Preached at Grace Church, Millbrook, NY, August 26, 2012.
Texts: Joshua 24: 1-2, 14-18
Audio link: Leadership_sermon
My friends in Christ, it is a great privilege and joy to worship with you today. This church has provided my daughter and me with a home as we coordinated Vacation Bible School around the mid-Hudson region this summer. And this place has been a warm, beautiful, and restful haven for us when we came home from various churches in the Diocese. We are so grateful for your warm welcome and your generosity.
The timing of our moving in was odd: our moving truck pulled up just an hour after Father Doug was elected as the next bishop of Western Massachusetts; I congratulated him as he, Betsy, and Grace came out to help us unload our furniture. As a result, I have been very aware of the import of this moment in your church life: that you must say goodbye to a beloved, longtime rector and begin the search for a new leader.
For this reason, I find the literary contexts of the readings from the Book of Joshua and the Gospel of John very pertinent, because both of them have to do with transitions in leadership. By the literary context, I mean the context of the stories in which these passages occur.
This final speech of Joshua occurs after the Israelites have conquered the lands of others and have been given huge parcels of land. And now, Joshua is about to die. His parting advice is to remind them that they should be serving the one God, not the gods of the tribes they have conquered.
The Gospel passage from John is also about leadership. These words of Jesus are part of a discourse that puts Jesus at odds with local Jewish leaders and some followers. If you recall from two Sundays ago, some of the Jewish leaders say, “Is this not Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven?’” And in our selection from the Gospel today, we see that some of the disciples are repelled by Jesus telling them that they must eat his body and drink his blood. As a result, they turn back and no longer go about with him. They cannot accept Jesus as their leader.
Both the Joshua and the John passages deal with a turning point in leadership, and both also have to do with whether the disciples will continue to follow God, or whether they will go their own way. These passages point to the exciting opportunities and vulnerabilities that face an organization when a leader is moving on. In particular, there are exciting opportunities and challenges involved in choosing a new leader.
This is exactly the context in which you people of Grace Church find yourselves. You communicate a clear sense of mission and outreach in your profile for an interim rector. You have a spiritually healthy self-esteem about the strength of your church community, its education programs, its material assets, and your church’s steady growth over the years. Now all you have to do is pick the right leader for this next stage in the life of Grace Church. How hard can that be?
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if an old prophet like Samuel wandered through and anointed someone with oil, saying, “This is the one God has chosen”? That’s how King David was chosen. Or wouldn’t it be great if a bush suddenly burst into flames and spoke to the person called to be the next rector? That’s how God appointed Moses. The voice of God could say, “Go to Millbrook and say, ‘The Lord has chosen me to lead Grace Church.’” Wouldn’t it be wonderful if Jesus walked up and said, “Follow me to Grace Church. You are the next rector.” Then your search committee wouldn’t have to do anything!
The Bible is full of stories of highly effective leaders who were hand-chosen by God and Jesus. Moses. The judge Deborah. King David. Queen Esther. Peter and Paul. Unfortunately, the Old Testament also contains many stories of ineffective leaders who were chosen by human beings who ignored God’s leadership, God’s choice and went their own way.
That is exactly why Joshua delivered this speech just before his death. He gave them the choice to follow God or not because he knew that at transition points in leadership, the Israelites sometimes fell away from God and clung to some other idols. These idols usually had to do with financial security or political agendas.
The good news for us Christians is that the selection of leaders looks very different in the early portrayals of the Church. Although we don’t have a great deal of information in the New Testament about the selection of leaders, it was always done by groups, not an individual, and these groups were prayerful about their selections. They met and prayed to appoint new deacons of the church in Jerusalem, and the disciples met and discussed whether to accept Paul as a new church leader. The appointments depicted in the Book of Acts, at least, were all good ones.
This is a good sign to us. God does empower us to choose effective leaders who will shepherd us well. God empowers us through a Holy Spirit who often acts unseen, unheard, perhaps entirely unnoticed. And yet, the disciples call upon this Spirit to help them choose the right leaders and make wise decisions that benefit the whole community.
I believe that the key to choosing leaders wisely is given to us in the Bible. God states it clearly in 1 Samuel 16:7, when Samuel has been sent to anoint one of the sons of Jesse. Samuel mistakenly goes to the oldest and tallest son, and God says,
“Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the LORD does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart.”
Even Samuel, a prophet highly attuned to the voice of God in his prayer life, was drawn to the wrong person at first. And why? Because he was looking at outward appearances. Height. Gender. Age. We are human, and so it is inevitable that we will have some preconceptions about the right leader for a given context. And human beings have agendas, too.
I was somewhat shocked when I was at Yale Divinity School. We would get frequent job announcements for ministers and priests, and I also worked near an office that helped place us in clergy positions. I was shocked because I come from previous employment at a public college and the private sector of high tech. In both of these contexts, it is illegal to discriminate based on outward appearances: gender, age, size, race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, marital status, and so on.
In church work, however, these types of discrimination are allowed, and so the questionnaire that Yale Divinity School sends out to potential employers asks things like, “Will you employ a woman? Will you employ a gay/lesbian/transgender/bisexual person?” They ask these questions because they know that religious organizations are allowed to discriminate, and they don’t wish to send students out on fruitless interviews.
But discrimination occurs in other, more subtle, ways. One fellow student said, “My diocese only hires married priests.” Another priest told me that she got her call because the church wanted a young family. I frequently hear that churches will only hire young priests on the assumption that young priests will be more successful in drawing young people to church. I know a church that went through a long leadership struggle because some of the vestry insisted that the next rector be a woman, whereas a few vestry members said they could never have a woman as their spiritual leader. Speaking of another church, a church member told me, “That church will never hire someone who preaches social justice.”
All of these instances demonstrate the same problem: the churches were looking on outward appearances, rather than looking at people the way God looks at people.
The Lord looks on the heart.
The Lord looks on the heart.
This reminder from the first book of Samuel gives us hope. And so do the stories of leader selection in the Book of Acts. For even though Samuel initially looks at the tallest and oldest, he is open to God’s direction, and he does eventually anoint God’s chosen leader. And even though a prophet does not appear to the disciples after Jesus has died, the Holy Spirit does speak to them. By gathering for fellowship, prayer, and study, they chose–time and time again–effective deacons, deaconesses, and disciples to lead the early Church.
I believe Grace Church is poised to choose the next inspirational leader for your community. The key to discerning is to set aside human agendas. Give yourself time to pray, discern, and discuss together, and allow for the unexpected to occur. Set aside human expectations, outward appearances that do not matter to God at all. Think of all the unlikely leaders that God appointed: the small and weak Gideon. The young shepherd David. Joan of Arc. Paul, the great persecutor of Christians, who became the next great apostle and author of key Scriptures. God delights in upending our expectations about appropriate leaders for the kingdom.
Even in the Gospel passage from John today, we see this same tension between God’s chosen leader and human expectations: some disciples rejected Jesus because he was not what they expected. They wanted a military leader, not a man spouting mystical ideas about being the bread of life. Who wanted a guy like that?
I pray for your comfort and spiritual sustenance as you say goodbye to Father Doug and the Fisher family; I know it will be a hard transition for many of you. At the same time, you should feel gratified that you have helped to form a bishop for the Church. For as surely as Father Doug has guided you spiritually, you also have helped to form the priest and bishop that he is today.
As you move forward, trust that God is with you, and trust the Holy Spirit to inform your choice of your next rector. This may require that you set aside human expectations about what that next leader will look like and preach like. You may be utterly surprised by some of the candidates. At those times, I encourage you to take your time. Engage with open minds and hearts in discernment processes that encourage joint prayer and careful deliberation. In this way, you can be open to seeing as God sees, not as humans see.
Let God help you look on the heart.