Imagining Leadership

Image by Jonas Weckschmied on Unsplash; licensed under CC0.

Isaiah 11 (December 8) imagines several qualities of wise leadership: wisdom and understanding, council (or strategic thinking) and strength, knowledge and humility, equity for the poor, righteousness and faithfulness, and the curbing of violence. Psalm 72 (also December 8) likewise prays for the king’s justice and righteousness, particularly in relation to the poor.

Both passages invoke the natural world. In Psalm 72, the king resembles rain falling on mown grass, showers watering the earth—an earth whose verdure readers can almost smell—promoting growth and health. Isaiah describes a most impossible peace: natural predators living side by side with natural prey. Wolves leaving lambs alone; leopards beside baby goats, lions with calves, and poisonous snakes not even defending their nests against toddlers. If wise rule can be imagined instigating such an idealized animal scene, how much more could it foster peace among humans, who are prone to conflict but capable of coexistence?

Isaiah and the psalm share two assumptions with other passages in these two months—and indeed every month: 1) that the natural world’s multiplicity and abundance have much to teach us; and 2) that just leadership inspires just behaviors and values. When people see a leader as just, they feel safer promoting justice toward others. A leader who displays dignity and equanimity teaches by example, demonstrating what these qualities look like day by day, so that such common goods become common habits. Protection of outsiders, the poor, and creation itself becomes a shared project. The audacious idea that the world contains enough for everyone and everything promotes equal rights for the excluded.

Isaiah 11 does not describe a contemporary ruler. Rather, it expresses hope that someone, perhaps a future king, will promote a peace that eludes the prophet’s present. Psalm 72 likewise does not declare the current ruler righteous, but rather prays for righteousness, much as we pray week after week for our own leaders, no matter how decent or indecent we perceive them to be.

The fact that Isaiah and the psalmist could imagine good leadership when it seemed to be lacking should give us hope. Ordinary people are capable of envisioning and praying for something better than we have. We can even hold ourselves responsible to these values in the gaps. In fact, it is in the times of seeing the destructive results of poor leadership—rights abused, safeties removed, dignity disparaged—it’s during the saddest days that longing for justice crystallizes for those who want something different. When life seems more dangerous, we protect the vulnerable more carefully. When public words and actions coarsen, we watch our own language and deeds all the more. The greatest protections have even been birthed amid the most alarming realities.

Jesus lived during one of the darkest times his little country had known, during Roman occupation, during the reign of the proxy king Herod and his various heirs, who asserted power without piety, judgments without justice. Jesus kept reminding his followers that God’s reign was larger than Herod or even Caesar. God’s reign—the reality of divine justice despite all human failings—gave hope to Jewish peasants. God’s term of office wasn’t something to wait for in the future, in four years, or eight years, or another generation. God’s rule, Jesus said, is among you. It was here and now. It was available to live out every day in people’s own choices, in the neighborhoods and communities they built.

God’s reign is still here and now. During the dark days leading up to winter solstice, when plant life withers and sleeps, when the ground is hard and bare, this is when we abide in hope, in the belief that among us God’s reign is still sending taproots deep into our soil, breaking stony ground, drawing nourishment from the deeps, preparing to greet the spring with forbs and trees to feed all with the fruits of righteous justice. May we, like Isaiah, like Jesus, envision peace on earth, and persist for it undaunted.

November 3, 2019: Ordinary 31C

  • Habakkuk 1:1-4, 2:1-4 (semi-continuous) and Isaiah 1:10-18 (complementary) both lament the perversion of justice that allows the strong to prey upon the weak. Habakkuk concludes with reassurance of the coming of divine righteousness. Isaiah assures even sinners of God’s mercy, which can make them pure as wool and snow.
  • Psalm 32:1-7 (complementary) compares distress to the heat of summer and the rush of mighty waters.
  • Luke 19:1-10 narrates Zacchaeus’s change of heart over his ill-gotten wealth, and his pledge to give restitution and to share his resources.

November 10, 2019: Ordinary 32C

  • Job 19:23-27 (complementary) offers a testimony of faith in the midst of deep suffering.
  • Psalm 17:1-9 (complementary) compares God to a bird sheltering its young under the wing.
  • Psalm 98 (semi-continuous) bids the sea to roar, the floods to clap their hands, and the hills to sing over God’s equity and justice.
  • Luke 20:27-38 shows Jesus rebuking idle speculation over the afterlife.

November 17, 2019: Ordinary 33C

  • Malachi 4:1-2a (complementary) foresees the fate of both arrogant and humble in metaphors drawn from nature: stubble to be burned, and by contrast, calves leaping in joy.
  • Psalm 98 (complementary)—see above.

November 24, 2019: Reign of Christ

  • Jeremiah 23:1-6 envisions the people as a flock of sheep whom God tends and protects.
  • Luke 1:68-79 (semi-continuous) describes the dawn from on high breaking in “to give light to those who sit in darkness.”
  • Psalm 46 (complementary) celebrates confidence in God even in the midst of natural and international turmoil: the earth changing, mountains shaking and trembling, waters and nations roaring, kingdoms tottering. 
  • Colossians 1:11-20 claims that everything in creation was made through Christ, the firstborn of all creation.

December 1, 2019: First Sunday of Advent

  • Isaiah 2:1-5 describes nations turning war weapons into tools for carrying out the original human vocation to “till and keep” the earth.
  • Psalm 122 celebrates the physicality of a place on earth, Jerusalem, where heaven and earth meet.
  • Romans 13:11-14 uses night and day, sleep and waking as metaphors for conscientious Christian community.
  • Matthew 24:36-44 counsels preparedness at all times, since no one knows when they will be called to account.

December 8, 2019: Second Sunday of Advent

  • Isaiah 11:1-10 describes the hoped-for king of Judah as a young tree rooted in the earth, and the awaited future as a time when predation ceases even among animals.
  • Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19 relates righteous and just rule to fruitful prosperity, a wise king to “rain that falls on mown grass, showers that water the earth.”
  • Matthew 3:1-12 describes John the Baptist as a wilderness dweller and forager who compares his hearers to trees that must bear good fruit to survive, and to wheat and chaff.

December 15, 2019: Third Sunday of Advent

  • Isaiah 35:1-10 offers visible hope of redemption: the desert blossoming; the disabled regaining sight, hearing, mobility, and speech; streams breaking out to water the desert; the redeemed returning to Zion. Though these are often taken as metaphors, in contemporary times they should rather remind us of our dependence for our health on the earth’s fertility.
  • Psalm 146:5-10 extols the Creator’s justice for the oppressed, hungry, blind, and poor.
  • Luke 1:46b-55 celebrates divine reversals, scattering the powerful and favoring the hungry.
  • James 5:7-10 uses a farmer’s awaiting the growth of field crops as an image of patience for all believers.

December 22, 2019: Fourth Sunday of Advent

  • Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19 pleads with God as the “Shepherd of Israel,” who leads Joseph like a flock.
  • Romans 1:1-7 declares “fleshly” continuity between Jesus and his royal ancestry, reminding readers of the incarnational nature of our faith.

December 29, 2019: First Sunday after Christmas

  • Psalm 148 calls upon the heights and depths of the created universe to praise God together.
  • Hebrews 20:10-18 reminds readers of our universal kinship through God.
  • Matthew 2:13-23 describes the brutal slaughter of the innocents by Herod, reminding us of the dangerous political world with which every religious reformer, including our Savior, contends.

Patricia Tull’s bimonthly Working Preacher column, “The Great Community,” focuses on ecological themes for preaching.