Monday, October 18, 2010

a reflection on church leadership

For those of you not in my homiletics class, here is a copy of the sermon I gave last week. Everyone in the class had to preach from the same text, Mark 5:21-43, and it has been interesting to see that even though we all read the same passage, each person has had a different angle or approach. Here's mine:

[please note that my audience was made up of my classmates; I probably wouldn't preach the same sermon to a congregation]

There are some stories in the Bible that immediately resonate with me. At first glance, I hear echoes of my own story within the account of the hemorrhaging woman, and it is tempting to stay in that familiar space. But as seminary continues and our ordinations begin to loom on the horizon, I am finding that it is Jairus' tale that calls out to me particularly strongly these days.

As you all are well aware, Jairus is a spiritual leader. He is respected, a man with authority and someone people can turn to for answers to life's hardest questions. He has been entrusted with helping to guide the people of God, and with that trust comes certain expectations of how he ought to behave.

We, as future clergy, are also expected to behave in certain ways. According to the ordination services found in our Book of Common Prayer, we are to fashion our lives "in a manner...suitable to the exercise of this ministry." We are to be a "wholesome example" of Christian life; model citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven, leading the way for our flocks to follow.

Now, I can't speak for you, but I drive myself (and probably others) crazy with trying to be morally upright. I can get so caught up with doing things the 'correct' or 'appropriate' way that I end up missing out on a lot. In this constant--dare I say obsessive?--pursuit of perfection, I alienate myself from others and especially from God. I operate as if I can handle it on my own, as if God needs me and not vice versa. Naturally, this expectation is unrealistic; perfection is unattainable. When the collar goes on, it's not as if we are automatically given super powers to defend ourselves against sin and temptation. Our vocation does not make us a better person or a better leader. If I think that I will have all of the answers once I graduate, then I haven't really learned much at all.

I wonder what went through Jairus' head that day. Jesus was not exactly the most well-liked man among people in Jairus' circle; I am sure that leaders felt threatened by his teachings and actions, not to mention his popularity. And so, when Jairus approaches Jesus, I think it is safe to assume that he does not make this decision lightly. He is probably aware that eyes will be watching him. Aware that there will be whispers and that his authority could come into question. But he is also probably aware that his little girl is fighting for her life and that none of his power or pride or wealth of knowledge will help her. And so he falls before Jesus, publicly admitting that he cannot do it on his own.

I don't know about you, but a lot of the time I feel like collapsing under the weight of all this pressure. I question whether I am pious enough, I am studying enough, and whether I really get it. And, should I get it, am I even able to relate this to the people I am serving? The thing is, I think that most people don't want to have perfect priests. I imagine they want priests who can relate to their struggling, who can admit that they, too, grapple with the hard texts and with trying to follow Jesus. But who, despite or maybe because of their brokenness, think that this wrestling is worth it and are committed to spending their lives doing so.

Jairus lays everything out in front of his peers, in front of the crowd, but most especially in front of Jesus. It must have been scary to be so exposed. Perhaps even humiliating to have to repeat his request multiple times without receiving an answer. And yet, when it seems as if all hope is lost and his begging has been in vain, Jesus turns to him and says "Do not fear, only believe." And what follows is not only the restoration of his daughter but resurrected hope.

We are called to be a forward-looking people, a people of hope, a people living into the promise that the future holds. The good news--and it really is Good News--is that the God who called us will not abandon us. We see throughout our history that God calls people not because they are capable but because they are utterly dependent on God, allowing God to work through them. Turning to God and admitting that we need assistance is not weakness, but a source of strength, for the grace of God makes up for what we lack. In the words of Anna Carter Florence, "Only when we are empty can we be filled again. Only when we admit that we don't know will we create space for God to fill." May we have the humility, like Jairus, to acknowledge our dependence on God alone, trusting that God will fill us and use us for God's purpose and believing that miraculous things can happen with God's help. Amen.

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