A Sermon preached on June 12th, Pentecost IV at St. Augustine’s, Wiesbaden
2 Samuel 11: 26 – 12: 10, 13 – 15, Galatians 2: 15 – 21, Luke 7: 36 – 8: 3
Among other things, because we never do just one thing here on a Sunday, we are commemorating and celebrating the 90th birthday of HM Queen Elizabeth II today. We try and recognize other national holidays here too, but this year’s celebration is not just a national one. Across the world the Queen is respected and recognized for her long and faithful service, for her example as a leader. During our last Wednesday Bible Study, Andy referred to her as having truly honored a pact with the nation made before God.
QEII is not the first English or British reigning female monarch; she has had many predecessors, among them of course her namesake QEI. If John Knox, the leader of the Scottish Reformation had got his way, we would have no female leaders at all! One of his famous or perhaps infamous works was a pamphlet entitled: “The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women” published in 1558. It attacks female monarchs, arguing that rule by women – over church and state - is contrary to the Bible. Not surprisingly, this did not go down well with Elizabeth I when she succeeded to the throne shortly after the publication. And I think a case can be made, that without her strong personal opposition to Knox, the Church in England would have become a much more Presbyterian and Reformed denomination than the one we have inherited.
Knox was also clearly very selective in his Bible reading. The end of today’s Gospel passage from Luke (8:1-3) tells us that women, specifically Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Susanna, and many others accompanied Jesus, with the twelve, on his missionary journeys in Galilee, they were also disciples. In Luke’s narrative that means they were also his companions on the road to Jerusalem, participants at the Last Supper, heard the commission to preach the Gospel at Jesus’ Ascension and received the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. The Lutheran Church in Latvia, one of our partners as part of the Porvoo agreement between the Scandinvian and Baltic Lutheran, and European Anglican churches[E1] , has just voted to ban women’s ordination. That is a step in the wrong direction and has been rightly condemned by both Lutherans and Anglicans. Ironically – and proof of God’s sense of humor – the Anglican Chaplain in Latvia is a woman …. And not only that, but also a bishop consecrated in the Latvian Lutheran Church abroad!
But today’s readings, which were not chosen for the occasion of the Queen’s (official) birthday, they are the lectionary readings for Pentecost IV, do not just tell us that women can – and should – be leaders. They also have something to say about leadership as such and about God’s expectations in leaders.
Let’s start with King David, who more often than not seems to be a negative rather than a positive example. “But the thing that David had done displeased the Lord, and the Lord sent Nathan to David.” (2 Samuel 11:27) Nathan’s job, a very risky job, was to tell David where and why he had gone wrong. He uses a parable, rather than a direct indictment, as a means of doing so. One expectation of a good and godly leader is the ability and willingness to listen to criticism and advice coupled with the knowledge that he or she is not perfect and will go wrong and will need correction. Clearly, this is one important lesson that David had forgotten which is why Nathan uses this rather cute story about a beloved lamb.
Once David has fallen in to the trap and judged himself: “As the Lord lives, the man who has done this deserves to die … because he did this thing, and because he had no pity.” (2 Samuel 12:5-6) Nathan can be more direct. The second lesson is a lesson in humility. Everything David had, all his power and wealth, came from God. “I anointed you king over Israel, I rescued you from the hand of Saul; I gave you your master’s house, and I gave you the house of Israel and of Judah” says the Lord! (12:7-8) It is when leaders consider their leadership to be a right rather than a gift that they most often go wrong.
What God is also saying through Nathan is that power always comes with responsibility. Biblical kings were to be like shepherds – they were to care for those entrusted to them by God, they were to protect them – and not have them killed for their own selfish gain. As it turns out, for God a crime against God’s people, is a crime against God. Now we don’t like the penalty, and I would question whether God made David and Bathsheba’s son ill, and let him die, to punish David for his sin. Child mortality was high in those days and I see the connection more as a projection. But what we can be glad about is that God is not indifferent to how those who claim to rule in God’s name behaved and that sins are judged – but also, for David, forgiven.
In the passage from Luke’s Gospel we see Jesus too using a parable to call a leader short, in this case a religious leader. Simon is not a bad man. He is curious about Jesus, he invites him into his home, and he shows him normal hospitality. But he still doesn’t live up to God’s expectations of leaders.
For one thing he is self-righteous and judgmental “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him—that she is a sinner.” (Luke 7:39) He considers himself to be much better and as a good, law-abiding Pharisee virtually sinless. He is, like David, lacking in the humility we can and must expect in leaders, especially church ones. Jesus’ parable and explanation tell us why the woman was so grateful: she shows great love because she had received great love: “Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love.” (7:47) But both the parable and the explanation also say that Simon, the self-righteous religious leader is not without sin: “But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.” I would argue that in fact Simon’s was the greater sin because it was a sin against a fellow human and image of God.
The anonymous woman is held up not as a model sinner, but as a model for her faithfulness, her generosity, and for her service – in washing and anointing Jesus’s feet. Simon’s service was what could be expected; her service was beyond expectations. It reminds me of Jesus’s unexpected act of service and humility in John’s version of the Last Supper, when he washes and kisses the disciples’ feet. Not only does this little story illustrate aspects of Christian life and leadership, it is also a picture of the kingdom of God: full of exuberant generosity, surprising grace, yet meeting fierce opposition.
As we celebrate the life and service of one exemplary leader today, HM the Queen, let us reflect on these qualities of good leadership: being open to criticism, able to self-reflect, showing humility and respect, accepting responsibility for others, serving beyond expectations, showing generosity, and demonstrating faithfulness. You are all leaders in some way and in some area, so please make these expectations a template for your own behavior, as I do of mine – sure in the knowledge of God’s grace and forgiveness when (not if) we fall short of these expectations. But I also encourage you to us these expectations as a template when you select or elect leaders, and to be willing, like Nathan, to be prophetic, to call your leaders to account when they fall short and say or do what is evil in the sight of the Lord.