Moses, Michael Jordan, Vince Tornatore
Exodus 18:13-24, I Corinthians 12:14-22 & 27 November 3, 2013
I played varsity soccer all four years I was in high school. That might sound like bragging, but let me assure you, it’s not. When I started high school in the late ‘70s very few kids played soccer. My first year only 2 of the 7 high schools in my hometown had soccer teams. I was on the varsity because there was only varsity. I got into two games my first year, and one my second year. During my second season we lost our second string goal keeper, I asked the coach if I could replace him. And he said something I’ll never forget, “Tom, you’re too short, you’re too slow and I need you on the field.”
Ever play that game “Two truths and a lie?” Coach did. I’ll admit I was too short and too slow to be the goal keeper. But this idea that he needed me on the field was laughable. I just wanted to play, I just wanted to help the team.
I grew and got better at soccer and even lettered my last two years. And remember there were not many kids playing soccer back then. I went off to college and played intramural soccer, which was fabulous. There were not a lot of people playing soccer and we played a game a week and there were no practices. I loved it. But my dorm’s teams were never very good. Until Vince Tornatore moved in. Even if you know nothing about soccer, you know someone named Vince Tornatore is going to be great. He was tall, fast and agile. He had been a star player in high school. Vince played center forward and just about every game Vince would score a goal in the first minute. We’d get the ball to him and he’d dribble through the defense and we would be ahead 1-0. The next time Vince got the ball the other team blanketed him with defenders and he could hardly move. Sometimes we won 1-0. Usually we lost 4-1. Soccer’s a team sport.
Michael Jordan may be the best basketball player of all time. He was certainly the best player in the NBA in the ‘90s. He led the Chicago Bulls to 6 championships. His career started in 1984, but he did not win a championship until 1991. His first several years he was a one-man team. His second full year he led the league in scoring and minutes played. The Bulls never went far in the post-season because their opponents could focus on him.
The Bulls got better when Phil Jackson became the coach. I knew they’d made a turning point one afternoon in the spring of 1989 when I walked into my apartment and my roommate was jumping up and down with excitement, “Tom, you gotta come see this replay! Michael Jordan just threw a pass that made Bill Cartwright look good!” “It is not possible!” I replied, but watched the replay and saw that my roommate had been correct. Something had changed. The Bulls were playing as a team. Michael Jordan scored fewer points, but the Bulls won more games. It took a few years for the Bulls to get used to the concept of playing as a team.
We’ve been studying the Book of Exodus this fall, and it’s obvious to everyone that Moses is the central character in this story. Moses is the one who saw the burning bush. Moses is the one who spoke to Pharoah asking for the Hebrews to be able to take a vacation from their grueling work. Moses and Aaron were the ones who talked to Pharoah after each of the ten plagues. Moses was the leader when they fled slavery and every time the Hebrews got scared—and fear plays a huge role in this story—the people grumble or complain against Moses. At one point, “Moses cried out to the Lord, ‘What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me.’” [Ex 17:4, NRSV] God’s call of Moses placed a heavy burden on him. He was truly stuck between a rock and a hard place repeatedly—or between a demanding God and a frightened and whining nation. It was no fun to be Moses.
Just before the reading that Vi did from Exodus, is the story of how Moses’ father-in-law, Jethro, had caught up with Moses in the wilderness, and brought along Moses’ wife and their two sons. There’s a happy family reunion. Jethro was impressed with everything God had done for the Hebrews, and even though he was a priest in a different faith, Jethro praised God and made sacrifices to God. The next day is the start of the lesson and Moses spends the whole day listening to disputes among the Hebrews. Moses was the only one they could go to settle a dispute—it was like he was the small claims court, traffic court, civil court, criminal court, circuit court, appellate court and supreme court all in one man. Jethro said of this arrangement, “What you are doing is not good. You will surely wear yourself out, both you and these people with you.” I like to put this in modern terms, Moses was well on his way to case of professional burn out. Jethro saw it, the system of government that the Hebrews was using demanded too much of Moses; Moses was over-functioning. He was suffering because of this arrangement. It’s easy to overlook the other half of Jethro’s diagnosis. “You will surely wear yourself out,” we get that, “both you and these people with you.” The people suffer because Moses is doing too much. Jethro makes a simple suggestion: divide the people into groups of tens, hundreds and thousands and appoint and train trustworthy men to take on some of the burden.
Jethro gets a little pushy with his advice, “If you do this, and God so commands you, then you will be able to endure and all these people will go to their homes ‘ba-shalom’.” His last word is a Hebrew word we all understand, shalom. It doesn’t just mean “the absence of war,” but it really has a sense of deep health, even serenity.
And, in the short run, it would mean more work for Moses. And it would also mean that Moses would have to surrender some of his power and give away some of his authority. And the people would have to adjust to doing things in a new way. At this point, Moses was the only one who knew and could interpret and apply God’s law. It may have been tempting not to take Jethro’s advice. But Moses was suffering and so were the people.
There was one night Vince didn’t come to our soccer game. He had an important midterm exam he needed to study for. We put all kinds of pressure on him, but he refused our pleas. The goal keeper of the team put his arm around Vince’s shoulders and said, “Dude, you’re letting your classes interfere with your education.” We went off to the soccer game without Vince. I’d like to tell you that we won the game, but I simply do not remember. What I remember was how much more fun we had playing as a team. It was more fun when we took more responsibility for trying to score goals. It was more fun when we were all pulling together. It was more fun. As I wrote that a second time, I realized, one plays soccer, one does not work soccer. It was more fun because we were playing together. The Hebrews would know shalom, when Moses stopped doing everything for them, and they took some responsibility on themselves. Neither Moses nor the people would get worn out that way. Everyone would be healthier.
Last week I mentioned that in years past some people from the church had been given the “opportunity” to talk about how they fill out their pledge cards. And I mentioned that everyone did it with honesty and humility. I will add today that each person spoke about this challenge as only they could. I reread Gregg Zillges’s remarks from that Sunday. He quoted Alan Jackson, Ernest Tubbs, Willie Nelson, Elvis Presley and his mother…in that order. The great thing about Gregg’s remarks was that only he could have given them. [I posted them on the website again, you can find them under “sermons.”]
Three weeks ago Joann Cross preached while I was out of town. I found the sermon, Joann’s husband, John, made some revisions—and Joann made the sermon her own. All the reports I heard said she did a great job! It is a great gift to this congregation when we share responsibility.
I counted up, last year I preached here 48 times. You’re used to me, I’m used to you and my sermons are sort of like home cooking. Having someone else up in the pulpit, with different gifts and experience is so helpful for all of us—and more memorable! There is also the budget implication—about 5 years ago we took the “pulpit supply” line out of the budget. We expect people to step forward and preach! And it is so good for all of us when that burden is shared.
Today is Reformation Sunday, the day we celebrate the role that people like Martin Luther and John Calvin made in reforming the Christian church.
Luther is famous for lifting up the concept of “the priesthood of all believers,” that is that every Christian has a vocation—we get this vocation at baptism. Calvin was not a priest, he was a lawyer. One of his innovations was his trust in the people, the democratic rule of the people under God. That means Presbyterians elect our own leaders. Who could know better what gifts our members have to bring to serving in the church than the members themselves? To this day Presbyterians ordain lay people to the offices of Deacon and Ruling Elder. And when they are ordained and installed lay people answer 9 questions, 8 of those questions are also answered by Teaching Elders, that is ministers.
Paul described the church as being like a human body. Different parts performed different functions. All the parts are important, and none is complete alone. A healthy body is one where all the parts work together—doing different things.
We are still looking for some officers to start in January of next year. We are not looking for another Moses, or Michael Jordan or Vince Tornatore, no one expects an individual to take on all the work of the church. But we are looking for people who are willing to recognize that in the church we are members of each other, that we all have different gifts that God has given us to use for the common good. And I promise, no one who agrees to serve
will be told they’re too short or too slow.