Rev. Joel L. Tolbert
Easter Season, The New Normal, week 5 of 5
Preached May 17, 2020 for the 9:30am Virtual Worship
This Easter season, Caitlan and I have been sharing with you the New Testament letter titled 1st Peter. We’ve reflected on how much Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection changed Peter, from the old normal fisherman Peter that didn’t understand, resisted Jesus, denied Jesus, and hid in an upper room, to the NEW Peter of this letter.
Peter has reminded us we are reborn into the new normal of God’s coming kingdom. Peter has taught us, in Christ’s community, no one is elevated to power or privilege over others, but are equal to each other as servants to the community. Peter has called us all to live in unity, be compassionate and to dismantle unbalanced relationships and unjust systems. Peter has warned us not to go back to doing what we used to do, but to discipline ourselves, to go forward with love and hospitality for all, to serve one another, and to speak every word as if we are speaking with God’s own love and grace.
Today, Peter finishes the letter. Let’s listen again for the word of the Lord…
Scripture 1 Peter 5:1-11
5 Now as an elder myself and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as one who shares in the glory (about) to be revealed, I urge the elders among you 2 to tend the flock of God that is in your charge, directing them, not under obligation but willingly… as God would have you do it—not for sleazy (personal) gain but enthusiastically. 3 Do not lord it over those in your care, but be examples to the flock. 4 And when the great shepherd appears, you will win the crown of glory that never fades away.
5 In the same way, you who are newer must accept the authority of the elders. And all of you must clothe yourselves with humility in your dealings with one another, for “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.”
6 So Humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God, so that God may lift you up in due time. 7 Cast all your worry or fear on God, because God cares for you. 8 Discipline yourselves, keep alert. Like a roaring lion your adversary the tempter prowls around, looking for someone to devour. 9 Resist. Be steadfast in your faith, for you know that your brothers and sisters in all the world are undergoing the same kinds of suffering. 10 And after you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will restore, support, strengthen, and establish you. 11 To this God be all authority forever and ever. Amen.
(This is the word of the Lord… Thanks be to God!)
As a pastor, I tend to read lots of things about leadership, both from inside and outside the church’s point of view. A few year’s back, Forbes published an article outlining 10 qualities that make a great leader… they listed:
Honesty, Ability to delegate, Communication, Sense of humor, Confidence, Commitment, Positive attitude, Creativity, Intuition, and Ability to inspire.
A bit later, Forbe’s published another article laying out 12 ways to be a leader everyone wants to work with… they listed:
Service mentality, what they called Juice meaning guts, Experience, Personal attention, Openness, Space meaning trust of your team, Demands Excellence, Brings out the best in others, Passion, Fairness, Consistency, and Recruiting quality folk.
I didn’t like reading leadership articles anymore. I felt terrible. 22 traits needed to be a great leader that people want to work with? Who in the world can have all 22 of them? Not even Jesus!
That got me wondering, how would Jesus, the Great Shepherd, rate on these scales? Definitely honest. Great communicator. Had a sense of humor, and usually a positive impact on people, even if his attitude was a bit intense or even confrontational at times. Definitely inspired. He talked all the time about how great leaders are servants and paused to serve. Gave close personal attention to his team, and anyone around him in need. Decent recruiter of those that became his disciples, but surely he could have done better than Peter or Thomas or Judas. Jesus definitely demanded excellence, set the bar pretty high, which was intended to bring out the very best from his motley crew. Jesus was fair, passionate, consistent, and had the ability to delegate. After all, he commissioned us to go, teach, baptize, and remember him to the whole world.
This new Peter, as he is closing his letter to the church, mentions a leadership trait of Jesus’, but not 22 traits, just one, and the one Peter mentions isn’t on the list. Peter doesn’t mention Jesus’ inspirational sermons, or his creative solutions to problems, his fairness, passion, or his demand for excellence.
When Peter is closing his letter, and he wants to get the people of church back to the core of what pulled them together as a church of Jesus Christ, and what will continue to hold them together as they keep going forward as church, Peter doesn’t lift up the Christmas part of Jesus… the miraculous birth. Peter doesn’t mention the parables, the cool sayings Jesus created to challenge the status quo and bring about social change. Peter doesn’t remind them of the miraculous healings Jesus performed.
Peter does remind them of one key part of Jesus’ leadership, his suffering. “Now as an elder myself and a witness of the sufferings of Christ” “know that your brothers and sisters in all the world are undergoing the same kinds of suffering. And after you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace.. will restore, support, strengthen, and establish you.”
When Jesus led his flock toward the new normal, others made him suffer. The part Peter lifts up at the end of his letter to remind the church how they came together, and how they will stay together going forward, the part Peter believes gives all believers courage and strength to be true to the faith no matter what… is that we have witnessed Jesus’ suffering and now share in it.
Suffering is not on Forbes lists. Suffering is not our cultures’ idea of good leadership. We understand and accept leaders have to do hard things and have to push through resistance from people who can’t see or don’t believe their vision. All leaders face resistance as they move people toward something new. We might even be willing to say leadership is about overcoming those obstacles. That kind of frontier spirit is admired in our time and culture. But Peter lifts up the suffering Jesus felt as he led us toward the New Normal.
Jesus suffered because he lived and spoke and acted truth at all times, no matter how much others might not want to believe it or hear it. Lots of humanity mocked him, questioned him, ignored him, called him weak, didn’t understand, dismissed him, convinced authorities to arrest him, judge him, condemn him, torture him, and crucify him. He suffered. Yet, he remained faithful. He suffered all these things under human hands, and still loved us humans, his friends and his enemies enough to continue leading toward God’s kingdom despite the suffering. He never returned evil for evil, violence for violence. He stayed on path, faced and resisted temptations, submitted to death itself, and did these things not for personal glory, not just for a select few, but for all humanity.
That is the uniting factor of Jesus’ flock. That is what brings all Christians of all churches of all times and places together into one flock behind the Great Shepherd, the way he stayed true to the Good News of God’s coming kingdom despite suffering for doing so.
In our church, the leadership board is called the Session, and the congregation elects Ruling Elders to be on that Session with the Teaching Elders, the Pastors. Those Elders are called by God to have the courage to stay faithful and true to the path that builds God’s kingdom here. In their leadership toward the New Normal, Elders will be making sure we are taken care of. They will remind us to be hospitable to all, open to all, accessible to all. They will ask us to stay awake and alert to temptations, but not succumb to them. Your elders, these good elders do not say yes to being on Session to have power or glory but to serve.
I’ve only been with your Session a few times now, but I see in them their willingness to carry their responsibilities eagerly and enthusiastically, leading this church to become a growing house of worship and service for people of all races, ages, and stages of life.
Your Session or Elders met Tuesday night and discussed in some detail what church might look like for us when our Governor or local or health officials begin to allow what they are calling low, medium, or high-risk activities. Then on Wednesday, the Governor held a press release, saying the start of those changes could begin Friday at local discretion.
There are temptations everywhere… to gather in groups, to find some way to do worship in person, to get our mission efforts ramped back up, to invite our partners back in the building. I’m so proud of your Elders on Session. They wisely carefully looked at the facts and their flock. They are imagining how things might look when the risks become low enough. But as of today, your Elders decided we aren’t there yet.
Some of you might disagree and be ready to reopen. I and the rest of Session understand that feeling. We are missing doing and being church as well. Now, I ask you to follow your Elders on Session without making them suffer for their careful wise decisions. Have faith in them that they love this church and want it to open just as much as you. They care for the whole flock, and are planning and moving toward that day. We are all suffering, but it is not time in this community or this congregation to reopen yet.
Leadership like this takes faith, courage, compassion, and humility. It can feel like a lonely path. It can feel like no one is with you, and no one understands. That’s one of evil’s strongest tools, a sense of being isolated and alone. Help your elders know they are not alone. They are supported and trusted. And follow them, remembering suffering of this kind is only temporary. It doesn’t last forever. God will give us the support and strength we need. We will grow and become stronger and even more courageous and faithful for future challenges.
There are many brothers and sisters around the world who are serving, sacrificing, even suffering, trying to lead their communities safely with courage, faith, and humility. May all the world see we Christians are willing to suffer in the short term to continue moving all people toward the New Normal of health, wholeness, and joy for all God’s people.
To God be all glory and honor, now and forever. Amen.
Now, Blessing, laughter, and loving be yours, and may the love of a great God, who names you and holds you as the earth turns and the flowers grow be with you, this day, this night, this moment and forevermore.
Rev. Joel L. Tolbert Pastor, Presbyterian Church of Chestertown