Gumbo & the Perks of Christian Leadership

Twenty-ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time

16 days left until the political ads on TV go away, and the political ads that come in the mail, and the snarky Facebook posts that tell you you’re an idiot if you don’t vote for their candidate. The presidential election cycle every four years, without prejudice to what happens in the intervening years, is without a doubt an essential component of our democratic way of life. And I like to compare the whole process to a simmering pot of gumbo, chicken and sausage the way I make it. I’m sure you’re tired of me talking about food. But many times, whenever people mention a memorable homily I’ve given, they often remember me talking about food. Either you’re paying more attention when I talk about food, or I talk about food a lot. Anyway, I haven’t made gumbo since Mardi Gras last February. And whether or not you can relate to the experience, you can imagine the process is always messy, always labor-intensive, always time-consuming, always requiring total focus or you burn the roux, always filled with anticipation for the final result, always satisfying when it is concluded, always tedious when the pots and pans have to be scrubbed, dried and put away. If we trust the framework that the founding fathers put in place, very much like an award-winning recipe that other nations have studied and tried to imitate, often resulting in a flattering tribute but nonetheless a second-rate version of the original; although after over 200 years there’s more than a slight chance this particular attempt won’t taste exactly like the very first one, and no one expects it to; we can be confident it’s still the same pot of gumbo, but adjusted for inflation, with a third less fat and sodium, slightly amended and improved for taste and appearance, but faithful to the original recipe. Now where was I going with that?

The image I had in mind is the simmering pot. As each ingredient is gently added to the mix, it initially sinks into the sauce. And as the whole pot begins to boil, everything in turn rises to the top, and then sinks to the bottom, simultaneously adding to and absorbing the flavorful goodness all around. After the pot’s been on the stove for some time, depending on what the cook was trying to do, much of the ingredients have melted into the stew or the sauce. The individual flavors although still discernible and distinct to the trained palate, have combined to produce an even richer flavor, greater than any of them could ever be by themselves. So in American society as among the family of God’s people which is the body of Christ, we intend to create from a variety of persons, values and ideas, each possessing their distinctive character and flavor, a unity that is greater than each of us can ever be individually. The founding fathers repeatedly refer to our society as a union, and our Christian faith repeatedly refers to us as the body of Christ, the people of God. And this is where the gumbo analogy break down. For this democratic union with diverse principles and tremendous potential to become a reality, for this body of Christian believers with rich traditions and divinely-inspired gifts to become a reality, we will need a few charismatic and effective leaders. It’s just that the way we identify our political leaders is often a messy and unnerving process.

The Al Smith Dinner for New York’s Catholic Charities this past week hosted by Cardinal Dolan was a pleasant break from the often contentious political discourse we have gotten accustomed to in the months leading up to the elections. It seemed everyone was tripping over themselves to be nice. But we know nice doesn’t win votes. Perhaps that’s because the perks of the position tend to bring out the worst in us. I compare it to shopping the day after Thanksgiving. It’s a bit of a stretch, but if you want something bad enough, you might be willing to do anything (and I mean anything), even compromise your moral principles, to acquire said merchandise. The discounted price is definitely the greatest factor, or you won’t mind shopping any other day. So the highest political office brings with it tremendous perks – automatic celebrity status at home and abroad, a bully pulpit, free board and lodging for four years, your own movie theatre, swimming pool, bowling alley, a bullet-proof limousine, helicopter and plane, the nation’s nuclear launch codes, a hefty security detail, and an enviable pension. It’s all far beyond the reach of the average citizen, but you only have the job for four years, eight if you can convince the American people to rehire you. It seems White House occupants age rapidly right before our eyes, but it’ll over before you know it.

But if the perks of political leadership are anything like what sacred scriptures outline for us today, would anyone still want the job? Jesus was very much aware of the leadership style of many religious and political leaders of his time. And clearly, he did not approve of what he saw. “It shall not be so among you.” Speaking to his disciples and to us, Jesus describes leadership the way he envisions it. “Whoever wishes to be great among you will be your servant; whoever wishes to be first among you will be the slave of all.” Like the Son of Man, you are here not to be served, but to serve, and to give your life as a ransom for many. And beyond telling us how we ought to practice leadership, he showed by his own example that he meant what he said.

Now, we can’t all be president of the United States. But we all are leaders in some capacity in our lives, as citizens of this great country, and as members of the body of Christ. We don’t need a title, an entourage, or a pension to be the kind of leader Jesus speaks of. Parents and grandparents by default are leaders of their families; and so are employers, pastors, teachers, mentors. Wherever we have the opportunity to affect other people for good, we are leaders. And we exercise leadership when we act responsibly on that realization. I love it when people visit the sacristy before mass to see if we need their help, if we have enough Eucharistic ministers, and lectors, and altar servers. That’s not something you can teach. It comes from their understanding of leadership as Jesus describes it, that it’s about being available to help out, and being joyful in their service, and inviting others to participate, and witnessing to God’s goodness that we are given to share. It can happen at home, at school and at work, when we go out of our way to do for others. If our leadership is less about our own ego, and more about service, and humility, and empowerment, and compassion, and respect, and inspiration, and listening, and collaboration, we would be doing what Jesus spoke about. In reality, all the leadership qualities Jesus calls us to might actually make the work of building up human society and the church even more messy, more labor-intensive, more time-consuming, more tedious. But human society and the church are at their best when we work together in unity, just the way I like my gumbo.