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wild flowers inside old work boots, we are called to put ourselves in the shoes of others

Sermon by Rev. Joel Crouse

Fourth Sunday of Easter

April 21, 2024

Acts 4:5-12

1 John 3:16-24

John 10:11-18

For all the difficulty we seemingly have these days at incorporating the teachings of Jesus into society, Jesus as a leader is pretty hip. Forget what he said; let’s focus on what he did to get people to listen. You can go on the Internet and find out how Jesus was, in fact, the ideal CEO – among other things, you’ll learn that he remembered to say thank you. You could crack open a business book like The Leadership Wisdom of Jesus, and pore over chapters like “Cleanse Your Insides,” and “The Golden Rule and Beyond.” In Medium last year, Colin Shawger, MBA, wrote an essay with the headline: What Businessmen can learn from the Teachings of the Son of God. Those lessons include: ”Lead with Humility,” “Practice Empathy,” and “Set a Clear Vision.” In 2000, a Brigadier General in the U.S. Army penned a now famous essay on why Jesus would have been an effective military leader. There is even a complicated Venn diagram if you want to look it up. Key to the skills that Jesus had was that he trusted his team, talked to them straight, seemed like the kind of guy who enjoyed a good lunch, and got down in the trenches with the troops.

You don’t have to tell us: Jesus was one heck of a leader.

The thing is, whatever their agendas, all those writers are absolutely right. Jesus, born to a carpenter and a young mother, achieved something incredible in his 33 years on earth: in that short time, he managed to inspire people to see their society in a completely different way, and to create the foundation for a 2,000-year-old faith. That takes a special kind leadership, even if you do have the power of God behind you.

But what I would put to all those writers is the one question it often seems our leaders today forget to ask themselves: Why did Jesus want to lead in the first place?

Our gospel this morning may be our best – and our most comforting - description of how Jesus saw his role as our leader: the Good Shepherd. At this point in the gospel of John, Jesus has just healed a blind man, and he is now having to explain himself to the Pharisees, who refuse to believe that Jesus could have performed the miracle. To explain himself, Jesus uses the metaphor of the shepherd. He begins with a description of what he is not: he is not like the thief who sneaks in the back door to steal the sheep away; he is not like the stranger who is indifferent to the sheep. And he is not like the hired hand, who pretends to protect the sheep, but then abandons them when the wolves appear, or the work gets hard and his pay check doesn’t seem worth it.

“I am the good shepherd,” Jesus says. “The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” The good shepherd does what is required to keep the sheep safe; he thinks not of himself, but of the best interests of the sheep. The good shepherd is motivated by love and not by greed. He becomes a shepherd to serve.

This is what Jesus tells the Pharisees, who have already proven themselves to a different kind of leader. Instead of celebrating the blind man’s lucky turn, they have driven him out of the synagogue for naming Jesus as his healer; they have turned his parents against him by interrogating them until they fearfully abandoned their son to his exile. The Pharisees – these supposed spiritual leaders – proved that what they were really worried about was their own power; they were worse than the thief who makes no bones about his motives; they are worse even than the hired hand who accepts a pay check with no plans to fulfill the job. They set themselves up as the good shepherds – but their altruism came second to their own desires.

We speak a lot these days about how our leadership, in so many areas of life, is in a deficit. We seem to live among thieves and hired hands – CEOs that will take their bonuses and run, and politicians who will do what they have to to get elected next time. And our complaints, endured in a democracy, are rather mild: consider how many nations have put their hopes on a leader who promised to free the people, only to end up with a dictator corrupted by power who enslaved them.

In this, Jesus stands apart; for all his power, which was greater than any on earth, he never lost sight of his motivation – the salvation of his sheep. So it is not the methods of Jesus that should fill books; it is his motives.

But let’s not forget the other players in this parable: the sheep. The sheep have a choice: they can rebel against the shepherd, or they can follow him; they can go to the shepherd who lured them with treats or stay with the shepherd who stands with them when it rains. We can lament our leaders; but we also created them. The parents we like to critique today are the product of families past, and of the dictates of society. The celebrities we disdain grew out of our own obsessions with beauty and wealth. The politicians we bemoan are the result of apathy or self-interest.

Sigmund Freud once weighed in on the reasons why we choose the leaders that we do. Freud saw the terrible consequences of the wrong choice first hand: he lived in Vienna when the Nazis arrived and Hitler inspired the cosmopolitan citizens of that city to betray, without much resistance, their Jewish neighbors and friends. What Hitler did, Freud argued, was make it easy for people: he dictated one simple, restrictive code of behaviour, and then provided an outlet for any of the restless tension that might result: by allowing them to act any way they wished toward a second group of people. We know the result all too well.

But we are predisposed to make those bad choices over and over again, Freud proposed – that is, to seek leaders who “simplify the world to explain our suffering, then identify enemies to focus our energies.” A healthier society – and, ultimately a happier society, Freud argued, lives in the tension of argument and difference, constantly balancing wants and needs with a moral code.

And this, I think, is where Freud inadvertently provides a deeper assessment of the leadership of Jesus, than some pop psychology against micro-managing. Jesus never resolves those tensions for us. He does not make our lives easier, by pointing out an enemy for us; he points the finger back at ourselves and tells us to get over our own suffering and look to our neighbor, and to befriend our enemy. His simple code - to love one another – is the hardest one for us to follow. He is the good shepherd: he sets the example by loving the sheep before himself. But what he asks of the sheep, in turn, is to do the very same thing.

Remember this parable, wherever you are a leader – at home, in the community, at work, at church. You can read a book on how to delegate. You can take a course on how to give a witty speech. But what Jesus hoped to teach the Pharisees that day, and what he hopes to instill in each of us, is that none of the style matters, if your motivation is not to serve others; when our own desires get in the way, our leadership falters. We risk becoming shepherds merely so the sheep will fawn all over us. Lead to Serve. And Serve with Love. That’s the most important lesson on leadership from Jesus, the Good Shepherd.


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