The fall of leaders and the lessons of shepherding

(Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24; Matthew 25:31-46) By Rev. Rick King—What a week! We’re witnessing members of Congress in both parties continue to wrestle with a tsunami of allegations of sexual harassment; the fall of Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe’s only leader in its history; and the conviction of General Ratko Mladic for war crimes and genocide. And that was all before Thanksgiving; who knows what the next week will bring?

One of the things the Christian year and the readings associated with it can give us is a lens through which to see the world, that helps us connect the dots and make sense of events, understanding and even drawing lessons from history, so we can avoid repeating the worst, and at least make different mistakes. And as a result, you and I can come to know better how to live in the midst of it, as people of faith, and agents for change.

Today is the last day of the Christian year—you might call it New Year’s Eve in the church calendar. Because next Sunday, we begin the season of Advent, and with it, a new year in the liturgical cycle. Like any New Year’s Eve, it gives us the chance to look back and take stock of the good and the bad, the victories and defeats, and all that lies in between. This is Reign of Christ Sunday, also called Christ the King, and as you might expect, the question of “Who’s in charge?” in the world is central—and it feels even more urgent when something happens like the terrorist bombing of the Sufi mosque in Egypt—as in the sense of somebody walking into a room during a crisis and yelling, “Who’s in charge here?!”

The book of Ezekiel was trying to help Israel make sense of what had happened to them and why. They were exiled in Babylon, their leaders under house arrest in Jerusalem, which had been destroyed and occupied, their temple was in ruins; and the rest of the population had been scattered throughout the region, refugees invaded by a foreign aggressor and kicked out of what was supposedly their God-given Promised Land.

In the face of what had happened, how were they supposed to live now, as exiles in a foreign land and not knowing if or when they would ever return?
I might be stretching just a little bit, but many of you have intimated that you, too, feel a bit exiled right now in a nation you thought you knew, but which has come to seem like a foreign land.

The prophetic tradition, of which Ezekiel is a part, has a particular take on leadership: “Kings will let you down.” Israel wanted kings, eventually, as a sign to all the other nations that they had “arrived,” as a legitimate world power: Assyria, Babylon, Israel. “Get us a king,” they would say to God; and the prophets would say, “You don’t want a king.” And the history that runs through 1 and 2 Samuel and 1 and 2 Kings in the Old Testament is a compare-and-contrast piece proving, over and over, that it’s not having an earthly king alone that makes you a legitimate nation, but whether that king places God at the center, and love of God and neighbor are your goals.

The good news, says Ezekiel, is that God is through with irresponsible leaders, and is taking over. “I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep…I will seek the lost, and bring back the strayed, and will bind up the injured, and strengthen the weak—but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice” (34:15-16).

Now, whether we can understand the recent fall of powerful leaders as God’s will or not, we can draw some lessons that help us live in the midst of it and not lose our perspective, and even be more effective agents for good in the lives of others, whether it’s our family members, or practicing just and kind covenant relations within our congregation, or advocating for systemic change in schools or the halls of government.

Ezekiel’s not the only place where God seems to take one look at what’s happening and says, “Okay, step aside; this is a mess; I’m taking over.” Jesus is doing it, too, in the vision of the Great Judgment, or what’s come to be called “the separation of the sheep and the goats.” And the message is simple, and one we often use as the measure of a faith, or a leader, or a government: “Whatever you did to the least of these my brothers and sisters, you did it to me.”

Right leadership leads as though it seeks God, seeks love in all things. M. Scott Peck tells a story called “The Rabbi’s Gift,” in his book, “The Different Drum,” that reminds us of the power of living this way:

The story concerns a monastery that had fallen upon hard times. It was once a great order, but because of persecution, all its branch houses were lost and there were only five monks left in the decaying house: the abbot and four others, all over seventy in age. Clearly it was a dying order.

In the deep woods surrounding the monastery there was a little hut that a rabbi occasionally used for a hermitage. The old monks had become a bit psychic, so they could always sense when the rabbi was in his hermitage. “The rabbi is in the woods, the rabbi is in the woods,” they would whisper. It occurred to the abbot that a visit to the rabbi might result in some advice to save his monastery.

The rabbi welcomed the abbot to his hut. But when the abbot explained his visit, the rabbi could only say, “I know how it is.”

“The spirit has gone out of the people. It is the same in my town. Almost no one comes to the synagogue anymore.” So, the old abbot and the old rabbi wept together. Then they read parts of the Torah and spoke of deep things. When the abbot had to leave, they embraced each other. “It has been wonderful that we should meet after all these years,” the abbot said, “but I have failed in my purpose for coming here. Is there nothing you can tell me that would help me save my dying order?”

“No, I am sorry,” the rabbi responded. “I have no advice to give. But, I can tell you that the Messiah is one of you.”

When the abbot returned to the monastery his fellow monks gathered around him to ask, “Well what did the rabbi say?”

“The rabbi said something very mysterious, something cryptic. He said that the Messiah is one of us. I don’t know what he meant.”

In the time that followed, the old monks pondered the rabbi’s words. The Messiah is one of us? Could he possibly have meant one of us monks? If so, which one? Do you suppose he meant the abbot? Yes, if he meant anyone, he probably meant Father Abbot. He has been our leader for more than a generation. On the other hand, he might have meant Brother Thomas. Certainly, Brother Thomas is a holy man. Everyone knows that Thomas is a man of light. Certainly, he could not have meant Brother Elred! Elred gets crotchety at times. But come to think of it, even though he is a thorn in people’s sides, when you look back on it, Elred is virtually always right. Often very right. Maybe the rabbi did mean Brother Elred. But surely not Brother Phillip. Phillip is so passive, a real nobody. But then, almost mysteriously, he has a gift for always being there when you need him. He just magically appears. Maybe Phillip is the Messiah.

Of course, the rabbi didn’t mean me. He couldn’t possibly have meant me. I’m just an ordinary person. Yet supposing he did? Suppose I am the Messiah? O God, not me. I couldn’t be that much for You, could I?

As they contemplated, the old monks began to treat each other with extraordinary respect on the chance that one among them might be the Messiah. And they began to treat themselves with extraordinary respect.

People still occasionally came to visit the monastery in its beautiful forest to picnic on its tiny lawn, to wander along some of its paths, even to meditate in the dilapidated chapel. As they did so, they sensed the aura of extraordinary respect that began to surround the five old monks and seemed to radiate out from them and permeate the atmosphere of the place. There was something strangely compelling about it. Hardly knowing why, they began to come back to the monastery to picnic, to play, to pray. They brought their friends to this special place. And their friends brought their friends.

Then some of the younger men who came to visit the monastery started to talk more and more with the old monks. After a while one asked if he could join them. Then another, and another. So, within a few years the monastery had once again become a thriving order and, thanks to the rabbi’s gift, a vibrant center of light and spirituality in the realm.

The Messiah is one of you.