Proper 25A, Deuteronomy 34:1-12
St. Mark’s Cathedral, Salt Lake City, UT
What do we do about the death of Moammar Qaddafi? Will we pray for him? Can we commend him to the mercy of God? The fate of Osama bin Laden brought the same challenging questions. We are linked together, even in death. If our only response at the death of tyrants is rejoicing, we are losing our own souls. When Jesus answers the question about the greatest law, he answers, “love God with all your heart and mind and soul, and your neighbor as yourself.” That includes those neighbors whose deeds seem irredeemably evil, and those some call enemies, for God is equally their creator and ours.
Perhaps the more pragmatic question has to do with how we choose and acclaim leaders. Tyrants, despots, and dictators only come to power and remain in power because a significant group of people support them – they cannot act wholly alone. Nor can more benevolent leaders achieve substantive transformation unless they have some measure of public support.
What distinguishes the tyrant from a more godly leader?
Moses has led his people all through the wilderness of Sinai and up to the edge of the promised land. He’s climbed up to the top of Mount Nebo, and he can see that promised land across the river. He can probably smell it and taste its dust on the wind. But his leadership is at an end – he’s going to die there, with the goal in sight. Yet his work will continue, led by the one he’s set his eye and hand on, Joshua. Moses has listened and discerned well, and Joshua’s going to lead this fractious people across the Jordan to Jericho.
A significant part of leadership is about succession – who the next person in line will be, and how the system or community will find that person. The challenges in the countries of the Arab spring have a lot to do with the absence both of effective successors and systems that can choose an able leader. Many of the biblical leaders come into office as surprising choices – youngest sons, like David; outsiders like Rahab; outcasts like Matthew or the woman at the well. We believe that God is at work in the emergence of those leaders.
Paul’s letter is about his own leadership and how the Thessalonians might look for other leaders. He claims that his own leadership is based in having suffered and been mistreated, but that that hasn’t stopped him from sharing the good news. He hasn’t been deceitful, but instead, transparent, answering to God rather than those who want to silence him. He’s not out to get rich or put himself forward, rather he has been gentle – and humble, even though he doesn’t say so in so many words. That’s what the gentle nurse is – grounded, earthy, willing to deal with the messiness of human community and individuals. He’s there to love them, by his presence and willingness to join them in their distress. “You are so dear to us that we will share the gospel and our own selves.” That is what incarnation is all about.
Moses has joined his people in their confusion and messiness as well, in his complaining and uncertainty. I doubt there have ever been any truly effective and prophetic leaders who haven’t had doubts, who haven’t complained about the burden thrust on them. You’ll certainly find both doubt and burden in Martin Luther King – and Martin Luther, in Mother Theresa and Teresa of Avila.
What is it in us that permits or encourages dictators, or bigots, or petty tyrants? If they have gathered a following, they certainly have gifts of leadership. What do we find attractive about the likes of Joseph McCarthy, railing about the communist menace, or controlling cult leaders like Warren Jeffs? Often it’s their lack of doubt. In the face of such shining certainty, we are tempted to ignore our own doubt. We can stop the hard work of discernment, let go of the burden and lament, and just follow blindly. Even Jesus had his moments of doubt, for heaven’s sake! He changed his mind about who he was supposed to serve when he met the Syrophoenician woman, asking him to heal her daughter. He prayed for another option that night in Gethsemane. He cited the psalm of lament (Ps 22) as he hung on the cross, “my God, my God, why have you abandoned me?”
So who are we to think that any single human being, even the most divine one we know, can escape that kind of doubt? Leadership is about muddling along with enthusiasm, as a friend of mine says 1. The life of faith is about leadership, and we’re all supposed to be leading somewhere in our lives. That is really what the “go in peace, to love and serve the Lord” at the end of this service is about. How are you going to go out there and change the world? We haven’t yet arrived at the fullness of the reign of God, we haven’t yet crossed all the way into the promised land. There’s still work to do, and that work needs us all, holding up the vision, like Moses lifting his arms at the Red Sea, to lead us through those troubled waters toward the beloved community we are all created for.
Tyrants and dictators have power because they take away creative doubt – but only because their followers give it up. We need leaders who will invite us to question and doubt – to think, rather than answer the fear-mongering by refusing to think. The fear that despots instill takes away our ability to think when it triggers that old fight or flight reaction, rooted in the most primitive part of our brain. Intense fear often means we stop thinking and reasoning. It can be helpful when we’re trying to get out of the way of a saber-toothed tiger or a snake, but some more thoughtful reflection would probably help avoid those predators in the first place.
What kind of leaders are we looking for? Will we elect or acclaim those who gather followers by preaching deprivation or exclusion for some? Are we going to follow somebody who sees the world as filled with enemies? Are we willing to consider leaders who can express honest and creative doubt? After all, there isn’t any room for God or God’s creativity when the future is dead certain.
That’s actually why we pray for the dead – because God’s future includes those who have gone before, even the tyrants, despots, murderers, and terrorists. If they have a future, then so do we, even if we don’t know exactly how or why or when.
You may not be 100 per cent certain about what God is asking of you, but go on out there anyway and change the world – by loving your neighbor as yourself. Take some others with you, and try. The willingness to risk (appropriately) is a sign of humble and authentic leadership. That’s what Paul is talking about, and it is what Jesus did.
Welcome the doubts and the burdens, and share them with those others around you. That’s the essential gift of this community – an incarnate reminder that God is still with us, wondering, suffering, and leading. We, too, are meant to wonder about how to find and bring the reign of God. We’re meant to suffer the agony between what is and what ought to be, and we’re meant to join this larger body and help lead into that transformation. That is the way to the promised land. That road has plenty of wandering and wondering, and it is filled with life, the abundant life that matters above all else.
Oscar Romero’s prayer speaks of that difference between the certainty of tyrants and leadership on Jesus’ road:
“It helps, now and then, to step back and take the long view.
This is what we are about.
We cannot do everything, and there’s a sense of liberation in realizing that.
We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between
We are workers, not the Master Builder; ministers, not messiahs.
Let’s go on out there and help lead the world into a future not our own.
1 Marcus Borg says this is what it means to be a Christian.