Today may we look for leadership in an unexpected place. In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Where is it that we look for leadership today? Perhaps in the White House or the Governor’s mansion, perhaps in the corporate boardroom or the university president’s office. These and other places are where we look for leadership.
When good leadership happens, then the entire community benefits. We realize once again that we share a common lot, and that if one suffers, everyone is the worse for it.
When leadership is poor or non-existent, then everybody suffers. The vulnerable and the powerless suffer more than the rest, but the entire social fabric is adversely effected.
Today I invite us to look in a different direction for leadership. This direction can transform not only what happens in the White House, the Governor’s mansion, and every other high office where we look for leadership, but it can also transform the leadership each of us offers, however plainly and simply, in our community, our church, our family. Let us look for leadership on the cross; let us listen to the one who speaks there.
Today is the final Sunday of the church year, the twenty-sixth [in 2007] and last Sunday after Pentecost. This day has another name: Christ the King. Today, before the church year ends, we recognize the kingship of Jesus. We look not only to Christ who reigns forever in heaven; we look also to Christ the king at Calvary. We look for leadership on the cross, and we find it there.
In Luke’s version of the Passion story, Jesus speaks three times from the cross. (Today’s Gospel, Luke 23:33-43, includes only the first and second of these three words from the cross.)
• First, he speaks to his Father about the people who put him there.
• Second, he promises paradise to the thief who acknowledges him as king.
• Then with his last breath, he places himself into his Father’s hands.
We look to the cross for leadership, and we are not disappointed. These three brief sentences from Jesus constitute a course in leadership of a kind all too rare. They constitute an example worthy of a king, yet one that anybody can follow. Let’s consider each sentence in turn.
Justice is miscarried, Jesus is beaten and condemned, he is taken to a place of execution, and his hands and feet are nailed to the wood. The cross is raised, and he is left to die a death of shame before all the world, a death that is slow, excruciating torture.
Under similar circumstances some people lash out in defiance, others are paralyzed by pain, broken by their torture. Jesus chooses a different alternative, a regal one, that shows his cross is not a trap, but a throne. He forgives those who are mocking him, shaming him, killing him. They condemn him by word and action; he prays for them: “Father, forgive them; they don’t know what they are doing.” He excuses their ignorance—their hardness of heart, their thirst for blood, the moral blindness which allows them to put to death the author of life.
Why does he do this? Because he sees them for who they truly are. Not powerful people, but people weak, ignorant, blind, and fearful. In the midst of his execution, he recognizes how miserable are their circumstances. At the same time, he declares them redeemable. God can forgive them. God can open their eyes. God can start them on a different road.
There is leadership in this, because leadership means, even in the darkest moment, seeing past how things appear and recognizing how they can be.
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The cross of Jesus stands between the crosses of two criminals. One criminal rails against Jesus, demanding that he save the three of them. The other criminal rebukes the first, recognizing that Jesus is innocent. This criminal—tradition calls him Dismas—even sees his crucified neighbor as the king. Near to death, he makes a bold request: “Lord, remember me when you come into your Kingdom.” To this Jesus responds, “Today you will be with me in Paradise.”
Jesus is a leader, but he is not a bureaucrat. He sets no obstacles in the way of someone who has so little time. What he does is seize an opportunity. Other opportunities would require different strategies, but the vultures are circling Calvary, and soon both Dismas and Jesus will be dead men. What motivates Dismas? We do not know, and Jesus does not ask. He’s willing to take the criminal at his word and meet him again on the other side, in paradise.
There is leadership in this, because leadership means a willingness to risk, to seize an opportunity when the time is right, to believe people are better than their failures.
Jesus gets out only one more sentence before he expires on the cross and ends up as dead as anyone in a drawer at a city morgue. He dies having just uttered a prayer, a prayer that sums up his life and begins to make sense of his death: “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!”
Here Jesus quotes a verse from Psalm 31 that goes on to say, “for you have redeemed me, O Lord, O God of truth.” (Psalm 31:5b in The Psalter of The Book of Common Prayer. This verse may be numbered differently in other translations.) Thus his prayer is not desperate. It is not a clinging to God just in case God exists. This prayer is a declaration of faith, even a shout of triumph. Jesus has done what he came to do; now it’s time for him to go home.
The world of the Passion story is a world of cruelty and chaos. Dignity and life are priced very cheap; there is no true justice to be had from human courts or authority. But in this chaotic, cruel world, Jesus remains a steady center. He walks the course that is his, from the crowds’ adulation on Palm Sunday to the scorn he encounters on Calvary. Jesus remains a steady center, a true king, because he knows his own center, the Father who dwells in majesty. Jesus knows that not only he, but the whole world, is somehow in the Father’s hands.
There is leadership in this, because leadership means commitment to the center which is not yours only, but the center of every person and every place, the one Jesus prays to as Father.
There is lots of leadership in the world. Some of it is toxic, unsafe at any speed. Some of it maintains things much as they are. But some of it changes this old world for the better.
There is a huge, unending need for true leadership in the world. Some positions have impressive titles, offices, budgets, expense accounts. Others, no less important, depend more on face-to-face relationships, and the titles are less obvious: mother, teacher, supervisor, friend.
There are plenty of people who take a crack at teaching leadership. Numerous titles on this topic are available in any large bookstore, and probably there’s something to learn from every one of them.
But what we learn from the cross is simple, and continually challenging, and of immense importance.
“Father, forgive them,
for they don’t know what they are doing.”
Leadership means, even in the darkest moment, seeing past how things appear and recognizing how they are.
“Today you will be with me in Paradise.”
Leadership means a willingness to risk, to seize an opportunity when the time is right, to believe people are better than their failures.
“Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!”
Leadership means commitment to the center which is not yours only, but the center of every person and every place, the one Jesus prays to as Father.
Leadership from the cross. This approach may not make you popular. It may even get you in trouble. But it will not be toxic leadership, it will not prove ineffectual, it will not merely make things a little better. Eventually, after three days or longer, this leadership will produce resurrection, new life, a world reborn.
I have spoken to you in the name of the One whose leadership is manifest on the cross for all of us to see: the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Scripture quotations from the World English Bible.
Copyright for this sermon 2007, The Rev. Charles Hoffacker. Used by permission. Fr. Hoffacker is an Episcopal priest and the author of “A Matter of Life and Death: Preaching at Funerals,” (Cowley Publications).