Saturday, May 11, 2013
Keep Calm and Carry On
RCL Easter 7C
12 May 2013
Saint Faith’s Anglican Church
Focus text: 2 Kings 2.1-15
One of the finest magazines in North America, in my opinion, is the New Yorker. It always has thoughtful essays, interesting cultural comment and, of course, some of the best cartoons to be found in the English-speaking world.
Some years ago I was skimming through an issue of the New Yorker and came across the following cartoon. We are in the hallway of a suburban home. A woman in a smart business suit and a brief case is opening the door to a man who is probably her husband. He is hanging on the doorknob with his shirt tail out, his suit in disarray with his brief case opened and its contents strewn all the way down the front walk to his car. The car is parked half on the street and half on the grass. The passenger side door is opened and the trail of paper begins there. The caption simply says, “It’s hell to live through a paradigm shift.”
Those of us who grew up in the 1950’s and 1960’s can relate easily to this cartoon. We have lived through a change in society’s attitudes towards women in the workplace. While there is still much to be done to bring about full equality in the workplace between women and men, it is fair to say that much has been accomplished, but the change has not always been easy for anyone, whether male or female.
Living through a change of leadership can been stressful. For example, when the coach and manager of the Manchester United soccer team, Sir Alex Ferguson, announced his retirement, the stock value of the club, listed on the New York Stock Exchange, took a tumble. When Justin Trudeau replaced Bob Rae as leader of the federal Liberal Party, the Conservatives felt it necessary to air attack ads on television even as their ratings in opinion polls took a dive into the twenty’s from their previous thirty percent or so popularity rating. Bishop Michael’s announcement of his retirement has the potential of putting any number of diocesan initiatives on hold until January of next year as we wait to see who his successor will be.
Leadership change has always been and is likely always to be difficult. Even though today’s reading from 2 Kings suggests that the transition from Elijah’s leadership to Elisha’s went relatively smoothly if not a bit dramatic, we know that Elisha was faced with the challenge of proving that he possessed the same divine spirit as his mentor, Elijah. Did you notice that Elisha’s first prophetic act is to duplicate Elijah’s parting of the waters of the river Jordan? Did you notice that Elisha was careful to invoke the Lord as ‘the God of Elijah’? Even at the moment of his elevation as Elijah’s successor, Elisha is not so certain that this may all prove to be an illusion and that he will be just one more disciple who is less than his teacher.
We live in a time when we tend to consider leadership as the property of an individual and we often yearn for that charismatic leader who will cheer our hearts and inspire us to do great things. Whether we are talking about Sir Alex Ferguson or Bob Rae or Bishop Michael, there is a touch of anxiety that their successors may not be equal to the task and we, their followers, will be left in the lurch. But there is an alternative view.
During the third century the Roman imperial government embarked on a series of organized but scattered persecutions of the Christian movement. Often the persecution would be hotly undertaken for a short period and then cool into indifference on the part of provincial officials. In one particular persecution the Roman government came up with a new approach: arrest the leaders and seize the objects used by Christians in worship such as Bibles, eucharistic vessels and the like. The logic was simple: Take away their leaders and their ritual objects and the Christians will fade away.
What the Roman authorities did not count on was this: When the authorities arrested some deacons, presbyters and bishops, the Christian community was very good at raising up new leaders to replace the ones who had been imprisoned and, in some cases, executed. When the authorities seized eucharistic vessels, Christians simply started using everyday kitchenware to celebrate the eucharist. When the authorities seized and burned the Scriptures, Christians simply gathered together their elders and scholars and from memory re-created the texts that had been lost.
The Roman government had made the mistake of believing that the Christian movement imitated the Roman state: a centralized authority flowing from the emperor and the imperial civil service. They had not considered that the Christian movement might be based upon its Jewish roots: a holy people entrusted with the task of being the agents of God in time and space, a priestly people in whom leadership was vested, a living people who valued those individuals to whom they entrusted authority without yielding that authority entirely. The Roman state came to end; we did not.
In the story of Elijah we witness this understanding of leadership within a community of faith. No matter how great the leader, the people to whom God has entrusted the word of life are the repository of God’s authority. Moses dies and Joshua rises, but the people outlive them both. Elijah is taken up into heaven and Elisha takes up his teacher’s mantle, but the people outlive them both. Jesus faces the end of his ministry and gives the apostles authority, but it is the people to whom God through Jesus and the apostles ultimately entrusts the good news.
On Thursday we celebrated the Ascension of Jesus, a day I consider to be the true birthday of the Christian people. As Jesus ascends to the Father, the apostolic community, women and men, assume the ministry that God began in Jesus and will now continue in them. As the members of this first apostolic community die, their ministry continues, not just in certain individuals, but in entire communities who become Christ for the sake of the world.
Whether we are talking about coaches, party leaders or bishops, I believe that the deeper truth is that strong leadership emerges from strong communities, visionary leadership arises from visionary communities and bold leadership requires bold communities. When Jesus prays, he asks God that “(the) glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” (John 17.22-23) While there are some who may believe that Jesus is only speaking about the apostles, it is far clearer that the glory Jesus speaks of is given to all the baptized, to all those who will take up the mantle of Jesus and part the waters that keep the world from following in the path of justice, steadfast love and humility that God has set before us.
So, my friends, it is right for us to give thanks for the leadership of our Bishop, Michael. It is right for us to give thanks for the leadership of our friend, Sally Baker, who rests in the arms of God. It is right for us to give thanks for all those leaders who have shown us how to follow the way of Christ. But after we have given thanks, let us remember that their mantle is entrusted to all of us, not just some of us. There is work to be done, even during a paradigm shift, and we are the ones who are called to do it, whether neatly dressed or with our shirttails hanging out. Amen.