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Sunday, July 07, 2024

Humility and leadership


A Sermon preached at
Old Christ Church, Laurel, DE
Pentecost VII - Proper 9 - July 9, 2024

2 Samuel 5:1-5, 9-10
Psalm 48
2 Corinthians 12:2-10
Mark 6:1-13

It’s hot and humid so I want to get right to the point of these lessons from scripture. And, that point - okay, points, there are two -  are humility and leadership.

There’s a lot of yapping and yammering going on in all the modern public squares about leadership, specifically about how age affects leadership. Well, the age of one specific leader when the other potential leader is only three years younger.

Our culture has maintained pretty high standards and qualifications for leadership: Honesty. Courage. Integrity. Civility. Reliability.  Visionary. Diplomacy. The Ability to Compromise. Empathy. Crisis Management. Those are not unrealistic expectations, especially when we are talking about the highest positions of elected leadership in our land.

I've also been comparing the measure of leadership in our culture with the expectations we see in the lessons in this Sunday's lectionary. I think there are a different set of standards in Scripture, some of which are conflicting. In the Hebrew Scripture (which we didn’t read) David was 'anointed' to be King and became "greater and greater". Paul tells that odd story about a man with a thorn in his flesh and how God's strength is perfected in our weakness. And, of course, Jesus is a prophet without honor in his hometown who taught his disciples humility.

Humility. We don’t usually list that as an attribute we seek in our elected officials. Indeed, many of our political candidates exude the kind of bombastic enthusiasm of a used car salesman. I learned an important lesson about humility and Christian servant leadership many years ago from none other than the master of humility and servant leadership himself: Desmond Tutu.

I’ll spare you the details but I was at NYU where one of ours daughtrs was working at the time and snagged me a ticket to a reception being held for Bishop Tutu. NYU was giving him an award for his work on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa

I was delighted to meet him again To my amazement, he recognized me from a meeting years earlier (That’s another story I’ll save for another time). He was delighted to see me in my clergy collar and said, “See, I told you The Episcopal Church was going to ordain women. And now, in South Africa, women are also being ordained priests. God is so good, isn’t She?”

We laughed and I said to him, “But you! Look at you! When I heard you had prostate cancer, I was very sad but then, not too much later, I heard that you had accepted the position of head of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and I thought, “Is he out of his MIND?”

The good bishop laughed and said, “Well, you know my President? Nelson Mandela? Well, when my President asked me to take that position, I said, ‘Oh no. No, sir. I am not the right person for the job.”

“Why not,” asked my President.

“Oh, Mr. President,” I said, “I am not qualified.”

“How so,” asked my President.

“Oh, Mr. President,” I said, “I laugh too easily. I cry too easily. I am weak.”

“Ah,” said my President, “then you are perfectly qualified for the position.”

“How can that be so?” I asked.

“Well,” said my President, “if you laugh too easily then you know something about the absurdity of life. And, if you cry too easily, then you know something about The Truth. And, if you are weak, then the power of God is able to work through you and we will have the hope of finding reconciliation.”

I think that kind of leadership takes real humility. It's the kind of humility that comes from a deep love of God and a love of servant leadership to put what you may want - important as that is - secondary to the love of God and God's call to you. To use the gifts of your leadership - even if they don’t seem like “gifts” - in the best of service to others.

That kind of humility takes honesty and courage. Integrity and civility. Being reliable and a visionary. A diplomat with the ability to compromise. To have the capacity for empathy, and a skill for crisis management.

It's the kind of humility I hear echoed in the teachings of Jesus and the words of St. Paul. I don't know if they apply specifically to the leadership of the President of the United States - or any elected position of public trust -  but I think humility is not a bad leadership quality for anyone who has a position of that much power.

So, in these Dog Days of Summer, when anxiety is running almost as high as the heat and humidity and heat index, I ask us all to take a deep breath and listen to the message of the words of Holy Scripture.

Maybe we need to pay attention to that thorn in our side, the one that keeps tormenting us with anxiety and doubt. Maybe we need to kick the dust from our sandals, say Peace to those who refuse to - or simply can’t - hear us, and move on. Maybe we need to laugh a bit more, so we can accept and embrace the absurdities of life. Maybe we need to cry a bit more easily so we’ll better understand the painful realities of finding and living the Truth.

And maybe, just maybe, if we admitted our weaknesses more often we would understand these words of St. Paul, “(God’s)  grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness. .  . Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.”