What’s In Your Hand?

by Michael Usey

Moses’ early history is the stuff of novels. When Pharaoh instituted a mass slaughter of the male infants of the Hebrews, Moses’ mother hid him in a tiny ark in a stream where Pharaoh’s daughter bathed.  The princess found him, and took him to her household to raise.  But, once he was grown and among his own people, Moses saw an overseeing beating a Hebrew; Moses inpulsivel killed the Egyptian.  He fled for his life, settling in the Midian Desert.  Which is where God surprised and recruited him, speaking to him from a burning bush, a bush not consumed by the fire.  God called him and gave him a mission: lead God’s people out of Egypt.

Moses was less than thrilled.  In one of the most ironic passages in our entire bible, Moses articulately argues to God that he is not articulate.  He was, after all, wanted for murder in Egypt.  How could he go back and free the Hebrews?  Why should they follow him?  How could he convince them that God had really sent him.  He didn’t have the equipment for this job. In the midst of Moses’ protestations, God asks one of the great questions in the Hebrew Bible: What is that in your hand?  Moses was holding a standard issue good shepherd staff, a rod used to guide sheep.

Um, actually … if we consider Moses’ qualifications, we can see he had special training.  He had been living among the bedouins for 40 years, so he was uniquely prepared to lead the Israelites through a punishing killing desert that showed no mercy.  As a shepherd, Moses also had some experience dealing with people who could be as dumb and stubborn and difficult to lead.  People like sheep get lost; they get frightened. And, on top of all this, remember that Moses had special access to Pharoah’s household.  He was raised there; he understood court politics and knew its people.  So, actually, Moses had just the background and experience to complete the mission God was handing to him.

This is another sermon in our summer series, What God Wants to Know, in which we are exploring questions God asked people in the Hebrew Bible.  The interpretative twist we’re using is this: What if God asked us the same question?  How might we answer?  The question that God asked Moses was designed to help him discover that he already had the resources needed to do this job.  I believe this is true for us as well: God can use whatever is in our hand.  We don’t need more money or more credentials or a more prestigious platform.  We can begin with what we already have.

I believe that God’s spirit is calling each of us to ministry in Jesus’ name.  And we can be sure that God has already equipped you for that ministry.  So, what’s in your hand right now?  Before we look for other resources, let’s take an inventory.  Here are six things that all of us have that God could use to help and bless others.

  1. Our pain: the pain that we have been through gives us the ability to connect with others in their pain.  We experience a variety of types of pain: physical, emotional, mental, relational, financial, racial.  The places of pain that we’ve been through give us the opportunity to connect and possibly help someone else in pain.
  2. Our mistakes: Every dumb thing we’ve ever done probably produced some wisdom.  We’ve learned better ways to live.  Those of us who have done enough foolish things and learned something from our dumbassery, we can be a source of hope and encouragement to others.
  3. Our expertise: God has given us all special talents.  If you’ve had years of training in some field, of course that can be used.  Perhaps some of our talents are less easily identified.  But whether they’re relational, organizational, or whatever, they are part of what is currently in our hand for helping another.
  4. Our connections:  Unless we’re extremely dysfunctional, there are people that know you and love you, people who respect and trust you.  I’m talking about colleagues, friends, neighbors, church people, people in your union or book group or health club or board game group.  Among that larger group is a core that you could call on for help and they’d respond.  Whether our power base of relationships is small or large, our connections are a primary asset for ministry.
  5. Our reputations: If we’ve spent some good part of our life being honest and industrious, caring and kind, then we’ve built up some moral capital. When we take a stand for something or ask for help for some cause, people who know us tend to take us seriously.  However, when we die, our moral capital dies with us–it can’t be transmitted. So now’s the time to start drawing on it.  Before we die, we can use it to gain support for crucial causes that we care deeply about.
  6. Our privilege: We white Christians are learning how we can leverage our privilege to change the systemic racism that continues to harm, traumatize, hold down, and kill people of color.  We North American Christians are learning how to use our privilege to assist people who are not yet citizens who are being mistreated and imprisoned by legal policies. We who have had the benefit of education are learning how to protect public education, which is under assault from leaders who would make education available only to those who could pay for it.  These are overlapping spheres of privilege, and we could mention many more.  Now is not the time for guilt, but for action, for learning to do better, and for using wherever we find ourselves in power to level others up.

These are just some of the resources that all of us already have in our hands, but we may be uncertain of how we can go about using them. We’re at the nexus of potential major changes in our state and nation. We don’t have to be about everything, but every Jesus follower needs to doing something to help people who are hurting right now.  What is God calling you to help with here and now?  A good clue is whatever is keeping you up at night.

Yesterday College Park’s staff helped the family of Mildred Cottrell bury her remains.  The Rona prevented us from having a full funeral that likely would have seen our large sanctuary filled with people to whom she ministered.  Dan hopes to have a full service when the pandemic passes. 

If our church College Park had a face, it would be that of Mildred Cottrell, and her Baptist consort Dan.  Because of her friendly outgoing nature, she was often the very first person people met when coming to our buildings.  She and Dan joined College Park in 1960, sixty years ago, and since then she has had every sort of leadership position here: serving as a deacon, singing in the choir, being on several church committees, raising the young ones in the nursery.  But it was in her role as greeter (both official and unofficial) that her gifts really shone. 

Our buildings are in the nexus of several communities: UNCG students to the West, gentrified Sunset Hills to the north, the university and downtown to the east, a multicultural community south of us.  Meaning that most every service we have an extremely diverse community of both members and visitors.  Professional types, people not yet housed, students of every variety, people in recovery, a slew of children of every color: these are all common sights in our faith community.  And Mildred welcomed them all with genuine openness, southern warmth, and Christian love.  I’m not saying our church is unique, but we are radically accepting, and the key to that is not the church’s professional leadership, but the level of real openness and acceptance that is in the DNA of a church, and manifested in her members, like Mildred.

It was at College Park that her great gifts began to bloom.  She was a talented seamstress: she made baby blankets for all the church’s new births, as well as clothes for her girls.  In addition to her leadership positions, Mildred used her hobbies to connect with people, like ceramics and quilting and more recently Creative Memories.  She was part of the team that spent over a year cutting out the huge vertical Nancy Chinn paper banners.  It was she who championed making all the amazing Chrismons we still use each Advent, each one so artfully fashioned in exquisite detail. And since she worked as the UNCG Parking Ticket Supervisor, her patience was legendary and her people skills were honed razor sharp on disgruntled college students.

Consider how far she came with only a high school education in her welcoming and acceptance of all people at our church.  There are people who come to worship at College Park and who become members who had to be out of her comfort zone, yet she never was anything but kind, accepting, and welcoming. I cannot tell you how many new members said that Dan and Mildred had them over for a meal before they joined. Every person–every single person, no matter how different they were from persons she knew growing up so many years ago in Oxford–everyone was welcome with her priceless kindness, her lovely unpretentiousness, and her rare generosity of spirit.  So, as it turns out, she was not only the welcoming face of our congregation, but also the face of God, who loves us all.

During this brouhaha about stupid statues of people who should have never been honored, Facebook posts got me thinking about an American Moses, Harriet Tubman.  As you know, she was an abolitionist and political activist. Born into slavery, Tubman escaped and made 13 missions to rescue 70 enslaved people, including family and friends, using the network of antislavery activists and safe houses in the Underground Railroad. During the Civil War, she served as an armed scout and spy for the Union Army. In her later years, Tubman was an activist in the struggle for women’s suffrage. Born an enslaved woman in Maryland, Tubman was beaten and whipped by her various masters as a child. Early in life, she suffered a traumatic head wound when an irate slaver threw a heavy metal weight intending to hit another, but hitting her instead. The injury caused dizziness, pain, and spells of hypersomnia, which occurred throughout her life. After her injury, Tubman began experiencing strange visions and vivid dreams, which she ascribed to premonitions from God. These experiences, combined with her Methodist upbringing, led her to become devoutly religious.

In 1849, Tubman escaped to Philadelphia, only to return to Maryland to rescue her family soon after. Slowly, one group at a time, she brought relatives with her out of the state, and guided dozens of other enslaved people to freedom. Traveling by night and in extreme secrecy, Tubman (or Moses, which was her code name) “never lost a passenger.” After the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 passed, she helped guide fugitives farther north into Canada, and helped newly freed persons find work. Tubman met John Brown in 1858, and helped him plan and recruit supporters for his raid on Harpers Ferry. 

When the Civil War began, Tubman worked for the Union Army, first as a cook and nurse, and then as an armed scout and spy. The first woman to lead an armed expedition in the war, she guided the raid at Combahee Ferry, which liberated more than 700 enslaved people. After the war, she retired to property she had purchased in 1859 in Auburn, NY, where she cared for her aging parents. She was active in the women’s suffrage movement until illness overtook her, and she had to be admitted to a home for elderly African Americans that she had helped to establish years earlier. After her death in 1913, she became an icon of courage and freedom. Tubman used five of the resources I mentioned to effectuate real change and free enslaved people.  She was illiterate her entire life; she suffered from narcolepsy.  If anyone deserves a statue in our nation’s capital, it is our own Moses. 

What’s your excuse? What’s in your hand? God asks of us all. Believe that the resources are already in your hand to make divine liberation, justice, mercy and acceptance a reality now.