Sunday 13th September 2015, Trinity 15, evening

Exodus 18.13-26; Matthew 7.1-14

by Revd Chris Palmer

There’s a rather unfortunate juxtaposition between the two readings. I think completely unintentional. The first reading starts, ‘Moses sat as a judge for the people’. The second reading starts, ‘Do not judge, so that you may not be judged’.

Even a cursory glance at the readings shows that it’s different kinds of judgement that’s being spoken about. Moses is assuming the responsibilities of leadership. Jesus is warning against finger pointing.

And there’s more. For Moses to be the true leader, he needs to learn to share judgement with others. The tasks of leading, of decision making are too big for one person, and his father-in-law counsels him to find other to whom he can delegate some of the responsibility. And even learning to delegate the task is about taking responsibility for the burdensome demand he faces.

For Jesus, true judgement should be directed towards oneself. He tells the famous story about motes and planks in eyes. But in the end Jesus like Moses is calling us to embrace responsibility. As long as we finger point, criticising others, we are insulated from needing to change. But when we own our own failures and weaknesses, we are challenged to do something about them.

In other words, both readings are about taking responsibility – the responsibility that is rightly ours to assume.

And there’s more. For Moses, taking responsibility, exercising right judgement means asking for help. It means empowering others to do the work also. And therefore it means trusting others. It means resisting the hero-complex which thinks, ‘I need to be all sufficient’. Because, you see, the mistake we often make is to think that strong people can cope alone. No, weak people try to cope alone; strong people know that they need help and ask for it. Good leaders are those who have learned to swallow their pride and admitted what they can’t do themselves. True leaders are ready to receive help and be a source of strength and encouragement to those they work with. True leaders are not afraid to be vulnerable and admit their weaknesses so that they can recruit other able people to work with them.

Good leaders listen to advice, just as Moses does from his father in law. And good leaders are not afraid to surround themselves with able people. Listen to what Jethro says, ‘… look for able men… who fear God, are trustworthy, and hate dishonest gain…’ Poor leaders choose weak helpers, because they’re frightened of being outshone.

And if leadership is about finding appropriate help, empowering others, and swallowing our pride, then the way to get in practice for all this is to do these things even when it’s not about leadership. Earlier this week I got in a big panic about something and blew a problem out of proportion in my mind; I felt totally uncertain about what it do, and lay awake worrying about it until 1am – that’s very unusual for me. Happily I was reminded that asking for help is a sign of strength, not weakness. And called someone I trusted, and who talked me into a sensible state in about five minutes. The space between panic and being OK is sometimes just one short conversation.

And Moses is one of those people who grew into a wise judge from a place of foolishness. As a young man he’d killed the Egyptian who was beating a Hebrew slave, and when it got discovered ran away. That kind of reckless, lone-ranger revenge had none of hallmarks of wisdom or leadership; but God noticed his thirst for justice, his siding with the vulnerable and blessed these qualities in him. His mistakes and insecurities lead him to depend on God’s strength and restoration, and so make him a strong and humble leader. Remember that comment in Exodus, that there was no one in the world as humble as Moses.

And Jesus is calling us to exactly the same things too. Humility, owning our weaknesses, and courage. That’s what taking the log out of our own eye requires. Finger pointing at others is the habit of the cowardly. Of course, Jesus isn’t saying, don’t confront people who peddle injustice; we do need to speak up for those who are abused or mistreated. But just gratuitous fault-finding is a cheap way to boost our own ego whilst avoiding the pain of growing as a human being.

But it is incredibly difficult. Many relationships founder in mutual recriminations in which each person is good at calling attention to the other’s faults. And of course, the analysis is often right. You may have a good perspective on someone else’s mistakes. But the only grace-filled thing is attending to your own.

It’s hard. We’ve lived with our faults for so long that we can  navigate around them, compensate for them, and forgive ourselves for the mess with make. We are content to live with the relationship damage, the physical damage, the emotional damage, the limitations our mistakes cause, because all these inconveniences are less painful than actually doing the hard work of changing.

But here too, it’s alright to ask for help. In fact, it’s pretty essential. If it’s sins we’re talking about, the church has long had the wisdom to offer people the chance in confession of sharing their sins with a priest, and (hopefully) discovering a compassionate response – even if occasionally a response that suggests uncomfortable steps are needed to change. Even if it’s not in that context, it can be good to share our failures with a trustworthy friend; someone with wisdom to listen and love.

Because the amazing thing is that it’s that process of owning our faults and seeking to make changes to put them right in which we discover God’s grace. It’s obvious in one sense. I’m just saying what we say so often, ‘If we confess our sins God is faithful and just to forgive us our sins…’ But the space from words to actual change is a big one. The church has traditionally distinguished between attrition and contrition. Attrition roughly is saying sorry because you’re worried about getting punished. Contrition is repenting because you know you are loved. Attrition rarely leads to a true change of heart and life; contrition will always be displayed in taking the steps needed to change, because it’s love that burns in the hearts, not fear.

So Jesus and Moses – both are calling us to courageous living, which is also humble living. The road of taking responsibility, seeking help, and living with grace. May God give us his help in following Christ.