Chapel Sermon by the Rev. Dr. Warren M. Eshbach, November 2, 2011
Gospel Lesson – Matthew 23:1-12
They were a rag-tag bunch as they straggled up the Taneytown road on that hot summer day July 1, 1863. Prodded along by bayonets and curses, these Union deserters and dissenters were hungry, tired of the war, angry that they had not been paid and that their enlistment was not being honored. They felt they were being held against their will. They were not sure why they were fighting nor whether what they had seen in battle in the killing and maiming of others---well, was it all worth it???
The Captain that was responsible for them sought out Colonel Chamberlain, telling him he could shoot these men and no one would care. Chamberlain said he would not do that and immediately relieved the Captain of his command.
The first thing he did was offer the deserters something to eat. He invited their spokesman into his tent, sat down and listened to their story – not always liking what he heard, but never showing it. He was appropriately apologetic for the condition of the deserters, as they had not been properly clothed or fed since their arrest.
After they ate, Chamberlain spoke to the deserters and in an eloquent fashion, inspired a vision among them about how the impending Battle of Gettysburg would change the course of history.
In Chamberlain’s mind the war was not about land, bowing to a king, or expanding territory. It was about the right of human beings to live free, despite the color of their skin, their economic status, or position in life. All human beings deserved justice with right and fair treatment, including these deserters. If they changed their minds and offered their support, he would be deeply grateful, but it was their choice and he would honor their decision.
That incident from the epic movie, Gettysburg, like the story of this morning’s Gospel lesson says a lot to us about leadership in a time when leadership is spoken of so glibly, yet found so elusive in the leaders we choose in congregations, communities, or nations at large.
TODAY’S TEXT IN CONTEXT
It’s helpful to remind ourselves that in first century Palestine there were four primary understandings of Judaism.
1. The Pharisees were teachers who sought to interpret the Torah/Jewish life to every- day life.
2. The Saducees were closely associated with Temple life; most often there were priests.
3. The Essenes were a separate and austere group who lived ina close-knit community of faith at Qumran, believing that they were the authentic followers of Jewish faith and practice.
4. The Zealots were the radicals who wanted to overthrow Rome at any cost.
A rebellion happened in 70 AD and it was crushed by Rome and the Temple destroyed. Following this upheaval, the Pharisees came to be the prominent group in first century Judaism.
Matthew, the writer of our text this morning, seeks to address the Pharisees’ claim of their fidelity to the Torah. Matthew’s account presents Jesus as saying, “Follow what the Pharisees TEACH regarding the Torah, but do not do as they do.. Their message is right on, but their method is full of pride and ego; thus, the reference to their phylacteries and tassels on their robes. In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus says that this is done to be seen of others (vs. 5). Their pride in what they do and how they act puts a curtain in front of what they teach.
A contemporary look at leadership is pointed out in the most recent edition of The Christian Science Monitor. In an article entitled “Why Leadership Deserves Some Rethinking,” editor John Yemma reflects on why, in our time, people across several generations are taking to the streets to challenge leadership. He mentions the prominent book, The Starfish and the Spider: the Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations. The book praises decentralization groups like AA, Craig’s List, and the 19th century Apache tribe.
Yemma suggests that, whether they are Wall Street occupiers or Tea Party activists, the central motivation is their distrust of leadership. He succinctly puts it this way:
“The latest Gallop Poll on confidence in institutions has the military and small business at the top, Congress and big business at the bottom. Career politicians, nest-feathering bosses, and entrenched bureaucrats. . … may be heading for the dustbin of history. For now, however, we are in a hybrid era. We still need leaders. But we won’t let them lead without constant questioning. We’ll want competence, honesty, transparency, and humility.” (The Christan Science Monitor, Oct 31, 2011, p. 5-6)
TRAITS OF EFFECTIVE LEADERSHIP
1. Live the Good News—be authentic!
The implication of Matthew’s gospel is that good leaders “live the good news.” Whether in the temple, the public square, in a Council meeting or in times of trial, followers of Jesus must live out what they believe. We cannot show the love of Jesus to others from the pulpit with a clenched fist.
A judicatory executive once had to mediate a dispute between the Senior Pastor and the Associate Pastor over which one would marry or bury parishioners. Neither pastor was willing to compromise and one was always felt inferior to the other. As a result the congregation broke into factions. No matter how much both pastors preached about love and discipleship, their sermons held little credence because they did not practice the love for one another that they both proclaimed from the pulpit. Their proclamations were shallow because they were not rooted in their own hearts and lives! Finally, they both resigned and it took the congregation a long time to experience healing.
Whether in the early church or in congregational life today, in times of distress or crisis, even on the horrible battlefields of war, leadership that is authentic is vitally important.
Our authenticity as leaders does not depend on our educational degrees nor our certificates of ordination. Authenticity is gained by the trust we earn from the people we serve. How is the “gospel” of being in Christ lived out in our discipleship?
2. Teach and live grace
I learned fully about grace in 9th grade – not from Sunday School, but from public school where some teachers were nominal or no Christians at all! You see, I punched my Band Director square in the nose before a crowd of about 1500 at a Junior High football game! In the period of severe consequences after that incident, three people stand out in my mind as purveyors of grace:
a. My grandmother who, in the midst of my tears and gnashing of teeth, assured me that she did not like what I had done, but that she would always love me.
b. The Vice-Principal, who three weeks after the incident, invited me to be the Armistice Day speaker at a public ceremony and at school. She gave three weeks of afternoons to coach me as she helped me to write and deliver the speech.
c. The third person who extended grace to me was the Band Director. He did not ask for my suspension, but after a period of probation restored my position in the band and encouraged me in later years to pursue music as a career.
Though not realizing it at the time, each of those persons –along with a few others- showed me grace by their actions. They lived out the grace of God that I had learned about in Sunday School.
Our local and global culture cries out “for a little bit of love.” People are tired of corruption, tired of seeing women and children scarred and maimed for life as a result of domestic violence, tired of being out of work, and the list could go on and on! Lived-out grace by congregations and their leaders can make a difference in people’s lives
3. Be a servant leader
Robert K. Greenleaf coined a phrase “servant leader” in a 1970 essay entitled “The Servant as Leader.” In that essay he puts forth the idea that a good leader is a servant first. In previous era, leadership and servant were seen as antithetical. Greenleaf, a Quaker, saw a model of the servant as leader in the life of Jesus and in Herman Esse’s novel, Journey to the East.
As a thesis, Greenleaf proposes that servant leadership “. . . begins with the . . . feeling that one wants to serve – to serve first, and then aspire to lead.” He further says that the best test is: “Do those served grow as persons, do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants?” (The Power of Servant Leadership; Larry Spears, editor; p.4)
All of Greenleaf’s Ten Characteristics of Servant leadership are important; two are noteworthy:
• Listening is vital! Listening to another’s perspective, listening to one’s inner voice; being in touch with one’s body mind and spirit. These provide wholistic ways to understand God, self, and the world around.
• Foresight is essential! Foresight enables a servant leader to understand the past, perceive the realities of the present, and to determine the likely consequences of the future for an organization by decisions that are made in the present.
As students and faculty members, what kinds of leaders are we and are we becoming? Hopefully, the words of Jesus in Matthew’s gospel, the example of Chamberlain in the epic movie, Gettysburg, and the concepts of Greenleaf will point us in a direction. The most important direction for us as a community will be how. Take to heart these words of Jesus: “The greatest among you will be your servant.” (Matthew 23:11) May we be servants to each other around the table of Christ.