Highlights from this Sunday’s worship audio recording include the Sine Nomine’s Zulu Choral Introit We Sing Praise, O God accompanied by Chris Vandal on percussion at around 4:30 and their jazz anthem Listen at around 11:30, John Dugard’s entertaining and encouraging words on leadership and serving as a Deacon at 14:15, and the Come Thou Font offertory by Jack Lentz and the Chancel Choir at minute 53. And of course, the sermon Leading Together by John Lentz at minute 29.
Remember Marilyn Gifford? Many of you who joined this church 15 years ago did so because Marilyn Gifford stood at the Fellowship Hall entrance every Sunday and said “Good morning!” to you. And now Dene Young “womans” that post. How would we eat if Morag took her gift and left? Or if Nancy, Chuck, Dick, and Elspeth didn’t count the collection money?
I want to thank Roger Heineman and his merry band of ushers. Every Sunday they stand at the doorway and hand out bulletins. And by thanking the Ushers I remember Ralph Dise, Sr. who always wanted me to thank the Ushers – I’m finally am getting around to it!
We wouldn’t be a church – certainly not a Presbyterian one – if we didn’t have Elders and Deacons, Trustees, elected leaders – busy people who give of their time so that we could be a church here – not a top down organization but a bottom up collective of people offering their gifts in the service of God.
The theme of this morning’s worship is leadership – and it is very timely not only for us and for our nation, but in line with what was happening in the early church with the first disciples.
Third Sunday of Easter. Getting back into the flow of a kind of normalcy. The disciples are beginning to figure out what they need to do to go forward. They have moved through fear, amazement and doubt and they are getting ready for the next act so to speak.
They are beginning to figure out what being a Jesus follower is really going to mean. Leaders are beginning to rise up, and we see that Peter is clearly a leader in the early stages. Soon the disciples will replace Judas. We know that James, the brother of Jesus, becomes a leader too. The so-called “beloved” disciple is in the wings. Of course, the Mary’s and Salome and the women who have always been at the core of the disciples are also assuming positions of leadership.
In short the church is coming together.
From the scriptures there seem to be two main characteristics of leadership in the early church.
The first is shaped by this wonderful vision of collective responsibility: everybody has a part. St. Paul used the metaphor of the body. God has given gifts to everyone. No one is more important than anyone else, no gift is more important than any other. Paul writes, “the eye cannot say to the hand I don’t need you.”
This is a very empowering thought to me. God has given gifts to each of you to be used for the church and the world – there’s no hiding your light under a bushel.
In November we talk about the stewardship of money – a supremely important spiritual disciple. As you grow in faith you grow in generosity. Deeply spiritual people are the most generous. But we do not talk enough about the stewardship of talents and time, which are equally important as the stewardship of your treasures.
And just as talk about money makes us self-conscious, so too does the conversation about how we spend our time and talents.
We often belittle the power of the gifts God has given to each of us.
“I am not good enough.”
“You don’t want me.”
“I don’t compare to her, or him, or them.”
“I don’t have any gifts!”
These are the same tape-recorded messages that have been repeating in our inner ear for decades.
At a leadership workshop, of all places, an extraordinarily smart, gifted person kept saying that she didn’t have any gifts. So, the rest of the group started naming what they knew about her. And still she dismissed it.
This is why the first of our missional proclamations at Forest Hill Church is that we want you to discover the gifts that God has given you. No denial! Jesus wants you liberated and powerful.
If you are a visitor, or someone who’s thinking of joining Forest Hill, you need to realize what kind of community you are becoming a part of. I’m going to ask everyone who is or has been a leader at Forest Hill Church to stand: Elders, Deacons, Trustees, teachers, choir, ushers, greeters, office volunteers, volunteers at Labre, Pantry, GCC, Habitat, nursery. Wow! This is a church of leaders!
Of course, it’s true, and we respect, that at some stages of life it is harder or even impossible to do anything but show up on Sundays. (And that can be hard enough.) Don’t think you’re not witnessing to faith in your homes, or at practice, or at work, or as a parent. Because it’s your life outside these walls that matters most! As St. Francis once said: “Preach the gospel always. Use words only when necessary!” So, don’t belittle yourself or belabor your business – do the work of Christ wherever you are!
And it’s also true that age takes it toll and you can’t come out for night meetings or physically you do what you used to do. But there are gifts of prayer and encouragement, and hospitality and counsel. I won’t name names because I don’t want to embarrass anyone, but as I get older I cast my gaze in particular on a certain gentleman that I admire and I want to be like him as I age.
Our culture tends to envision leadership as a top down hierarchy and so we call some “Senior Pastors” and limit the power to a few.
But Jesus lifts up a counter vision: not a top-down hierarchy but a bottom-up communal engagement where everyone counts, and no one is left out.
And the church, when it is working most faithfully, is supporting people to dream dreams and make them realities: equipping the saints for ministry, equipping you with the skills of discernment, and prayer and a love of the bible and a willingness to serve.
If the first gift that Jesus gave to his church was a collective vision of giftedness the second gift was the model of “servant leadership.” And this is vitally important in today’s culture.
I will never forget when I was asked to be a judge of the Winchester Star high school essay competition on leadership.
This one kid claimed that Adolf Hitler was the greatest leader of the 20th century. I asked him, “Why?” He said: “Hitler had control. People did what he told them to do.”
The young man was expressing what is pretty common: a leader is a “charismatic” figure, usually male, who gets you to do what he wants you to do. And of course, there are good “charismatic” figures that command respect.
But Jesus, as Jesus always did and always does, kind of overturns the tables of our expectations. He said the mark of a true leader is being a servant: washing feet, feeding sheep, finding lambs, walking among the poor and hungry, being with the imprisoned and the homeless, sitting with the sick and the dying, showing hospitality, and using our gifts to equip others. In other words, sharing power and giving things away.
It was this genius of servant leadership that propelled the early church into the Greco-Roman world: women, slaves, and outcasts became preachers, teachers, saints, and martyrs – showing us the way through sacrificial acts of living.
Henri Nouwen, a teacher and mentor to both Lois and me, writes: “In many ways Jesus makes it clear that ministry is a communal and mutual experience grounded in the conviction that Jesus is Lord,” not us.
He said: “As Jesus ministers, so he wants us to minister. Jesus wants Peter to feed his sheep and care for them, not as “professionals” who know their clients’ problems and take care of them, but as vulnerable brothers and sisters who know and are known, who care and are cared for, who forgive and are being forgiven, who love and are being loved.”
We are to lay down our life for one another. Nouwen asks: “How can anyone lay down his or her life for those with whom she or he is not even allowed to enter into a deep personal relationship? Laying down your life means making your own faith and doubt, hope and despair, joy and sadness, courage and fear available to others as a way of getting in touch with the Lord of life.”
You and I are sinful, broken, vulnerable, and we need as much care as anyone we care for. Nouwen says: “The mystery of ministry is that we have been chosen to make our own limited and very conditional love the gateway for the unlimited and unconditional love of God.”
Robert Greenleaf calls this being a “vulnerable servant” and I dare say that in today’s world Jesus is calling you and me to a whole new type of leadership – not modeled on the power games of the world, but on the servant-leader Jesus, who came to give his life for the salvation of many. Not for the amassing of personal gain, but of sharing the resources and calling all to claim their own belovedness.
So, I want you to think about what gifts God has given you and how you can use them for the upbuilding of the community. Elder, Deacon, Trustee? Teacher, Usher, advocate, organizer, greeter, youth group leader, prayer warrior, cook, server? We need you! And you may find yourself liberated by service, empowered by sharing, breaking out of the shell and discovering a new source of spirit.
Leading together, we share the gifts and serve one another and welcome one and all. Today our country and our world need you to follow Jesus and be a servant leader more so than ever!