PSALM 107:4-7, JOSUA 3:7, MATTHEW 23:8-12
Reflection for October 30, 2011
Reverend Marguerite Sheehan, First Parish of Northfield and the Unitarian Universalist Church of Winchendon
Psalm 107: 4-7 Some wandered in desert wastes, finding no way to an inhabited town; hungry and thirsty, their souls fainted within them. Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble, and he delivered them from their distress; he led them by a straight way, until they reached an inhabited town.
Joshua 3:7 The Lord said to Joshua, “This day I will begin to exalt you in the sight of all Israel, so that they may know that I will be with you as I was with Moses.”
Matthew 23: 8 -12 But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all students. And call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father—the one in heaven. Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah. The greatest among you will be your servant. All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.
Today’s readings are a help for me in focusing on the relationship between being a follower and being a leader, between being exalted and being humbled. In these post modern and incredibly trying economic times, when Christendom appears to be fading away at least in “mainline churches” and it is hard for church leaders to lead a tired people, I find myself wandering with my congregations, searching for a solid and inhabited meeting place. Our souls are faint within us and we are crying out for direction.
Perhaps this is the upside of troubled times. When those who have been seen as the leaders, whether in our churches, our governments, or our “wall streets” do not lift a finger to move the burdens from the people; the followers begin to question just who is in charge and who should be held in high regard. Joshua, the successor to Moses, is told directly by God that today he will be exalted, but not for his own glory and power but so that the people will know that he is not speaking on his own, but that God is with him, and by extension, with his followers. “For you have one teacher and you are all students.” The upside is that this is the time for us, the students of Jesus, to sit not so much on the Moses seat but on the mercy seat.
I recently saw a short video about leadership and followership. In the video a group of people are hanging out on a grassy lawn and suddenly someone starts doing an improvised dance. Someone sees the dancer and jumps up to join the “leader” in dancing. And then, in a few moments someone follows their lead and then another and, suddenly there is not just one person dancing, or even two people dancing, but as the video says, “There is a movement.” The most important person in this scenario is not the first person who decides to start dancing, but the second person who decides to follow. It is the follower who attracts followers, who then become a movement. The first dancer is exalted, not because she/he exalts themselves, but because their humble and wacky dance inspired one humble person to follow. In the best of all worlds, the first dancer is, like a Sufi Dancer, spinning in circles, dancing not alone, but with God, and that is something to join in on.
From my reading of the Gospel text I believe that if that first dancer gets distracted with the results of their “leadership,” the joy of followership will drop right off. So where do we, the 21 st century followers of Jesus do when we are called to lead congregations through the desert where even we are hungry and thirsty and faint? I believe that this is our time to just sit at the feet of the instructor, to be humble enough to say that we do not know how to dance these new dance moves, and to be willing enough to listen to the Caller. The downside of our time is that we have lost our standing as rabbis, or teachers, or instructors, or people who used to have the answers and at least some power. The upside is that we are getting a second chance to go to school. The lessons we have to learn in the 21 st Century are hard ones, but there is a curriculum for our times and we are invited to join in the class. When our worlds have gotten inhabitable, we are asked to trust that God will lead us, by the path, to a town where we can really live. Put away everything that is an impediment, and follow the leader.
Gracious and Merciful God, giver of second and third chances, we are ready now to sit at your feet and learn how to live in the desert. We have been blind guides, who now bow our heads and ask for your blessing. Thank you for your steadfast love, for your wonderful works for humankind, for satisfying our thirst, and filling us with good things. We depend on you and are ready to follow your lead.