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Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Lectionary Scriptures: Joshua 3:7-17 AND Psalm 107:1-7, 33-37 OR Micah 3:5-12 AND Psalm 43:1-5, I Thessalonians 2:9-13, Matthew 23:1-12

We seem to have a lot of agreement that things are not going too well these days—in politics, in international relations, in economics, even in many of our families. Our recent lectionary readings have depicted the Hebrew people in something of a mess—a wilderness, one might say. In Psalm 107, we find the people wandering “in desert places . . . hungry and thirsty” crying out “in their trouble.” (Psalm 107:4-6) Ultimately it is “the Lord” who delivers them. “ . . . he led them by a straight way . . . for he satisfies the thirsty, and the hungry he fills with good things.” (vss. 6, 7, & 9) Likewise, Psalm 43 is a cry from those who feel cast off. (Psalm 43:2) Many of the Psalms contain such cries. Who is going to get us out of this mess?

While God is seen as the ultimate deliverer, it is most frequently human leaders who step in to carry out what they perceive to be God’s will (even if it is often distorted and misunderstood).

The story last week took us up to the brink of the “Promised Land,” but Moses was not allowed to enter. A new leader was appointed, Joshua. Today’s reading picks up the story of Joshua as the people cross the Jordan River “on dry ground.” (Joshua 3:17) We could discuss various attempts to explain this “miracle.” Whatever stories they told about it, what was important to these people was that they got across. It is the beginning of a brand new chapter of their existence. They are given a new start.

We might agonize over their becoming an “occupying” force. We cannot escape the fact that human history is, among other things, the story of “occupying” new lands, getting new beginnings. We need to acknowledge that those new beginnings have come at a cost. The comes a day of reckoning when we need to set right what can be set right, and find ways to reconciliation and forgiveness in the midst of present realities.

For now, though, I want to examine this week’s readings to consider the kind of “leadership” needed to get us out of the messes we find ourselves in? This is not a systematic presentation of some biblical model of or critique of leadership. I’m simply gleaning some insights from these texts that may help us understand who is or who is not going to get us out of this mess

1. No one leader is going to do it alone. Joshua is told to select twelve men to help him get the job done. Putting too much emphasis on the symbolism of the number twelve probably takes us down a rabbit hole. Suffice it to say that twelve is seen as one of the “perfect” numbers, representing in this case, perfect governance. So what? How are we going to apply that in modern circumstances? It’s probably better to see it just as it is presented—a “representative” process—“one from each tribe.” (Joshua 3:12) The voices of all groups in society need to be heard if we are to get out of this mess. It’s the ideal behind our system of elected representatives, but it’s not working too well at the moment.

2. The prophet Micah, from the 8th century before the common era, reminds us that leaders can be corrupt, that leadership can be abused, that leaders can be just looking for what’s in it for them, etc. He observed and criticized such leaders as he observed them at work in the land of Judah. They “lead my people astray.” They “cry ‘Peace’ when they have something to eat.” (Micah 3:5) It is as if they have become comfortable, disconnect with the suffering of the people around them. Sound familiar? They “abhor justice and pervert all equity,” building the nation “with blood and with wrong!” They can be bribed. The priests and prophets can be bought “for a price . . . with money.” (vss. 9-11) What we have is a picture in which those who should be getting us out of this mess can be bought by the highest bidder. Sounds familiar again, doesn’t it? No wonder a movement arises to Occupy Wall Street and challenge a system of leadership which is controlled by the profiteers. God, through Micah, points out that this is a leadership that leads to destruction, so that our cities become “a heap of ruins.” (vs. 12) Here’s a prophet who hits close to home. This is not the way to get out of this mess.

3. Paul often addresses his leadership role among the churches to which he writes. (I Thessalonians 2:9-10) He sees himself in close loving relationship with the people. They are like family to one another.

One way of getting out of this mess is to function like a family. It’s a model that has been used in tribes, in businesses, in voluntary organizations, in churches from time to time. It’s certainly a huge step ahead of leadership by corrupt monarchs.

The problem comes when one defines a hierarchical family organization as the ideal, with a patriarch in charge. Paul sometimes seems to lean this way. He talks about dealing “with each one of you like a father with his children, urging and encouraging you.” (vss. 11-12) It can work well when the father is benevolent and loving, but like most approaches to leadership it can easily be abused.

As in all these “models” we need to remember that the larger picture is not the leader himself or herself but how God is or is not at work in the situation. In I Thessalonians the call is to “lead a life worthy of God.” It is more that “a human word” at work; it is “God’s word, which is also are work in you believers.” (vss. 12-13)

4. The Gospel lesson touches on elements in some of the other texts. Jesus speaks about leaders who are corrupt—in this case, hypocrites. They say the right words, but “they do not practice what they preach.” (Matthew 23:3) They place heavy burdens on the people and “are unwilling to lift a finger to move them.” The look for honor and praise. They want to be addressed a the honorable this or the honorable that. (vss. 4-7)

If Paul wants to be seen as “father” (although we have no indication that he ever sought the title, “Father”), Jesus warns against using any honorific titles for leaders—not “rabbi,” not “teacher,” not “father,” not “instructor.” (vss. 8-10) We could puzzle over this one for some time. In the Fundamentalist circles of my childhood years, this was used to condemn the use of “Father” in addressing priests. Surely Jesus is not saying there should be no teachers, no priests, no instruction, etc. Paul’s letters talk about the variety of gifts we are given to be used for the building up of the church and world. I suspect that Jesus here is simply warning against using titles that give people power over us. His words can be read in the spirit of the Paul’s reminder that one gift is not better than another, not something to be used to say, “I am better than you. I have a more valuable ability.” And again, it is a call to see all gifts, all good leadership as coming from a deeper—more divine—place. (vs. 10)

The conclusion of the Gospel lesson confirms this emphasis upon a style of governance in which we all work together each applying his or her gift in service of the whole. It’s called servanthood, and it’s the only way we’re going to get out of this mess. “The greatest among you will be your servant. All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted (vss. 11-12). No one ever said democracy was easy or efficient, but it is, I believe, the way that recognizes the divine is at work in each one of us. God’s leadership style is to give us all a stake in things. We bring what we have to the mix and it multiplies into something greater. No one else can get us out of this mess. It’s not magic, but it is a miracle of sorts. One of the most dramatic things I’ve observed in the Occupy Movement is their attempt to make decisions using some sort of consensus process in which each voice is heard. I’d like to think that God is looking on from some vantage point and smiling.


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Kairos-Milwaukie UCC Blog

Reflections on the Revised Common Lectionary by Rev. Rick Skidmore and Rev. Jim Ogden.

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