A Different Kind of Leader

1ef2ef758image courtesy Steven Adler, click photo to link

Today’s gospel text records a conflict between Jesus and his chief disciple Peter. It’s an argument regarding different expectations. It’s a fight between competing worldviews. It’s a struggle about the most appropriate style of leadership.

Even today, the Church disagrees about the best style of leadership for ministry. Perhaps you’ve heard the old preacher’s story about an ecumenical conference of Christians from many denominations. A fire broke out in the large convention center. Each denominational grouping responded in terms of its distinctive style. The Baptists said, “Let’s pour water on it.” The Christian Scientists said, “There’s no fire, it’s only in your mind.” The Lutherans nailed a notice on the door describing the rules for emergency evacuation. The Episcopalians formed a processional, and paraded out. The Pentecostals thanked God for tongues of fire, and fanned the flames. The Unitarians held a barbecue. And the Presbyterians elected a committee for the purpose of studying the causes and remedies of fire, and charged the committee to issue a study paper concerning its findings.

If you didn’t laugh, you haven’t been a Presbyterian long enough!

We are living through a time of rapid change in the ways Christians are organizing for ministry. Hardly a week goes by when I don’t see an article or blog post by a concerned pastor or theologian about the latest survey or study full of advice and recommendations about what will make congregations more vital or effective. In one way or another, these writers are trying to address questions about leadership. What style of leadership is the best one to practice? Which leaders are worth following?

When I visited the Harry Truman Presidential Museum in Independence, Missouri, I took notes. One of the exhibits that made an impression on me was a short film about the events leading up to the decision Truman made to racially integrate the armed forces. Then the audience was asked to select the factor that Truman most relied upon in making his decision. Did he rely most upon a.) Public opinion, b.) Personal values, c.) His advisors’ recommendations, or d.) Long-term national interest?

This was 1948, and public opinion on the matter was far from unified. It was an election year, and many of Truman’s advisors believed such a decision would cost him the vote in the South. No one could be sure that integrating the military would improve the nation’s race relations.

Truman’s biographer tells us that Truman was moved less by policy papers than he was by stories about injustice. Black soldiers returning from war had been beaten and murdered. Truman had served in the First World War as captain of an artillery unit, and was honored for bringing back a high percentage of the men under his command. News accounts of black veterans suffering dishonor and abuse made him sick.

In the end, Harry Truman’s personal values pushed him to integrate the military. He acted on a belief that he was called into solidarity with those who were suffering. It was this decision, the museum exhibit implied, that helped make Truman a leader worth following. Predictably, some Americans spoke out against Truman; his action was not without conflict.[1]

When Jesus announces his purpose, he encounters opposition. Peter is a little like Harry Truman’s political patrons back home in Missouri. He was one of the first people to recognize Jesus’ potential. He gave up his fishing business to support Jesus’ ministry. And now that Jesus’ ministry is bearing fruit, Peter expects to define the direction of that ministry.

In Peter’s defense, the messianic expectations he inherited from his culture made Jesus’ message seem confusing. In the context of Roman occupation and oppression, the common thought of the Hebrew people was that God would send a liberating Messiah. He would be a military conqueror like King David one-thousand years before him.

But, says Lamar Williamson in his commentary on Mark, “to say ‘Christ’ to someone is to give up the right to define what ‘Christ’ means; it is to acknowledge the other’s authority to define the term and with it the meaning of the confession. Peter tries to behave like a patron, not a disciple. Jesus will not be patronized.”[2]

I wonder what factors contributed to Jesus taking such a counter-cultural stand. Perhaps he had been meditating upon the seemingly endless cycle of sin and punishment, violence and revenge that characterized the history of his people. Perhaps he was nurtured in a new way of thinking by the apocalypses of Daniel and Enoch, or by his reading of the “suffering servant” passage in the prophet Isaiah, chapter 53.[3]   However it happened, Jesus recognized that a military campaign, by its very nature, would be unable to bring about the victory that was needed.

Jesus’ leadership style would be different. He believed that the way to alleviate that suffering was not to avoid suffering, and isolate himself from it. Rather, he believed that the way to alleviate it was to move toward it, to be in solidarity with those who suffer.

Jesus’ strategy may seem as unappealing to us as it did to Peter. Kenneth Carder writes, “We want an invincible God who shields us from our own vulnerability. That is the God we imitate and worship . . . . Strength in weakness, gaining by losing, the power of the cross – that still seems foolish (to many).”[1] But the Bible bears witness to the way God suffers with those who suffer, and in that relationship, comes to save them. It’s a style of leadership practiced by our local and regional mission partners, many of whom were scheduled to be with us for a mission fair (cancelled due to winter storm). If you listen closely to their stories, then you’ll hear that the leadership they practice often runs contrary to common expectations, is service-oriented, involving solidarity with the suffering, as so many expressions of Christian service have been through the centuries.

Let me remind you of just one such story.

In the 13th century, a young man named Francesco di Pietro Benardone was living the life of privilege. Born into wealth and culture, he was fond of music and parties, dreams of knighthood and romantic adventure. As was proper in his society, he attended church school, and offered prayers at church.

While at prayer one day in the dilapidated local chapel, Francesco had an unusual experience in which he felt called by God to repair the church building. Francesco took some bolts of cloth from his father’s warehouse, sold them, and delivered the money to the priest who lived there to pay for the repair of the chapel.

His father Pietro, enraged by his son’s extravagance, brought a complaint against him, which was resolved in the public square. When the bishop gave Francesco the money, and advised him to return to his father what was his, Francesco declared, “My Lord Bishop, not only will I gladly give back the money which is my father’s, but also my clothes.” He stripped off his clothes, placed the money on them, and standing naked before the bishop, his father, and all present, announced, “Listen, all of you, and mark my words. Hitherto I have called Pietro Bernardone my father; but because I am resolved to serve God, I return to him the money on account of which he was so perturbed, and also the clothes I wore which are his; and from now on I will say, ‘Our Father who art in heaven,’ and not ‘Father Pietro Bernardone.’”

The crowd wept in sympathy. The bishop covered the naked young man with his own cloak. Francesco then took refuge in the church, and begged on the streets for food.

Before long, a rich young man named Bernardo of Quintavalle took notice of Francesco’s sincerity. He was so impressed by the evident contentment in Francesco’s new life that he decided to join him. Together the two men were generous stewards of Bernardo’s money and possessions among the poor, and developed a powerful following. So began the ministry of the man who was to become St. Francis of Assisi.[4]

Even though we are not fans of suffering, in these troubled times we must careful not to repeat the mistake of Peter. As Bible scholar Walter Brueggemann puts it, “The world … does not notice wretchedness and violence and poverty alongside our ease. But because we are so close to Jesus, we notice and engage. Suffering in the Gospel is not masochistic or Lenten self-denial. It is, rather, acting and living and praying and sharing in the awareness that our life is as one with those who suffer. (From self-sufficiency to solidarity, from private privilege to community engagement, from indifference to compassion) when we notice as Jesus notices, we find ourselves transformed.”[5]

[1] David McCullough, Truman, New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992, chapter 13 – “The Heat in the Kitchen.”

[2] Lamar Williamson, Mark, Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching, Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1983, p. 153.

[3] Reinhold Niebuhr, “The Nature and Destiny of Man,” volume II:II:3.

[4] Valerie Martin, “Being St. Francis,” “The Atlantic Monthly” August 2000, pp. 53-61.

[5] Walter Brueggemann, “Joined in Suffering … Reliant on God’s Power,” Inscribing the Text: Sermons and Prayers of Walter Brueggemann, ed. Anna Carter Florence, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2004, p. 124.


~ by JohnH1962 on March 10, 2015.

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