There’s an old Midrash story told by Gil Rendle; it’s at the beginning of his latest book about quiet, courageous leadership in the Church. It is a story about the Exodus when Moses led the people out of slavery in Egypt. According to the story, the Jews came to the Red Sea and… nothing. Nothing happened. No parting. No dry land. No miracle. Nothing.
Everyone just stood around with increasing alarm. They could hear Pharaoh’s army coming, getting closer and closer. But nothing was happening with the sea. What’s going on, they all began to say with increasing alarm and volume? God ordered that they were all to go forward, sea or no sea; at least, that’s what Moses told them.
With mass confusion reigning and everyone feeling a lack of courage, the leaders of the 12 tribes stood around arguing about who should go first. No one wanted to be first as the waters swirled with menace, but Nashon eventually stood forward. He said, “I’ll go.” He gulped and waded into the water. He walked up to his ankles… nothing. He waded up to his knees… Still nothing. He kept going up to his chest, his chin, his mouth and just as he would have had to swim, the waters parted.
Sometimes leadership begins in trying and challenging times with just taking one more quiet step.
Imagine for a moment, if you will, a world that is fraught with conflict. Any moment the world might come to an end. Drought, failed crops, livestock dead because of extreme heat and little water. Foreign threats reign supreme. Political intrigue. Faith waning. People somewhat lost and priorities focused on personal wealth and security.
That doesn’t take much imagination, does it? But I just described the world of Haggai around about the year 500 BCE. 750 years or so after Moses, after Nashon stepped into the Red Sea, Haggai spoke of courage. It seems the people needed courage, once more. Haggai gave a pep talk to the people to reignite their sense of community, their sense of collective love, their sense of dedication and being in it together.
After being allowed to return home from captivity in Babylon by the Persians—a real relief in the short term; in the long term, the Jewish people were dispirited and hungry. There were drought years and uncertainty about how to proceed. The Temple restoration languished and people weren’t sure what to do. They needed direction. Zechariah and Haggai were two of the ones who, like Nashon stood up and decided to leap into the sea of despair gripping the people. Haggai encouraged the actual leaders at the time to be of good courage. Build the Temple not as a monument or some physical structure merely, but as a living place where we could encounter God and find new courage to live fully. This wasn’t meant to be a nostalgic return to the old ways, but a new dynamic, living faith that inspired courage and hope.
Speaking of inspiring courage and hope, how many of you know of Jean Béliveau? You probably think of the Montreal Canadians hockey great, right? You might be interested to know that there’s another Jean Béliveau, also of Montreal. In August of 2000, Jean left Montreal and started a walk around the world to promote peace and non-violence in support of the children of the world. He used a 3-wheel stroller that contained food, clothing, a 1stAid kit, a small tent and a sleeping bag. This journey was in support of the UN decade between 2001 and 2010, the International Decade for a Culture of Peace and Non-violence for the Children of the World.
Or what about the inspiring courage and hope of Mildred Norma Ryder, the Peace Pilgrim who walked across the US from 1953 to 1981? Her simple message was, “One little person giving all her time to peace, can make news. Many people, giving some of their time, can make history.”
It’s that same sensibility that prompted Greta Thunberg to speak out at the UN and in so many places today. It’s that same sensibility that prompted Nashon to take the first step into the Red Sea. It’s really about ordinary people, having had enough with present circumstances to do extraordinary things in creating a new world, a just and peace-filled world.
Theologians and wise teachers tell us that when we take these small steps for peace—calling a neighbour, starting a petition, attending a rally, speaking up when racist comments are flying about, or homophobic or transphobic comments—all of these things make a small difference. What was it that Margaret Mead once said? “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world: indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”
As we started our worship this morning, we had people raise placards and make a statement—that was a bit of rhetorical theatre. We’re never too small, too old, too busy, too anything to make a difference in the world. In the words of Bishop David Alan Bard in an ordination sermon in June of this year in the United Methodist Church in the US, he said, “You don’t need to be Nashon, or Luke Skywalker or Princess Lea with lightsabers, or Harry Potter with his wand, or Dorothy with her ruby red slippers, or Joan of Arc, or John Wesley … or Martin Luther King, Jr…. The wisdom, heart and courage that matter for your leadership, are your own. Cultivate them. Lead with them, all in the grace of God and by the power of God’s Spirit.”
I remember many years ago a meditation given at a Remembrance Day service when I was a youngster. We used to go as a family; sometimes dad would speak and other times we’d just attend. On this day that I remember, it wasn’t dad speaking, but someone else from one of the local churches in Kenora. The talk reflected on the idea that WW 1 was to be the “war to end all wars,” but didn’t. “We still go to war. We still have to make sacrifices and seek freedom,” the speaker said; he went on to reflect on the changes that need to take place, changes that still need to take place almost 50 years later. There is still way too much bloodshed in the world, too much racism and fear; we’re too quick to anger and frustration rather than curiosity and interest in the other. There are way too much selfishness and power-over.
But maybe the tide is turning. Maybe quiet leadership on the part of communities of faith of all religions, people of good-will who want a better world for children, and ordinary people who’ve had enough of violence, fear and self-interest—maybe all of this is gathering into a huge movement of change. As Abraham Joshua Heschel tells in his story about God’s angels going out to the places in need each morning, we are God’s angels. We are God’s agents of peace, hope and love. We are the ones who live Moses’ words at the end of his life to his people as they were about to cross the Jordan River, “Be strong and of good courage. Have no fear and no dread, because Yahweh Your God goes with you. Yahweh will not fail or forsake you.” (Dt 31:6) Even if we are able to join a group or take part in a march, we can always live our lives with quiet hope, with patience, with openness to one another, and with heart and love. And that’s enough!
I hold to the hope that Greta Thunberg and Jean Béliveau and many, many others like you and I are making a difference; God is working with and through us to re-create the world and all creatures in it. That’s my hope for peace! Amen.
 The end of the sermon quoted at https://cliobethany.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/06/Bishop_Ordination_Sermon_2019.pdf.