(Romans 7, 15-25a; Matthew 11, 16-19 & 25-30)
“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 all be met by once 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 spouse and 2.4 children.
Part of our Gospel reading for today is concerned with the characteristics of leaders.
Jesus, in the passage from Matthew’s Gospel, is commenting on how the people of his time reacted to two very different leaders, John the Baptist and himself. Neither of them seemed to fit the current ideas of what a prophet should be like.
But Jesus 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 in 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.
St Paul wrote his letter to the Roman Christians to prepare for his first visit to them in person. He regarded himself as a leader of the Church, an apostle, one especially chosen by God to take the Gospel of Christ to the Gentiles. This letter sets out his understanding of that Gospel, and in particular of its relationship to the Torah, the Jewish Law.
Earlier in the letter, Paul talks about his understanding of the Law: how it had a good purpose, but yet seemed to tempt human beings to sin, because of the human tendency to want what is forbidden.
Then, in the passage we heard this morning, Paul gets personal, and talks about his own struggle to do what is right, and how he constantly fails. It’s a situation we all recognise from our own lives, isn’t it? It shows Paul admitting to very human failings, not claiming to be a perfect leader at all.
In the past year, we seem to have been constantly reading about or taking part in elections, in this country and elsewhere. The tendency nowadays seems to be to concentrate attention on those standing for office, their religion, looks, race and personal attributes, rather than on the policies they are putting forward. Each side seeks to discredit the leaders of the opposing parties, often dragging up incidents from the past, to show them as untrustworthy, or stupid. But, in view of some of the results, it doesn’t seem to be a very good way of influencing how people vote.
At this time of year, we also 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. In the Church of England, it’s the time when parishes receive their newly ordained deacons, curates who will be training with them for the following three years.
And because curates only tend to stay for three years nowadays, it’s also the time when we have to say farewell to those curates who have now been appointed as vicars of parishes of their own. And at this time the dioceses will be beginning to consult about the placement of deacons who will come in twelve month’s time.
All of these ordinations and appointments involve consultations and decisions about what sort of leaders churchgoers want nowadays. Different groups have different ideas!
Some will ask for a pastor, good at helping people with their problems; some for a person who can work with people from other Christian traditions and other world faiths. 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 also 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; or someone who can encourage people to dream dreams and explore new ways of ‘being church’.
Some people are looking for moral perfection in their religious leaders. But we are all fallible humans, and as Jesus said, and Paul admitted, “No-one is good but God alone”. Some people are looking for a leader who will give them 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 a leader who will give a moral lead, and condemn the sinful (usually those whose behaviour they disapprove of); but Jesus ate and drank with such people, and welcomed them into the company of his followers.
As our reading from Matthew indicates, it is impossible to find a leader who will please everyone!
The Revd. Colin Coward wrote in a recent blog that when he attended an ordination service, he found much of what was said about the role of the priest unhelpful and uncomfortable.
He said “The purpose of priestly ministry expressed in the ordination service is, among other objectives, to bring people to know Christ, to seek out the lost, to teach the truth and rebuke error, to pray, to lead worship, to preside at communion, and to maintain orthodoxy and tradition – to conform, control, and discipline.
In contrast, I think the role of a priest is to help people discover, in the words of my spiritual director, the God they already know. It is to help people discover within themselves the light of Christ, the unconditional, infinite, intimate love that is innate, infused into the heart and soul of every human being. Many seem to be unaware of the divine presence in their core, while others seem to have a natural affinity with their divine centre. The priestly role is to help people discover and nurture within themselves and their community Jesus’ most profound truth: that he has come that we may have life, life in all its fullness.”
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 humble and a person of peace. We need someone who sits light to authority, like Jesus, and who does not impose too many conditions on those who seek to come to God through the church.
And 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 priests and deacons, they will have their particular experience and training to offer to the church; but others, the lay members, will have experience and training which many of the clergy don’t have. In particular, they might not have 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 the other talents and skills which lay Christians offer.
Any new leader will need to 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 some who hear his words with a bunch 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 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.