Earlier this year, for his English course, my younger son, Samson, came home with a copy of Lord of the Flies. Apparently, even in 2020, they are still reading this classic in school. Of course, many of you will know the plot: a group of boys are stranded on an island, and at first, they try to maintain a semblance of civilization, guided by an optimistic leader named Ralph. But eventually fear of a mysterious beast and despair of ever being rescued leads the boys to shift allegiance to another, more aggressive leader named Jack, and their civilized selves fall apart into violence. Even Ralph, to his shame, succumbs. The book has many themes, but certainly whom we choose as leaders and how we respond to fear are two of them.
How appropriate a conversation for this time; when we are afraid of a beast at the door, when we most need wise, careful leaders to guide us through it. We clearly see the difference that leadership makes, just by comparing our country to our neighbors to the south. And we also see, with the protests around masks and the anti-vaccination movement how easy it is for society, under the right conditions, to drift away from reason and science. History has all kinds of examples of how society, even a civilized one, can drift into horror and savagery under the right charismatic leader. Indeed, we are wise to be wary of those we follow. Leadership matters. Perhaps, in these divided times, more than ever before.
Yet this is Christ the King Sunday, and so we might ask, how does our church’s charismatic leader measure up? We have the gospel to guide us, and our own understanding of its principles to show us the way. If we want to ask that infamous question “What Would Jesus Do?” we don’t need to look far. It is spelled out for us in this morning’s gospel with a list: how we treat each other and the kindness we show are what matter to Jesus. Jesus views leadership not as service to a higher power, but as love from that higher power guiding service. Leadership is about creating community, about building something. His idea of devotion was not self-serving, it was other-serving.
Yet, we can be forgiven for being as confused as the people in the gospel. Thank you, the King says, for giving me food when I was hungry, clothes when I was cold, healthcare when I was sick, and company when I was alone. But when, they ask, when did we do those things? And the King tells them: when you did it for someone else, you did it for me. Just as when you did not do those things, you also left me hungry, cold, sick and alone. What you do for others, you do for me, Jesus says.
It may seem simple, but it isn’t. So much of leadership is designed to make us look at someone, to look up to someone, A leader takes a stage above us and gives a good speech, and we applaud. We follow celebrities online, and buy the things they like, or care about the stuff they say. But Jesus breaks that all apart. For one thing, even though we refer to this as Reign of Christ Sunday, Jesus never wears royal robes, and the only crown placed on his head is made of thorns and meant to mock him. He sits in the crowd, not above it. If we follow, it is so that we may be sent out again. Indeed, leadership for Jesus is about empowering us to feed and care and clothe those who need it. We don’t look up, we look out.
But Jesus also understood that this kind of leadership is challenging. In truth, it makes us uneasy – it asks a lot of us. We have to take the gospel, own it, and use our own power to spread it. It is much easier to be told whom to like, and whom to hate, what’s wrong with society, and how to fix it – those answers are always oversimplifications, and usually the polar opposite of the gospel. Jesus teaches us that the world is complicated, that we must be keen thinkers, that the answers take time, and that leadership is not about forcing them on people but helping them find them for themselves. It is harder, yes, but the results are better.
The truth is, there are certain times when we are excellent at it: disaster strikes, and we are generous and giving. A pandemic comes, and we do our best to work together. But Jesus, in today’s gospel, is warning us of a kind of leadership that sneaks in when things are going okay – those acts of neglect and selfishness can change a society from civilization to savagery. A hungry person here, a sick person there – well, the world isn’t perfect. A bully on an island is allowed too much power and society falls apart. A toxic politician who foments fear, without challengers, and society is divided. The price of this neglect is steep.
But here’s the thing, Jesus understood he was asking a lot of us, that we needed to learn. He didn’t expect the disciples to be leaders from day one, off the fishing boat; he trained them. He never assumed that the crowd who came to hear him would be so enraptured by his origin story that this would be enough. He taught them to have faith in people at the Feeding of the Five Thousand, to be open to other opinions with the Woman at the Well, to see wisdom in strangers with the Good Samaritan, to forgive with the Prodigal Son. If this is not obvious to you, then think of it this way: in a deeply divided, hierarchical society, Jesus was teaching the polar opposite version of leadership. It just goes to show how hungry we are to hear it, and how much we want to practice it.
Next week Advent begins, and we might consider our Reverse Advent Calendar a lesson in the kind of leadership that Jesus is talking about. Instead of looking inside a box for something for us, we are giving something to someone else. Instead of serving self, we are serving others. This is how community rises out of conflict. As we prepare for Advent this week – getting out those Christmas lights we need so much this year – let’s take a minute to reflect on the leader whose coming we wait for, and where that leader would desire our attention. Is it up, at the distant stars? Is it in, toward ourselves? Or is it out and into the world?