Saturday, January 12, 2008

Covenant Leadership

In our Old Testament reading today the Prophet talks about a new kind of leadership. It's not exactly clear whether he's got an individual leader in mind, or whether he's thinking about the nation of Israel offering that new kind of leadership to the world. What's interesting, however, is that he talks about this new leader as a living embodiment of God's covenant, or promise, to the people of the Earth. He says, "I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations." But what does that mean? If we met a 'covenant leader' today, what would he or she look like? How would we recognise them?

Well, to start with, I don't think we would look in the Houses of Parliament, or even in our royal palaces. Do you remember how the wisemen went to Jerusalem, the capital city of Judah, to seek the new kind of leader who had been foretold in the stars? They asked King Herod where they might find him. but the king didn't know for sure. He asked them to keep on looking and to come back and tell him when the new kind of leader, God's covenant leader, had been found.


The kings and queens of England have often imagined that they were covenant leaders, that they had been anointed by God's Spirit, that at their coronation they had received a divine commission to rule over the English nation on God's behalf, but unfortunately their words and actions sometimes contradicted and denied that belief. And elected politicians have proved no better at being good leaders. The mock documentary 'The Thick Of It' depicts a bunch of shallow politicians and their advisers who are motivated solely by tomorrow's news headlines. They don't try to shape public opinion; instead they slavishly follow it. With its cast of shallow and vainglorious nonentities 'The Thick Of It' was supposed to be a spoof of real political life. No real politician, civil servant or adviser could really be so totally lacking in ideas or even basic common sense. But, to the horror of its creator - the comedian Armando Iannucchi - many politicians and political commentators wanted to know who had told him what was going on. They thought he had been given the inside story!


So let's forget about politicians. We won't find much covenant leadership in the corridors of power. Where else, then, could we look if we wanted to see the the kind of leadership which the Prophet is talking about, a style of leadership which has as its hallmark a gentle but persistent quest for justice?


Well last week I think a good place to look for covenant leadership was Channel 4. Jamie Oliver's school dinners' campaign has started a bandwagon rolling. All of a sudden, celebrity chefs have realised that they don't have to stick to telling us how to boil brussel sprouts or make a risotto. They can try to change not only the way we eat, but the way the whole food industry is run. And last week, at 9pm every evening, Channel 4 showed a series of programmes made by celebrity chefs about chickens - how they are reared, how they are made to lay so many eggs, how they enjoy their life or suffer during it, and how they are killed. The aim of the programmes was to try to stop us from eating cheap chicken and buying cheap eggs.


But one of the chefs, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, went further than that. He challenged the town of Axminster, where he runs an organic food shop, to make a covenant to give up eating chicken unless it had been reared outdoors. In the end, he persuaded just over half the townspeople to give up cheap broiler house chicken for at least a week and now he's trying to change the eating habits of the entire nation - through his joint TV campaign with Gordon Ramsay and Jamie Oliver.


Perhaps Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall is a bit of an odd choice as an example of covenant leadership. He's a millionaire ex-public school boy, a bit of a toff and, as I've already said, a celebrity chef. But there's no doubt that he cares passionately about animal welfare and about the cruel way in which most chickens are treated during their short lives. His Chicken Out campaign, in which he's trying to get everyone in Britain to make a covenant to buy free range chicken and eggs, is a genuine example of what covenants are all about and his aim is to bring about a gentle but just revolution in the way we eat. If you want to find out more, you can go to his website.


The new kind of leader described by the Prophet is also trying to start a gentle but just revolution, and his mission is to give the world a new vision - to show its people how things could be different and open their eyes and minds to new and challenging possibilities. That's just what the celebrity chefs have been trying to do, except their focus is on chicken whereas God's new covenant leader wants to change
everything for the better.

When Christians think about the new covenant leader they think, of course, about Jesus. But just as the Prophet's new leader might have been the entire nation, which is being called by God to be an example of real justice here and now, the new covenant leader could be a community, a town like Axminster setting an example for the rest of the nation when it comes to eating free range chicken, or a faith community like the Church, which is - after all - the Body of Christ on Earth. As Jesus' representatives we have a mission from God to carry on his kind of leadership and be yeast in the leaven, or salt, or light for a needy world.


The covenant which we are called to renew with God this morning is both kinds of covenant. It's a personal covenant, to change the way we live as individuals, following the example of God's covenant leader, Jesus. But it's also a shared covenant, a covenant which we make as part of the Church, to continue Jesus' work where we are placed. And we are not called to live out this covenant in our own strength alone. We are offered the power of God's spirit to help us, and the presence of Jesus with us even now as we share bread and wine with him in Holy Communion. For, although Jesus is a gentle leader, he is also a leader who has been made powerful through suffering and death. In fact, he has overcome death and comes to us in power and gentleness to hold our hand as we face life's challenges and trials.


Jesus' message of peace and justice was directed first to the nation of Israel but God shows no partiality and so it was always intended to be made available, through the inspiration of his Spirit and the preaching of his followers, to all people who believe in Jesus and accept his offer of forgiveness. And so the covenant which began as a covenant with Israel is now a covenant with us.


The kings and queens of England liked to think that they had been anointed by God's Spirit at their coronations, but their words and actions often suggested otherwise. In contrast. Jesus' ministry of healing and reconciliation proves that he really is the Beloved, chosen leader whose every word and action is pleasing to God. Like Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, challenging the people of Axminster to give up cheap chicken, Jesus challenges us today to be different for him - to enter and keep and follow his covenant throughout this year and all the years that lie ahead.

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