Sunday, August 10, 2014

Sermon for Proper 14, Year A- Believe, then Do: Models of Leadership

August 10, 2014
Episcopal Church of the Holy Communion

Just over 20 years ago, during Holy Week, Bill and I took a trip to Ireland, England, and Wales—it was kind of our last hurrah before Lauren was born—in fact, I was four months’ pregnant when we went. Our plan was to fly to England, rent a car in London, drive through Wales to the western coast, take a ferry across the Irish Sea, and then arrive in Cork in southeastern Ireland. We would stay in B and Bs, and drive around southern Ireland, visiting the homeland of some of our ancestors.

But it was the ferry ride that provided the most excitement. In the middle of the night, a powerful gale came up on the Irish Sea. The wind howled. Rain slashed sideways and pelted the windows. Even though this ferry was several stories tall, it was tossed around like a toy at times.

Being on a boat in such a terrible storm affects the people on that boat differently. Some tried to find a place to lay down, thinking that they wouldn’t be tossed around so much on the bucking deck. Some people, whom our Irish friends referred to as “eejits,” actually opened the doors to the outside deck for a few seconds to get a better look. Others found God—as in “worshipping the porcelain god,” since the boat was rolling around pretty hard. It was really quite exciting. I was lucky in that I was four months’ pregnant, because nothing, and I mean NOTHING, my friends, stands in the way of a woman in her second trimester and sleep. So, after making sure I knew where the life jackets were, just to be safe, there I was, stretched out on a set of seats, snoozing away for most of the night as only a woman with a voracious creature inside her can. 

At times I would be shaken awake, by either solicitous crew members, or by my husband checking on me, but after looking around to make sure we were still moving forward, I’d drop back to sleep. I awoke just at dawn to see that the storm had broken, and that the coast of Ireland was in view.

But one thing I noticed when I wasn’t being lulled to sleep by the motion of the boat. The crew was calm. The officers were calm. So I stayed calm. And luckily found out I’m pretty immune to motion sickness. A well-designed boat performed as it was supposed to, and we arrived safely at our destination just a little late, with a good story to tell.

Now it would be easy to focus on the story of the boat in the gospel today and take it at face-value. It would be easy to talk about how some scholars discuss the symbolism in the story: The boat is the church. The disciples are church-members. Peter is the leader of the church. The sea is the world that the church is cast adrift on and buffeted about by. But I think there’s another thing going on in the lectionary today. When I was asked several months ago by Rebecca to preach today, she asked me to talk about the topic of leadership if I could. And I think there are some important insights about leadership here for us, both in the church and in the world.

In our lectionary readings, we see three very different depictions of leaders, and of the role faith and power plays in their leadership.

Joseph's Well
In the story from our Old Testament, everyone usually focuses on Joseph being sold into slavery, and maybe we wonder why in the world that story is paired with our gospel account. But I think one of the common threads in our lectionary is about how leadership is exercised. I want to ask you to look at the dynamic within that family of brothers for a second, especially when it comes to the character of Reuben. These are Jacob’s sons, and Jacob, we have been shown over and over again, was a man of conflict, and one who certainly was willing to resort to deceit to get what he wanted. Plots and counterplots and wrestling-matches with strangers—these are the stories we have heard about Jacob the last few weeks. So those are some of the values with which these boys had been raised.  Reuben’s story shows us how past conflicts can affect our ability to lead, even if we are not aware of it.

Reuben, the eldest of Jacob’s sons, by right should be the leader of his brothers, yet is nonetheless an easily overlooked character in this story. He should lead, but he doesn’t have the strength to openly oppose his brothers’ plans. He allows himself to be overcome by his own resentment at the lack of love shown his mother and himself by Jacob. He initially agrees in principle to an act of betrayal and violence, even though in his heart he knows it is wrong.  Of all the brothers, he is the one who is depicted of having doubts about murdering his little snitch of a brother.

So Reuben comes up with a plan to prevent Joseph’s actual death, by playing to the natural squeamishness of doing the deed directly. Instead he proposes casting their little brother into a pit to be left to die slowly. In the back of his head, he hatches a plot to go back later and get Joseph out. But then, in the story, Reuben disappears! And while he’s gone, another brother, Judah, perhaps having misgivings himself, but also with an eye to profit, persuades the others to sell Joseph into slavery instead, which sets up the rest of the Book of Genesis, and lays the groundwork for the story of the exodus that will mark a huge turning point in the history of Israel.

But Reuben definitely led poorly here. Reuben’s biggest failure as a leader is linked to one of the things that does him the most credit: his knowledge that no matter what an arrogant little squint Joseph has been, murdering him is wrong. Yet in failing to speak his misgivings aloud, he allows his brothers to move from mouthing their resentments to actually plotting fratricide in their hearts. Even after they accept Reuben’s alternative to simply stabbing or strangling the boy, the brothers believe that they have set Joseph’s death in motion, and then calmly sit down and eat lunch afterward.  In law, that is called “conspiracy to commit murder in cold blood.” And that in itself will get you put into prison.

Reuben’s leadership is marinated in a culture of deceit and secrecy, as seems natural in a son of Jacob, that master trickster. It is also based on a refusal to openly challenge wrong-doing. Reuben’s leadership is also marked by a lack of resolution: he doesn’t follow through, and he disappears right when he needs to keep alert. Worse, by operating in secrecy, he not only betrays his own doubts about the acceptability of his plan, but he doesn’t give his brothers the chance to rethink what they are about to do. Reuben’s lack of faith in himself and in his brothers makes him a poor leader. He’s not a horrible person, in the end, but good leaders operate in the open, and have faith in themselves and in their followers, which allows them to do the right thing rather than the easy thing or the convenient thing.

Now let’s see how this connects to the gospel.

Peter and the other disciples represent another example of leadership in our lectionary today. They are in the boat by themselves having been sent off into the sea by Jesus, and the boat gets away from them since high waves beset them, and they have drifted far from shore. After a long night of being tossed by the waves, they suddenly look up and see Jesus approaching them by foot on the very waves that have pushed them around all night. Of course, once again, their first reaction shows that they still don’t know who Jesus is, even when Jesus reassures them but also uses the divine name: “I am.”

Peter, ever the enthusiast, asks to be able to walk on the water too.  Peter, who is named by Jesus himself as the rock upon which the Church will be founded, impulsively asks for miracles, but loses faith in them even as he is in the midst of them. Yet Peter at least has the imagination to want to get out of the boat and walk with Jesus on that water. Peter’s problem is that he is of “little-faith.”  Peter has just seen his rabbi walk on water, and yet his mind still is clinging to the knowledge that that kind of thing just isn’t possible. Like Reuben, Peter lacks follow-through.

Good leaders shake off the limits of what has always been done before to allow themselves to consider new possibilities and new situations.

Both Peter and the other disciples lack the imagination to see that they can walk on the water too.
They need more faith in order to become better disciples, and better leaders.

Jesus, the son of an unmarried mother brought up in the household of a simple craftsman in an out-of-the-way corner of an empire, nonetheless exercises true, selfless love and leadership. Jesus leads by calling out and developing unknown depths in his followers. All of his miracles are not simply done at his command. Jesus’s miracles, just like many of the miracles in the Old Testament, tend to require participation from those around him. Jesus, as the Son of God, could act alone, and simply dictate that this or that will be done. But that’s not how Jesus operates. All along, he makes it clear that faith is required before miracles occur, but that when faith is in place, we see miracles all around.

We see this in the feeding of the multitude a few weeks ago, when he says to the disciples, “You give them something to eat.” We see this when he tells people over and over again that their faith has made them well. Great leaders inspire faith—faith that can do anything.

Jesus’s leadership turns notions of power and privilege on its head. Jesus doesn’t deny Peter his request. I think Jesus loves the fact that Peter asks. He generously encourages Peter to participate in this miracle too.  This represents an incredible sharing of power and abandonment of prerogative that would ring out to those familiar with the Jewish scripture, because it is very clearly stated in the Psalms, in the Book of Job, and in Isaiah that only God can walk on water. Jesus shared power with his disciples during his earthly ministry, and after his resurrection and ascension, we followers of Christ were given the power of the Holy Spirit, which remains with us today. When we are baptized, we are empowered to act as Jesus’s body IN THE WORLD, as well as in the boat.

Jesus leads from love and trustworthiness, patient even in the face of our limited understanding and fragile faith. Great leaders inspire faith and trust in their followers—faith and trust in the mutual mission of the group, and faith and trust in ourselves to lead even in the face of obstacles. Jesus also inspires trust in his followers: trust to step out onto the water, and trust that Jesus will patiently shore up our faith when we falter. 
Like Reuben, Peter lacks faith in himself. Peter cries out to Jesus, using similar words to the first two verses of Psalm 69, which states: “Save me, O God, for the waters have come up to my neck. I sink into deep mire, where there is no foothold; I have come into deep waters, and the flood sweeps over me.”  Haven’t we all felt that way at various times? Haven’t we all been in deep water and feared going under? Peter cries out to Jesus as he begins to lose faith in himself and sink, and Jesus reaches out with the same hand he used to heal the blind and the lame, and raises Peter back up above the surface. Even as Peter sinks down in the waves, undergoing a kind of baptism, he calls out to Jesus, for with the little faith he has, he knows where his trust should always lie—in Christ our Savior.

Now, some of us have literally been on a boat being tossed about by the waves. Sometimes our boat is becalmed on the sea and adrift. But we ALL have experienced crisis in our lives, and even in our church life. A few years ago, the Episcopal Church got spanked by much of the rest of the Anglican Communion for ordaining gay people. Some people left the Episcopal Church and created breakaway groups over this, as well as over the ordination of women. We have seen changes and challenges here at Holy Communion. We have seen changes and challenges in an American Christianity that is at war with itself even while it is seen as being less and less relevant in people’s lives.

But one thing we have to realize is that, through our baptismal covenant, we are all called to be not just followers of Jesus but leaders as well. That is one of the main gifts of the teachings of the Episcopal Church—the belief that all of us, lay or ordained, are called through baptism to have the power to lead through our faith.

Jesus places us in the boat, but we should not just be sitting passively in the boat on Sunday or throughout the week. Jesus also calls to us to have faith in ourselves—all of us! Not just the vestry or the search committee or the diocese or the Episcopal Church or Christians in general-- and step out of the boat onto the waves. The boat is where it is safe, but without Jesus, it’s going nowhere. We are the best version of the capital-C Church when we understand that our faith means nothing if it doesn’t empower us to then DO, and do ALL THINGS in love.

Jesus calls us to step out onto the water, and place our feet on the path on the waves, the path that leads to true discipleship, true faith, and true leadership. Through our baptism, all of us are called as leaders to act, rather than sit passively in the boat and complain about the times it seems adrift. We are called to believe, but then we are called to DO.

We all have the responsibility to lead, and inspire the best in each other—even to demand the best from each other. We are called to lead from love. As leaders, it is up to us to not just have faith in each other but to inspire each other to have faith in ourselves. That’s true discipleship, and that’s true leadership.  Let’s have faith, all of us together, and inspire each other to step out onto those waves.


(The audio file for this sermon can be found at click on "Launch Sermon Player.")