True Leadership

Cambridge, MA. Even in mid-summer, when our attention wanders from the news, questions of leadership keep impinging on our consciousness. We wonder about how well (or not) Alexis Tsipras is leading the Greek people in the current fiscal crisis. We saw not long ago the fall of Sepp Blatter, head of FIFA, the world football organization. Andrew Cuomo and Bill de Blasio are fighting out battles of good government in New York. And, of course, the list of candidates for president grows, just this past week, Donald Trump, Chris Christie, and Jim Webb added to the list. Pope Francis is visiting some of the poorest countries in Latin America, and everyone is hoping his visit will make a difference, politically, economically, spiritually.

But how are people to discern who is really a good leader? As readers know, I am not much of a political observer, nor even a commentator on current events. But the issue of leaders — the messenger and the message, the cause — caught my attention in light of today’s readings (the 14th Sunday in Ordinary time, Year B). The Gospel passage, of course, puts before us the spectacle of the tepid welcome, even resentment, on the part of those who might be thought to know him best, in his own home town:

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When the sabbath came he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astonished.  They said, “Where did this man get all this?  What kind of wisdom has been given him?  What mighty deeds are wrought by his hands!  Is he not the carpenter, the son of Mary, and the brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon?  And are not his sisters here with us?”  And they took offense at him.  Jesus said to them, “A prophet is not without honor except in his native place and among his own kin and in his own house.”  So he was not able to perform any mighty deed there, apart from curing a few sick people by laying his hands on them. He was amazed at their lack of faith. (Mark 6:1-6)

We can easily blame the people for their lack of faith, but the question is real: granting miracles, and mighty deeds, and deep wisdom — would people really have been able to see in Jesus, so familiar from his childhood on, the One Who Is To Come? We too might be put off by the mix of the ordinary and extraordinary in Jesus, and perhaps likewise unwilling to welcome him.

But is the second reading, from II Corinthians 12, that puts the issue of the leader and guide before us most directly. The part we have in the readings for today is intriguing, but in fact makes little sense on its own:

Therefore, to keep me from being too elated, a thorn was given to me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, but he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.’ So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong. (II Corinthians 12:7b-10)

This is not a simply a message (important as such might be) about finding strength in God alone, even or especially in our times of weakness. It is rather also, and more importantly, one more argument, near the end of Paul’s long defense of his ministry (chapters 10-13) in the face of skepticism and opposition. It would take a long time, and require a Pauline scholar, to spell out the arguments Paul makes, but I can mention here some elements I found helpful for my Sunday morning homily today, as Paul’s makes the case – obvious enough, if one thinks about it – that the message matters, not the messenger. Consider these examples, which I wove together for my patient congregation at 8:30 this morning. Even if the messenger fails to impress, and indeed makes a poor impression, listen to the word she speaks, not merely judging by appearances:

For they say, ‘His letters are weighty and strong, but his bodily presence is weak, and his speech contemptible.’ Let such people understand that what we say by letter when absent, we will also do when present. (10:10-11)

It might seem that success in ministry can be measured by success in ordinary life, prosperity here and now, but preaching the word is actually something quite different. Paul has no money, and needs help even materially:

And when I was with you and was in need, I did not burden anyone, for my needs were supplied by the friends who came from Macedonia. So I refrained and will continue to refrain from burdening you in any way. (11:9)

To this passage I added Paul’s admission from I Corinthians:

To the present hour we are hungry and thirsty, we are poorly clothed and beaten and homeless, and we grow weary from the work of our own hands. (I Corinthians 4:11-12a)

Before the cultured and self-possessed Corinthians, Paul seems to have cut a poor figure; and it seems that they even did not think much of him as a Jew — so he had to respond that he lacked nothing in this regard:

Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they descendants of Abraham? So am I. (11:22)

And here, I thought of another text:

If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee. (Philippians 2:4b-5)

But Paul pushes further — even lineage doesn’t matter. What counts is one’s history — but not as birthright or privilege, but one's history of service, sticking with one’s mission, not giving up, even in a list of failures and sufferings such as Paul recounts in this way:

Are they ministers of Christ? I am talking like a madman—I am a better one: with far greater labors, far more imprisonments, with countless floggings, and often near death. Five times I have received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods… And, besides other things, I am under daily pressure because of my anxiety for all the churches. Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is made to stumble, and I am not indignant? (11:23-29, part)

And finally, in Chapter 12, where Sunday’s brief reading appears, Paul takes on those who judge the word that is spoken on the basis of the messenger’s personal experience. In a slightly mocking way, Paul recounts, almost carelessly, his own ecstasy and deep experience of God:

It is necessary to boast; nothing is to be gained by it, but I will go on to visions and revelations of the Lord. I know a person in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows. And I know that such a person—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows — was caught up into Paradise and heard things that are not to be told, that no mortal is permitted to repeat. (12:1-4)

Today we might make much of such experiences: I am not handsome, I am not wealthy, I am not too important actually to work with my hands, I am not actually successful, but I am blessed with quite profound experiences of God, so take me seriously. Paul does not dismiss such experiences but insists, again, that in weakness lies the power: the message, and the messenger, is all about God’s word, not the worth or interesting persona of the messenger. Again, now with more of a point to it:

Therefore, to keep me from being too elated, a thorn was given to me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me,but he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.’ So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me.Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong. (12:7b-10)

Where does this leave us in our pondering of leadership in world and Church? I am not sure about the former — not my field — though we might do well to pay more attention to the message than its packaging. But in the Church and in the wider space of religious listening and seeking, we are being challenged to listen very carefully, all the time. The many weaknesses of a teacher or preacher may trick us into overlooking Christ’s message and values right before our ears. Since appearances don’t decide things, a greater responsibility is thrust upon the seekers and listeners: there is no person out there who will make finding God easy for you; it is not to your benefit to be swept away by a powerful or attractive or prosperous leader, or captivated by her or his deep spiritual experiences. Even if Paul were to walk in our lives today, or Jesus himself, it would still be wise to listen to the Word more than indulge in the person. To quote Paul once more:

But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us. (II Corinthians 4:7)

Not the clay, but what is hidden inside. Of course, this is not a complete theology of the spiritual path, or of preaching, or how to think of the persons of Paul and Jesus. But for this summer’s day, it might be a sufficient counterbalance to our hope that some person is going to make the spiritual life easy for us.

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