Joshua 3:7-17; 1 Thessalonians 2:9-13; Matthew 23:1-12
Ordinary 31A; Proper 26
Whom are we to follow? How are we to lead?
As one who reluctantly delves into secular articles on leadership (and find I am often put off by buzzwords and an over emphasis on efficiency), I pay close attention to texts like those offered up this Sunday. If I’m critical of importing too many business practices into the realm of the church, then I better consider the biblical alternative with seriousness.
First, questions of leading and following merit our attention. Given the current state of our political life together, the church bears an urgent responsibility to model a different way of being in community, of leading and following. God tells Joshua that the people he is to lead will “know that I am with you, like I was with Moses.” Given the size of the shoes Joshua must fill, that must be a reassuring word. God tells Joshua, “This day I will begin to exalt you in the sight of all Israel.” The agency here belongs to God and God alone. Joshua receives this status along with specific instructions for next steps. But give Joshua his props. He follows direction well and note what he says: “Draw near and hear the words of the Lord your God.” Joshua gives credit where credit is due. The word belongs to God and God is the Lord of both Joshua and the people. All the miraculous events are attributed to God and attest to God’s power and care, not Joshua’s.
To God be the glory, great things God has done. As Joshua points beyond himself to the God who called him, he recognizes his place in this arrangement. I knew a city manager who said his job was to do the work and the mayor’s job was to get the credit. He saw this reality as right, not a reason for resentment. The roles were defined and his was that of public servant. And if the public got served well, it mattered little who got the credit. Such a leadership style and posture is rare in most settings, but it is a requirement for those who follow the Lord our God.
When God puts us in positions of leadership who gets the glory? To whom are we pointing? Whose directions do we follow? How much are we willing to serve, withstand and endure for the sake of the people God has called us to lead? Being exalted like Moses sounds great until one reads the biblical record again and realizes with such exaltation comes great responsibility and, frankly, hardship. Do we think of leadership in those terms?
Paul recognizes the sometimes painful truth that how leaders behave proclaims a louder message than any words spoken. “We worked night and day, so that we might not burden any of you.” Not only God witnessed how Paul, Silvanus and Timothy acted, but those early Christians did too. They saw “how pure, upright and blameless” their conduct was toward the people of Thessalonica. Their evangelism and teaching were “like a father with his children.” Daily interactions with others matter. How we walk and talk and move around this life profoundly impacts, for good or for ill, our witness. Are we aware of this reality? Conscious of the fact that when our neighbors see us pulling out of the driveway for worship every Sunday morning and then read our nasty emails to the neighborhood association on Monday morning, the dichotomy colors their view not only of us, but of Christians and maybe even Jesus.
Christian leadership is embodied, no less than Jesus became incarnate. As Willie James Jennings said in a lecture I attended, “You have to be a Christian at your mailbox, at the zoning committee meeting … our faith is practiced geographically.” Paul got that. Do we?
Jesus surely doesn’t tolerate anything less. He comes down hard on those religious leaders who fail to live the teachings they profess. He says to the crowds, “Follow the teachings, the law, the commandments, but don’t do what those ‘experts’ in the law do.” In other words, if the leaders fail to follow the word and will of God, do not follow them. Showy religion, piety for personal profit, leveraging religious leadership for perks, honor and adulation gets utterly condemned by Jesus Christ, the one whose victory came by way of a cross.
We are all students. The Messiah is our teacher. God is our Father. We never graduate. We never get promoted. This is lifelong learning if ever there was such a thing. Even leaders are followers, students and children. Servants, all.
We get that verb again: “exalt.” This time Jesus warns that those who exalt themselves will be humbled. God does the exalting if there is to be any. God is to be exalted, always. Humility and servanthood mark the students of Jesus and the children of God. How often do we see these character traits displayed in our culture? How often do we remember to exhibit them ourselves?
If Jesus had written books about leadership I don’t think the titles would have gotten much traction. “Ten tips for coming in last” or “Going from lower to least” or maybe “Downward mobility for dummies” or “Lean back” don’t seem to resonate in a world that believes that “nice guys finish last” and there are few things worse than losing.
There is a government office I know that is in the basement of a city hall with no windows, low ceilings, located at the end of a hallway. The office houses the staff members that keep public housing up and running. The office just next door is, if I remember correctly, a government accounting office of some kind. What’s noteworthy about the office adjacent to the housing office is the sign on its door, in all capital red letters, highlighted in yellow. It reads: “THIS IS NOT THE HOUSING AUTHORITY OFFICE! WE CANNOT HELP YOU! PLEASE SEE THEIR SIGN AND CONTACT ANOTHER OFFICE. THANK YOU.” I took a picture of the sign because it both amused and bothered me. If you are seeking help with housing, or you need to pay your rent, or you have a question about where you are on the very long waiting list, well, head down the hall a little farther, sit in the plastic chair outside the door and then go into the office with no windows, the one where if you raise your hand you will touch the ceiling. How valued does this set-up make people feel? How valued do you think those who work in that office feel?
Well, the word from these biblical texts today, the word from Jesus, is that everyone who has read that sign, sat in those chairs and worked in those dark basement offices will be exalted. Our conduct toward them – toward all – should be blameless. God alone gets the glory, but everyone we encounter deserves our love, our service. We are the ones whose lives should be neon, all caps, in red signs that shout: WE ARE HERE TO HELP YOU!
- What are the models of leadership you see in the church? In the church’s session?
- How do we point to God and away from ourselves in our daily living? How hard is it to humble ourselves? To not care about who gets credit or praise?
- Do you know servant leaders? Personally? Historically? Who are they? What makes them so?
- How do we discern who to follow? What qualities do good followers need to have?
- If we are all students and always students, what is it we are trying to learn? How are we continuing our discipleship education?
- When have you experienced the type of showy, public religion that Jesus describes in the Matthew reading? What message did it send about the meaning of the gospel? About who Jesus is?
Want to receive Looking into the Lectionary content in your inbox on Mondays? Click here to join our email list!