Confidence, leadership and challenge.

August 26, 2018

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Preached by Canon Sue Wallace using Hebrews 13:16-21 at Matins on Sunday 26th August 2018, the 13th Sunday after Trinity.

One of the difficulties and joys of the Church Lectionary, which chooses of our bible readings for us, is that can be challenging and frustrating, taking us to places we would really rather not go, and yet sometimes those places can be the most rewarding places despite, or perhaps because, of their challenges.

I felt like that when I recently read today’s reading from the Epistle to the Hebrews. I read it on a week when the news was proclaiming splits within the Tory party and grim warnings of what a no-deal Brexit might look like. Some papers were even comparing the angst to a “civil war” within the government.  Meanwhile more stories of failure in leadership or worse than this,  corrupt or abusive leadership within the church have emerged, and this has not been confined to any one denomination. The elders of the large Willow Creek megachurch have all resigned over their alleged failure to properly handle recent sexual assault allegations against their pastor; the Roman Catholic church is reeling after the publication of the Pennsylvania grand jury report identifying hundreds of abusive priests over a 70 year period; and tragic stories are continuing to surface of historic abuse within the Church of England and the downplaying of allegations in the past to protect the church’s reputation.

In the light of all this terrible, simply terrible news what are we to make of the verse in our epistle this morning. “Have confidence in your leaders and submit to their authority, because they keep watch over you as those who must give an account”. One of the things which made me wish I could avoid this text altogether is the fact that this verse and similar verses have been used in the past to prevent others reporting the moral misconduct of leaders. Yet, after pondering this further, it seemed to me that this fact actually made it even more important to preach on this text.

So, having grasped the nettle, I will attempt to unpack what is going on in this letter to the Hebrews, and suggest a healthy way forward with respect to this verse.

The authorship of this letter to the Hebrews is unknown, but it is unlikely to have been by St Paul. Most scholars date the letter as having been written in the latter half of the first century to a Christian community whose faith was faltering and who were being challenged by Jewish religious laws. It was possibly written before the destruction of the Jewish temple but not necessarily as Jews of the time did expect the temple to be rebuilt.

After having considered these clues to the date of the letter I wonder who were his leaders? Who was he referring to? It is certain, given the size of the Roman Empire at the time, that the writer was living under the rule of Rome. We’re not sure who the precise emperor was at the instant the letter was written but these are the possible candidates:

  • Claudius who put Judea under direct Roman rule in 44. (He was probably poisoned by his wife Agrippina in favour of her son, Nero).
  • The infamous Nero himself, a corrupt and extravagant tyrant, who persecuted Christians after the fire of Rome and burned them alive. He committed suicide after being declared a public enemy by the senate.
  • Nero was followed by the chaotic year of 4 emperors in AD69.
  • The possible contenders finish with  Vespasian and his two sons who founded the Flavian dynasty lasting 27 years.

Jerusalem was destroyed under Vespasian’s rule and one of his more infamous acts according to the historian Josephus, was taking a group of Jews who could not swim (possibly Essenes from Qumran), chaining them, and throwing them into the Dead Sea to test the sea’s legendary buoyancy.

Thus, in short, they are a pretty awful lot.

Corruption, violence, anti-semitism, and the abuse of power is not a new thing in the world. There is a saying that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely and this fine collection of emperors demonstrates it perfectly.

Yet the writer of this letter reminds us of two things. One is that all those in positions of power will have to ultimately give an account of their use of power to their maker. No corrupt leader will ever truly escape being brought to account for his or her actions. Secondly the writer urges us to pray for our leaders. This enables ourselves and our leaders to more easily hear the guiding voice of God.  Over time the church, and also society have realised the value of accountability, of oversight, and systems which protect leaders from temptation in matters of money, sex and power. This is why, in the Church of England, everyone is accountable to someone (even the Archbishops are mutually accountable to each other) and in our nation too there are many kinds of legislation which the church is also compliant with including health and safety and safeguarding legislation. Past abuses within the church have make the church wake up to just how important Safeguarding is. Modern training now reminds us that ensuring all children and vulnerable adults are safe is a job for all of us, not just our leaders. It is everyone’s responsibility to keep an eye out for the vulnerable.

One really important thing to remember is that having confidence in leaders does not preclude the possibility of challenging them if they look like they are beginning to stray from the ways of justice. A perfect example of this is demonstrated by the prophet Nathan who goes to see king David after he has Uriah killed so that he can marry Bathsheba.  Nathan tells David a story of a rich man who kills the lamb of a neighbour and lets David himself judge the case, before revealing that the case he is judging is his own, told in symbolic form. Nathan is respectful, but he is also honest about the seriousness of David’s wrongdoing and what God thinks of it.

A few years ago a very large Anglican church in Sheffield sank under a scandal caused by corrupt leadership and one of the things that the enquiry afterwards suggested was important was the value of undersight. Oversight is important, and every Anglican church has this, but undersight, and the willingness of those who are in a community to gently challenge or query those in authority is important too. This is not the same as complaining about minor matters. It is having an eye on the moral compass of an organisation.  With respect to the secular powers this means being willing to write to your MP if you are morally uncomfortable with any decisions being made by a party or believe they are acting against the common good, but, taking a leaf out of Nathan’s book, to do so with respect, supportively, prayerfully and constructively.

Finally, the letter to the Hebrews ends with a familiar blessing.  “Now may the God of peace, who through the blood of the eternal covenant brought back from the dead our Lord Jesus, that great Shepherd of the sheep, equip you with everything good for doing his will”. Having caught a glimpse of the context of these words we may now see this well-known blessing in a different light. Every person in any kind of authority should take Jesus Christ as the ultimate model of leadership. Christ, the good shepherd, the one willing to lay down his life for his sheep, offering to share with us the gifts and abilities that flow from his loving servant heart. May he indeed work things in us that please him rather than wound him until the day when we and all God’s children will be free.  Amen.