Sunday, November 21, 2010

True Leadership

Jeremiah 23.1-6
Colossians 1.11-20
Luke 23.33-43

Most years we try to spend a few days in the Lake District. Wherever you walk you can often see a flock of sheep grazing in the fields against a stunning backdrop of beautiful hills. It’s a picture of peace and tranquility. However, on one visit, travelling between Keswick and Ambleside, we met a flock of sheep on the move, sharing the main road with the cars, which is much more dangerous. They were being driven along the road by a thoroughly modern shepherd, riding his quad bike, but ahead of the flock went a tractor with its hazard warning lights flashing to warn approaching traffic to slow down. Here was a case of sheep being cared for by their shepherds - albeit in a very Twenty-First Century way.

What if a sheep got separated from the flock and was all alone on the mountainside? Today sheep hefted on the fells are generally pretty safe, but in the old days they might have fallen prey to wolves, which is why the shepherd might have needed to go to find them if they were scattered by a predator.

I wanted to tell you a story about a wolf attacking the sheep, but I could only think of the story the Three Little Pigs, though it could just as easily be retold as the story of the Three Little Sheep, couldn’t it?

Of course, the story behind the Three Little Pigs is a very old one and, in fact, this morning’s Bible reading from Jeremiah is a grown-up version of the same story, only with two differences. As we noted, Jeremiah’s story is about sheep, not pigs. But that’s only a small or superficial difference. It doesn’t really alter the way the story works. The other difference is much more shocking, for in Jeremiah’s version it is the shepherd who is trying to harm the sheep.

Normally, when we tell the story of the sheep being attacked and scattered, it is a wolf, or a lion or a bear who is attacking them. And it’s the shepherd - the leader of the flock - who tries to keep them safe, like the person driving the tractor down the road in the Lake District, with the hazard warning lights flashing to warn on-coming traffic to slow down and keep the sheep safe. But in Jeremiah’s story it is the shepherds who are killing and scattering the sheep. They were supposed to protect the sheep, but instead the leaders were chasing them away. And, like the wolf in the Three Little Pigs, who gets boiled alive at the end of the story, Jeremiah warns the shepherds of Israel that they will get their comeuppance. They will pay for their crimes!

Of course, Jeremiah’s story is a parable. He isn’t talking about real sheep and ordinary shepherds. He’s taking about the people of Israel and their leaders.

We’re living in hard times, and the story has a warning in it for anyone who is a leader or a manager. Perhaps Lord Young, who is a member of the Jewish faith himself, should have paid more attention to Jeremiah’s message because he got into dreadful trouble last week for appearing not to care enough about the plight of ordinary people.

Lord Young is the son of a successful businessman but I think his father must have been the sort of person who expected his children to stand on their own two feet, because Lord Young actually studied for his law degree in his spare time, while working as a clerk in a firm of solicitors. So he’s the kind of person who is used to working very hard, and counting his blessings, and not complaining, and that’s what he thinks the rest of us should do. But whether or not we agree with him about that, when there are so many people struggling to make ends meet his comments seemed insensitive, even to people who would normally support him, and he’s been forced to resign from his unpaid job as Enterprise Champion for the government.

The lesson which Jeremiah wants to get across is that people who are leaders should take great care what they do and say - whether we’re leaders who work for the government, or leaders of companies, or managers, or ordinary team leaders and supervisors, or even parents and grandparents, or uncles and aunts. The job of a good leader, says Jeremiah, is to support and encourage the weak and the faint hearted, and to make sure that everyone is given a fair chance to succeed. Sometimes leaders have to talk tough, but generally they have to lead by showing that they care and by inspiring their people to do better.

But as well as giving a warning to those of us who are leaders in our every day lives, Jeremiah also gives us a promise for the future. He says that God himself has promised to choose better leaders for the people, ones who will take care of them like real shepherds so that they will never be frightened again. And he goes further, he says that one day God will appoint an honest king who will be wise and just, and who will bring real peace and lasting safety to God’s people.

Of course, at the moment, because we live in a democracy it’s us - the people - who appoint our own leaders. So we’re responsible for working with God to make God’s promise come true in Wakefield, where we live, and in Britain. But, as Christians, we’re also promised that a king is coming to lead us who we really can depend on, because he will be honest, wise and just. And that king will be born in a stable at Christmas, and his name will not just be ‘The Lord Gives Justice’, it will also be Jesus.

St Paul’s letter to the Colossians makes some colossal claims about Jesus.

First of all Paul tells us that Jesus has released us from the human predicament. Elsewhere, in his letter to the Church in Rome, he explains what that means. Human beings are generally full of good intentions but we almost inevitably screw things up. In Jesus, however, our release is secured. We’re given the power to do better and we’re forgiven for the mess we’ve made of our own lives and the lives of other people.

However, that’s just the start for Paul’s claims about Jesus get bigger and bigger. Echoing John’s Gospel - or is it the other way round, because Paul was probably writing first - he says that Jesus, the baby in the manger, the man on the cross, is the image of the invisible God and that in Jesus all things throughout the universe were created. This is a truly astounding claim. It means that in Jesus we see the essence of what it means to be God, the truth about God, crystallised in human form. And what that encounter reveals is that God is self-giving love.

But Paul hasn’t finished yet. He quotes a hymn about Jesus which says that all things throughout the universe are held together in him. It’s almost as if Paul is claiming that Jesus is the answer to all the questions posed by quantum physics. What holds the universe together? What holds atoms together? Well, all things are held together - held in creative tension - through the God who is revealed in Jesus. I don’t think, actually, that the hymn is meant to be a scientific statement. But it’s a poetic statement about the significance of Jesus. He is at the heart of all existence.

And still quoting the hymn, Paul continues his paean of praise. Jesus is the first human being to return from the dead, the guarantee that all of us will live beyond death. He is supreme over all things. In him all the fullness of God chose to dwell. And through Jesus, God is reconciling all things to himself and making peace with creation. Superlative is piled upon superlative - until the moment when we reach the shocking conclusion of the hymn.

Similar things have been said about other people - about emperors and pharaohs, gurus and spiritual leaders. But only the Christian faith has come up with the astonishing claim that all of this has been achieved and brought to fulfilment in the shedding of the leader’s blood on a cross.

And so we turn to our Gospel reading, where we’re reminded immediately that Jesus is suffering a criminal’s fate. We’re reminded, also, of what Paul has said about forgiveness being available in Jesus. Although they’re not in the original version of Luke’s Passion narrative, the words of Stephen at his execution are here attributed to Jesus, ‘Father forgive them; they do not know what they are doing.’

In a moment of supreme irony, the onlookers misunderstand completely the true meaning of what it is to be God’s anointed leader, his Chosen One or Messiah. It doesn’t mean saving yourself from suffering but, as Luke’s mentor Paul emphasised in his letter to the Christians at Colossi, it means submitting yourself to suffering and allowing your blood to be shed.

There are important echoes here of the Old Testament lesson which we considered in our first service this morning, where Jeremiah explains that the true meaning of leadership is not to bully and lecture other people but to inspire, and comfort, and encourage them, and - supremely - to lead them by example. Thus, despite all the jeering and the mockery which surrounded Jesus death, those who truly understand its meaning can see that he really was the King of the Jews. And not only that, but the King promised by Jeremiah, who will bring lasting peace based on real justice.

And here is the second irony. The man whom Jeremiah had said would be called The Giver of Justice is himself treated so unjustly. As one of the criminals recognises, Jesus has done nothing wrong and yet he pays the same price that common criminals paid at the time for their misdeeds.

Finally, then, we come to that wonderful promise with which our reading, and this year’s journey through St Luke’s Gospel, concludes. ‘Amen I say to: today you will be with me in Paradise.’ Anyone who truly puts their trust in Jesus can know that his promise is for them.

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