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Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Lectionary Scriptures: I Samuel 16:1-13, Psalm 23:1-6, Ephesians 5:8-14, John 9:1-41

“Pastor” is a term used by some to identify the minister of a congregation.  It’s actually one of my favorite terms for the role to which I devoted much of my life.  I’m aware that the blog title this week, “Pastors and Shepherds”, is redundant.  The word “pastor” comes from the Old French for “shepherd.”  We still use the word “pastoral” to describe not only the work of a minister, but as an adjective “relating to the countryside and to rural life.”

A shepherd is “somebody who looks after sheep,” and, by extension, “someone who is responsible for caring for and guiding a group of people.”

So why am I even getting into the matter of pastors and shepherds this week?  Oh, you might say, the 23rd Psalm, about the Lord as a good shepherd, is among the lectionary readings for the coming Sunday.  That’s true and it’s part of the mix of my reflections, but what tickles my mind this week is the matter of leadership.  What do we look for in a leader?  I believe that all of this week’s texts offer perspectives on that question.

My theological education and early ministry took place in a time when there was much emphasis upon “servant leadership.”  We were aware of the images of a suffering servant (Messiah?) in Isaiah.  (See Isaiah 42 & 53)  We looked to the story of Jesus washing the disciples’ feet at the beginning of the 13th chapter of John’s Gospel, where he says, “So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.  For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.  Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master . . .” (John 13:14-16)  It is this same Gospel that presents us with the image of Jesus as “The Good Shepherd.”

“Shepherd” then provides us with one image of leadership.  What can we learn from it?  This is not an image of one who whips a group into submission.  Shepherds were considered lowly.  They were considered unclean, banned from the temple and synagogue.  Is that where we look for leaders?  Apparently it is in our reading for I Samuel, where David is selected as the one to be anointed king.

It’s a story with some puzzling moments when Samuel, the kingmaker, is directed to choose a king from among the sons of Jesse.  (I Samuel 16:1-3)  The previous chapter ends with Saul’s death, but now, Samuel, in grief, asks, “How can I go?  If Saul hears of it, he will kill me.”  (vs. 2)  Does Samuel fear the ghost of Saul, or are two accounts interwoven here?  Samuel’s first choice is Eliab (vs. 6), but the Lord has a thing or two to say about leadership.  “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.”  (vs. 7)  Leadership emanates from an inner quality of the heart.  After all the other sons have been rejected, Jesse says, “There remains yet the youngest, but he is keeping the sheep.”  (vs. 11)  He, of course, is chosen, but why, after the Lord’s earlier comments, is the focus on his appearances?  “Now he was ruddy, and had beautiful eyes, and was handsome.”  (vs. 12)  I guess we always have difficulty getting beyond physical appearances.  All that matters, here, though, is that God chose a humble shepherd boy, not the son of a king, one whom we picture out in the fields, gazing at the stars and looking over his flock while writing about the Lord as his shepherd.

I used to have two books on the 23rd Psalm that taught me much about the shepherd imagery.  I can’t find either one now, apparently left behind in one or another move.  I can’t even remember the name of one of them.  The other, A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23 by W. Phillip Keller, is all over the internet.  I’m not sure which of the two books talked about the shepherd following along behind the sheep to watch for the stragglers and encourage them forward.  Further research suggests that shepherds sometimes go ahead, but often just hang out with the flock.  Being with the sheep rather than lording it over them, encouraging them from behind, offering guidance and making sure the way is safe ahead.  All images of leadership.

In searching the internet I found a Professor Linda Hill making a connection between leadership and shepherding from behind.  She is chair of the Harvard Business School’s High Potential Leadership program.  “Leadership in the future, she says, will require ‘leading from behind’ to create environments where people working in teams can contribute their skills for collaborative problem solving and innovation through the joint creativity of diverse teams."  She compares this process to the work of a shepherd.  "Shepherds lead from the rear of the flock,” Hill says, “helping them navigate and creating an environment where the more nimble and agile are able to run ahead so that the others can follow.  The task of the leader is to help individuals flourish in their roles, setting boundaries for the flock, and helping to resolve tensions.”

Here’s the thing.  We’re not just talking about pastors; we’re talking about all of us.  We are all called to be servants.  Remember Jesus’ words after washing the disciples’ feet:  So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.”

One of my mentors and supervisors early in my ministry, Jitsuo Morikawa, wrote a book in 1961 entitled, Pastors for a Servant People.  In it he says (before the days of gender-neutral language), “The big thing in a man’s life is his job, and his anxiety seems not, ‘What must I do to be saved?’, but ‘What must I do to be successful?’” All of us, he said, pastors and people, need to be liberated from the tyranny of such an approach to life.  It is the pastor’s job to enable each sheep in the flock to reach his or her full potential in service of the larger good.

The other two texts have to do, among others things, with light and seeing.  Ephesians reminds us that “in the Lord you are light,” encouraging us to “live as children of light.”  (Ephesians 5:8)  The “fruit of light” we are told “is found in all that is good and right and true.”  (vs. 9)  The instruction is to “try to find out what is pleasing to the Lord,” concluding with the observation that “everything exposed by the light becomes visible, for everything that becomes visible is light.  Therefore it says, ‘Sleeper, awake!  Rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.'”  (vss. 10, 13-14)  Leadership and ministry involve discovering and releasing the light of Christ that is within each one of us.

The lengthy Gospel reading begins with a blind man.  It includes the declaration that his blindness is not the result of his sin or his parents’ sin. (John 9:1-3)  One of John’s metaphors is placed in Jesus’ mouth, “I am the light of the world.” (vs. 5)

John’s Gospel was written at a time when the early church was struggling to identify who Jesus was.  In this reading the search is placed in the context of Pharisees who are out to trap Jesus.  (Note that this Gospel tends to speak of “Pharisees” and “Jews” in a somewhat negative tone that ignores the internal variations, a topic that cannot be addressed in this brief blog.)  Jesus is certainly not the kind of person they would choose as a leader.  After Jesus cures the man of his blindness, there’s a long, almost humorous conversation about who Jesus is. (vss. 6-12) Jesus healed the man on the Sabbath day, violating strict religious laws.  That makes him a sinner, worthy of dismissal if not punishment.  (vss. 14-16, 24-25)

The blind man thinks maybe Jesus is a prophet.  (vs. 17)  When the parents are asked to explain, they say their son is old enough that he can speak for himself.  (vss. 18-21)  He keeps repeating variations on one fact that, while he doesn’t know the man who healed him, he can now see.  (vs. 30)

There’s so much in the story---in every detail---but throughout is the incredulity that God uses one like this to heal a blind man.  Jesus was a thorn in the life of the leadership of his day.  All are puzzled about who he is.  Leaders are like that.  They may come out of nowhere, like a shepherd who is out taking care of the sheep.  They may not play by the old rules, breaking out of the pattern of rules for the sake of rules.  You may have to see with new eyes.

The blindness here, you see, is about more than physical blindness.  Jesus says, “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.”  (vs. 39)  The Pharisees get the point.  “Surely we are not blind, are we?”   (vs. 40)  The verse suggests that the biggest sin is to see and do nothing about it.  (vs. 41)

Leaders are people who help us see and to act on what we have seen.  I thank God daily that I have the privilege to be part of a congregation with that kind of leadership and membership, a congregation where we are prodded and enabled and encouraged to all that God would have us be.


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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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