Monday, July 16, 2018

Leadership Stories

Leadership Stories

2 Samuel 6:12-19; Mark 6:14-29

July 18, 2018

As George H.W. Bush never actually said, “leaders lead; that’s what they do.”

That is what leaders do, and it follows that followers, well, follow.

The lectionary this morning places before us two strange tales of leaders and followers. These stories offer some compelling guidance for a time when we seem bereft of wise leaders, and when we’ve also, perhaps not coincidentally, forgotten how to follow wisely and well.

One of my favorite quotes about leadership is the observation that a leader’s task is to climb the tallest tree in the woods, take a good look around, and holler back to the people on the ground, “hey, we’re in the wrong forest.”

I have thought of that line a couple of time over the past several weeks watching twin stories of trapped children unfold.

We watched a mass media transfixed by skilled and courageous divers rescuing the Thai youth soccer team from a cave, but that same media has increasingly turned away from efforts of skilled and courageous attorneys and activists trying to rescue migrant children trapped in American cages.

We’re in the wrong forest. It takes nothing away from the remarkable underwater rescue efforts of divers willing to risk their own lives to rescue kids to observe that we are in the wrong forest. It was good, and right, and appropriate to cheer on those divers and lift prayers for the kids and their families. But we are in the wrong forest.

If we are not giving more time, attention, energy, and activism to the plight of kids separated from their parents right here at home by our government then we are in the wrong forest. If our leaders cannot see this from their perches, then they are failing to lead wisely and well. If we continue to follow them, we do so out our own peril. We will not emerge from the deep woods; indeed, we’re more likely to find ourselves trapped in some dark cavern.

Following a leader into the wrong forest can be deadly. Indeed, merely confronting a leader who is in the wrong forest can be deadly.

In Mark’s gospel, Herod is in the wrong forest and John the Baptist winds up dead. That’s the story Mark tells of the Baptist, and he tells it specifically in a manner that foreshadows what is to come for Jesus. Confront a leader who is in the wrong forest, and you may well wind up in trouble. Confront a power structure that holds that leader in place, and you may well wind up in even more trouble.

In both of the passages we just read, we see the corrupting influence that power structures have on all they touch. King David dances in celebration of what God has done, yet Michal, the daughter of King Saul disapproves – “despised David in her heart,” the text tells us.

To be fair, Michal has legitimate reasons to despise David. Michal is married to David, and she has been used and abused by her family in its ongoing power struggle. To wit, in this verse, she is identified verse as “daughter of King Saul.” It is as if her identity with an older power structure, and her righteous anger with it, blind her to the new thing that God is doing through David.

Similarly, in the story of the death of John, the daughter of the king is being used, and is blinded by the power structure that frames her life such that she cannot see the new thing that God is doing through John.

Power corrupts vision. It corrupts the vision of those abused by structures of power and, not least of all, power corrupts the vision of powerful leaders.

That’s why good followers are crucial. One of the most important things a leader can do is to turn around regularly and see if there’s still anyone back there. If nobody is following you, you are not a leader, you’re just going for a walk.

Indeed, if you are not empowering others to share in leadership then you’re not leading, you’re just climbing trees to look around.

That gets us to the heart of the matter in the story of John the Baptist. It’s pretty clear, not only from the gospels accounts but from contemporaneous histories, that Herod had John put to death because John was a threat to Herod’s power. Further, it’s clear that the strategy worked. Herod had John killed, and John’s movement died with him.

John had disciples, followers, folks who believed in what he was doing. But when he died his movement died, too.

When Jesus died, on the other hand, his followers rose up to continue the work. They experienced something profound in and through Jesus, and that experience clearly extended beyond his death. He lived on in their midst. He lived on through their ministry.

The gospels are consistent in recounting the ways that Jesus prepared his followers for continuing the work after he was gone. The text last week – the sending of the disciples into the Galilean countryside – underscores this. Jesus was engaged in leadership development from early on, preparing a movement that would transcend one life and survive beyond one lifetime.

What has this to do with the stories of children separated from their families by rising tides? Simply this, if what you want to rescue is one small group of children trapped by a rising stream of water, then you train for a single emergency. Good leadership is certainly important, but long-term vision, deep and shared wisdom, and discerning disciples sharing power are not that important.

But if what you want to rescue is a generation of children trapped by a rising tide of xenophobia, racism, and corporatism in failed immigration, education, and health systems, then you need long-term vision, deep and shared wisdom, and discerning disciples sharing power for the work will not be done in a day, or a year, or a lifetime.

What we need, and what we are trying to build here, is a community of shared values, that cultivates multiple leaders to live out those values in various ways through the work of many hands, the vision of many eyes, the wisdom of many hearts.

As the Talmud reminds, “Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly, now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.”

We are not free to abandon the work, and the only way out of the mess we are in is through it, together. Sharing one another’s burdens, recognizing each one’s gifts, following a singular call: do justice, love kindness, walk humbly with our God through the deep woods we are in. Amen.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Travelling Mercies

Mark 6:1-13
July 8, 2018
I am not a good packer. You know the folks who can pack for a week in a Altoids tin? Yeah, I’m not one of them. Going away for a couple of days? I might need my guitar. I might need my flute. I might need my disc golf bag. I might need my laptop. I will surely need both of the books I’m reading. I mean, of course, all three of the books I’m reading. I probably need running things … and a couple of hats. And, sure, Mr. Bounce wants to come, too. So we’ll need some of his toys. It’s a good thing we’re not flying.
Yeah, I am not a good packer. Take nothing but a staff, a pair of sandals, and a single tunic? On a journey of unknown length and you don’t even know where you’re staying the night? That’s not me.
So it’s a good thing that, unlike Jesus, I have a place to go home to.
Consider that for a moment: if we say we follow Jesus then we are proclaiming something deeply at odds with our own culture and, if we are honest, with the way that most of us live our own lives most of the time. We say we are trying to follow Jesus, yet this one we say we’re trying to follow was, by all accounts, poor, unemployed, and, it seems, frequently un-housed.
He probably really could pack his stuff in an Altoids tin when he headed out; and he did head out.
Hitting the road is what happens when you are less than welcome in your hometown. Jesus was less than welcome.
The first time he spoke up in his home faith community in Nazareth the crowd tried to throw him off of nearby cliff, according to Luke’s account. They did so because his interpretation of familiar texts challenged their comfortable status quo.
Jesus had a choice in that moment: he could hang around and argue the finer points of the text or he could move on. If this had happened today, his choice might have been, “do I have that argument on Facebook, or do I head out into the world to change what I can change, knowing that the number of minds changed in on-line arguments is about that same as the number of changes of clothes that I can pack in an Altoids tin?”
In other words, Jesus became a political refugee just as he had been as a child fleeing Herod. If he was not precisely an asylum seeker it was only because he knew early on that the kingdom he sought was not going to be readily available in his time and place. If, as he put it later on, “my kingdom is not of this world,” that means everyone is an immigrant in the kingdom of God.
So he sent his followers out into this world knowing that they, too, would wander as refugees –  rarely, if ever, finding a place to call home. He instructed them to travel light, and to be ready to pick up and leave at a moment’s notice.
“If folks don’t want to listen, then shake the dust off of your sandals and move on.” While that gesture may be, as the text puts it, a “testimony against them,” it is also a healthy practice. “Let go. Don’t hold on to a grudge just because they didn’t hear what you had to say. Don’t get stuck. Move on,” Jesus instructs.
“Pack light. Don’t carry that grudge with you. Pack light. Anger is too heavy a burden for your journey. Pack light. Leave your fear at home.”
Well, OK, Jesus, if I leave all of that familiar stuff at home, what am I supposed to bring along?
Like I said, Jesus could pretty much pack in an Altoid tin.
Here’s what he took with him: joy; gentleness; kindness; generosity; goodness; patience; faith; peace; and love.
Whatever road you are on, you can pack these. Whomever else you meet along the road, you can share these – they are inexhaustible gifts. And, as we consider all those folks out on the road, along the border, detained, hoping, struggling, dreaming – we have these gifts to share. They are our traveling mercies.
When we head out carrying these in our bags – in our hearts – we can cast out demons – even the ones we have been carrying ourselves. When we head out carrying these gifts, healing will happen. When we head out carrying these gifts, we’ll find ourselves walking every step a step closer to the beloved community, the kindom of heaven, the reign of God. May we find ourselves on that road this summer. Amen.