“If Jesus had gone about the countryside only singing songs and praying in front of the crowds as the world says Christians are supposed to do, he would have died in his sleep of old age.” Our own Verna Dozier accurately captures the sense of today’s Gospel. They also reflect the spirit of the readings from Joshua and from St. Paul heard earlier. They are about leadership.
Leadership is embodied in one who commands authority or influence and who empowers us to look to the future with hope. Scripture is clear that leaders must sometimes take risks. It is election day as Joshua is leads the children of exile into the Promised Land. He issues the challenge, “Choose this day, whom you will serve.” The people respond, “The Lord our God we will serve, and him will we obey.”
When Jesus finishes addressing the crowd, he identifies himself with the bread, the source of light and life in the hearts, minds and spirits of the community. This is not what we expect. The evangelist tells us, “When many of his disciples heard it, they said, ‘This teaching is difficult, who can accept it?’ ‘Does this offend you?’ asks Jesus.” Even though it does, he tells them more.
Paul, writing to the church at Ephesus, pens extraordinary words describing the heart of leadership. He says that leadership is rooted in trust. “Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.” He elaborates in words that offend our sensitivities, especially those who are concerned about subjugation of women in our culture. He says, “Wives be subject to your husbands. . . . For the husband is the head of the wife just as Christ is the head of the church. . . . Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church.”
It’s easy to understand how women feel victimized by these words. It also tragic that a new way of understanding leadership is completely overcome by the cultural and historical overlay of prejudice and hurt. However, we need to hear these words in their completeness and not through ears filtered by the individualism and cries for change of past several centuries.
Let’s face it, the notion of subjection, of being under anyone’s authority or control, is repugnant to most of us. Paul, though, is writing a radical word to the first century. In that culture women, children, slaves and even animals were regarded primarily as chattel to be bartered. Paul’s notion of love and respect for another is a new paradigm of equality and mutuality between the sexes that is breathtaking.
Theologian Elly Sparks Brown describes this radical thought this way, “The words of mutual subjection are a call for covenant relationship between men and women.” She goes on to say, “To be subject to one another in covenant partnership is not submission which stifles one’s freedom and growth. No, it is a sign of ultimate freedom in mutual care and servant hood. To be subject to one another is to open oneself to the totality of the covenant partner.”
What relationships do you think might illustrate this principle? Consider these:
- Parents and children do this when they suspend judgement and listen deeply and intentionally to one another.
- Colleagues and co-workers do this when they genuinely rejoice in a one another’s achievements and accomplishments for the good of the whole.
- Friends do this when they say to one another, “I love you, just the way you are, warts and all!”
- And lovers do this when they serve each other and allow themselves to be served and supported by the other. It is there when they forgive and forget and offer a third, fourth or hundredth chance for new life. In this way, the relationship is being constantly renewed and remade. This kind of relating is empowering because it has the unique qualities of safety and sanctity. Freedom and mutual care grow through trust and respect. Through offering such personal hospitality, you know that you are on holy ground.
This is especially true when one learns to bend in the direction of the other as wholeness, personhood and identity flourish. You may bend so much so that you are free to relinquish some part of the me for the sake of us seeking kindliness and affection toward one another. John Donne says it more passionately, “Take me to you, imprison me, for I, except you enthral me, never shall be free.”
In that spirit, if we extend Paul’s metaphor to the faith community–the church–we begin to see the power of leadership when it is subject to the whole community. With Jesus Christ as Lord, our source of life and living, our true bread, we subject ourselves to his leadership. We subject our spirits to his Spirit. We subject our bodies to his Body.
Jesus is the heart of leadership. As we join with God in Christ, we are nurtured and brought to new life and a new understanding. We become what we behold. We are what we eat. Consuming him, we know real union is not only possible but essential to following him. By taking him into our hearts and minds, bodies and spirits, we join ourselves to him no differently than lovers joined in mutuality. The offense is that we may actually do it with God!
How does leadership look in the church? It holds before us those concerns that keep us from living abundant lives. It empowers us for change to live fully before God. True leaders present a clear vision of what lies ahead and include others in it. Leaders must know the source of authority, the power of ritual and tradition, and practice them faithfully. And, perhaps most importantly, leadership in the church is about trust.
Christian Century magazine reported a study on giving in the church, Protestant and Catholic, alike. The question was “Who gives and why?” Lay and clergy concurred, if trust is missing giving will be low. Where there is no trust, leadership becomes irrelevant and unconnected to people. The same goes for us a nation.
In ten short weeks, after nearly a year of open campaigning by presidential contenders this nation, too, will face its election day. This day is not significantly different from one mentioned earlier. The challenge before us is to discern real leadership from image and imagination. We must see integrity and forthrightness. We must believe that our leaders have character and clear vision. We must trust experience and commitment. And, we must have a leader who has a clear sense of what is real and needful in our nation. Remember, none of us are free as long as some of us are oppressed: oppression because of race, gender, orientation, class, economics and health. Finally, we are looking for leaders who know the source of their vision, strength and purpose. The late Dag Hammarskold once said of leadership, “Your own efforts ‘did not bring it to pass’ only God.”
Jesus followed his life of “holy autonomy.” The price was the way of the cross. It is no different with us. Subjecting ourselves to another, especially to God is costly. The way is not always easy or as clear as we like, but there is light and it shines. It shines on all of us offering a vision of what God has done, is doing and can do. To all who are leaders, God bless and keep you. To all who would be leaders, may God lift up his countenance upon you and be gracious to you. And to all who would follow, may God make her face to shine upon us and grant us peace. “Choose this day whom you will serve.” “Be subject to Christ in all things.” Amen. And Amen.</P