Choosing a Leader

A sermon preached  by Christopher L. Webber at St. Paul’s Church, Bantam, Connecticut, on June 17, 2012.

I’ve said a couple of times lately that I want to avoid talking politics from the pulpit in an election year, but look at today’s Old Testament reading!  It’s about choosing leadership and that’s what we’re involved in and if we can’t find guidance in the Bible, where can we find it?  When we set out to make a decision that impacts war and peace, unemployment, health care, education, hunger, poverty, does God not care?  Do we not need guidance from our faith? If not on matters like these,  you would have to ask whether our faith is relevant or not.

Now there are some who would say that faith is not relevant to political issues. When I was working on my biography of James Pennington, the fugitive slave who became a pastor here in Connecticut I learned that one of his colleagues in Hartford was the pastor of the Center Church which is still there in the middle of the city and Joel Hawes, the pastor of that church, thought slavery was wrong but never mentioned it from the pulpit because, he said, “religion is a personal matter.”  In other words religion is irrelevant when it comes to slavery.  But it seems to me that slavery is a personal matter, if you are a slave, and so is war a personal matter, if you’re a soldier, and so is employment if you are unemployed, and health care, if you are sick.

Does God not care about such matters?  Read the prophets, read Amos and Isaiah and hear how they thunder about the indifference of the rich to the suffering of the poor. God cares, they tell us, again and again: God cares and God will judge.  

Today’s reading is less direct; it’s about choosing leadership and it’s part of a long story that you can read in the Books of Samuel and Kings. It’s about history and how God works in history and the consequences of the choices made by God’s people: good choices that lead to peace and justice and bad choices that lead to disaster.

But let me back up from today’s reading and start earlier on. Let me start with the Book of Genesis where the story of God’s people begins with Abraham who is leader simply because he’s the head of a family. And the story goes on with Isaac and Jacob who are also simply the head of the family.  But by the time of Jacob it’s a big family.  Jacob had twelve sons and each of them became the ancestor of a tribe and the twelve tribes found leadership under Moses who was not the head of a family but apparently a natural leader whom God chose and sent to lead the people to freedom. So the twelve tribes came into the promised land and for centuries they had no pattern of leadership. They did their farming, they herded their sheep and goats, and when a crisis came it seemed there was always someone who stepped up and did what was needed. That was the time of the so-called Judges and the book that tells us about that time is called the book of Judges and the refrain all through that book is this: “At that time there was no king in Israel; everyone did what was right in his own eyes.”

If you like the idea of small government, you would have liked the time of the Judges. There was no government at all: no taxes, no bureaucracy, no army, no police force, no schools. Sometimes that worked well; people raised their crops and cared for their herds and life was fine, other times Israel’s enemies came and “oppressed them:” took their crops and their flocks and killed and raped and made life miserable until someone came along to provide leadership and organize some troops and throw out the Midianites or Amalakites or whoever it was that was causing trouble and then everyone went back to minding their own business until the next time.

But after a few hundred years of that people began to think there might be a better way and they went to the latest Judge, a man named Samuel, and said, “Give us a king like other people.”  And Samuel resisted.  He said in effect, “God is your king.  You don’t need a human ruler.”  But the people insisted and God told Samuel, “Go ahead and give them what they want.” And Samuel said, “OK.  You want it, you can have it.  But let me tell you what your king will be like. He will raise your taxes and conscript your sons for his armies and take your daughters for his servants and you’ll regret it.  But OK; you want it; you can have it.”  And to make a long story short, Samuel chose a king for them.  He did it by casting lots and the lot fell on one tribe and he cast lots again and the lot fell on one family and he lined the whole family up and there was Saul, head and shoulders taller than anyone else and they said, Saul will be our king.

So that gives you three ways of choosing a leader.  First: you can just wait for a judge; wait to see who will take the lead. And sometimes you may win. but other times, you may lose. Or, secondly, you can cast lots and see what happens.  We might do better that way ourselves a lot of the time but you could also get some real losers. So there’s also a third way: you just line everyone up and see who’s the tallest. Now don’t laugh.  Maybe the best president we ever had was the tallest man around. Lincoln was six foot four in a day when most men were about 5 foot 6. Lyndon Johnson was also six foot four and he had a way of dominating people by sheer size, standing up close and looking down on people. Washington was 6’1 ½”, Roosevelt was 6’2″ The average president has been almost 6 feet tall, well above average and if you research this subject on line, you will find that most times in our history the taller candidate won.

But it’s not just height, of course. If we – finally! – look at today’s reading we find another factor involved.  After Saul came David and we heard in the first reading how he was chosen. We never heard how tall David was but what we heard was that he was handsome, he was good looking, “he had beautiful eyes.” It’s called “charisma” and David had a lot of it.  And, yes, we go through the process of a campaign with speeches and platforms and all of that but there are serious people who argue that in the end, more even than height it’s charisma, it’s charisma that wins every time – or almost every time. They say it comes down to which candidate you would most like to share a beer with.  Now I personally have not been charmed by a lot of the presidents we’ve selected but nine times out of ten I can see that probably most Americans would be more comfortable with A than B at a very personal level.

We may be a democracy, but it seems as if the same factors that gave us Saul and David may still be at work. Do we really read position papers and think through the economic implications and research the background? Or do we let ourselves be influenced by the zillions of dollars spent appealing to our deepest prejudices with slander and innuendo and downright lies?  There are people out there with millions of dollars to spend who think we can be bought – and maybe we can. But maybe it’s still things like height and charisma.

Look at the Biblical history, then, and ask “Is there something here we can learn?” I think there is. What the history books in the Bible do is turn a brilliant light on the aspect of history that matters. All through the Books of the Kings the narrative focuses like a laser on only one aspect of each king’s reign: did he respond to the Spirit of God?  Did he do justice and love mercy? Again and again, the narrative will tell us a single story that seems to sum up everything else. Ahab wanted a piece of land and he allowed his wife to have false testimony brought against the owner of the land so he was executed and the king got the land.  But in the end, Ahab was killed in battle and the dogs licked up his blood and the story ends this way: Now the rest of the acts of Ahab, and all that he did, and the ivory house that he built, and all the cities that he built, are they not written in the Book of the Annals of the Kings of Israel? And maybe they are, but that record is lost forever. The Bible doesn’t care about that.  What it tells us is that Ahab conspired to kill an innocent man.  He put his own desires first and justice second and that’s what the Bible tells us matters, that’s all we remember about Ahab.

Finally it’s not about power and it’s probably not about height or charisma either. Even Samuel could get it wrong. Notice how in the story we read today Samuel has directions from God but they’re not complete. God says to find the family of Jesse so Samuel does and he gets Jesse to present his sons and the first one makes a great impression and Samuel says to himself, “Surely he’s the one.”  But God says, “No.  Not this one.  Don’t look at his appearance or height . . .  For the Lord does not see as mortals see.  They look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” And, yes, when they brought David in for a look, he was very good looking and as the story goes on there’s no doubt about his charisma.  He could charm people out of their sandals. But the key thing is at the end,  “The spirit of the Lord came mightily upon David.”  God was at work in him in a special way.

I think the story that sums it up is the story of David and Bathsheba and it’s not a nice story.  When we teach about David in Church School we teach about the boy David and the sheep, and we tell about David and Goliath, but we don’t tell the children about David and Bathsheba. But that’s the story that matters.  David had charm and he became used to getting his own way and he saw Bathsheba and wanted her and he got her and he had her husband killed to clear the way.  He could be ruthless. But when the prophet Nathan came to him and told him to think about what he had done, David said, “I have sinned.” No excuses.  No alibis.  No blaming it on someone else. No stuff about “errors were made” or about “putting it behind him.” No.  David just said, “I have sinned.”  I did it and I know it was wrong.

How often do we hear that from our leaders?  Can we find a leader like that? Can we find someone in whom the spirit of God is at work?  Will we recognize it if we see it?  Will we recognize that that spirit may not give us everything we want and that other people may have greater needs than we do? Will the spirit of God work in us to recognize that spirit in any of the candidates before us this year?

I think, in fact, platforms and past performance don’t tell us very much of what we need to know. Lincoln didn’t have much of a track record and whatever a candidate may say in advance may bear little relationship to the way a candidate will respond to the demands of the presidency.  Who would have guessed that Richard Nixon would travel to China or that a Texan with Lyndon Johnson’s record would lead the battle for civil rights? The world looks very different from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue and I think what matters most is that indefinable quality that God saw in David – not just charisma, not just physical character, but an openness to God’s spirit and an ability to respond to new and unexpected situations with humility and a deep concern for others, a vision of that kingdom in which there are no more tears, neither sorrow nor sighing but justice and peace and freedom.

So that’s what I’m looking for again this year.  I think the history books of the Bible show us how God has led us in a certain direction and shown us, as much by bad choices as good, what it is that really matters.

But there’s a more important choice we make when we’re looking for leadership and that’s the choice we already made or that was made for us when we were baptized and that we reaffirmed last Sunday and that we reaffirm daily in everything we do. Whoever represents us in government, we choose our leadership first when we act as followers of Jesus.  There’s another sermon here that I’ll have to preach another time but isn’t it odd that we call Jesus “king” when we live in a democracy and he himself suggested that his followers would not look for models to kings and human rulers but to servants.  Jesus said, “Whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant,” and Jesus modeled that behavior himself at the Last Supper when he washed his disciples’ feet.

So let me just suggest for now that there are other words that might feel better in thinking of Jesus: words like leader, brother, guide, support, strength, wisdom, friend, and, yes, servant: the one who is there for us in our need. In him our lives find meaning.  With his help, following him as our servant-leader and looking for others to serve us in that mold we will make other choices as well for ourselves, for our country, and, indeed, for the world: for justice and freedom and peace.

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