“What shall I do with this people?”

Duke Divinity School
6 min readMar 23, 2021

The Lenten invitation to healing and community

By Katherine H. Smith

Photo by Josh Applegate on Unsplash

It seems hard to believe that we are already deep into the season of Lent. In a typical year, this might have been a time to pause in our hectic lives. Slow down a little. Be a bit more reflective. This is the time of year that we take try to take inventory, pausing for a while to reflect on our sin and brokenness.

This year, though, it sure feels to me as though we’re already well down the road to Golgotha. We are weary travelers through this wilderness of pandemics. For some, it’s the bone tired of carrying the weight of injustice for so long. For others, it’s that constant hum of anxiety, the watchfulness that keeps us just on the other side of peace. For yet others, it’s the deep grief from wave after wave of loss.

We don’t need a church season to show us our broken parts. We see them every time we turn on the news. Our brokenness is trolling the comments section of every website and social media page. It’s on display in every fist raised in violence, every choice that puts the comfort of the privileged above the safety of the vulnerable, every apathetic eye that looks the other way as if to say, “Not my problem.”

Lent has been deep in our bones for a while now.

It feels appropriate, then, that one of our lectionary readings recounts the story of the Exodus (Exodus 19:1–9, 16–19). The people of Israel are three months into a long and weary journey whose end they can’t foresee. The initial celebration at being liberated from Pharaoh has run its course, and the realities of life in the wilderness have set in.[1]

For this people of God, walking the long road from Egypt, life doesn’t feel much like freedom. They have known the taste of bitter water. They have felt the growl of stomachs hungry for satisfaction. They have discovered that because they are following the one true God, they will be targets for attack from the outside. And because they are humans following God, they will figure out how to fight each other from within.

Wilderness is a recurring metaphor in the Bible. The wilderness is often a place of trial and tribulation. It tempts us to imagine ourselves in the place of God, relying on our own justice. There is a reason my husband and I refer to the toddler years of parenting as “the wilderness years.” You can’t trust the choices you’ll make in the wilderness.

The wilderness is where we are most likely to be weak and forget what faithfulness looks like. Just two chapters before this Old Testament text, the Israelites in the wilderness were once again quarreling with Moses at Meribah. Let’s remember: this isn’t 40 years into wandering in the desert. These Israelites have recently seen God in a time of unprecedented action and theophany. God has sent the plagues to torment Pharaoh. God parted the Red Sea for them to pass through. God showed up in a burning bush. And here, before the whole community, God shows up in thunder and lightning, smoke, and fire. We 21st-century Christians may be more accustomed to God coming in the still, small voice; but here in Exodus, God shows up like a battering ram.

So when the people keep up their petty quarreling, a desperate Moses has cried out to God — and here I am paraphrasing — “What shall I do with this fool people?”

Fortunately for us, there is another thing that happens in the wilderness. The miracle of the Exodus story is not that the people discover how to be faithful to God. They are constantly screwing it up. The miracle of the Exodus story is that God stubbornly, doggedly continues to choose to be faithful to them.

By God’s grace, they are brought out of the places of sin and death and granted a new identity. “You have seen,” says the Lord in this text, “how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now therefore, if you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples” (19:4–6). We discover here God laying the stones in Zion upon which a beautiful, spiritual house will be built. This passage is the beginning of a new treaty — another birthday for God’s people — that will be mapped out and ratified in the chapters to come.

Melba Pattillo Beals is best known for being one of the Little Rock Nine, the group of African American students who were the first to integrate Little Rock Central High School in 1957. In her memoir, Warriors Don’t Cry, Beals wrote that she was motivated to continue to fight segregation by her grandmother, who said, “We are God’s ideas [and] you must strive to be the best of what God made you to be.” She wrote that her grandmother gave her the gift of identity, so that she would know as a young black woman that she was “God’s idea.”

In establishing this covenant, God takes away the labels we wield as weapons against each other and grants us a new, shared identity: treasured possession. Holy nation. Where once the people were trod underfoot as stones, now those stones are lifted up into a living temple.

Barbara Wheeler, who served as president of Auburn Seminary in New York City for 30 years, likes to say that this choosing is not because they are God’s pets, “singled out for special favors or exempt from the worst penalties for bad behavior.”[2] God is choosing a people for a mission. They are to be priests and holy servants of all the nations of the world. Yes, they will be treasured, and in turn, they are to treasure and care for the earth that God has made.

Will the church be the place of sanctuary and shelter? In a time of constraints and pandemics, can we hear God inviting us to refocus our mission on meeting the needs of the larger community?

And make no mistake. This work will be taxing and hard. When we see the world as it really is, we are bound to find ourselves in the wilderness from time to time. Choosing to be faithful might be a daily — or even hourly — task. Because we’ve been in the wilderness, we should sniff out the Israelites’ self-deception in this Exodus passage immediately. “Everything that the Lord has spoken we will do” (19:8). We know perfectly well this isn’t true. The people will turn on each other almost immediately. We are masters of pressing our thumbs into the cracks of division.

So Lent also grants us a moment for self-examination. What opportunity does this day afford to live out our new identity with God? Will it show up in that classroom debate, that marathon Zoom meeting, the conversation with the colleague who knows exactly how to push our buttons?

We should practice reading each other charitably because we know that God first did the same for us.

“Once you were not a people,” 1 Peter tells us, “but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy” (2:10). Being a refuge for those in the wilderness begins with loving God and ends with loving our neighbor. What can we expect when we truly answer God’s call to be a holy people? Deep fulfillment. Abundant life. Healing in forms we couldn’t have imagined and which only God can provide.

What might we do as this people?

Katherine H. Smith, Ed.D., is the associate dean for strategic initiatives at Duke Divinity School and an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

[1] Bartlett, David L, and Barbara B. Taylor. Feasting on the Word, vol. A, no. 3. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008, p. 126.

[2] Bartlett, David L, and Barbara B. Taylor. Feasting on the Word, vol. A, no. 3. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008, p. 124.



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