Moltmann Monday: On Limping Leaders

I’ve told you before, friends: Moltmann’s collection of sermons, The Power of the Powerless, is so very good. Honestly, just go order it. You can send me a thank you note. Today’s excerpt is from his sermon on Moses based on Exodus 4:10-16, entitled “The Calling of the Unworthy.” I want to post the whole thing, honestly. But I’ll do my best to give you the essence here. He’s talking about Moses whining to God and basically throwing up every excuse to get out of this job of saving the people by confronting Pharoah.

To put it bluntly from the outset, it is an embarrassing and irritating episode. The bards of world literature usually draw a tactful veil over weaknesses of this kind. So if anybody is looking for heroes in the struggle for emancipation and liberty (either because he would like to be a hero himself, or just because he would rather pass the job to someone else), he would do better to stop listening at this point and look elsewhere…

There he stands, this hole-picking grouser, with his endless new objections; this drip, with his self-pity and his continual whining at the God of hope, calling in question the whole liberation of his people through his excuses… Moses does not want to be a prophet. He is absolutely determined not to be a hero. And the Lord has to conjure up ideas in plenty before he can turn this mulish farm worker into the leader of national liberation.

This Moses is certainly not Michelangelo’s superman. And he does not resemble the great liberators of the nations either. He is merely a shepherd without any possessions, a poor old man who wants to be left in peace, and not to have anything to do with the insane demands his Lord proposes to make on him. And when it really comes to the point, he is a hard-boiled egoist, for whom hope is no principle at all. This is the lamentable creature with whom the Lord is going to bring about his revolution, lead his people to freedom and create salvation for the nations!…

If we put ourselves in the place of the men and women who were hungering for freedom and waiting for their liberator, then their initial reaction was probably: if we have to depend on a wash-out like this, we shall never be free. The Lord would have done better to look for someone else- a type like Joshua or David, a man at least, someone with strength, courage and good will, not this aging, handicapped shepherd from the desert, who is not even willing to take on the job…

The dreams of the powerless are beautiful dreams. But the real story of Moses and Israel’s exodus ran quite differently. It was human, earthly… Why did (the people of Israel) think it was important to tell their children about the great liberator’s ugly little weaknesses? The first reason is quite simple. The cult of the individual, the deification of persons, was forbidden in Israel. It was not Moses who led the children of Israel to freedom; it was the Lord… The second reason is that the Lord does not liberate people through miracles of power and eloquence or any other conjuring tricks which really paralyze the liberty of human beings. He frees people through people, with all their handicaps, with their signs of age and their disabilities. This is comforting, but not only that: it is salutory as well… Moses is like you and me. Liberation comes on limping, human feet, for it is liberation by the human God and not by inhuman idols.

Ok, let’s start at that first section, where Moltmann just calls us to the CARPET about our hero worship. We either want to be heroes, or we want someone else to be the hero so we can be let off the hook. Let’s take a moment and let that one sink in a while. Maybe bring to mind your mental news feed, and how you are reacting to the news in the world today. I tend to think I’m fairly eyes-open about hero worship and their dangers, but I confess that lately I’ve been waiting for heroes to come and fix the mess of racism in America, and the refugee crisis across the world, and also the circus of American politics. I’ve been accidentally envisioning one person as the hope, one person to lead, one person who might help us turn these ships around. And look- Moltmann is right about this. This is a fool’s errand, and we cannot dream beautiful dreams that get us nowhere. First of all, if we get one person, s/he will be a human person and likely someone who’s as unwilling to do this impossible work as the rest of us. The comedy of this story is that God can hand over magic tricks aplenty and most of us are still going to go, “Uh, nope, uh uh. I still can’t do this job.” And second, it takes so much more than one person. No such luck if we’re trying to get off the hook.

Honestly, I don’t know what’s worse: people who are so desperate to become a hero, or people who are so determined not to be. Scripture has stories of both, and both kinds of people went through a kind of breaking-open, an eventual resolved giving in, before the situation changed. In times of crisis, the world needs limping leaders, it seems. Leaders who are so beyond their own capacity that they cannot do anything but resign themselves to a bigger power than their own delusions of grandeur, or their own stubbornness to sit on the sidelines.

The Lord does not liberate people through miracles of power and eloquence or any other conjuring tricks which really paralyze the liberty of human beings. These theatrics paralyze our liberty, because they distract us from the task at hand, which is just as arduous and impossible as it has ever been. God frees people through people. It is an embarrassingly rickety kind of system.

Except it’s the only thing that works.

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