Jeremiah 23: 1-6
It is quite difficult preparing to preach here knowing you have explored so many avenues to the Bible and to faith - and not knowing the prevailing acceptable hermeneutic! It is difficult, not knowing what has been explored in recent sermons. All I can offer are some of the thoughts that I have been exploring as I have considered the lectionary readings set for today, which happens to be the last Sunday of the liturgical calendar year.
Next Sunday is Advent Sunday and the beginning of a new liturgical year. If you are at all like me, a new year holds possibilities of change, of different and exciting things (most of which don’t happen but remain possibilities nevertheless). And of course we begin to look forward to the celebrations of life and hope that Christmas time offers us.
But, we end this year on a reflective note, with a gospel reading that sets before us the story of the last moments of Jesus life as told by Luke.
Strangely, as it is told, it is not his faithful disciples who, in these final moments, are promised what they hoped for, there are no reassuring promises for them, but rather a criminal is promised a place in paradise, with Jesus, that very day, no waiting required.
Once again the story-tellers turn things upside down. If there is a surprise thread running through all the gospels it is that anticipated ‘common sense’ is stood on its head: is turned upside down.
As the story goes, it is a criminal who announces Jesus’ innocence of the charges laid on him, and declares the injustice of his crucifixion.
Best I own up at this stage before going any further, to being a ‘faithful unbeliever’. By that I mean, that while I do not ‘believe’ in many of the doctrines of the church as indisputable ‘time-space’ facts, nor believe in a literal enactment of many of the events recorded in the gospels, I am nevertheless learning to live faithfully, to live open to the truths that those great myths of our Judeo-Christian heritage are setting before us.
Those great myths are sacred stories that can shape us and empower us, that can help us to make meaning of our lives, as community and as individuals, and that can open our imagination to possibilities beyond the limits of actual time/space experience.
It seems to me, today’s rather difficult story, painful in many ways to hear, offers us a challenge. It is not a ‘nice straightforward’ historical report nor even a telling that lends itself easily to analogically interpretation. No, it seems to me it is rather a direct challenge to us. A deathbed challenge as it were, a challenge to think about what we really want from the people we give our allegiance to and put into leadership positions.
What we want from our leaders speaks volumes about what we want our community and our societal relationships to embody.
All this is very topical give our recent local body elections. ‘There wasn’t much choice" you might have thought, ‘what can they do anyway?’. And maybe you are right. But without launching into a lecture on civics let me come back to my earlier point simply ask “what and how does this story turn our expectations upside down .... how does it challenge our commonsense?”
We usually look for leaders (those people we are willing to trust to make decisions on our behalf and who most probably think the way we do), who will choose what we would choose, prioritise the thing we prioritise. They are usually people who will ensure our lives trundle on with little change, with a minimum of disruption. If we are lucky our lives might even become even more comfortable by the decisions they make and the priorities they choose.
Jesus turned out to be quite disappointing the crowd on this score. Despite the ‘red carpet’ treatment of the week before, the same crowd seems to have had another think and found Jesus didn’t suit after all. Now they are calling for his blood.
As an incident report there are lots of details missing that could help us figure out what was really going on. For example who was the eavesdropper who heard this conversation? We could, and often do, perseverate on those kinds of details, but that, I venture to say is not the point of telling the story in the way it has come to us.
It seems to me this is a story about leadership; it is a challenge to us to think deeply about who we are prepared to follow. Jesus turned out to be a disruptive character, to be seen to follow him was to put yourself at risk.
Think for a moment about Peter’s denial and the behaviour of the other disciples! Jesus was about turning the status quo upside down.
In our time of history we are compelled to think deeply about these things:
all is not well for planet Earth,
nor for large groups of the world’s population,
nor for workers in our own society,
not even for our children and young people who live in one of the most at risk cultural climates in the world according to world health reports.
We have chosen leaders
who have prioritised capital growth over the health of the environment,
who have exacerbated the wealth gap within our societies, and
who have condemned many of our children to lives within deprived and violent situations.
Some of those leaders are us, either because we actively promote particular perspectives that lead in these directions or because we do nothing to voice an alternative or take an action to change the situation.
This is the time of year in the liturgical calendar for a stock take. To see how we have done in becoming who we want to be. To check the alignment of our vision for society with the heaven we pray will come on earth!
We need leaders today who can speak and act for a different way of shaping who we are, who dare to say “enough of all that, we are better that that, we want all our people to have the opportunity to flourish”.
We need leaders brave enough to disrupt the status quo, overturn what we have accepted as ‘common sense’, speak truth to power and rally the people to demand change.
Those of us who sit comfortably in our Sunday pews, who engage happily with our social-media and Facebook friends must exit our echo chambers and hear different voices. We need to listen to uncomfortable challenges and consider them. For me that often means ‘with my heart in my mouth’ because I know I don’t altogether understand. But I do know our world, as we have come to know it, must change.
As a ‘boomer’, even if only just, I know I must listen to young people like Greta Thunberg and GenZero here at home,
that I must listen to the young people who are working with the Living Wage Movement to increase the take home pay of our low paid workers even inviting the top-paid CEOs and similar to take a pay cut to make it possible.
I’m quite excited to be part of an emerging movement that aims to work across social organisations so that together we can bring the changes necessary to improve the lives of a swath of children and their families who are in difficulties of one kind or another. All these movements need leaders who do things differently and who make us uncomfortable because they will require change in our own lives.
Jesus was not a comfortable leader, not in his own time, and for those of us who still bother with him, not in ours. But in the stories about him and about those who have heard his vision and sort to follow him through the ages ( and I’m not talking about the institution of church here) we see hopefulness and love, we see compassion and freedom.
The faithful life I seek is one that accepts this, that acknowledges change is required of me and that demands I look for the leadership who will point the way. This faithful life also holds before me the possibilities of new ways of living that loiter on the edge of my imagination, along with the chance to be rescued from my own prejudices and myopic perspectives.
So I am wondering, today, where I stand. Am I prepared to stand with the criminal who glimpsed something of life in Jesus hanging on the cross beside him, or will I stand with Peter, the disciple who denied knowing him.
Where is the leadership we are prepared to follow into new life, into new ways of being in relationship with the earth and others who share community with us.
Can you imagine the type of leader you will follow in the new year who could perhaps take us closer to what we hope for? What leadership will you offer?