Sunday reflection

Our reading this morning is from Deuteronomy 34: 1 – 12 

Moses life has come to an end and in a cruel irony he dies just a few steps short of the promised land towards which he has been leading God’s people for 40 years. Well may be not just a few short steps – Moses has the energy and health to climb to the top of Mount Nebo, where he looked over to the land he would never enter, and he knew that his work was complete, his task now the responsibility of Joshua. The people, we are told, wept for thirty days, and the book of Deuteronomy closes with a glowing eulogy on Moses’ life and service.

 Without taking away anything from Moses and what he achieved in leading his people through the wilderness, it is worth remembering how this great leader was once a reluctant leader, how this revered prophet was brought up in the luxury of Pharaoh’s palace, despite his humble birth into slavery. We sometimes forget that our leaders are human beings – in that we paint glowing pictures of people who are as flawed as everyone else, but also that we expect our leaders to never make mistakes, never tire, never be at a loss as to what to do in a  crisis. Moses learned on the job as leader, relying on his brother Aaron and his sister Miriam to help and advise him. He grew in confidence as his relationship with and understanding of God grew stronger, but he was worn down constantly by the questions and complaints of the Hebrews, sometimes bemoaning they would be better off as slaves in Egypt than free men and women wandering in the wilderness. Let's spare a thought and a prayer for our leaders, whether we like them or not, who find themselves in the spotlight everyday. Trying to work out what is best to do, sometimes getting it wrong and being criticised, sometimes getting it right and receiving not much praise. Leadership, it seems, hasn’t changed much over the thousands of years since Moses died, and nor have the ways of some of those they lead.

Moses’ death meant he was passing over his mantle to the next generation, to Joshua, who had learned with Moses as they walked along, giving Joshua had the advantage of watching and understanding what Moses was doing and why. He had his own ideas, his own expression of faith, but Moses had allowed Joshua to see not just how God was, but how God’s people were, and passed on his experience and understanding to help Joshua be the intercessor, the persuader, the explainer, the leader as they reached the promised land.

The Edinburgh Book Festival this year, unable to meet in Charlotte Square, took place online, allowing many more people than usual to hear the interviews with and talks given by writers. Of course the pandemic and the changes it has brought to our way of life was mentioned often, as was the style of leadership that has emerged in various parts of the world. And being a literary festival, the book readers in the world wanted to a claim a little credit for some of those leadership traits. Readers make good leaders, was an often quoted observation – readers make good leaders, but in particular readers of fiction. Having facts and figures to hand, statistics or plans is all well and good, but those who read fiction, it was said, are better equipped to understand the human stories that shape us as individuals and communities. And in seeing how people interact with one another – and have always interacted with one another, how we make decisions and why, what basic fears we share and celebrations we enjoy, all bring an empathy and understanding, and the best leaders in this crisis, it was argued, are those who listened and heard and understood. Perhaps too, in busy and demanding roles such as president or prime minister, taking some time out to sit quietly and read brings soul space as well as head space, and allows room to breathe and think and ponder and understand.  Leaders of any persuasion and at all levels would do well to read the story of Moses, and of his people, to understand better some lessons in communication and persuasion, patience and perseverance, to see the people of the 21st century, and all centuries before, reflected in the characters of the Israelites – quick to complain, slow to thanks, allowing their worries to make them selfish, and their impulses to look for quick solutions, knowing what is right and sensible, yet bound by knee jerk reactions and fear of the unknown. Why reinvent the wheel of leadership when we have such a clear example of how we are right there in the books of Moses?

Moses has learned much about human nature for all of us, and now to Joshua he passes on the leadership of a settled community able to plant seeds and harvest,  to build homes, and to live in peace. And how Joshua and his people fare is a story familiar to us all too, because they are quick to complain and slow to thank, allowing their worries to make them selfish and . . . well you’ve heard me say that bit before.

This morning at Cramond Kirk my friend and colleague Russell Barr is conducting his final service as a parish minister. Russell retires at the end of this week after 40 years of ministry – it’s not obligatory that Church of Scotland ministers follow Moses in serving for 40 years, it's just that Russell happens to be doing so, and soon he and his wife Margaret are moving to St Andrew's for many years, we hope, of golf and gardening and grandchildren.  Russell and I have known each other for 25 years, since I was his probationer at Cramond. I am sure I was hard work as a probationer – opinionated and mouthy, and Russell with great patience and humour, slowly unpicked some of my overconfidence and built up my lack of confidence, teaching and showing me the art of ministry – of listening to what people said as well as what they didn’t say. Of allowing silence to inform conversations as much as words. Of being with people at some of the saddest and happiest times of their lives and working out together what was needed and keeping those conversations going over months and years, learning and understanding together, rather than feeling I had to have all the answers and dispense my wisdom, or what I thought was my wisdom. And that’s before we got anywhere near conducting worship and moderating the Kirk Session and convening a Presbytery committee.

I am just one of 16 probationers and countless students Russell has guided and helped over the course of his ministry so I dare say there will be a good few sermons preached this morning saying thank you to our former supervisor and sending our love and best wishes to Russell and Margaret as they leave Cramond and enjoy retirement. For me it feels like a grown-up moment – the man I once went to for advice and help is hanging up his cassock and getting out his golf clubs, but I am relieved to say that he has passed on his new phone number should I ever need to get in touch and say: Russell, I need your help!




Let us pray:

Loving God you see in us what we are sometimes reluctant to see in ourselves,

Hands to heal and help,

Words to seek understanding and peace,

Hearts that are open to the needs of others.

And by calling us to be your people,

By blessing the ordinary and everyday,

You encourage us to be your people where we are, loving our neighbours and being loved in return.

When we turn away from you and our neighbour,

When we seek importance or self sufficiency,

When we dispense judgement but not kindness or withhold rather than share,

Call us again to be your people,

Recognising and rejoicing in the kindness of strangers, the forgiveness of enemies,

The hope of planting and growing and harvesting.

We pray for our leaders making decisions in difficult times,

For those who serve our communities in health and education,

Those whose jobs and livelihoods are uncertain.

Be near those who live in pain or confusion, we pray, those who mourn,

And use us in word and action to be people of peace and hope,

Of light in darkness and healing in broken places.

We ask this in Jesus’ name as we pray together, saying:

Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name, thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors. Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil, for thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory, forever. Amen.