On 4 July 1776 at the Second Continental Congress convened at the Pennsylvania State House in Philadelphia, the 13 American colonies declared independence from the British Empire, its monarch King George III, and Parliament. After more than a decade of deteriorating relations, and more than a year of open hostilities, our leaders were increasingly convinced Parliament no longer adequately represented their interests. The colonies had lost faith in their leaders across the sea, repulsed by what the crown had come to represent. Our founding fathers believed representative democracy would give our citizens better access to justice, prosperity, and opportunity. They devised a system of government after that in Ancient Greece so that the power of governance would no longer be passed on by birth into a ruling class, but that the service of leadership would be exercised on behalf of the governed.
Born of anger and frustration at a vision of leadership that seemed blatantly unresponsive to their very real needs, our leaders determined to throw off the heavy yoke of tyranny. They recognized that people have a God-given right to choose who would serve as their leaders, to represent their interests, to work on their behalf, and ensure their safety and security. This drew a striking contrast to how the rich and powerful in society had selfishly managed to amass even more riches and power while those given to their care fell farther and farther into poverty and hopelessness. Theirs would not be a perfect system however. Even they recognized this. And with each generation of citizens and the leaders we elect, the American experiment moves haltingly onward toward that perfect union for as long as we call forward the best of ourselves. Other peoples and their systems of government may have been around longer than us, but we believe the principles we choose by which to govern ourselves are meant to benefit and protect the governed and not primarily the leaders. That was one of the major flaws that the war of independence was meant to correct.
But time and again, the rich and powerful have risen to roles of leadership. Some have done well deserving and keeping the faith of their constituents. But there is never any guarantee that our leaders will always choose to walk the straight and narrow. And for as long as we choose leaders who see their role of leadership as a noble service, and will fight for and uphold the common good, we can have some assurance that they will be working for those who gave them that honor. And with the opportunity to return to the ballot box at regular intervals, the damage inflicted by unprincipled leaders will be short-lived, and we can return once again to our pursuit of a more perfect union.
David was king of the southern kingdom of Judah for 7 years before the northern tribes approached him. They were not choosing him to be their king through a process of democratic elections, but they did make an agreement with him. They asked him to take up the service of leadership because they believed he was a true shepherd after God’s own heart. David was not perfect. He had his faults. But they knew he was aware that his top priority and role above all was that he would be a shepherd and a servant.
When we consider the role of leadership, we don’t automatically think of it as a service. More often than not, we hold it up as a great privilege and a great honor. But leaders will agree the role comes with some perks. And yet it is truly more than just a job. The service of leadership is first and foremost a vocation, a calling, that as it was with David, it is more about being a shepherd and a servant.
Today we honor Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe. Now there’s a title to end all titles. For what greater privilege and honor is there than that of King of the Universe? Even titles that sound like it give the impression they can measure up to it. But they really can’t. The World Cup? The World Series Champions? Secretary General of the United Nations? Miss Universe? President of the United Federation of Planets? It’s a Star Trek thing; I just discovered. And whatever glorious image crosses our minds when we stop to think of these positions of great privilege and honor, whether real or fictitious, stands in direct opposition to the image that the gospel offers us today.
We behold our glorious King of the Universe hanging on a cross between two thieves, naked, bruised, and bloodied, a far cry from the world of glitter and glamour that often accompanies the kind of leadership we have come to know. As shepherd and servant after God’s own heart, he offered the ultimate sacrifice of his very own life for the sheep of God’s flock. He brought about our adoption as God’s children, and the healing of our alienation one from another caused by our selfishness, our pride, our greed, our lust, and our jealousy. Throughout his short ministry among us, he often spoke of God the Father’s great compassion for his prodigal daughters and sons. He welcomed sinners and outcasts. He healed the broken, fed the hungry, and blessed the children. He was constantly inviting the proud-hearted, the self-righteous, and the arrogant to humbly acknowledge their own need for repentance. And with his last breath, instead of calling on the army of the heavenly host of angels to his defense, he promised a thief a place in paradise.
The model of leadership for those who follow in Jesus’ footsteps is primarily one of shepherd and servant. And it runs afoul of the kind of leadership that is celebrated and rewarded with wealth and fame and power by those who belong to this world. It’s quite telling that we can all generally agree about what makes a good leader. And yet good leaders are not so easy to find.
Two weeks ago, I was exhausted and cranky after celebrating three funerals back to back to back. I’m not complaining, just stating the facts. I embrace it as my vocation being sent as shepherd to God’s flock here at St. John. I admit that I am not always motivated to be shepherd and servant after God’s own heart. So when you catch me at a time like that, I beg your patience and forgiveness. The promise of a retirement plan that’s out of this world isn’t always so attractive and comforting. So this past week, I figured God would let me get off relatively easier. I thought I’d be able to accomplish everything I needed to accomplish, meet my deadlines, keep my cool, not disappoint anyone too badly. But several times I came to a much deeper understanding of what it means to be a shepherd and servant after God’s own heart. Being pastor of St. John the Evangelist Church in Waynesboro might bring a certain notoriety these days, but I can assure you, not the kind with riches and power and fame and glory that would make anyone want my job. It’s not anything like the cross Jesus is nailed to, close, but not.
Rolo B Castillo © 2019