Sermons That Work

Leadership of the Church, Proper 16 (B) – 1997

August 24, 1997


Comedienne Lily expressed the difficulty many of us have in trusting in our leaders when she said, “Ninety-nine percent of the adults in this country are decent, hardworking, honest Americans. And it’s the other lousy one percent that gets all the publicity. But then, hey–we elected them.”(1) Or how about the message I saw written on the back of a Yellow Cab this past week, “The problem with political jokes is that some of them get elected.” It’s a tough time to be a leader. But then its never been easy. Think of a great Biblical leader like Moses who wandered with the people of Israel in the Sinai Desert for 40 years, and he took the heat for it. I can hear the people say, “Sure, you spoke with God, parted the Red Sea, and brought us the law from the top of Mount Sinai, you even interceded for us so that water flowed from solid rock, and you persuaded God to feed us with quail and manna, but what have you done for us lately?” The authority, legitimacy, and integrity of leadership of every type is in question today.

But the issues surrounding leadership–both spiritual and temporal — have been around for a long time. When hotel magnate Leona Helmsley said, “Only little people pay taxes” she expressed some the arrogance that power and notoriety typically exhibit. Yesterday, today, and tomorrow–leaders need to demonstrate efficacy and trustworthiness, but also leaders need to show goodwill and love toward those that they lead. The Scripture today offers some interesting perspectives on the challenges of leadership.

In our pluralistic world, we are challenged like the Israelites whom Joshua addressed, “choose this day whom you will serve.” We are called to respond as the people of Israel did, “The Lord our God we will serve, and him will we obey.” The leadership in the church needs to hold before the people of God the issues that they needed to addressed. It’s a matter of having a clear vision about the way ahead. This kind of effective leadership is crucial. There is a story which is told about Bishop Fulton Sheen–the Roman Catholic bishop who was a popular and successful as an evangelist and teacher during the infant days of television. He was in Philadelphia to give a talk at City Hall and since he arrived early he decided to walk the short distance from his hotel to his speaking engagement. As it turned out, he took a wrong turn and wound up in pretty rough neighborhood. Realizing that he was lost, he approached a corner where a number of very streetwise adolescents were gathered. He asked directions to City Hall and the boys gave very obvious directions to one of the best known buildings in the city. The Bishop in his ever pleasant and undaunted style asked the boys if any of them would like to come with him to City Hall to hear him talk about how to get to heaven. There was a long stare and surprise from the adolescents, then one of them said, “Mister, you don’t even know how to find City Hall, how are you going to get to heaven?” There have been times like these in the life of the Episcopal church recently.

St. Paul explored another aspect of leadership in the Ephesians reading by saying that the apex of leadership then and today is rooted in a relationship of trust. This is the point of his admonition that we be “subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.” He pleads his case that only the mystery of love is able to cement the bonds betweens us. Only loving trust can help us really work together effectively. In this regard, The Christian Century magazine reported a study of the question “Who gives to the church and why?” It was very interesting that across the whole gambit of Christian churches– Protestant and Catholic, large and small, democratic and autocratic, that the single most important factor in congregational giving was trust in the leadership — clergy or lay — “If that trust is missing, giving will be low.”(2) Where there is no trust, leadership becomes irrelevant and unconnected to the people.

But Jesus expresses the heart of the issue of leadership in the fact that as we are joined with God in Christ we are nurtured and brought to real life. It is in the miracle of union with Christ through the Spirit–that we are joined with Christ. Then we discover that the life we have in Christ is the only complete reality to which we should cling. We are to become like Peter when he said he was not offended by the teaching of Jesus but wanted to be with Christ. As he said, “You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.”

Now, how does this apply to us and to the leadership we exercise in ministry in the church? First and foremost, we must look to the example of Christ. The world Jesus encountered was just as entangled with conflict and challenge as ours is. But Jesus showed that if we meet our world with love, integrity, and character–even the blind, dumb, and mute get the message that the power and promise of God are present. It proclaims–the Kingdom of God has come near to you and this gives life! We can feel the reality and truth of that proclamation. And in this there is hope. Beyond the hope there is the realization that the world can be changed through the power of God. Second, Jesus showed us that we must seek the will of God in the leadership we offer in ministry. If it is God’s will that a mountain be moved–it’s going to happen. As we look at some of the massive mountains that cast huge shadows over our lives — racism, poverty, ignorance — it’s a whole range of mountains that we have God’s companionship as we scale these difficult problems. When we say the words–“thy will be done” we know that surmounting these obstacles is not as a solitary quest. And finally, we need to remain firm in our resolve. It seems almost incredible to some in our world, but the bottom line is that commitments count even when they are not convenient. Remember that the love of Christ, a will guided by the Spirit, and firm commitment bring leadership to life.

The Church’s leadership like the people under Joshua’s leadership is still called into battle — but with injustice, poverty, and to defend the innocent and defenseless. Not wearing a soldier’s armor, but clothed in the armor of humility, righteousness, and the undefeated love of God. It is a call to integrity, love, and constancy in our attempt to faithfully live out our vocation.

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Christopher Sikkema

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