Leadership for and by God's people
Ordinary Sunday 16: 22nd July, 2018
Fr Greg Davies, Priest Assisting at St Peter's, Eastern Hill
Jeremiah 23.1-6; Ephesians 2.13-18; Mark 6.30-34
Last week we witnessed on the international stage two of the most powerful people in our world having a face to face meeting. Of course, I am referring to the Trump / Putin summit. Amidst all the media hype and controversy both during and after that meeting what struck me was the two very different styles of leadership. Putin's leadership is described as confident, authoritative and somewhat dictatorial while Trump's leadership was described by one commentator as unpredictable and chaotic.
With such an event in the background and in light of our first reading from the prophet Jeremiah — I could not help but reflect upon the question — What kind of leadership do we want or perhaps more importantly what kind of leadership do we need especially for our time and context?
And it will come as no surprise that the scriptures actually give us much to reflect upon in answering that question.
The dominant metaphor or image of leadership that comes through the scriptures is that of the shepherd — an image I confess that is rather remote from my experience although a familiar one for us all in and through such well-known scripture passages like the 23rd psalm. Here we are given a wonderful, uplifting and ideal picture of what a shepherd does in caring for his sheep — so much so that the Lord is likened to a shepherd and of course so is Jesus himself.
However, it is acknowledged as in our first reading from Jeremiah — that there are of course both good shepherds and bad ones — that is those who fail to live up to their responsibilities as shepherds — and so given that distinction Jesus is more than often referred to as the 'Good Shepherd'.
So, what are the defining qualities of the 'good shepherd' — the good leader.
Well if we look closely at Psalm 23 it becomes quite clear that the shepherd is one who leads and/or guides the sheep — the shepherd is one who provides and the leading or guiding is so that they find green pastures for food — the primary motive being so that the sheep can survive and thrive.
Implicit here is a strong altruistic motif — that suggests the concern and care for the sheep and their welfare is absolutely paramount, so much so that the shepherd is present and protective to the point that the sheep do not fear — again the shepherd provides a real sense of security.
And then in those final verses — you prepare a table before me — you anoint my head with oil — my cup overflows — goodness and mercy shall follow me — In these words the shepherd is shown to be abundantly generous — seemingly going well beyond just what is needed to the gift of an enduring relationship.
And all of these qualities we see in Jesus himself even in our short gospel passage this morning where Jesus displays compassion both for his disciples who having just returned from their mission require rest and yet at the same time the crowds who keep following him. Jesus recognises that the crowds are coming to him looking for immediate gratification or something to satisfy their pressing need. Just like sheep they have no long-term plans. Sheep don't worry about what will happen when they have eaten all the grass in their field, or when winter comes. That is the job of the shepherd. In the same way, the people who flock round Jesus have come either just for entertainment or for healing, but without any real idea that what Jesus is offering has more long-term consequences than either of those things. That's what he sees, as he looks at them: he sees sheep with no shepherd and, we are told, he began to teach them many things — not make decisions for them, like a shepherd would do, but teach them things so that they can be human beings, not sheep any more.
Here, Jesus transcends even the best of the qualities of the shepherd in its literalist sense to offer to the people gathered what they really need for life — which is brilliantly reinforced in the next verses of the gospel with Jesus literally feeding the crowd from the five loaves of bread and two fish. Here again I think Jesus transcends the metaphor of shepherd and sheep to offer but not impose what the people need in order to become the people God made them to be.
So what might the implications of all this be for us as followers of Jesus in both the kind of leadership that we live under be that in our homes, church, workplace or community at large as well as what kind of leadership we are challenged or called upon to emulate — if we are in positions or roles of leadership?
Firstly, I think that we as Christians are challenged and called upon to model the kind of leadership that Jesus as the Good Shepherd gives us and principally that can be reflected most powerfully in and through self-less service — a recognition that those whom we are trying to teach, guide or help in any way is what takes priority over and against our own position or interest. Of course be it in politics, business or our community at large, this can be costly because to give such leadership refuses to play the game of self-interest and is thus often misunderstood and rejected. This kind of leadership strives to support, grow and build up individuals and communities but does so in a way that is respectful of their individuality as persons and thus rejects being manipulative or coercive.
Secondly, not only are we to strive to model good leadership but also I think we are called upon to seek this kind of leadership — first and foremost in our Church of course — but equally in our families, work places and community. In other words, I think we are challenged to have the courage to hold our leaders to account as best we can — a little bit perhaps like Jeremiah in our first reading this morning who raged against the leaders or so called shepherds of his time and their failings. In that vein I could not help but recall the appalling leadership given by both political parties in our State Parliament on Good Friday earlier this year. How many Christians I wonder spoke up and out about that behaviour and example? On reflection, I certainly feel I should have done more by writing to those politicans. Of course, the challenge is so much more than just calling out bad behaviour in leaders but it is equally if not more important to call upon our representatives and leaders in all spheres of life to exercise a kind of leadership that is open, honest, compassionate and that truly has the interests of the other at heart. A leadership that is so well modelled for us in our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ — the good and faithful shepherd and I should add on this day of all days — Mary Magdalene — a woman of courage who in her witness of the risen Lord also gives us an example of faithful leadership.