Pentecost 11B – August 5, 2018

There is a story about Oliver Wendel Holmes that takes note of his short stature. A man asked him one day if it didn’t make him feel peculiar sometimes always being around people who were bigger that he was. “Yes” replied Holmes, “ I do feel just like a dime in the midst of a bunch of pennies. The man certainly did not have an inferiority complex.
How different is the attitude of Moses in this 16th chapter of Exodus. Not once but twice Moses says that when the people murmur and grumble, they are not murmuring and grumbling against Moses, but against the Lord. “For what are we (Moses and Aaron) that you murmur against us.” I guess at first glance the murmuring seems justified. The people were hungry and so they griped loud and long. And they really said some hateful things that I’m sure they didn’t mean. “Would that we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate bread to the full; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.” Now that is mean talk. I suspect life in Egypt wasn’t as good as they were now saying it was. The life of a slave wasn’t worth much. Probably plenty of them had been worked to death. And most likely the diet of a slave wasn’t all that great either. For when they were in Egypt they had cried out again and again to God for deliverance. And God in response to their cries had actually drafted Moses to lead the people out. As the spiritual quotes God saying:
“Go down Moses
Way down in Egypt land
Tell ole Pharaoh
Let my people go.”
And Moses bobbed and weaved and did his best to dodge the draft. But God had ahold of him. He had found his man. And Moses ended up doing what God wanted.
It was dramatic stuff that Moses got involved in: heated confrontations with Pharaoh, the laying of dreadful plagues on Egypt; the lifting of those same plagues, all with a word or a wave of the hand. The lethal visit of the angel of death to the first-born of every Egyptian household; the passing over all Israelite houses; the miraculous rescue at the Red Sea with Israel walking through it on dry ground and Pharaoh’s army being destroyed by the same sea. All these things made Moses look pretty good to the people. His popularity was unquestioned. The people knew that he had a special connection with God. But then they got hungry. The spoil that they had brought with them from Egypt was worthless in the desert. They were hungry and they turned mean. “Weren’t the graves in Egypt good enough that you had to bring us out here to die?” “Oh how great it was in Egypt when they could eat all they wanted.” One minute Moses was a hero, the next moment a scapegoat. This was the beginning of a pattern that to a certain degree still characterizes all of us people of God even today. It’s not what God has done for us that matters so much as what God has done for us lately. And so God did feed them with manna and quail. He provided water in that dry place. He led them through the wilderness; always using Moses as his agent, his go-between, his priest if you will. And all of this activity was always accompanied with griping and rebellious threats. It got so bad at one time that Moses begged God to pick somebody else to lead those people and let him die in peace because he couldn’t take it anymore. But God encouraged Moses to continue on. And he did.
The most awesome thing that Moses did was meet with God on Mt. Sinai. There he wrote down the law as God gave it and heard for the first time the divine name of God, Yahweh. But even that—the culminating experience of his life—was ruined by those obstreperous people. For when he carried the holy tablets inscribed with the law down from the mountain, he found the people worshipping a golden calf which they had fashioned in his absence. Moses was provoked beyond his limit to endure this time. He smashed the holy tablets on the ground. He had the golden calf ground to dust and sprinkled the dust on water and made the people drink. He called for all those loyal to God to come to him. And those who didn’t come he had killed. Order being restored, he had to go back up the mountain, beg God to forgive the people and write another copy of the law.
Moses is a hard man to categorize. Was he a prophet? Yes to a certain extent. But he was also the leader. And he was a priest. It is his role as priest that I want to emphasize this morning. His role as priest had little to do with making sacrifices—although he did throw some blood around from time to time. Rather his role as priest involved carrying on a constant “diplomatic shuttle,” we might say, between God and the people. He was God’s mediator. He was the negotiator. It was his job to get the people to understand their reality. He constantly had to set things in context and remind the people of their proper priorities. He continually found ways that enabled the people to cope with life. The job was tough with big highs and deep lows. But that’s all part of being a priest.
I still remember the tremendous high that most of the city of Philadelphia felt during the papal visit. I was in that crowd of over 1,000,000 people who listened attentively to John Paul II’s exhortation to love and serve one another. You could see it happening before your eyes. People loaned strangers their binoculars to see and offered their lawn chairs to strangers who were tired. People picked each other’s children up and put them on their shoulders so that they could see over the crowd. Not mass hysteria but mass euphoria that day. But one week later when I was in Center City during rush hour waiting for a bus to take me back to West Philadelphia—in the rain—it was a little different. When the bus pulled to the corner, there was the usual pushing and elbowing to get to the front of the crowd and onto the bus. Someone from the back called out in a loud voice, “Where is all the love now?”
When you’re a priest, you have to deal with the highs and lows in life. They welcomed Jesus, our great High Priest, into Jerusalem singing and waving palm branches on Palm Sunday. And by the time Friday arrived, they were beating him and nailing him to the cross. But the function of priesthood was the same. Jesus, the Great Mediator, was straightening things out between God and his people, not just Israel this time, but all humanity.
A parishioner that I visited one time said that she preferred not to serve in any leadership capacity in the church because there’s always so much fussing in church work, any church. And to a certain extent she’s right. But another parishioner said to me that he likes a challenge.
We may not all be prophets or leaders like Moses. God endows us with different gifts. But we are all priests. Lutherans are famous for the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers. And therein lies the challenge. You were ordained a priest the day you were baptized. You are challenged with the same task of helping people cope with life. You are to help people in need. You are to help people make sense out of and find meaning in life. You are to demonstrate the joy of giving. And frequently that is very hard to do.
But here is the surprising part. You’d think that after Moses went through all that trouble with the people and all that struggling with God that he would come down off Mt. Sinai the second time a bitter and broken man. If you have a chance, go on over to St. Francis of Assisi Church in Norristown sometime and look at the replica of Michelangelo’s Moses in their narthex. See if he looks like a broken man to you. For according to the last verse of Chapter 35 in Exodus Moses came down off that mountain with a radiant face. He was glowing with fulfillment, confidence, and power, all gifts from the God he served.
You’d think that after Jesus was taken down off the cross dead, that that would be the end of it. But God in a majestic switch raised him from the dead and not just his face, but his whole glorified body radiated a glow and a power that would never fade.
And so it is with us! We are his priests now! He can set us aglow with his power. We are in the process of building the perfect community and no trial or trouble can hold us back. Amen.

St John’s Lutheran Church Phoenixville