Saturday, October 29, 2005

Stepping into the river

Something that’s always amazed me, when I see film footage or a photograph of a serving prime minister or president – is how much they seem to have aged over a few short years on the job.  Maybe it’s just that effect of not noticing somebody getting older until you compare them with a photo taken a few years ago – or is it that people in that position, with that much power and responsibility, and the enormously long hours – is it actually true that the cost of bearing that much weight of responsibility begins to show?

You have to wonder why anybody would want the job?  Just the amount of personal criticism – you’d need a thick skin!  We don’t really believe the claim that they do it out of altruism or a desire to serve – in fact, we Australians are often fairly cynical about people wanting to be leaders, we tend to think there’s something self-serving about it, that people are attracted by the prospects of power, a high-paid job, high status.  And I think we’re right, at least to the extent that there’s always a mixture of motives, some good reasons and some self-serving reasons for wanting to take on a position of leadership.  Ironically enough, whenever they do those surveys of how trustworthy people think various professions are, politicians always come somewhere down near the bottom.  Somewhere down near priests and journalists.  It seems the very professions that have historically commanded the most respect are the ones that now seem to attract the most suspicion.  And that, of course, has got a lot to do with the times we’ve discovered – all too often – politicians or priests abusing the trust that has been placed in them.  Certainly we’ve a long way from the days when wearing a dog-collar down the street meant that people would be extra polite.  And maybe that’s not such a bad thing!

In our gospel reading this morning, Jesus is criticising the scribes Pharisees for abusing their position - funnily enough, even though Jesus gets into the Pharisees his point of view is not too different from theirs on a lot of things, and here, it’s just after Jesus has taken the Pharisees’ side in an argument with the Sadducees.  So he’s not attacking them for being Pharisees, and he even affirms their teaching authority but he accuses them of hypocrisy – of not practising what they preach – of making life difficult for common folk by insisting on a more and more detailed observance of the Law.  And he says they make a show of religiousity rather than practicing real holiness, that they put their own status ahead of God’s status.  It’s a damning criticism, and one that makes me personally cringe – maybe for anybody in any position of leadership in the church, this episode makes us think again about ourselves – what about my motives?  Why, really, am I doing this?  Truth is, we’ve got mixed motives.  There’s always a tension between selfishness and selflessness, between humanness and holiness.  In a church made up of imperfect, broken human beings, there is always a kind of magnetic pull on the one hand towards self-serving hierarchies and privileges, and maintaining outward appearances.  All the pharisaic stuff.  But on the other hand there’s the irresistible experience of God’s grace, the undeniable phenomenon of human goodness.

Jesus understands this, and so does writer of Matthew’s gospel who – though he has the utmost respect for the Torah and of all the gospel writers Matthew is the one who is most concerned to show how Jesus fulfils the Scriptures – but Matthew has taken to heart Jesus’ summary of the Law that we spoke about last week – that absolutely everything else comes second after the command to love – if leadership is not based on love then it no longer points us towards the God of love – the only sort of leadership that matters in the church is leadership that’s based on love, which is the leadership of the person who sees him or herself as a servant.  And Matthew widens it out, because when it comes down to it, it’s not just a critique of Pharisees – or of priests – but a warning for all disciples because in God’s eyes we all have ‘L’ plates on – we’re here to help each other and to love and serve each other.

So leaders have to be servants.  And in the Old Testament reading this morning we see two more important points about the leadership of God’s people.  And the first one is this – that the whole purpose of leadership is to show that God is here with us, that God is faithfully undertaking the journey with us.

Now, today, the mantle of leadership has passed to Joshua – notice that just like the Pharisees, Joshua’s leadership is based on continuity with Moses – but this isn’t just about establishing a line of succession – when God promises to exalt Joshua – that’s not just for the heck of it, not just to give his reputation a boost, not even just so God’s plan will be fulfilled – but so that the people will know that God is with them – ‘as I was with Moses, so I will be with you’ – the whole purpose of Joshua – and the whole purpose of Moses before him – was to be a sort of signpost or a symbol of God’s presence with God’s people.  If you remember the story of the Exodus, that was the one thing that the people questioned, over and over – where’s God? – is God really with us? – even Moses has to be reminded along the way that God is really present (in Ex 33 where God reveals himself to Moses) – when it comes down to it, God’s faithfulness to them is more important than their fairly half-hearted faithfulness to God.

The whole point of this story about the people of Israel crossing the Jordan into the promised land – does it remind you of the crossing of the Red Sea? – the whole point is that there’s a connection between the setting out and the arriving – between the escape from Egypt and arriving in the land of promise – what it emphasises is that God has travelled with the people from start to finish – and in spite of the people’s grumbling and their disappointment and doubt, the promised end of the journey is already present in some way at the very beginning – because the God who we long for is with us the whole time.

So leadership in the people of God is like being a billboard that says, ‘God is here, God has always been here and will always be here with us’.  It seems a long time, doesn’t it, since the good old days of the church when we had an assured place in society, when pews were full and Sunday Schools were full – what went wrong?  When you listen to the empty chatter of consumerism and the hollow cult of individualism – the shallow New Age trinkets that pass for spirituality in our world it’s hard not to wonder, where is God in all this.  Is God really travelling with us?  But even as the church struggles to find ways of speaking above the noise and chatter of the modern world – this is what we need leadership for – to tell us that God is indeed in this place with us, that the future God has in store for us is already in some sense here – because God is making the journey with us.

But there’s something else this story is showing us, and it’s about leadership but not just leadership within the church but about the leadership of the church.  Just imagine the picture – that the priests pick up the ark, like a portable temple, and they carry it straight into the water – in to the river which is in flood – and the priests stand there keeping the floodwaters back until all the people have crossed.  It’s about being prepared to take the risk – about being steadfast, about taking the risk of actually believing in God in the middle of change and uncertainty – it’s about being prepared – maybe against our better judgement - to carry the precious objects of our faith into the middle of the river because that is where God has promised to meet us.  Scary.  This last year, I think I’ve asked you to take a few risks.  I’ve asked you to take the risk of new ways and times of worshipping, of new ways of reaching out into our community with the Open Door Café.  The under-age dance party, fairly scary in itself.  And there are going to be more risks.  We don’t know where these things will take us, it’s like stepping out into the middle of the river and hoping for the best.  But God is with us, and on the other side, we have on fairly good authority, is the good land that God has promised us.