Romans 12 is one of those many familiar passages in the New Testament that praises humility, collaboration and teamwork, qualities that are sorely lacking in our fearful recession-plagued society and world. What a great time to be reminded of the value our unique individual gifts can contribute to addressing complex social problems.
The Hebrew slaves in Exodus (1:8-2:10) were up an even bigger creek without a paddle than we are today, and that narrative provides a marvelous illustration of what collaboration and teamwork look like. Most of us think of Moses as the great leader of liberation for the Hebrew exodus from slavery in Egypt. He’s the one who boldly stares down Pharaoh, one of the most powerful rulers in the world, and demands freedom for God’s people. True, it helped that he had divine intervention to back him up. Those persuasive plagues God inflicts on Pharaoh’s people certainly make for memorable drama in Hollywood retellings of the Exodus story, be it the old Charlton Heston version or Disney’s animated “Prince of Egypt.”
Most people know something about Moses. Shiphrah and Puah on the other hand are far from household names, and yet without those minor characters in this drama, there would have been no Moses and no Exodus. Without the brave little slave girl, Miriam, and her courageous mother and their creative manipulation of Pharaoh’s daughter’s maternal compassion, Moses, the great liberator would not have survived the first year of life. What a wonderful twist in this story (Exodus 2:5-9) when Moses’ sister tricks Pharaoh’s daughter into giving Moses back to his mother to nurse him. The mother not only gets her son back but even gets paid for providing childcare.
The great African-American Preacher, James Forbes, preached on the Exodus story several years ago at the Schooler Institute on Preaching at the Methodist Theological School in Ohio (“Let My Leaders Go,” Nov. 13, 1990). I still use a recording of that sermon regularly in the preaching classes I teach. The essence of the sermon is that without the contributions of the “minor” characters in what Forbes calls “Phase I” of the liberation process, there could have been no Phase II led by Moses and his brother Aaron.
In Romans 12 Paul says “do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God— what is is good and acceptable and perfect.” The world’s order to the midwives is explicit and unambiguous. They were to kill all the Hebrew boy babies at birth. But the midwives were blessed with the ability to discern the will of God. They were not conformed to the world and “did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but they let the boys live.” When called on the royal carpet by the King himself to account for their disobedience of his decree the midwives are not intimidated because they feared God and knew where their ultimate obedience belonged. They stand up to Pharaoh and exercise what Forbes calls “prophetic license,” telling a little white lie about how the Hebrew women are so vigorous that their babies are born before the midwives even arrive on the scene.
So Pharaoh tries a new tactic. He orders all the male Hebrew baby boys thrown into the Nile after they are born. And up steps another minor player in the drama. A slave woman gives birth to a son, hides him for three months and then does what Pharaoh has commanded, sort of. She puts her infant son into the river; only first she makes him a little boat to keep him afloat. Then she places her precious child in the most famous bulrushes in the world, strategically choosing the spot where she knows Pharaoh’s daughter will find him because she regularly bathes there.
Moses’ mother and sister exercise what Paul calls “sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned.” They creatively and courageously do what is necessary to preserve the life of Israel’s future liberator. What seem like insignificant actions by the midwives, the mother and sister, and Pharaoh’s daughter are all necessary components of the larger plot that unfolds many years later (Exodus 3) when God speaks to Moses in a burning bush and convinces him to step forward and confront the terrible injustice being inflicted on God’s people.
But notice that not even the great leader Moses is expected to do that daunting task alone. And no wonder. God is asking Moses to stand up to challenge one of the most powerful men in the world. And one has to wonder how complicated this situation was since Moses’ adversary is none other than the one who had raised him and provided graciously for him in his own palace for many years. Quite understandably Moses tries to talk his way out of this dangerous mission to confront the might of Pharaoh. And what does God do? Like a good coordinator, God provides a partner to fill some of Moses’ voids. Moses’ brother Aaron is recruited to join Moses’ team, bringing his own unique gifts. One of Moses’ excuses to God is that he isn’t a good public speaker; so God says, OK, we’ll get Aaron to do that part. Sound familiar? “We have gifts that differ according to the grace given us: ….. the exhorter in exhortation; … the leader in diligence.” (Rom. 12:6-8)
What daunting tasks do we face today that require partnership with others who have gifts different than our own? Whatever the challenge, personal or social, local or global, the good news is that no matter how polarized our nation and world may seem, we are “one body in Christ, and individually members one of another.” We are not alone, even though it often feels that way. In these challenging times it is good to remember the wisdom of Benjamin Franklin at another crisis point in the life of the American people. At the signing of the Declaration of Independence Franklin told his fellow collaborators, “We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately.”
Rugged individualism and mistrust of others won’t solve complex problems. We need desperately to collaborate with each other and with God as illustrated in these two anonymous readings, one humorous, one serious, both true:
The first is a letter from a client to his insurance company.
“I am writing in response to your request for more information concerning block #11 on the insurance form which asks for “cause of injuries” wherein I put “trying to do the job alone”. You said you need more information, so I trust the following will be sufficient.
I am a bricklayer by trade and on the day of the injuries, I was working alone laying bricks around the top of a four story building when I realized that I had about 500 pounds of bricks left over. Rather than carry the bricks down by hand, I decided to put them into a barrel and lower them by a pulley which was fastened to the top of the building. I secured the end of the rope at ground level and went up to the top of the building and loaded the bricks into the barrel and swung the barrel out with the bricks in it. I then went down and untied the rope, holding it securely to insure the slow descent of the barrel.
As you will note on block #6 of the insurance form, I weigh 145 pounds. Due to my shock at being jerked off the ground so swiftly, I lost my presence of mind and forgot to let go of the rope. Between the second and third floors, I met the barrel coming down. This accounts for the bruises and lacerations on my upper body.
Regaining my presence of mind, I held tightly to the rope and proceeded rapidly up the side of the building, not stopping until my right hand was jammed in the pulley. This accounts for the broken thumb.
Despite the pain, I retained my presence of mind and held tightly on to the rope. At approximately the same time, however, the barrel of bricks hit the ground and the bottom fell out of the barrel. Devoid of the weight of the bricks, the barrel now weighted about 50 pounds. I again refer you to block #6 and my weight.
As you would guess I began a rapid descent. In the vicinity of the second floor, I met the barrel coming up. This explains the injuries to my legs and lower body. Slowed only slightly, I continued my descent landing on the pile of bricks. Fortunately, my back was only sprained and the internal injuries were minimal.
I am sorry to report, however, that at this point, I finally lost my presence of mind and let go of the rope, and as you can imagine, the empty barrel crashed down on me.
I trust this answers your concern. Please know that I am finished ‘trying to do the job alone.’
How about you”?
The second reading I first saw in a publication from the Roman Catholic Maryknoll Sisters.
“And the Lord said, ‘GO!’
And I said, ‘who me?’
And God said, ‘Yes you.’
And I said,
‘But I’m not ready yet
And there is studying to be done.
I’ve got this part-time job.
You know how tight my schedule is.’
And God said, ‘You’re stalling.’
Again the Lord said, ‘GO!’
And I said, ‘I don’t want to.’
And God said, ‘I Didn’t Ask If You Wanted To.’
And I said,
‘Listen I’m not the kind of person
To get involved in controversy.
Besides my friends won’t like it
And what will my roommate think?
And God said, ‘Baloney.’
And yet a third time the Lord said, ‘GO!’
And I said, ‘do I have to?’
And God said, ‘Do You Love Me?’
And I said,
‘Look I’m scared.
People are going to hate me
And cut me into little pieces.
I can’t take it all by myself.’
And God said, ‘Where Do You Think I’ll Be?’
And the Lord said, ‘GO!’
And I sighed,
‘Here I am…send me.’