Readings for the day: Exodus 24: 1-18 and John 15:1-10
As someone who grew up Methodist, I know the importance of the annual covenant service, so I feel privileged to be invited to speak to you on this special day for your church. Thank you!
I can see why the reading from Exodus has been chosen for today – it is all about the covenant made with Moses, and the giving of the ten commandments on tablets of stone. God has always elevated and used surprising people – people who are marginalised – and in the case of Moses, this is no different. As I was reading the passage, which also mentions Moses’ brother Aaron, I was reminded of how in Exodus ch. 4, Moses complains to God that he can’t be a leader because he is ‘slow of speech’. Instead of asking Moses to therefore step aside, God asks Aaron to help Moses with that side of things. Moses is speech impaired and he needs an interpreter, but he’s still the leader. Moses, not Aaron, is the one who will be revered as a great father of the Jewish (and Christian) faith. He is also the person who receives the ten commandments, which became the basis of morality for much of the world for the next three thousand years, and the father of monotheism- being the first Jewish leader to guide his people from a belief in multiple gods, like the other religions around it, to one which had a single god.
So Moses is a pretty important figure, in Jewish history and culture, Christian history and culture, and in the history and culture of the world generally, and he is a disabled man with an interpreter, or what we might nowadays call a PA. He may have in fact had cerebral palsy, as one commentator says in an article on the BBC website. He was visibly disabled, visibly different, and his own people took some time to accept him. After several miracles, they embraced him as their leader, but it didn’t take much hardship for them to begin doubting him again. God was sure though. The most extraordinary line in Exodus 4 is when God responds to Moses’ fears about his speech impairment by saying: ‘“Who gives speech to mortals? Who makes them mute or deaf, seeing or blind? Is it not I, the Lord?” In opposition to all the damaging healing narratives of the Christian church throughout history – the perpetuation of the idea that a disabled person is broken (or worse, sinful) and must be made whole by healing – here is God in Exodus telling his most important leader that he made him just how he is, and that the world is full of a variety of human beings, all made by and loved by God just as they are.
The moral of the story here is that marginalised people are often the most extraordinary leaders with the most extraordinary gifts. We don’t often recognise that, but God does – whether it’s Joseph, who is what we might nowadays term ‘gender queer’, and despised by his own brothers; Moses, who is disabled; all the important eunuchs in the Bible; or the Samaritan woman at the well, who is the one who saves her people despite their rejection. Even today, marginalised people all over the world are at worst condemned and at best overlooked, in favour of those who appear ‘normal’. The church is no better – we too often talk down to wheelchair users and assume they cannot be considered for leadership roles, or we think that a gay man can’t be a good role model for children, or we continually give women roles in the kitchen, or we shame church attendees with less economic means by offering them money instead of seeing the gifts they might bring to the church. These attitudes and actions hurt the marginalised people first and foremost, but they also hurt the church as a whole, because – as the New Testament reading for today said – we are all branches on the same vine. The healthier the branches are, the healthier the tree; and the branches can only be healthy if they are nurtured and encouraged. As IC trustee, Fiona MacMillan, says, ‘we are all a mixture of needs and gifts, and when our needs are met, our gifts can flourish’. Moses’ gifts were able to flourish because his needs were met by his interpreter Aaron.
You are lucky that you are an inclusive church – though no church is perfect, this means that you are aspiring to include and value everyone- you are working towards that goal and you are always learning more each day about how to meet people’s needs and let their gifts flourish. We must not misunderstand what working for inclusion means – it doesn’t mean we only care about certain groups, like disabled people or gay people. On the contrary, it means we care about every person in our congregation, but we have recognised which people are not usually included fully or treated as valuable. That is why we focus on certain marginalised groups. Thinking this means we don’t care about the whole body of the church is wrongheaded – it’s like when people say ‘all lives matter’ in response to the Black Lives Matter movement. It’s not that it’s untrue; it’s just that they’ve misunderstood the entire point. If the point was the goal on a football pitch, people saying ‘all lives matter’ have hit the corner flag! The point is that we are highlighting a deficit of fairness and justice – we say Black Lives Matter because currently society acts as if they don’t matter as much. We say at Inclusive Church ‘let’s work hard at inclusion of marginalised people’ because we know that disabled, LGBT+, women, Black people and working-class people are the ones who are usually ignored, passed over for leadership, belittled or excluded.
Today, as you renew your covenantal vows, remember to see people through God’s eyes. God saw that Moses had a specific need – which was fulfilled by an interpreter – and once that need had been met, Moses’ obvious gifts could shine. Moses was disabled, and he was also a great leader – one of the greatest leaders in Jewish and Christian tradition. If God hadn’t seen Moses’ gifts, and had instead done what we too often do in churches and seen him simply as a burden and someone to ‘do things to’ and ‘help’, his people would have been robbed of an incredibly important leader. If Jesus hadn’t seen the Samaritan woman at the well’s gifts of intelligence and wisdom, she would have been left as an outcast and her people would never have found out about Jesus. If God hadn’t seen Joseph’s gifts of leadership and had instead dismissed him as an effeminate man not like the others – one to pity or bully (as his brothers did), not to elevate – the story would have been very different. We need the whole tree – every branch – to be appreciated and nurtured. Our strength as a church lies in the health of the whole tree – and health doesn’t mean physical healing; it means stopping the harm caused by exclusionary practices and attitudes, and changing our ways, so that everyone in the body of Christ – every branch on the tree – can thrive and grow.
This sermon was preached by Ruth Wilde online to the Watling Valley Ecumenical Partnership for their covenant service. You can also watch the video of the sermon here.