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A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery

A Sense of Proportion
September 21, 2017

During the worship service at our presbytery meeting today, we will be exploring the story of Israel’s first crisis following its deliverance from Egypt through the Red Sea. (Exodus 16) The sermon will focus on what is going on with the people; here, let us consider Moses and Aaron, their leaders.

Moses and Aaron are facing a pastoral challenge of the highest order. The people want to go back to their old ways, and they blame their pastors for their current mess. This new worship program is nothing but a disaster, and they yearn to return to their old, familiar ways, forgetting quickly how hard things were back in those days.  

Moses and Aaron are in this together. Moses may have the lead role, but he does not try to go it alone. He leans on Aaron, later adding also Hur and Joshua for personal support. At the urging of his father-in-law, he finds seventy elders to assist him with pastoral care. Pastoral capacity requires pastoral collaboration.  

The people’s blame is directed to Moses and Aaron equally. But they have differing roles in their pastoral response – Moses is the one who hears from God, while Aaron is the one who speaks God’s word to the people.

As good pastors, Moses and Aaron know that, just as the people’s deliverance from Egypt had nothing to do with their power, their current struggle is not about their failures as leaders. It is impossible to continue serving God’s people well in times of struggle if we take credit for the good things God has done through our ministry. So Moses and Aaron are free to see what’s really going on, and thus are able to set the protesters straight: “It is not against us that you are complaining, but against God.” Because they know their vocation is to be the Lord’s servants (rather than the people’s servants), they are able to stay the course when they come under attack. Despite the people’s shrill chorus of blame, Moses and Aaron know that their congregation’s problem isn’t with their pastors, but with their God.

Perhaps church leaders should add to our commitments to serve with energy, imagination, intelligence, and love yet another: maintain a holy sense of proportion. A commitment that we will never forget that God is God, and we are not. That we won’t let minor things, like people’s intractable sinfulness (what else could we possibly expect of each other anyway?), cause us to dismiss them. Really, is it so very earth-shaking when human beings behave like, well, human beings? A ministerial commitment to a holy sense of proportion won’t make the Book of Order, but maybe it should.

Moses and Aaron understood what mattered most – not what the congregation thought about them, but whether the congregation trusted God. People’s opinions about them didn’t really matter. They did not enter God’s service to gain popular respect and favor. Indeed, they tried their level best to turn away from God’s call to ministry. This holy sense of proportion is what the Bible calls “meekness” - a word that is badly misunderstood as a variant of “weakness.” It is marked by demonstrating a thick skin while preserving a tender heart. Alas, in the face of ministry pressures, we all too easily do the opposite, manifesting a thin skin while developing a hard heart.

Only two individuals in the Bible are specifically marked as “meek” (a wonderful King James Version variant of “humble”). Moses is called the meekest man on the face of the earth in Numbers 12:3, and Jesus describes himself as “meek and humble in heart” (Matthew 11:29), something Paul confirms in 2 Corinthians 10:1. In neither case is there a shred of weakness; rather, their sense of holy proportion enables them steadfastly to avoid both being puffed up by their ministry successes and being dismayed or derailed by opposition.

How is it for us?

Your fellow-servant,

The Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, General Minister

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