A Servant King

Rev. Dr. Loraine MacKenzie Shepherd, Westworth United Church, November 20, 2016

Jeremiah 23:1-6; Luke 1:68-79

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable to you, our God.

There it was again—that deep foreboding that something was terribly wrong. As I immersed myself in the tasks of the day, it would begin to dissipate and I would forget until something unconsciously triggered it and that knot in the pit of my stomach would make its presence known once more. Only when I tended to it each time, would I remember yet again the reason for my apprehension.

Thus did fear rule my day on Nov. 9, the day following the election in the U.S.

The words from our lectionary reading of Jeremiah are particularly poignant for this year’s Reign of Christ Sunday. The word, shepherd, was frequently used as a general term in the ancient Near East to denote a high-ranking leader. In Jeremiah’s case, he was referring to the recent kings of Judah. “Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture!” In an earlier passage, Jeremiah lambasts the kings of Judah for focusing on their own dishonest gain, ignoring the cause of the poor and needy, dividing the people, and practicing oppression and violence.

Jeremiah then pointed to the future, promising a new shepherd who would come from the line of David. This new leader would bring people together and they would trust the leader to make decisions justly and wisely. The people would no longer live in fear, nor in dismay. None of them would be left out or sent away again. This was Jeremiah’s vision for a new political leader.

Jeremiah prophesied that this new shepherd would usher in a new era of peace and justice, in the manner and lineage of King David. The irony is that David’s personal life was far from the epitome of justice. He was a womanizer, a sexual predator, and a murderer, who went to great lengths, at other’s expense, to get what he wanted and to cover it up. His breakthrough came with his humble confession and contrition. Only then, was God able to rule justly and peacefully through him.

And so–maybe there’s hope yet. We can pray for humility and wisdom, for the marginalized not to be sent away, for women and men of all races and religions to be accorded human dignity and respect. This can be our prayer for the U. S. as well as other countries, including our own.

When this passage from Jeremiah is read on the Reign of Christ Sunday, it takes on additional meaning. Jeremiah prophesied the coming of a Messiah whom we Christians name as Jesus. His reign topples carefully inscribed powers, sets prisoners free and raises children to the top. Perhaps that’s why the United Church has put Children’s Sunday on the same day as the Reign of Christ.

Christ Jesus embodied a very different kind of leadership that demands servanthood and humility of all who seek to lead. It’s a type of servant leadership that we still have difficulty embracing. An anonymous advent hymn offers us a graceful portrayal of Christ as servant king:

Thou shalt know him when he comes,

Not by any din of drums,
Nor his manners, nor his airs,
Nor by any thing he wears.

 

Thou shalt know him when he comes,
Not by crown or by gown,
But his coming known shall be,
By the holy harmony
Which his coming makes in thee.

Thou shalt know him when he comes.[1]

 

It is power-emptying of himself to the point of death; it is power-giving to those without much; it is power-taking from those with much to lose.

What does it mean to follow a crucified leader? That’s when it gets personal. For me, it means, in part, to look very closely at the power I do have and ask myself some very difficult questions: How did I get this power? Whose interest am I serving? To whom am I accountable?

Abuse of power frequently happens when people are unaware of the power they have. When I ask students to name the power they have, most believe that they don’t have much power. They are quick to name the areas where they are particularly powerless, but it is much more difficult for them to name areas where they do have power.

We all have power of varying degrees. It comes with position or relationship, such as a parent, a business person, a professional. It comes with identity, such as race, language of origin, ability, gender. It comes with an outgoing, confident personality. It comes with memory and experience. It comes with education and income. Are we able to name the types of power that we each have?

Awareness of our own power will help us realize when we abdicate power. Do you abdicate power to experts when you feel inadequate? To complainers, when you attend to something only to desperately silence the squeaky wheel? To bullies, when you begin to give in or do anything to avoid them?

Once we become aware of the power we do have, we can be more intentional about both keeping and giving away power, about empowering others and about challenging those who abuse their power.

We are accountable to one another, to the least of those in our community, to the crucified Christ, who asked us to take up our cross to follow him. Following Jesus does require some self-sacrifice. Minimally, it requires an ability to look beyond our own interests to the welfare of others. It attends to the cracks in our society and to the people who fall through those cracks.

Cracks in our carefully constructed lives may be devastating; they may also help us to see the possibilities of new life sprouting up through the cracks. As Prof. Karoline Lewis wrote, we are called to “look for the crack, as small as it might be…that crack in the glass ceiling…that crack in the walls built…that crack in the phobias that deny civil rights”[2]…that crack in the earth crying out for healing.

Leonard Cohen reminds us “there is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.” —the light that helps us see both the injustices and the signs of hope. In his song, Hallelujah, he writes, “There’s a blaze of light in every word…the holy or the broken Hallelujah.

No matter how much power we have, no matter how confident we are, we all stand humbled before the crucified one. We become aware of our own cracks and deficiencies; we stand side by side those who have fallen through the cracks of our society, each of us offering our own broken Hallelujahs. It is then that we become aware of the light of Christ shining through the cracks in our own lives and lifting us up.

As Zechariah concludes in his song, “By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”[3]

[1] Printed in Martha Sterne, “Jeremiah 23:1-6: Homiletical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word ed. David Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, Year C, Vol 4 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010): 319.

[2] Karoline Lewis http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=4754

[3] Luke 1:78-79.