“For John came neither eating and drinking, and they say ‘He has a demon’; and the Son of Man comes eating and drinking and they say, ’Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners’.”
Human beings find it very difficult to choose their leaders. At one time, of course, they had little say in the matter. The most powerful person got the job. But now, in our more democratic age, people can influence the choice, and are free to say what they do and don’t what. But this hasn’t made life any easier, because different people want different things from those who lead.
The tendency is to ask for too much, for qualities that can’t possibly be met by one person. I once heard an Archdeacon say that every parish who prepared a profile of the new vicar they wanted, asked for the Angel Gabriel, but with a wife and 2.4 children. I am sure Methodists churches look for similar things in their new ministers!
Our two readings today are both concerned with the characteristics of leaders.
The Zechariah passage comes from the time when the Jewish exiles had returned from Babylon, and were rebuilding the temple in Jerusalem. The royal line of David had disappeared – but there were still some people who hoped for a king of David’s house, who would lead them to military glory. Zechariah promises them a different kind of king – one who would triumph through negotiation and peacemaking; one who would end the need for arms and armies; one who would build community, and be a servant king, symbolized by the fact he would enter his capital on a donkey, not a war horse.
To some extent, the expectations of a king Messiah who would lead the Jewish nation to conventional victory persisted into New Testament times. But gradually other expectations were formed, fed by meditation on the Scriptures. As the Dead Sea Scrolls have shown us, there were hopes for a prophet Messiah and a priest Messiah, as well as a king Messiah.
Jesus, in the passage from Matthew’s Gospel, is redefining all those expectations. He claims to know the mind of God, not as God’s servant, but as closely as a child would know the mind of its parent. What God wants of us, he says, is that we should rely on God and rest on God; then we will find that the yoke of religion is light, not repressive, and will bring peace to our souls. Obeying God is not a matter of following a host of rules, but of being close to God and being true to what God made us to be.
At this time of year, we tend to be thinking quite a lot about our religious leaders. In both the Anglican and Methodist churches, ordinations take place around the end of June and the beginning of July; and for Methodist churches, July and August are the months when ministers move from one station to another, and when congregations may have to adjust to different styles of leadership. At the Methodist Conference, the new President and Vice-President take office, and the ones for a year’s time are elected. In the Anglican Diocese of St Albans, we will shortly be looking for a new Suffragan Bishop of Hertford, as the present holder of that office moves on to become Bishop of Liverpool.
All of these ordinations and changes involve consultations and decisions about what sort of leader churchgoers want nowadays. Different groups have different ideas!
Some ask for a pastor, some for someone who can work with people from other Christian traditions and other world faiths, and who can hold together groups with differing views. Some ask for a person who is good with youth, as numbers of young people attending our churches diminish. Others think it is important to have someone who can hold onto the older people we have got! People ask for someone who can inspire more realistic giving; or a pioneer minister, who can reach out to people who don’t find their spiritual needs met in conventional churches, who can encourage people to dream dreams and explore new ways of ‘being church’. Most ask for a person of prayer.
Some people are looking for moral perfection in their religious leaders. But we are all fallible humans, and as Jesus said “No-one is good but God alone”. Some people are looking for a leader who will give us all the answers; but Jesus rarely set down rules and regulations about beliefs or morality; more often he told a story and asked his listeners to draw their own conclusions. Some people are looking for someone who will give a moral lead, and condemn those whose behaviour they disapprove of; but Jesus ate and drank with such people, and welcomed them into the company of his followers. As the reading from Matthew shows, it is impossible to find a leader who will please everyone!
I want to suggest to you that the sort of leader that the church needs at the beginning of the 21st century is one who is, like the Messiah promised in Zechariah, humble and a person of peace. We need someone who sits light to authority, as Jesus describes himself as doing in the Gospel, and who does not impose too many conditions on those who seek to come to God through the institutional churches.
Our modern religious leaders no longer need to be people who do everything themselves. Rather, they need to be enablers and encouragers of others. As presbyters and deacons, bishops and superintendents, they will have their particular experience and training to offer to the church; but others, the lay members, will have experience and training which the clergy don’t have; in particular, the experience of living as a Christian in the world of work, and also perhaps, training in current management and personnel practices. A wise leader will value and make use of these, as well as other talents and skills, which lay Christians offer.
Any new leader will act as a focus for the local church where they serve, but he or she will be a focus in a church which is increasingly diverse. If they attempt to impose their own views on the church, whatever they may be, they will fail. I believe, that the primary task of any Christian leader nowadays will be to hold the church community together, and to teach its many factions how to live with disagreement, and how to talk through their differences without splitting the body.
In the passage from Matthew, Jesus compares those who hear his word with two different groups of children. One group he compares unfavourably with children who complain when they can’t get their own way, and refuse to play. There are groups in the church who all too frequently act like that.
Jesus compares others to children who accept whatever is offered to them with enthusiasm, their minds untrammelled by prejudice or convention. This group gains his approval.
All those in positions of Christian leadership will need our prayers, as they face the enormous responsibility and the enormous opportunities of leading each part of the church into the future. Let us pray that all Christian leaders will find, as our Lord promised, that God’s yoke is easy and his burden light.