Saturday, May 25, 2013

Toronto Conference Celebration of Ministries

Luke 9
While everyone was marveling at all that Jesus did, he said to his disciples, 44 “Listen carefully to what I am about to tell you: The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men.” 45 But they did not understand what this meant. It was hidden from them, so that they did not grasp it, and they were afraid to ask him about it.
46 An argument started among the disciples as to which of them would be the greatest. 47 Jesus, knowing their thoughts, took a little child and had him stand beside him. 48 Then he said to them, “Whoever welcomes this little child in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. For it is the one who is least among you all who is the greatest.”
49 “Master,” said John, “we saw someone driving out demons in your name and we tried to stop him, because he is not one of us.”
50 “Do not stop him,” Jesus said, “for whoever is not against you is for you.”
51 As the time approached for him to be taken up to heaven, Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem. 52 And he sent messengers on ahead, who went into a Samaritan village to get things ready for him; 53 but the people there did not welcome him, because he was heading for Jerusalem. 54 When the disciples James and John saw this, they asked, “Lord, do you want us to call fire down from heaven to destroy them[b]?” 55 But Jesus turned and rebuked them.

The weekend of my ordination, my parent’s home was hit by lightning.

Yes, I was staying there, and no, I didn’t interpret it as a commentary on my ordination. And yes, the TV and the VCR were fried, but no, I didn’t take it as a sign to give up television. Yes, my parents were annoyed, but no, they didn’t avoid the ordination service and the threat of further lightning strikes.

22 years ago, in what now seems like some sort of child-ordination program, I sat in your seat. You, of course, are older and wiser, and surrounded by seasoned candidates for admission and readmission, and therefore less likely to be given to the foolish thoughts that ran through my head as the service unfolded.

Let’s start with baptism. I wondered: If I splash someone in the pool, have I just baptized them? That’s so cool! Splash! Christian! Imagine the pool party where someone says “Pastor, I’m really on the fence about this whole baptism thing and you say ‘aw, c’mon.’” Oops.

Maybe I was daydreaming about Section 176 of the Criminal Code. Do you know about this? It’s unlawful to interfere with a minister on her or his way to perform a sacred duty. Instead of lame excuses when the officer asks how fast you were going, you get to make a citizen’s arrest! How cool is that?

Or daydreaming about being on the cusp of such a great adventure: imagining a new stage in life and a new church and new people, and then foolishly believing that I could somehow lead a church without being the leader (I’m gonna say more about this in a minute).

But mostly—sitting in your seat—I felt blessed. Foolish, certainly, anxious about lightning, maybe, but mostly blessed: blessed to be surrounded by the people who walked the long journey at my side, blessed to be affirmed by wise sisters and brothers, and blessed by the opportunity to serve the God that is the source of all blessing. I know you feel it too.

And while we’re on the topic of foolishness and becoming leaders, it might be time to take a hard look at the disciples. But just before we dig into Luke 9, I might set the stage by giving you three handy rules of thumb that apply to stories like these, and may aid in our understanding.

The first rule is that we are heirs of the disciples. Since we inherited this church and can claim our lineage back through time from believer to believer, we are direct heirs. So whenever we read about the disciples—wise or foolish—we are reading about ourselves. It is both helpful and humbling.

The second rule is that whenever you set about peeling back the layers of tradition, and whenever you seek to identify what might be more authentic or more relevant to our life together, start with the places where main characters look bad. If authors and editors overlooked the ‘optics’ of certain words and deeds, and highlighted them for us, pay attention to what we may learn.

The third is a little more philosophical, but it is important to acknowledge that the strength of the Judeo-Christian tradition is the extent to which there is no whitewash, and no attempt to present ‘the greats’ of the Bible in the best possible light. And thank God for that, since much that we learn from the disciples borders somewhere between ‘cautionary tale’ and ‘don’t try this at home.’

Just one more thing before Luke 9, another frame to understand the importance of this passage. MBA graduates in the crowd, and I know you’re out there, will tell you that business schools use ‘case studies’ to share insights because they most accurately reflect the kinds of situations that may confront the student later on. So we can think of Luke 9 as an extended case study, in four parts, on what not to do in leadership.

(Just as an aside, I learned this from reading the book “The Ten-Day MBA,” a book that cost me $15. If you spent thousands on your MBA, and I spent $15, you have to wonder who’s the better businessperson.)

Part one of our case study is a simple one, with Jesus insisting they listen carefully (another giveaway that something is important) then he says “The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of others.” Now Luke tells us they didn’t have a hot clue what this meant, and were afraid to ask. It’s not the most dramatic lesson in leadership, but it’s a lesson nonetheless: If you don’t understand, ask.

The second part of our case study begins with the very familiar words: “An argument started among the disciples as to which of them would be the greatest.” If you would permit me to give you a little glimpse into the secret life of ministers, this argument continues. And it is both tiresome and seemingly never-ending, and never settles as quickly or neatly as Jesus’ object-lesson: the one that involves a little child and the abiding knowledge that the little ones are the spiritual all-stars, and not those with titles and degrees.

The third part of our case study ranks high in the ‘teachable moment’ category of the Bible, and if we take seriously, may just save the world. The conversation goes like this:

“Teacher,” John said, “we saw someone driving out demons in your name and we tried to stop him, because he is not one of us.”
“Do not stop him,” Jesus said, “for whoever is not against you is for you.”

So that’s the Jesus Doctrine—’for whoever is not against you is for you’—which is never to be confused with the Bush Doctrine, famously summarized by the former President himself when he said: “Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.” I don’t think it takes a geopolitical theorist or a moral theologian to see which way leads to life and which way leads to death.

The fourth and final part of this case study concerns a certain Samaritan village that got wind that Jesus was coming and shut the village gates. The disciples were miffed, and two went to Jesus with a suggestion that might better be left off your conflict resolution strategy list: “Lord, do you want us to call down fire from heaven and destroy them?” We call this the smoting strategy, and it seldom works.

How uncomfortable when the Bible names names. Yes, James and John, we mean you, with your supposed ‘call down fire’ ability. They will never live this one down, but I would argue it was not their fault. Maybe they spent too much thinking they had the kind of power Jesus had. Maybe they were in the back of the boat mumbling under their breath “yeah, storm, be still.” But only Jesus had power over nature, because he is God. Jesus is God and we are not, nor are James and John, something they learned the hard way, with a rebuke.

So our catalog of leadership lessons might read something like this:

Leaders ask questions, and may in fact spend more time asking questions than giving answers, because the best insights and the most growth comes from helping others find the answers themselves, and therefore we ask questions.

Leaders let go of the desire to be great, and in doing so, may just be regarded as great. And the reverse is also true: the leader that is willing to look foolish, and make mistakes, and describe those mistakes to others, will have a most lasting impact. Much more than those dedicated to appearing in the best possible light on every occasion. After all, our faith is based on the principle that we are all redeemed sinners, forgiven and therefore better equipped to forgive.

Leaders try to see everyone as an ally, with something to share or something to give. Great leaders can begin to see everyone as a sister or brother, sharing a common humanity, but this enters the territory of mystics and saints, and we’re simply trying to be good leaders.

Leaders recognize that God is God and we are not. We will foolishly set about to create things and transform things and redeem things, when clearly this is God’s work. It is God that inclines the heart to pray, and it is God who gives birth to possibility and new life, and it is our job as disciples and leaders to name it and celebrate it and praise God for it.

Finally, leaders overcome that very Canadian impulse to say “oh, I couldn’t be the leader,” or “there are many others more suited to leadership.” Long ago, when I went to school, leadership was seldom discussed and considered somewhere between passé and dangerous. Leaders were seen to take charge, push their own agenda, speak louder and longer than everyone else. For this reason we largely abandoned the study of what it meant to be a leader in a congregation and in the community, and by this we were diminished.

Luckily for us, the quest to define good leadership has returned, and in the spirit of Jesus and his great reversals, we have discovered that leadership has less to do with strength and more to do with foolishness. There is the foolishness of the disciples, the kind that gives us permission to make all the mistakes they made and still become the leaders that can grow a church. That’s the first kind. And there is the kind of foolishness that is foolishness in the world’s eyes, the kind of foolishness that allows us to embrace God’s wisdom as we reject the wisdom of the world.

It was foolishness that compelled Paul and Silas to stand their ground, even as the prison door fell open, because their jailer needed to hear words of new life.

It was foolishness that compelled Rosa Parks to remain in her seat, so utterly convinced of her dignity and her humanity that she would endure any cost.

It was foolishness that placed an eagle feather in Elijah Harper’s hand, defending our Charter rights against backroom deals and the old way of doing things.

And it is foolishness that compels us to worship and pray and hang out with the very people the world seems to have discarded, not because we have to, but because we want to. To love and serve God can’t be subject to a cost-benefit analysis or demonstrate a return on investment, and will therefore remain a counter-cultural act, and thank God for that.

I want to conclude with a couple of stories of leadership: one far away and one closer to home.

The last time a group of Cardinals made an unlikely choice and the world took notice: that would be John XXIII. On Christmas day, 1958, shortly after his election, Pope John decided to visit a children’s hospital. To our ears this doesn’t seem extraordinary, but it becomes extraordinary when you consider that in 1958 a pope hadn’t left the Vatican in 88 years. Needless to say, the staff were ill-prepared.

Never one to rest, the next day he decided to visit a prison. The staff were apoplectic. But the pope is the pope and so they went along. He began the visit in his own particular way when he said to the prisoners (with a big smile), "You couldn’t come to me, so I came to you." And just to torment his staff some more, he asked to be let into the cell of a convicted murderer. Inside, the somewhat surprised prisoner asked “Father, can there be forgiveness for even me?” Pope John gave the man a hug.

The other story describes the highlight of my young life—one that didn’t involve dodging lightning bolts—namely a trip to General Council. (You’re thinking ‘wow, church geek’).

Few of us traveling to Sudbury in ’86 had a sense of the momentous decision before the court, or the extent to which offering that first apology to Canada’s First Nations would transform our denomination’s sense of itself.

And almost equally momentous was the process to get to the apology, for the Moderator and the other leaders suggested the decision be reached by consensus, rather than voting. Seems simple enough in theory, of course: take a group of people, discuss a matter at length, ask them throughout the day ‘can you live with this?‘ until everyone is on side.

It made perfect sense to begin this journey of reconciliation with a decision-making method given to church by the very people that we were seeking to apologize to, and it displayed a beautiful foolishness to imagine it could be done with 400 people in the room.

By the end of a very long day, a long day of the Moderator asking and re-asking if the Commissioners could live with the decision, there were only three holdouts, three of 400 who couldn’t get there by consensus. The court moved to a vote, and it was at that moment that our First Nations sisters and brothers decided to leave the meeting, and leave Commissioners to the up or down vote that comes when consensus fails.

All stood as our friends left, and in the silence and the sadness of that moment, someone—off in the corner of the room—started to hum “Amazing Grace.” One by one others joined in—humming and not singing—until the sound filled the room. Commissioners voted through tears to make an apology.

Lawyers hate it when organizations make apologies—too risky, they say—but the most beautifully foolish ones do it anyway. Churches lead when they ignore the risks and opt instead for amazing grace.

May God bless each of us, and in particular those prepared to formalize their leadership in our midst. We are honored to be here, and foolish enough to believe that together, you just might change the world. Amen.