September 23, 2012

 

ON NEW LEADERSHIP 

                                                     Sermon delivered by the Reverend Father Bill Smith
                                         at Holy Faith Episcopal Church, Port St Lucie, on 23 September 2012

                                                               Reading for the Gospel: Mark 9: 30-37

 

This morning’s reading from the Gospel is, for me, one of the saddest of passages.  Jesus has been on an extended walking tour of what we would today call Lebanon and northern Israel and into modern-day Jordan.  He has been revealed as the promised Messiah.  He has shown how the Spirit of God is working through him, as the apostles and other disciples saw him give fullness of health to many who sought out his help.  He has fulfilled the prophecies in the Hebrew Scriptures concerning the Messiah’s earthly ministry.  And in this passage he speaks of his betrayal, death and resurrection, all of which are to happen in a few short weeks.  You might think that all this would be obvious to them, but the evangelist tells us that they did not understand what he was telling them and, moreover, they chose to remain in ignorance because they were too afraid to ask him what he meant.

How often it happens that people prefer to remain in ignorance rather than admit that they do not understand. Very young children are not afraid to ask “Why?”  They do it so much that adults often get tired of answering the question.  But that phase passes and, for whatever reason, the young lose that sense of innocent inquisitiveness.  Perhaps when they get to school they are afraid or ashamed to appear ignorant or stupid in the presence of their peers.  When their teachers ask them if they have understood, they say nothing and so the teachers assume, probably incorrectly, that everybody understands what they are talking about.  Then, at the end of the academic year, when it is time to receive the FCAT scores, parents and teachers are amazed at the poor results.

And the habits of youth become the habits of adulthood, and, like the apostles and disciples, people choose to go through life in ignorance, perhaps hoping that they might catch on in due course, but afraid or embarrassed to ask the questions that would give them the answers they need to hear today.

It is also probably true that many of those who teach also lose the sense of inquisitiveness, and once they have their diploma they choose to ignore or are completely unaware of advances in knowledge in their own particular disciplines.  There are teachers – and preachers – who are reluctant to admit that they do not know.  After all, that would destroy that carefully fostered image of learnedness that the pseudo-learned like to portray.  But we thought about that last week.

And sad as all that is, what happened next in the Gospel narrative was even sadder and of greater disappointment.  As the evangelist tells it, Jesus would seem to have been walking by himself as the party moved through the street leading to the house where he had been invited to visit.  This evangelist does not tell us whether Jesus was walking on ahead or had fallen behind the disciples a little. The fact that he had noticed that they had been talking about – indeed arguing about – something that they did not mean for him to hear would suggest that he was walking behind them and that when he reached the house they were already there inside. 

He tackled them straight away on the matter.  “What were you arguing about on the way?”  And just as they would not tell him that they did not understand what he had been talking about earlier, now they will not talk to him about what they did not want him to understand!  And yet, of course, Jesus was no fool, and he knew and he understood exactly what they had been arguing about.

What they had chosen to hear and understand was that Jesus was going to die.  Oh!  He had said that he would rise again from the dead, but where would he rise to?  It was time, at least in their minds and to their very literal and narrow way of thinking, to work on the issue as to who was to become the leader once Jesus was dead and had been removed from the scene.  This is such a common, everyday practice that it did not call for great perception on the part of Jesus to know what was going on.  Of course it would not do to admit all this to Jesus.  Let us keep it from him and hope that he will not notice.  But of course he had noticed, and so he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” 

Jesus was not about to tell them who that person was who would succeed him in the leadership of the group.  In truth, none of them could – and the fact that they were arguing about who was the greatest among them only underlined the truth that none of them should or would be the leader.  No one can really ever replace Jesus.  As it happened, once the dust had settled after the Ascension of the Risen Christ, two men emerged as the principal leaders, and neither of them was of the Twelve.  James, the brother of Jesus, assumed the leadership in Jerusalem, and Paul became the recognized leader of the mission to the Gentiles, even though there were some who were not exactly pleased about that. 

But all this lay in the future.  The issue that Jesus confronted in that house in Capernaum was not so much about who would be his replacement, because he was not going to be replaced, as about what sort of person should be the one to lead the group forward in the next phase of God’s plan of redemption of the whole world. 

What Jesus did next must have surprised and shocked them.  At least it shut their mouths for a while.  Jesus took a little child, and the word that the evangelist used does not indicate whether the child was a little boy or a little girl, and he told them that whoever is anxious to be a leader, to be the first, must be the last of all and servant of all.  And then he takes the little child in his arms and tells them that they are to welcome one like this child as they would welcome himself as leader, and in so doing they would be welcoming the One who had sent him. 

All too often in the affairs of this world leadership goes to the strong, to the ambitious and the powerful.  Leaders in politics, business and most other areas of human endeavour seek to dominate and have things their way, designing their own agenda as to how things should be.  And frequently they do not mind who they destroy in the process.  Sometimes, sadly often, we may see leadership, clerical and lay, pursued and exercised in this way in the Church, be it at the parish level, the diocese or the national Church. 

Yet Jesus tells his disciples and apostles, and that includes us, that the hallmarks of a Christian leader are to be discerned in a very little child.  Such a person must have the innocence of a little child, seeking and offering love, and also the inquisitiveness of a little child in discerning why things are the way they are, and never ceasing to ask the question, “Why?”  Next, a Christian leader exercises his or her God-given talents for the benefit of others, and not to his or her own advantage.  

Such a person is rare, as rare almost as Christ Jesus, and, like Christ Jesus, such a person will be misunderstood by even those who think they are in the inner circle of the Christian community.  Such a person will face criticism and seek not to be provoked to respond in kind – and that is extremely difficult.  Such a person will be accused falsely of many things, but that only goes to show what sort of people are those who make the accusations.  And in the end, such a person must accept that he or she will be shoved out, crucified if you will, but we must hope not literally.

On another occasion Jesus warned his inner group that what was to happen to him would happen to them – and it does – and the only response can be that of Jesus, “Father, forgive them.  They do not know nor do they really understand what it is they are doing.”

Good Christian people know, in their deepest inner selves, that the way forward is not and cannot be their way.  It can only be the way of Christ, a way of patient acceptance of what is done to one, a way of seeking only the very best for even the most needy and the weakest, a way that brings life to others, or to use Thomas Cranmer’s words, a way of lively sacrifice. 

It is my hope and prayer that the next priest here at Holy Faith will be such a person, and it is also my hope and prayer that all the members of Holy Faith will become such people.

Click here for today’s “Collect and Lessons”