True Leadership

What follows is my final sermon of the semester for my second preaching course at Asbury. This is the text, but it was modified significantly during the delivery. For instance, the introduction you will read was replaced by what is here an illustration (presidential politics). The text is from 1 Samuel 15:35-16:13.

Nearly four years ago, I arrived in Wilmore prepared to be launched into a new journey. Like many of you, I came to Wilmore unaware of what would lie ahead, excited for the new adventure, and humbled to be called by God to be a proclaimer, a leader, a visionary, and a voice.

It was as humbling then as it is today, four weeks before graduation. Four weeks stand between me – and perhaps many of you – and ending one journey and launching into another journey, for which we have been called and for which we have been trained.

This time of year – the end of a school term and transitioning into a new journey – has always offered a chance to reflect. A time to reflect on where we have been, what we have seen, and what we have experienced in these four years.

We’ve witnessed the end of a presidency defined by wars and terrorism, and the rise of the country’s first African-American president, who came in with the mantra of hope and change, but the country remains divided.

We’ve seen the fall of our economy and the continued struggles of families all across our nation to find jobs and make ends meet.

We’ve seen the fall of dictatorial regimes in Africa and the Middle East and violence increase in many Middle Eastern countries.

We’ve seen the fall of our sports heroes such as Tiger Woods, Roger Clemens, and Barry Bonds. We’ve seen actors become bigger stars simply for living reckless and dangerous lives.

We’ve seen the continued polarization of American politics to the point where our motivation is no longer about “asking what we can do for our country,” but instead asking what our favorite political party and ideology can do for us.

In all, we’ve seen an absence of true leadership over the past four years. By this, I mean leadership that comes from the heart and the depths of our relationship with the Triune God. I believe there is a deep void in both our country and our world today. Sure, we have our leaders, but do we have true leadership?

It’s a question especially relevant for us right now, as we aspire to be leaders in the church. We cannot assume that this lack of leadership only involves the world out there. We have a problem of leadership in the church today which impacts how people view the church and, ultimately, how they see the Lord’s presence in their life. When the oldest Christian tradition is known more for its sexual abuse cases than its theology, there is an absence of true leadership. When we are more interested in being proven right about the existence of hell than engaging out of love with our brothers and sisters who may have different views, there is an absence of true leadership. When we are more concerned about power, fame, wealth, and success than sharing the Gospel of Jesus Christ, there is an absence of true leadership.

So, what do I mean by true leadership that comes from the heart? We can see leadership that comes from the heart when we look at 1 Samuel 16: 1-13, this hallmark passage for the people of Israel and for us gathered today. It’s a passage that tells of David’s anointing as the new king of Israel after Saul’s continued disobedience. It’s a passage that sets the stage for the House of David to be the royal lineage that Christ Jesus will be born into. It’s a passage that at its core is about what it means to be a leader in the church, and in our world, and what it means to have a leadership that comes from the heart.

From the very beginning of the passage, we see that leadership, true leadership, is about being obedient to the will of the Father.

Samuel was the leading judge and priest of his day, and it was his job to anoint leaders, offer sacrifices, and lead the people of Israel in their relationship with God. Yet, at the beginning of this passage, we see Samuel in tears. He is in mourning. Saul, the man he had anointed to be the leader – the king – of the people of Israel, has been rejected by God for his disobedience.

It was Saul who refused to follow God’s commands, especially in his interactions with the Amalekites and in offering sacrifices before Samuel arrived. Saul was more interested in protecting his own authority and power than following the will of the Lord, and it cost him his kingdom and, eventually, his life.

But, in the midst of Samuel’s mourning, the Lord tells Samuel to stop. The day of the Lord was here, and the Lord was going to anoint a new king, a king he would choose, a king that would desire a deep relationship with the Lord.

And, the Lord tells Samuel that he will anoint this new king. Even though Saul was still the king, Samuel would anoint the new leader. Let us not miss the point here – God is asking Samuel to risk his life, for anointing a new king would be an act of treason toward Saul, surely punishable by death if caught. So we can understand Samuel’s hesitation – his fear – when he asks the Lord “How can he go?”

We do not see the Lord back off this command, instead telling Samuel how to accomplish it. He is to take a heifer – a peace offering – and offer a sacrifice in Bethlehem.

Even though Samuel would have rather had done anything but walk into Bethlehem, heifer in hand, Samuel goes. He is obedient to the will of the Father. Obedience in leadership means doing not that which we desire, but denying ourselves and following the will of the Lord. Obedience in leadership means it is not about us; it is not about protecting our bases of power and influence; and it is not about our ministries. It is about glorifying God through a living-reality that seeks to glorify God.

It is following in the life of Jesus. On this Maundy Thursday, we are in the midst of the holiest time in the Christian calendar. We walk in the footsteps of Christ’s obedience in offering atonement for our sin, and in his victory over death. Jesus could have brought about the Kingdom in any way he desired, but, instead, he followed the more costly, and more spiritually effective route, of complete obedience to God. It is not our will be done, but the Father’s will that shall be accomplished through us, as it was accomplished through Christ.

But perhaps you are saying that it is too difficult in the world we live in to be completely obedient to the will of the Father. We live in a world that challenges our basic beliefs and our basic practices as Christians. We want to be liked, and we don’t want to risk our lives and the lives of our people, so maybe we can go halfway in and it be pleasing to God. We want, in this moment, for our obedience to be the way of Cain, and not the way of Abel.

Andre Trocme believed it was possible to be totally obedient to the Father in this world that we live in. Pastoring in a Protestant church in the small French community of Le Chambon during the height of World War II and German Nazi occupation, Trocme and his community opted for the path of obedience to God. They chose the costly path of civil disobedience and decided to protect the Jewish people and hide them from possible arrest and eventual death. Trocme and the Le Chambon community believed that obedience to God – protecting the humanity of others and defending the sacredness of life – was more important than their own lives and own safety.

They showed that the path of true leadership, the path of following in the footsteps of Jesus, is to be obedient to the will of the Father, regardless of the cost.

If true leadership is about being obedient to the will of the Father, then true leadership is not about looking at the physical qualities of the individual.

Many of you who have had the opportunity to get to know me over the past four years know that I am a bit of a historical and political buff. It has been a fascination of mine since I was a small child writing stories, at the age of 5, about George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, and, at 8, playing a floppy-disc computer game where I could pretend to be the president for a week to see if I would be re-elected.

When we look at how we have elected leaders, especially to the presidency, we notice various trends. Our first five presidents were elected because they played influential roles in the formation of the United States. In the mid 1800s, we elected leaders who protected the status quo and did not deal with the issue of slavery. In the early 20th century, we elected leaders who were interested in developing the country’s economic foundation.

But since the 1960s we’ve seen a new trend: We elect leaders based on how they look on television and the feelings their words inspire. John F. Kennedy was elected in 1960 because he looked better in presidential debates than Richard Nixon. Ronald Reagan won re-election in 1984 thanks in part to a television campaign that said it was “Morning Again” in America. Even Barack Obama can credit the Internet and his appeal to younger voters in his win in 2008.

We want our leaders to look good, to be strong, to be athletic, to have a great smile, and to always say the right things. Even in the church, we want leaders who are young, debt-free, married, have children, and can play a guitar. The high school mentality of popularity has impacted our view of what makes a sound leader in both the world and the church.

Samuel follows this model of leadership. We see this in his anointing of Saul as the king of Israel. Saul was considered a man who was without equal, taller than all the others, with perhaps a strong physical presence. Yet he was rejected for his own disobedience. Instead of learning from this, Samuel looked at Jesse’s eldest son Eliab and thought this had to be the new king. Samuel believed that Eliab’s physical structure and his position as the eldest was the clincher. Yet, the Lord said that Eliab would not be the king because he does not look at our physical presence to determine the quality of a leader.

In the eyes of the Lord, it is not anything about us physically that determines whether we will be a leader. God does not care about our gender. God does not care if we wear the right clothes. God does not care if we are the strongest. God does not select leaders based on how much is in someone’s bank account or what their political influence is.

God choses the least of these to bring about the kingdom of God. It was a carpenter’s son who was the long-awaited Messiah. It was a group of fishermen, tax collectors, zealots, and rebels that Jesus would call disciples, and not the politically or financially connected. It was a persecutor and leading Pharisee whom God would call to spread the Gospel throughout all of Asia Minor.

God routinely choses the people whom we would reject in our churches today for positions of leadership. And in choosing the that which the world rejects and finds foolish, God changes the world and inaugurates the kingdom of God.

There is something greater than our physical attributes that gets to the depth of what it means to be a leader. Being a leader is an issue of the heart. True leadership is about where our loyalties lie and about the person we are.

When Samuel is inspecting Jesse’s sons, the Lord tells him that the Lord looks into the depths of our soul to find leaders. The heart, in Hebrew understanding, was the center of our being where our passions and energies lie. It is in our heart, in our soul, that we see the quality and depths of our character. It is in our soul we find the state of our relationship with God.

What Samuel finds, and what we find, is that it was the lowliest son – the eighth son – who was the person God had in mind to be the new king. This young boy, David, had a heart after the Lord’s own heart. He was totally and utterly focused upon God. He desired no other God but the one true God. David was totally committed to serving God out of the depths of his being.

It is what Christ calls us to when he tells the disciples, and us today, to abide in him, as he abides in us. God calls us to grow in the depths of our relationship, to be centered in the grace of God, and to allow that grace and love to define who we are as a person. As Henry Nouwen says, our “leadership must be rooted in the permanent, intimate relationship with the incarnate Word, Jesus.”

Out of that relationship are we able to have a “faith that expresses itself through love.” As we grow closer to Christ, and deepen our faith and dependence on the love of the Triune God, we are able to go out and be the leaders God has called us to be. It is our faith in Christ, and our trust in that love, that should define our leadership – not worldly expectations.

We should be thankful that God gives us David as the example of true leadership that comes from the heart. We know that David made mistakes. He was not perfect. Neither are we. We’re going to make mistakes. We’re going to say the wrong thing. We’re going to offer the wrong advice. We’re going to forget to encourage our people in times of struggle. I could go on and on.

God doesn’t call us to leadership that is without mistakes, but a leadership that is obedient to the Father’s will, and that comes out of being utterly committed to God in the depths of soul.

Most likely, these are the final words many of you will ever hear me say in this role. We will go on to different ministries and journeys as we leave here. Some of us will go on to pastoral roles, some of us will go on to be chaplains, and some will be devoted fathers and mothers. We may not be in the same places, but we are in this journey together. Let us, as we leave this place, be defined by ministries of true leadership in obedience and faith in God. Let us encourage our people to live their public lives as an expression of true leadership. And let us all continue to transform the world and spread the message of Christ for which we have been called, and for which we have been trained.


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