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I have been thinking a lot about Leadership lately – particularly Christian leadership. I can’t imagine why that’s been on my mind! There are, of course, many books about leadership – about different styles of leadership, the differences between how men and women lead, and what people want from their leaders. This last question is particularly important in this day and time as people in this country struggle to understand and cope with deep moral and philosophical divisions that span political, religious, and social issues. Many people see this as a crucial period in Christian history – as an opportunity to determine who we are as a people.
So you would think that this is a time where Christian leadership is crucial – but a quick search of the internet suggests that it’s not that simple. First of all, many Christians don’t trust their leaders. A recent survey indicates that “just over half of Americans trust religious leaders — more so than businessmen, politicians and the media but less than scientists… and the military… [And] only 13% [of respondents] said they have “great trust” in religious leaders – [while] 14% said they had no confidence at all.”
For those who do look to religious leaders for guidance, they are apt to receive mixed messages. Among evangelical Christians, for example, a group of people which is accustomed to receiving very clear, unified directives from the pulpit, recent well-publicized divisions about political issues have sown seeds of confusion and doubt. For Episcopalians, who belong to a tradition that, according to Robin Williams’ famous “Top Ten Reasons for Being an Episcopalian,” encourages free thinking to the extent that “No matter what you believe, there’s bound to be at least one other Episcopalian who agrees with you,” opinions among church leaders are about as individual as hairstyles.
Given this vacuum of clear counsel, it’s hard for Christian people to know where to turn and who to follow through the maze of facts, fiction, and opinion that swirl around us. Luckily, we have a really good resource, which, it turns out, has a lot to say about many of the concerns that plague us. Not only that, but when we go to this source for advice and counsel, we find out that we are not the first people to find ourselves in moral quick sand. People have been fighting with God and one another since the beginning of the world- and God has been with us through it all – we know this because our holy scriptures tell us so.
The Israelites who escaped from slavery in Egypt didn’t have such clear, written directions to sustain them. All they knew was they had asked the Lord for their freedom and he had directed them to follow Moses– only to end up starving in the wilderness. What kind of useless leader was Moses if he couldn’t take care of them? Poor Moses – pushed into a job only to get threatened with being fired. “Lord,” he cried, “what am I going to do with these whiny, inflexible people”? God’s answer was simple; “I will give them water.” Once again, as he did with Abram and David, God provided for his people when they showed no signs of deserving it – and he did it for one reason and one reason only – because God wanted them to know that he was in relationship with them.
Relationship is how God leads us – then and now. That’s what Paul says in his letter to the Romans. The faith that binds us to Jesus Christ is based not on what we do, but on what we believe – which is a good thing, because no one in our scriptures, – and no one in our lives –can ever behave perfectly enough to earn salvation. “Law is unable to bring us into…relationship with God. No matter how sincerely we try, we always fall short of fulfilling the requirements of [our laws]…the very effort to seek perfection leaves us isolated, focused on self, and often torn with feelings of guilt. Therefore we need another way, a way that does not depend on our efforts.” That way is relationship – relationship to God and to one another.
This requires us to give up a great deal of control – a task that is nearly impossible for those of us raised in a time and place in which taking ownership of your own destiny is a primary tenet of our secular code. It also requires us to do something that is antithetical to what many Christian denominations preach; we have to be flexible. We cannot, as the psalmist says, “harden our hearts.” We must stop putting God to the test. We learn nothing and cease to grow when are “stiff-necked” and rigid. In today’s psalm we are asked to give thanks and praise God – things we are good at and don’t mind doing. But then we are asked something much harder. We are asked to give up control of our lives to God. But “for many [of us], this is next-to-impossible. [We] have been duped so many times and by so many people that trusting and submitting are next to impossible acts.” That’s because we forget one crucial thing – we forget that all of the unreliable and unfair treatment we have received – all of the poor leadership we have experienced – all of the neglect we have suffered – was done by human beings, not God. But it is God who is asking for our trust. It is God who answered “yes” to the Israelites and the Romans – and answers us again and again when we ask, “Are you there God”?
It’s a perpetual human question – the same question the Samaritan woman at the well asked Jesus – whether this strange and inappropriate Jewish man might possibly be a sign of the presence of her God in her world. Like Nicodemus before her, the Samaritan woman was questioning her faith and culture, but unlike him, she was open to Jesus’s message. Despite being separated from Jesus by class, social status, race, nationality, religion and gender, the Samaritan woman was able to intuitively understand Jesus’s message in a way that Nicodemis, a faithful Jew of the ruling class, was not. And, as a result, the Samaritan woman – a person of no status in Jesus’s world, was the first character in the Fourth Gospel to whom Jesus revealed himself as the great “I am” – the Saviour of the world
The gospel writer goes to great pains to tell us that this woman’s faith was not based on her behavior, but on her willingness to believe. Simply by opening herself up to an encounter with Jesus, she was able to let go of the hardness of the laws which pushed her to the margins of society and accept the hope that Jesus offered her. Just as Jesus accepted her, despite all of the worldly reasons that he should not have. Their relationship was one of pure grace.
Just as ours can be. Because “all interpersonal relationships are created and sustained through grace. Just as we are unable to earn God’s love, so we cannot earn” each other’s. We have to be willing to accept one another as God has accepted us – and that’s hard. Fortunately, we have examples who can lead us in our efforts to do this – and they are close by. Look next to you in your pew – look ahead and behind – look in your kitchen when you get home and in the emails you receive and the books you read. There are people of God all around you – and they will lead you toward a life of grace -just as you are leading them. Christians lead not by any power or understanding of our own, but by and through God. When we are confused and afraid, we must turn not to human wisdom, but to God’s. And to do this we must remain open to God’s grace in all things -and in all people. We must, like the Samaritans, be willing to “Come and see,” and, like the woman at the well, to lead others by asking them to “come and see” – to come and see the joy that can be found in Christian community – to come and see that God abides with us always – to come and see the amazing grace that is being in relationship with one another and with Jesus Christ our Lord. AMEN.
Los Angeles Times, (November 1, 2016), “In Theory: Survey raises question of trust in religious leaders,” http://www.latimes.com/socal/burbank-leader/opinion/tn-blr-me-intheory-20161101-story.html.
Ward B. Ewing, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide (Third Sunday in Lent), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 86.
David M. Burns, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide (Third Sunday in Lent), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 83.
Ward B. Ewing, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide (Third Sunday in Lent), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 88.