Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Spiritual Leaders of the Way

A lot can happen in 3 ½ weeks.  You could meet the love of your life.  You could get a promotion.  Or you could receive a bad diagnosis from the doctor.  You could have a falling out with someone you love.  A lot can happen in 3 ½ weeks; things you never expected.  Don’t underestimate the probability of change in this world in which we live.

Just 3 ½ weeks ago, we recalled Jesus eating his last supper with the disciples, which was probably the worst night of his life seeing as he knew what was going to happen to him.  I think the most heart-wrenching part of the story is when Peter, one of Jesus closest friends, denies knowing him three times.

Listen to what the gospel of Luke says.  This is Peter’s third denial.  “But Peter said, ‘Man, I do not know what you are talking about!’  At that moment, while he was still speaking, the cock crowed.  The Lord turned and looked at Peter.  Then Peter remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said to him, ‘Before the cock crows today, you will deny me three times.’  And he went out and wept bitterly” (Luke 22: 60-62).

That moment when the Lord turned and looked at Peter must have shook them both to the core.  Betrayal amongst friends is one of the worst feelings that we can ever have.  I can picture Jesus’ eyes when they meet Peters.  Not filled with anger or malice, but sadness and compassion at the same time.

Scholars suggest that the text we heard just a moment ago in which Peter tells Jesus he loves him three times is to rectify his denials, his betrayal.  Peter is proclaiming his allegiance to Jesus and the Way, the Way being the path followers of Jesus walk along, their guiding principles.

When Jesus asks Peter, “do you love me,” not once, not twice, but three times, Peter says, “Yes, Lord, I do.”  Then, each time, Jesus instructs Peter to “feed my lambs” or “tend my sheep.”

You see, Jesus wanted to ensure that followers of the Way, the community, the family that he built with God’s power, would not fall apart in his absence.  Much like we don’t want our families to fall apart, Jesus had high hopes and great love for the family of believers, and he wanted them to be unified and in harmony and to grow. 

So he tells the disciples to take care of his flock.  He calls them to love, to serve, and to be spiritual leaders in the Way.  This morning’s passage from Acts recalls how Peter was even imbued with the power of the Holy Spirit so much so that he was able to bring Tabitha or Dorcas back from the dead.

Of all the things we talk about in the church, being a disciple, being a servant, loving our neighbor, we cannot neglect the importance of our call to be spiritual leaders.  Not that these roles are mutually exclusive of each other, but the different names imply different functions.

A disciple is someone who follows a leader.  For example, Peter following Jesus.  A servant is someone who cares for another.  For example, when the good Samaritan rescues the man who had been beaten up and left by the side of the road.

A spiritual leader is someone who guides, inspires and helps to transform others.  As the inside cover of your bulletin reads: “The spiritual leader's task is to move people from where they are to where God wants them to be.”   We are ALL called to be disciples, servants AND spiritual leaders. 

Today, I’d like to encourage all of us to live into our calling to be spiritual leaders.  I have six suggestions to get us started:

1.      Spiritual leaders start by just being there for people.  In ministry language, you must be “present” to the person in their need.  This can be a challenge because we are all so busy, but it’s important to make time for people.  I know a woman who has MS and is confined to a wheelchair.  She gets very depressed about her condition, hopeless even, but she told me that receiving visitors is the highlight of her days.  Simply being present can profoundly affect a life because, simply put, we need each other.

2.      Spiritual leaders listen to others.  People need to get their thoughts and problems off their chests so just open your ears and be engaged with the person and what is being said.  Don’t feel like you have to give advice or solve their problems. You know how people say men want to fix things when women just want them to listen?  The same holds true when you are being a spiritual leader.  Listen first.  Then, maybe, if you can, help fix it later.

3.      Spiritual leaders pray.  You pray with people, not just for them.  Praying with people is an intimate act and many of us fear we won’t know what to say so many of us are hesitant to do it, but it is well worth the risk because praying together is both powerful and healing.  You know this if you have ever been prayed for with someone.  To take some of the pressure off when you pray with a person, ask what they want prayers for and pray for those things.  You’ll be amazed at how praying with a person can bring you closer together and closer to God.

4.      Spiritual leaders compliment others.  I think conventional wisdom is that you are supposed to compliment at least three people a day.   It’s our job to see the best in people so they can see the best in themselves, so they can live up to their full potential.   Just like you would encourage a child whom you love and believe in, so too should we encourage each other.

5.      Spiritual leaders have faith for the person even when he or she does not have faith anymore.  This is one of the most important aspects of being a spiritual leader so let me tell you a story. 

Tonya was 34 when I met her, and she was like a shining star.  She just lit up a room when she walked in.  She was a highly successful fashion designer for Donna Karen, and she had recently started dating a new love named John.  Tonya seemed to have it all.

Two years later, not long after Tonya’s 36th birthday, she started having health issues.  She was never hungry and she couldn’t keep food down.  When she went to the doctor, she received the worst news possible, news she never imagined would happen to her.  Pancreatic cancer at 36, which quickly spread to her lungs.  Tonya’s life would never be the same again.

She has spent the last two years in and out of hospitals and in and out of chemotherapy lounges.  She had to go on leave from work because she is so nauseous and tired most of the time that it’s hard enough to get from her bed to the couch.

But Tonya has done everything she can to stay positive.  She married John and got a pet pig.  She opens her home up to her family, which visits often, and she has friends over for game night.  Tonya also shares her story with everyone she knows via a website called Caring Bridge.

Just this week, Tonya put up a post saying that she had been to the doctor and the tumors in her body were continuing to spread.  Now, she has to start a new, more aggressive form of chemotherapy.  It was very sad news indeed, and I couldn’t help but hear Tonya’s grief as she reported it to her friends.

Still, Tonya ends every journal entry with a list of three things that made her smile that day.  They are simple but important things like the joy of holding her husband’s hand while receiving chemo or seeing her pet pig lay in the sun.  Recently she wrote, “You, my family and friends, make me smile.  I cannot thank you enough for your kind words of support.  I don’t know how I’d make it without you.”

You see, sometimes when life is hard and the challenges seem overwhelming, we need other people to keep our spirits lifted.  We need other people to believe for us because we are so sick and tired we cannot believe for ourselves.  With every day that passes, Tonya is getting more and more sick, but with every day that passes, those who love her are rallying around her with more and more support.  It is the love and faith of others that is sustaining Tonya, helping her to live while she is still alive.  When we have faith in God and in each other, it helps those of us who are hurting to also have faith in God and in ourselves.

6.      Spiritual leaders remind people of the promises of God.  This might be a spiritual leader’s greatest contribution to humanity: to spread hope.  In light of all the tragedy we face, cancer and divorce and natural disasters and bombings, both personal and communal tragedies, someone needs to remind the people that God is in charge, and that God is a very present help in times of trouble.  Someone needs to remind the people that the miracles and victories God did in the past, God is doing now, and God will do in the future.

     What do we do here every Sunday morning?  We worship, but in worshipping, we always read the Scriptures to hear about the saving work of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  If you leave this place without hearing about the hope that comes through faith in God, then the Church is missing the mark.  A spiritual leader brings a message of hope as we recount the God who blessed Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.  The God who brought Israel out of slavery, through the wilderness and into a land flowing with milk and honey.  The God who gave us his Son as our teacher and Lord.  The God who raised this same Son from the dead and sent the Holy Spirit to be our comforter and guide.  Our God is the God of hope, and we are called to proclaim that hope to the nations.

So the six duties of a spiritual leader are: to be present, to listen, to pray with others, to compliment others, to have faith when others do not and to recount the promises of God as much as possible to as many people as possible.

Your family, your friends, your church, the people who do your dry cleaning, the doctor who does your surgery, the homeless man on the street, EVERYONE needs your spiritual leadership.

Don’t be frightened or worried about that.  God will equip you.  Just like the Holy Spirit gave Peter the power to raise Dorcas from the dead, the Holy Spirit works in us and through us that we might have the courage and wisdom to lead.  God does not call the equipped.  God equips the called.  That means God has already equipped you and will continue to do so when you need it most.

Jesus asks all of us, “Do you love me?”

And we respond, “Yes, I love you, Lord.”

Jesus says, “Feed my sheep.”

Yes, he means physical food, but he also most definitely means spiritual food.  You are the messengers of the Gospel, you are the instructors of the Way.  You are spiritual leaders.  Use this knowledge to move people from where they are to where God wants them to be.

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