Thursday, June 25, 2009

kingship, leadership and the self

This morning's readings from the Daily Office (yes, I am doing my best to keep that discipline going) appeared to me to center on the question of leadership. The theme was not just based on what makes a "good" leader, but also how Koine Greek professor would, I hope, applaud my use of the world "okloi" instead of "ekklesia" (crowd or mob instead of assembly)...react to their felt need for a person to take up the reins of leadership.

Being a good leader is not easy, particularly when you are responding to a call to leadership. That call might be an election, or it might be by appointment. Sometimes, that call even comes about as the result of a coup. Yes, coups do occur in our modern, enlightened times. They even happen from time to time in the "enlightened" west. They happen in state houses, in clubs and even in churches. They happen even when good people resist them. They happen. The same way elections and appointments happen. A leader is chosen and the people then get an opportunity to accept or reject them, right? Sure. But therein lies the threat to peace and to society losing its sense of center and of each citizens member to their sense of obligation to participate in community under that new leader.

That last paragraph sounds esoteric, even to me-and I wrote it. Let me bring the idea down to earth. In today's reading from the Hebrew scriptures, the prophet Samuel is becoming too old to continue as an effective leader/judge over Israel. His role was to act as an agent of mediation between God and the people, and between people in conflict. He was not a king, or a priest. He was the one appointed/anointed by God and accepted by the people to act as a formal g0-between in order to maintain justice and facilitate right action, thought and feeling amongst the tribes of Israel and their constituent members. As he grew older, he ceded that role to his sons. They were not quite as effective, nor were they particularly virtuous or faithful, as judges. The people complained to Samuel and asked for a king to be anointed to rule over them. Samuel despairs, for in their request for a king, they are rejecting the former relationship/covenant betwixt Israel and God. They wanted to put someone up between the nation and God. Neither Samuel, or God, really, are pleased at this turn of events.

So, Samuel decides to try to talk the people out of the idea they had. Kings are not really all that great to have around, says Samuel. They take from you what they think they need in order to do their job-ruling over you. You surrender autonomy and control to them and they then have the power to levy taxes and fines. They reserve the right to draft your sons and daughters into service. They, by right, are able to requisition your property. In other words, if you create or accept a government or a form of governance...well then, you are subject to it, period.

The people hear all that and persist. "We want a king over us. It will bring order and will make us like other nations." Samuel bears this news to God, who counsels, "Listen to their voice and set a king over them." God is the wise one...when people refuse relationship with you, you cannot coerce them back into what you think they should be up to, for you can't force someone into salvation or healing. That is a path that people have to choose instead.

Read your Bible, from I Samuel through II Chronicles. Things just get hairier and hairier from that point on. Saul is anointed king over Israel, and he-found hiding amongst the baggage-brings a lot of emotional and mental baggage with him. He is just the first. Israel struggles onward under the authority of the monarchy. Sometimes the kings are good. Sometimes they are really bad. Always, though, the model of leadership persists. Now, says God, you have chosen this model. Now you must live with it.

That same ideal is true for us today. From the New York Senate controversies to the latest leader to fall from grace (the grace of public opinion, mind you-not of God), the governor of South Carolina, we are seeing our leaders stumble and fall under the weight of their own fallibility and under the probity of the media and the pitch and sway of how much confidence people have in their leadership. We seem to have exchanged posturing and political maneuvering for integrity and humility. The result? Panic, fear and apostasy. We get scared, that feeling escalates around us and involves others and then in an attempt to reassert control and dominance we step away from the order that we ourselves set up in the first place.

Whether we groan under the authority of a despotic king, struggle with elected officials who seem to be more involved in their personal indulgences instead of public service or brace under the canons and strictures of authorities in our societies and tribal constructs, I think it is time for us to acknowledge that the fundamental covenant being broken is not just between the leader and their mandate to put the good of the whole over their own appetites. It is also about our unwillingness as those who are led to step up and do our part to ameliorate the crises of faith and practice...and for the WHOLE people of God (leaders and all others) to stand before God and repent of the petty, indulgent reserve that says life is someone else's problem, not mine.

That takes "splenkna" ("guts"-another Greek word my professor would smile over). That is the stuff inside us that motivates us to move and to act. It is the place of origin for that feeling we get when something just isn't right. It is the place where we find the strength to stand up for justice, peace and the rights of all sentient beings to live as the Creator intended instead of in our own engineered ideals of comfort and self-preservation. It is the matter which reminds us that no one, me or you, is above another. We serve God side-by-side. Even when the measure of authority gives us different jobs to do, we are all still subject to God's judgment in the end.

Jesus says it best. In today's reading from the Gospel according to Luke, he responds to an argument that roils up between his followers about who amongst them is the greatest: "The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those in authority over them call them benefactors. But not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is at the table of the one who serves? Is it not the one at the table? But I am among you as one who serves." That impresses me, and informs my priesthood. It knocks me out or pride again and again when I get lost in the power of my role and forget that the collar is there as a sign of servitude and duty. When some stranger in the street nods as I pass in respect and says, "Good morning, Father." It is a reminder for me to nod in respect and greet all in the name of Christ. From indigent to the President of the United States, everyone one of God's beloved deserves the same note of respect. My hope is that we as a Church can get back to that basic tenet of our Baptismal Covenant which seems to me to be the axis of all of what I have mulled over today, "Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself? Will you strive for justice and peace among all people and respect?"

I will, with God's help.

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