by Ellen Sims
texts: Isaiah 42:1-9; Matthew 3: 17-23
In recent decades a segment of American society has been demanding that our political leaders be Christian, the First Amendment notwithstanding. It may seem they are at long last close to stocking the Senate, House, Cabinet, and White House with “Christian” leaders duly certified by the Religious Right. Others are trying to square these leaders with biblical images of leadership we read about in today’s Hebrew Bible and Gospel texts. While some folks are impressed by tweeted tirades and pompous putdowns from leaders, the God of the Bible seems to have always been seeking humble servants who care for the least and the last. According to Isaiah 42:1, God wants leaders who “will bring forth justice to the nations.” While the Religious Right thinks that means retributive justice—an “eye for an eye” from a condemning God—Isaiah and Jesus mean a distributive justice that tries to rectify inequalities, as we recognize upon reading further in today’s Hebrew Bible pericope. God’s servant leaders will not seek praise and attention but will persist in their work for the weak.
While some so-called Christian leaders (in politics and in religion) promise prosperity, the real Gospel says we all must be the means by which others can flourish. Having a mansion doesn’leadershipt prove God has smiled on you. It might even mean that you have not smiled on the ones God smiles upon because you’ve pursued your own interests at the expense of others.
Servant leaders, in contrast, cannot be pressured into betraying the common good. And eventually people from far and wide will come to listen for the teaching of these servant leaders. Think Gandhi. Think of King. Think of our greatest exemplar: Jesus the Christ.
According to Matthew’s Gospel, God did not tap leaders who needed adulation; instead, God was “well pleased” with the one who started his campaign not by descending from a golden elevator in his namesake hotel—but by descending ignobly into the Jordan River. Jesus’s meme of submission proved so powerful that his followers would continue to reenact his baptism for 2000 years. The caption under every Christian’s baptismal picture reads: “’You, too, are my beloved child. With you I am well pleased’ –God.” But remember that your Christian baptism was an initiation into a life-long ministry that should look like Jesus’s.
We’re here today not to talk about political leaders. We’re focusing today on our own roles as leaders. We, too, need to study Isaiah’s humble servant chosen of God—and Matthew’s humble Jesus requesting a baptism of repentance and humility.
Through our own leadership the needs of the poor and prisoners and sick can be prioritized. Through Open Table’s leadership, God’s justice can take a stronger foothold in our city. Through your roles—informal and formal roles of leadership—Open Table can lead by serving.
I know how trite “servant leadership” sounds, especially in business circles. I also realize that women and minorities who’ve been treated in servile ways don’t need to learn how to be servants. But I am keying off Isaiah’s vision of the kind of leader God can use, a leader who empowers and equips others. And we are always looking to Jesus for our example. His swearing in ceremony was far from the seat of power and it associated him with his unpopular cousin, the desert-dwelling rabble rouser John, who soon would be executed upon King Herod’s orders.
What specifically does it look like when you and I serve one another and our community well?
On this day when our church expresses gratitude for our 2016 leaders and blesses the 2017 leadership team, one idea I pull from Matthew’s text is this: maybe leadership is something we take turns doing. Maybe there are even occasional moments of awkwardness—as we figure out in community who’s taking the lead at a particular time. I say this because I’m noticing the awkward dance that John and Jesus do at the river. It went something like this:
John, whose been yelling at folks to repent, is baptizing the folks. Jesus appears. And John’s all “Woa, cuz, you need to baptize me. I’m not worthy to baptize YOU.” And Jesus says, “Naw. It’s cool. Really. It’s not about status, you know. It’s the opposite of that. It’s about serving one another. God’s kingdom doesn’t have room for a pecking order. There’s too much to do for us to worry about that.”*
We at Open Table serve one another well when we take turns in leadership roles—to share the joy and the burden of leadership. And to benefit from our diverse experiences and perspectives.
Today we’ve named and blessed specific Open Table participants to take on specific ministry roles in 2017. It’s good to do things in an orderly way. But we don’t need a highly bureaucratic method of getting stuff done. Anyone can attend council meetings, present ideas to the council, see a need and offer to step in. For our fairly informal organizational model to work well, we have to do what John and Jesus were doing in the little dance they did at the Jordan River: talk through an idea. John and Jesus had to decide who was going to do what. Who’s baptizing whom? And we need new folks to fill leadership slots to replenish ideas and energy. And then we just get ‘er done. As happened at the baptism of Jesus.
Good communication is SO critical to our community that it’s the theme of this year’s church leadership retreat on Jan. 28. And it’s an event to which you are all invited and encouraged to attend. Good communication is vital because we do very little voting at Open Table. Instead, we emphasize group discernment: praying about decisions together with a heart for the common good, focusing on giving to the community rather than getting from the community. We discern by deeply listening to one another and then reaching consensus before moving forward. We discern well when we refuse to be an obstacle if there is movement toward something good. We discern and reach consensus by realizing that conflict is normal, even (or especially) within a church. We discern well when our mutual covenant to care for one another allows us also to speak honestly from our perspective as we work through differences of opinion. We remain in covenantal communion with one another even when we respectfully disagree because we know we don’t have to like everyone in our faith community in order to love everyone. We appreciate even the struggles, which are means of learning more about ourselves and ways to mature spiritually. As a friend recently expressed it to me, trying to remain curious about why someone gets on our nerves is a means to personal growth. As I say frequently, the messiness of being in communion with one another is our life curriculum, providing us with endless “case studies” from which to learn and grow.
The leadership you bring to Open Table is, I hope, something that benefits you personally in the process.
But we also hope that our concerted leadership at Open Table is aimed at serving others outside our congregation. We’re not a social club. We hope friendships develop here. But we audaciously aim to help “establish justice on earth” (Isaiah 42: 4).
During this anxious period in our country, many of us are seeking signs of hope from our Christian faith and within Christian scriptures. For me this week our Hebrew Bible reading offered a fresh if challenging sign of hope. For the first time in reading this passage from Isaiah I realized that verses 6-7 use the word covenant in a unique way. Hear those verses once more:
6I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness, I have taken you by the hand and kept you; I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, 7to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness.
Elsewhere, covenant is a promise God makes to care for the people—or a mutual promise of fidelity between God and the people. The covenant God made after the flood included a “sign” of that covenantal promise—the rainbow that God told Noah would signify that the world would never again be destroyed by flood.
Do you hear what’s different about Isaiah’s use of “covenant”? The covenant is not a promise made to or with the people. The covenant IS the people of God. Yahweh said to Israel, “I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations”!
If we want to inhabit those verses and walk into that kind of relationship with God in dark times, we don’t get to pray, “God, send us a sign you’re going to make this mess turn out okay.” We have to pray, “God use us as a sign this mess will turn out okay.” Make us the sign. Make us the light to the nations.
We ARE the sign of hope. Which should scare the hell out of us. And scare the hope into us.
Stop looking for someone else to rescue us. Start being the covenant. Stop looking for your pastor or church council to grow this church. Start inviting others and contributing as you can. Stop looking for someone to make our city, our nation, more just. Start working for justice.
And you are.
And you do.
Our Free2Be LGBTQ youth group, as Justin earlier reported, is literally a RAINBOW sign for youth in Mobile, a covenant God is making and waving like a multicolored flag in our larger community. You need signs of a miracle? That’s it. That is what you are already doing. A sign of God’s covenant, a light to the nations.
Thank God we’re not doing this as a solo effort. With the help of God and in the company of courageous servant leaders, we can claim this covenant with God and one another. And maybe—as we periodically do the leadership dance—we’ll hear God’s voice saying, “These are my beloved children, with whom I’m well pleased.”
Thanks be to God.
*Although all four Gospels include the story of Jesus’ baptism, only Matthew mentions that John protested his unworthiness. Some scholars believe Matthew added this detail to further enhance Matthew’s messianic themes and higher Christology.