’s have been hard at work on our budget and our congregation’s mission for next year. God is up to something in our midst. I’ve been hearing from so many of you about where you have energy and excitement to partner with what the Holy Spirit is bringing about, about the folks we want to form deeper relationships with, and those in our community who we want to get to know. I’ve heard about your desires to be a church that welcomes people who don’t find a spiritual home in other communities. Providentially, we have been uniquely created as a community to embrace people who are searching for a spiritual home. There is work in our area that we are excited and equipped to do, in a way that no one else is. And these are great opportunities to be faithful followers of Jesus. But we are also going to experience some grief, some feelings of loss, if we embrace the Living God’s call to our community, because change, no matter how good and needed it is, always holds some tinges of loss. I have felt that powerfully this week. I realized that I wasn’t feeling quite myself, feeling tired and raw. I spent some time away with God, and people that I love and trust, and I realized that I have been carrying a lot of grief. I’ve been grieving the anticipatory grief of my Uncle Mark, who is dying of stage 4 cancer, and who I got to visit in California. September will mark the end of my second year among you all, and this week I realized that while this work that I enjoy, and I love you all so deeply, we’re entering a period of time where we are going to have to make hard decisions about what our mission is for 2020. There’s a grief that comes with knowing that there have been times that I have let you down, and there might be times where we face conflict in the future. But this week I also took time to celebrate what God is doing among us. Tomorrow, Leigh Erdman will begin with us as the Minister for Family Nurture, LGBTQ+ Belonging, and Community Organizing, working with us and Dickey Memorial Presbyterian Church. We have a homecoming festival on Saturday, September 14th to welcome our newest neighbors and celebrate our local community. The Deep Rooted Folks, our newest worship leaders, have been with us a year, and I am excited for their continued ministry among us. And we have a new Members class starting in September. There is change, there is loss, there is new life, all mixed together. So let us acknowledge when we feel grief, but also take the time to check-in with God, and be reminded that our calling is not to preserve what has been, but to walk into the fullness of life and love that God is preparing for us. When something isn’t working, let’s call it out, trusting that God hears us, and sees us. Together with the Holy One who has brought us together and walks with us on this journey, we can be the people of God that are needed in this time, and be a blessing to one another, and those we meet along the way.
That’s what the folks from Mo Ranch decided to do. In the words of the New York Times Article published yesterday about this ministry, camp now takes place QUOTE “in the shadow of migrant shelters and amid a rolling national conversation about immigration…These teenagers see, hear and feel the stereotypes: They must be poor. They or their parents must not be in the United States legally. But like the border region itself, they are much more than a headline. Many of the older campers have parents who are in the country legally but either cannot afford the Hill Country camp or cannot make the trip because of their work schedules.” The president and chief executive of Mo-Ranch, Dick Powell, shares that “As a Christian, we believe that everyone — everyone — is a child of God and created in God’s image…I can’t allow some artificial barrier to separate our mission and ministry. They may not be able to come north, but we can go south.”
And so they found a retreat center on the boarder that they can meet at, raise money so that all can attend, and create a sacred place where young people can play, and live in the world as it should be, for a week, not the way it is. Young people get to connect with one another, themselves, and God in new ways, in the knowledge that nothing in life or death, not even our presidents racism and Immigration’s check-points, can separate us from the love of God.
May we embrace the trust of God we see in Mo Ranch, Moses, and Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah. Amen