Say the word “staff” and everybody usually thinks of the employees of a corporation or perhaps a group of officers in charge of administration. Watch Downton Abbey and you can see the staff trying to be unobtrusive while enabling the family upstairs to enjoy a pampered life. They are proud to be staff in a great house; it’s a status thing. To be Chief of Staff indicates that a person is the head of a group of officers who assist in the administration of a company or an army. At one time Moses was driving himself crazy trying to do everything himself until his father-in-law, Jethro, told him to gather up a staff and delegate. It was a pretty good idea. Moses was much more efficient and a lot less tired at the end of the day, his routine tasks got done while he could spend time on the more difficult things, and he was raising up a new generation of leaders. It was a win-win thing.
There’s another kind of staff, though, like the one mentioned in today’s reading. This kind of staff was a tool common to many parts of the world and had a number of uses. It served as a walking stick to help one keep one’s footing on rough terrain. Kings carried ornamental staffs to show their power and position. Shepherds had a staff to beat bushes to drive off snakes and predators or tap the flanks of sheep to urge them to move in a desired direction. Those staffs usually had a bend or hook in one end that could be used to lift lambs and sheep out of holes and crevices. Since Moses had done a stint as a shepherd to his father-in-law’s flocks, he had a sturdy staff at hand when he encountered a burning bush and the staff became more than just a chunk of wood.
A staff is only as good as the one guiding it. In Moses’ case, God had a firm hand on it making it do a lot of things an ordinary staff in ordinary hands couldn’t do. God turned it into a snake and just about gave Moses a coronary, but it taught Moses something: when God said to do something with the staff (or with Aaron’s staff as well), it was going to be something important. In the first story of the reading, Moses had a problem with the Israelites. It’s hard to blame them; it can’t have been a lot of fun wandering around in a place with no restaurants, water fountains or other amenities around every corner. God told Moses to take his staff and go to a place and strike a rock on which God would be standing and there would be water. Moses did what he was told and the people had water to drink.
In the second story, Moses referred to his walking stick as the “staff of God.” Standing on a hill overlooking a battle ground between Joshua and his soldiers against the Amalekites, when Moses raised his hand with the staff, the Israelites gained the upper hand in the struggle. When his hand got tired, though, and he lowered it with the staff in it, the Amalekite forces prevailed. The staff itself couldn’t make Moses’ hand untiring and steady, but it did seem to give renewed strength and power to the forces fighting below.
Sometimes God gives us a tool to use that we might not recognize as being there. It’s probably not something physical like a wooden staff but it is something that is useful not just for us. Perhaps it is a skill or a talent or perhaps a passion for doing something that benefits us when we use it to benefit others. Sometimes a person is particularly called by God to a certain kind of mission and, in answering the call, becomes like the staff of God — something or someone through whom God acts.
I think that even without the direct call, each of us has something within us that God can use as God did Moses’ staff. We just have to wake up, realize it is there and utilize its potential.
We don’t always need a staff to provide water for the thirsty. Look around. Where is a need that touches the heart? It doesn’t matter that we are just individual people and, as individuals, we think we can’t really make much of a difference. Look at Mother Teresa or Martin Luther King Jr. or even the charitable works of someone like Bill Gates. One person can make a difference if they choose to act like the staff of God.
After all, “staff” isn’t always a piece of wood; it is also an employee or support worker for a person or organization. God needs God’s staff to bring about the kingdom and that staff is all of us.