I confess, I’ve got a bit of a conundrum in my theology. I often wonder: Can you call someone a “Christian leader?” Is “Christian leader” a contradiction in terms?
This moment in First Samuel eggs on that anxiety. This story might be called one of the great tragedies of history. Shakespeare wasn’t around to write the tragic dialogue, yet the characters still get some great lines.
The people turn to Samuel, their Judge and prophet and say, “You are old.” Well, hold it right there. “You are old?” It gets worse: “Samuel, you are old, and your sons are morons.” I’m paraphrasing here, but the sentiment is the same. “Samuel, we’re afraid you’re going to die and leave us in the hands of your sons. Do you know those guys? They’re terrible.”
This chapter comes at a transition moment. The tragedy, like many tragedies, is a turning point. The people have been lead by a series of “Judges” ad-hoc tribal figures who didn’t have the full authority of a king. The Judges tended to be the chosen because they were the best citizen available at the time. They were picked for their morality and they governed with the consent of the people. Unlikely as it was for ancient times, this meant that a woman, Deborah, served as a great Judge. The best leaders served, and Kingship, full authority, was thought not to rest in a person, but in God. These were glory days for Israel. But this moment in Samuel marks the end of the time of the Judges. Samuel’s sons won’t become judges. The loss points to something new, a new period in the history Israel. The people come to Samuel to beg for a king.
Now, this is America, and we’re suspicious of kings. Samuel tells us that is a Godly suspicion. We had to declare our independence from a King. We might think of the prophet Samuel as an American, or even as a ‘murican. He doesn’t like Kings. “The King will turn you into slaves. He’ll take your property. He’ll set his friends up as a ruling class.” Kings are a BAD idea, he’s trying to say. Concentrating that much power in the hands of one human being can become a problem, Samuel says. Well, if you turn past the books of Samuel, the next books of the Bible are called “Kings.” So you can tell that Samuel wasn’t particularly effective in persuading the people.
The Founding Fathers would be nervous about coming to church at Holy Communion. After all, they would have to walk past doors celebrating the Queen of England. Seriously, this place has stained glass windows dedicated to the monarch. They’re right in the doors into the sanctuary: ERII stands for Elizabeth, the second, Regina, queen. What is that all about? I’ll have to ask the Archives Committee how those monarch-sympathizing doors came to be installed in our church. Our loyalty at Holy Communion is suspect. Because real Americans don’t celebrate Kings and Queens…right? Okay, I’m kidding. Still, even in queen-wary America, we have a system where power is concentrated in the hands of a few people, even if we don’t crown them.
Ten, maybe 15 years ago, people were talking very seriously about General Colin Powell running for president. There are still people talking trying to convince Colin Powell to run for president today. 15 years ago, when I learned Colin Powell was an Episcopalian, I thought it would be a great idea for him to be president. My dad burst my bubble. “He’s too smart to run for president,” dad said.
I get that my dad’s logic is simplistic, but there’s a bit of truth there that burns, doesn’t it? We have a perception of leadership, especially political leadership, especially national leadership, that doubts the integrity of our leaders. We’re jaded.
“Absolute power corrupts absolutely” goes the saying. Lord Acton’s full quote is this: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.” (As an aside, I do notice, Lord Acton doesn’t have anything to about women holding power. Maybe we’d be safer with women in charge).
Our reading from Samuel drives my question today. Can you have a “Christian leader?” Or is “Christian Leader” a contradiction in terms?
I’m pushing this envelope on purpose. I’ve known politicians, and I’ve known their Christian faith. That’s not in doubt. But I also know that there’s a balance to be held between Christian faith and the exercise of power. So I’m not sure I’ll ever give up on my agnosticism about the phrase “Christian leader,” because, apart from Jesus, I don’t think anyone has completely pulled off the balance.
I want to enumerate three qualities about Christian leadership from our Gospel, which make this balance tricky:
1) Christian Leadership is about moral courage not genetic inheritance.
In today’s Gospel we get this perplexing conversation about Jesus’ family. There is an odd relationship between Jesus and his blood relatives. It’s such an odd relationship, that we’re still reading bad conspiracy novels about the descendants of Jesus today. Is Jesus’ family some sort of dynasty? Jesus here is saying, “absolutely not.” So we can all put down the Dan Brown books.
I’m not sure where we get this idea that one family, or a few families, should pass down authority like you’d pass down a family recipe, but we seem to keep coming back to it. Look at our Candidate field for President so far. The contenders are from a limited gene pool. The Israelites are ahead of us on this one. They figured out that Samuel’s sons weren’t worth anointing.
When the crowd says to Jesus, “Your mother and your brothers are looking for you,” he responds, “Whoever does the will of God is my mother, and brother, and sister.” That’s a big deal in a tribal society. Jesus is breaking with rather strong cultural sensibilities about family. Jesus says, what is central is God’s will. What is central is your moral conviction. My people are people who know what they stand for.
For Jesus, leadership isn’t about where you were born. It isn’t about coming from the right people, or going to the right schools. Being a leader is about who you are in a moment of crisis. Can you stand up for what you believe? Leadership is about moral courage. Which brings us to the next principle
2) Christian Leadership places the most vulnerable at the center of decision making
Jesus is in trouble here because he made a decision. A man came up to him in the synagogue, in public, in front of the religious authorities, on the sabbath. That man had a withered hand. Jesus chose to heal him, knowing full well the controversy that would ensue. Propriety, religious laws, cultural expectations they don’t matter when someone is hurting.
Jesus does this again and again. He defies the rules to care for the lost, the broken, and the poor. Jesus had a reputation. “This man eats with sinners.” Jesus put those who were hurting at the heart of his ministry. Jesus is so identified with caring for the vulnerable that huge crowds form so that “Jesus and his disciples could not even eat.” Jesus kept ministering to them. That’s why they called him crazy, and said he had a demon. Jesus was taking care of the vulnerable.
What would it look like to put the most vulnerable at the heart of our decision making? What does it look like to lead with a preferential option for the poor? Will people call us crazy? Probably. That’s the invitation of Jesus: be crazy, for the sake of those who are vulnerable.
3) Christian Leadership is always about following, and never about seeking glory
For the first decades of Christianity, the believers weren’t called “Christians.” That word doesn’t come about until a few chapters into the book of Acts. They were called “followers of the way” or, more simply, “followers of Jesus.” We are, always, followers.
As Hamlet says, “There’s the rub.” Being called a “follower” doesn’t feed your ego. I know this well. To be honest with you, the pursuit of glory is something that has caught up with me a few times in life. One of the big disappointments in my life was having my bishop tell me he wouldn’t let me go to Yale for Divinity School. I really wanted that big Yale diploma on my wall. Almost a decade later, I’m really glad about where I went to seminary, even if very few people outside the Episcopal Church have ever heard of the Virginia Theological Seminary. People in Alexandria Virginia, where the school is located don’t even know there’s a seminary on Seminary Road. Even without a Yale diploma I know, I still have to watch out for my ego. I think many of us do.
The question “Is there such a thing as a Christian leader?” nags me, because I’d like to be one. I know part of my motivation keeps me making one step back for every two steps forward. I like glory. If you find yourself there, like I find myself there, seeking after the image of success, maybe we can take a note from St. Paul who said, “May I never Boast except in the cross of Our Lord.” Looking at Paul’s letters, we know he continued to struggle with boasting. There are some eye-rolling moments in Paul. He says “be like me” a few too many times. And still, Paul tried to point beyond himself. When we look to Jesus, we find him suffering alongside the vulnerable.
It’s easy to pick on leaders. I did it myself when I talked about the candidate pool for president. It’s easy to point out the failings and fumbling of politician. I’m sure we’re in for some good comedy at the expense of the candidates, especially now that Stephen Colbert is taking over the Late Show. But that comedy is easy. Walking the balance of leadership is difficult, especially if you are calling yourself for Christian. I think those who hold authority need our prayers, and I think our officials need us to keep them accountable. They need us to write, and call, and vote and protest. Because even the best leaders need help keeping the balance.
Christian Leadership is a tricky balance. I’m convinced that the struggles aren’t just for the elected official. I think each of us, in our own way, exercises authority. In our families, in our schools, in our neighborhoods, in social clubs, and heck even at church. I don’t think Christ wants us to shy away from leading. In fact I think Jesus invites us to take up responsibility. Christ invites us to lead. But if we are to call ourselves Christians, we have to approach authority with great care. Jesus invites us to see leadership differently than the kings who lord authority over their subjects. For Jesus, a leader is someone who stands up with moral courage, and who seeks to serve the most vulnerable, and who passes the glory on to God. Can you call someone a Christian leader? I hope so.
One thought on “The prophet Samuel and “Christian Leadership” a sermon for the First Sunday after Pentecost”
Great post. I must admit it’s quite challenging to be a christian in a leadership position. the temptation is high, power corrupts and you have to constantly reexamine yourself to see if you are not already blowing your own horn. I used to pick on leaders too, but I have since learned that it can be very challenging to keep the balance.
Only total submission to the God who calls us into His service can save us from the kind of leadership I see in the world today.