Sermon by Jonathan L. Walton, Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church of Harvard University, for the Memorial Church's Sunday Worship Service. Photo by Jeffrey Blackwell/Memorial Church Communications
The people quarreled with Moses, and said, “Give us water to drink.” Moses said to them, “Why do you quarrel with me? Exodus 17:2
You may recall that my eldest son is an aspiring actor. Elijah Mays loves to perform. The kid has even started to make some money of late. And he likes to use his money to purchase some of the things he wants.
Recently he bought one of those Polaroid Instamatic cameras — you remember the kind that we used to use in the 1980s; you snap the picture, it comes out of the bottom, and you wave it in the air while it develops. This camera is what he wanted. He spent his money. He purchased the camera. And thus, Elijah had to begin buying the insanely expensive packs of film that go with it.
So, it seems that last week my youngest son Baldwin decided that he wanted to be a photographer. Like so many things, he wanted to be like his big brother. I even recall seeing Baldwin walking around the house waving pictures on several occasions, yet I paid it little mind. Yesterday, however, Elijah Mays came storming in my bedroom. “Baldwin wasted my film!”
“Okay, Elijah. Calm down, Son. It’s not that big of a deal.”
“What do you mean it’s not that big of a deal? My film is gone.”
“It’s okay, Elijah. Baldwin wanted to take pictures just like you. He’s only five. Don’t yell at him. You can get some more film.”
“Do you understand how much that film cost?” Elijah shouted. “I bought that film with my money. He wasted all of my money!”
At that moment, I realized that a thirteen-year-old was lecturing me about fiscal responsibility. In fact, I got aggravated. So I said, “Elijah, do you want to have this conversation with me? Do you really want to talk to me about responsibility and wasting money?”
I proceeded to ask him a series of questions:
“Who is the one who leaves brand new bottles of body wash upside down so that it all pours down the drain?”
“Who is the one who has lost many jackets, scarves, hats, and gloves at school or the playground?”
“Who gets a new pair of shoes and then feels the need to jump in water puddles?”
“Who leaves the box of cereal wide open at night so that the whole box goes stale?”
“Who runs out the house and leaves the front door open with the air conditioning on?”
“Do you really want to have this conversation with me? Or might you want to go back and show some understanding and love to your little brother? Might you consider extending him the same kind of patience and grace that your mother and I extend to you?”
Now I am sure that Elijah Mays is still somewhere pouting about that camera film. But I hope one day that he might realize my point. I pray one day he might understand the message that I was trying to send — a lesson that has been hard-earned for many of us at different points in our lives. Many of us have learned the high price of leadership. Whenever we have the privilege of serving others, whenever we are blessed with the awesome responsibility to be in a position of power and privilege, and whenever we have others looking up to us as mentor or guide, there are some words that we better forget. If you want to be a leader, there is no such thing as “I” or “mine.” If you want to be in charge, there is no such notion as “me” or “my.”
Whether being a parent, a great big brother or running a fortune 500 company, leadership is fundamentally about others. It’s not about being selfless, but rather thinking about one’s self less. This lesson is what I wanted Elijah to see. Stop to think about your little brother’s feelings before you obsess over some film.
Of course, this sermon is not about Polaroid film. Nor is it about domestic disputes between siblings. But rather it is about what it means to have control when the going gets tough. What does it mean to lead when the title is more glorious than the actual task? And what does it mean to keep one’s composure when the criticism is much more frequent than the commendations.
Such is the scene in the 17th chapter of Exodus. The Children of Israel are making their trek across the desert. The last few weeks have been grueling. Moses stood before Pharaoh with moral conviction and herculean courage. He declared those four words that have become synonymous with his name. “Let my people go!” When Pharaoh resisted, God rained plagues down on Egypt. The book of Exodus records an apocalyptic scene for Egypt, as Yahweh declared that there is no power in heaven or earth greater than the power of Abraham’s God. Egypt emancipates the Hebrews. The Hebrews are on their way out when Pharaoh changes his mind and traps them at the Red Sea. Here God tells Moses to stretch forth his rod, and Yahweh creates a Hebrew HOV lane right through the Red Sea.
Moses begins to lead them in search of the land. They set out to find the Promised Land that Yahweh set aside for their people. The people prayed, and Yahweh led them by a cloud by day and fire by night. So, they kept searching. The people were hungry, they prayed, and God made bread pour from the sky. So, they kept searching. The people were thirsty and God turned bitter water sweet. So, they kept searching.
That gets us to the 17th chapter. The people begin to grumble against their leader. “Moses, it's hot out here. We are out of water. Did you bring us out here to die of thirst? We could have stayed in Egypt.”
Look how Moses responds. His response is not unlike my son Elijah Mays. He gets agitated. He becomes indignant. He becomes the aggrieved party in the equation. “Why do you quarrel with me?” he responds.
Why do you quarrel with me? The people need water. The people are dying of thirst. The people are parched. They cry out, “Moses. You are our leader. Do something!” And Moses responds, “Why do you quarrel with me?"
Moses misinterprets the people's pain. He misconstrues their misery. The situation is about them. He makes it about him. The people are giving voice to their fear and their anxiety. Moses’s response gives voice to his insecurity and thus his apparent defensiveness. “Why are you attacking me?” It is safe to say that in this particular moment Moses has failed the first class of leadership, Empathy 101.
This story is not about thirst. Nor is it about Moses’s lack of water. It’s about the people’s fear and Moses’s lack of empathy. Put yourself in Hebrew shoes. All they have known is Egypt. And in the blink of an eye, their world has been turned upside down. Plagues were released. Civil war erupted. A cataclysmic storm cloud opened up the Red Sea and drowned Pharaoh’s army. And now they are out here following Moses to go close on a plot of land that eyes have never seen. So, when they say, “C’mon, Moses. Help us. We are thirsty. Maybe we should go back to Egypt.” I doubt that they are only concerned with water. Nor do I suspect they would prefer servitude. But maybe, just perhaps, they are looking for someone to say to them, “I understand your fear. I feel your pain.”
It’s never a good sign when a so-called leader can express excuses quicker than empathy. It’s hard to earn respect when our skin is thin, and our compassion levels are lackluster.
“Why do you quarrel with me?”
If only Moses had taken a moment, took a deep breath, and realized that it's not about him at all. It's about those people under his charge. Were the Hebrews perfect people? Of course not. I will talk about them next week. Who is? But they are precious people. They are children of God.
This is the reason why it is important to know how to love before you know how to lead. It is a shame that most people do not think that love and leadership go together. The language of love seems too soft and mushy for “strong, effective leadership.” Scientific research suggests that love is a pre-condition for leadership. Leadership is as much about inspiration as it is execution. And no matter the role, you and I can never inspire someone who does not believe that we care about them.
Ask the student at any level. She will tell you that the most memorable teachers were the ones who attempted to get to know her at a human level—not just teacher to pupil, but complicated human to complicated human.
Ask the student-athlete. She will describe the coaches for whom she is willing to run through a wall. Nine times out of ten these are the coaches that will run through walls for their players.
Ask any employee. He will tell you that job satisfaction has less to do with salary and benefits, and more to do with honor, compassion, and respect. A happy employee is an appreciated employee.
It’s the well-known truism of education: “People won’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” Or as my dear former Princeton professor put it, “You can’t lead the people, if you don’t love the people. And you can’t save the people if you don’t first serve the people.”
“Why do you quarrel with me?” C’mon, Moses. You are better than that. The people are thirsty. People are afraid. God’s precious people are desperate. This moment is no time for anemic egos or overly sensitive self-absorption. They need a leader who cares. Leadership is not found in aggressive words or empty pronouncements. Leadership is neither found in lofty titles or claims to authority. Real leadership is found in those with enough courage to look beyond skin color, look beyond gender, look beyond political differences, look beyond our bigotries and biases, to see what God sees — precious Children of God.
This is the world that awaits us. Right outside of these doors, the world is thirsty. This is the world, young people, that awaits you. You’ve been blessed with so much. God has provided you with so much of what you need that you can lay claim to so many things that you want in life. Thus, you are in a position to supply more than water to a thirsty world. You can provide hope. You can provide compassion. You can provide love. Leave here, and go lead.