Not with Eloquent Wisdom
By Rev. Dr. Louise Westfall
Katherine Johnson knew: once you took the first step, anything was possible.
A little insight into the leadership style of one of three African-American women mathematicians who helped win the space race. The remarkable story of these barrier-breaking women is told in the current movie Hidden Figures, based on a book by Margot Lee Shetterly. They faced the twin challenges of being female in a male-dominated field and of being Black at a time when restrooms were still designated “Colored” and “White.” But they took that first step, with amazing, game-changing consequences. I’d like to think it was Carver Presbyterian Church where Katherine Johnson sang in the choir for 50 years that nourished her vision and courage. And maybe it was.
Today—on a weekend when our new president was inaugurated, hundreds of thousands marched, and we ordain and install elders and deacons for our congregation—-we consider leadership. How is it expressed? What are a leader’s qualifications? Who are the memorable leaders that come to your mind, and why are they memorable?
I’m intrigued by the morning Scripture text, written by the most prolific and arguably the most influential of early Christian leaders, the apostle Paul. I’m intrigued because after some polite greetings and compliments, he jumps right to the heart of his message. A reading from the first letter to the Corinthians, in the first chapter at the 10th verse. Listen for God’s Word to the church then. . . . and now. [I Corinthians 1:10-18]
So apparently first-century church members were a lot different than ones today. Back then they quarreled about the silliest things—like who had baptized them; essentially, whose theological perspective they claimed as correct: Rev. Apollos, Rev. Cephas. . . and wouldn’t you have been best friends with the person who rose above the fray to say “Well, I belong to Christ!” And how about Chloe’s family, the tattle-tails? We would never major in the minors! Our disagreements are all substantive! Paul almost gets dragged into the argument, by pointing out that he baptized no one, well, except those two brothers, and maybe that one family…but is saved by his faulty memory.
Well. Whether substantive or not, the divisions are something to overcome for the sake of unity. Not necessarily agreement, but a sense of singular purpose transcending differences in preferences and personal perspectives. Let nothing—no individual agenda, nostalgia for past glories, no petty bickering—-diminish the centrality of God’s saving love for humanity demonstrated in the life and death of Jesus Christ.
That’s still the word, friends. These new elders and deacons are enormously gifted. They reflect years of history at Central. . . . and fresh outlooks as newcomers. They are called to leadership —to guide the way we carry out our mission and how we fund that mission in a challenging time—-but honestly, has there ever been a time that hasn’t been challenging for the Church? We don’t get to choose the time in which we live, but we can choose how we will live in that time.
And we have examples –right here among us—to show how it’s done. There are eight middle and high school young people in this year’s confirmation class. Last Sunday was the opening retreat that included learning and getting acquainted and recreation and midnight movies. The plan was to walk together in the Martin Luther King Marade on Monday morning. But you remember last Monday morning—blowing snow and freezing temperatures. Seemed to me that we could have a great time talking about King’s life and dream while curled up in our sleeping bags in the East Classroom. I scrolled through the weather reports, silently pleading for cancellation.
But what I wasn’t prepared for was the assumption by all the kids that we were going to do this. There was
not a single eye roll or protest. Not a whine. We walked to City Park and stood in the cold listening to the speeches. We took our places among the throng and made our way down Colfax Avenue. We joined some voices calling for justice; we sang snatches of a freedom song to keep walking and not get weary. We talked to fellow walkers. And somewhere along the way the feeling kicked in that this was a good way to go. With little fanfare but quiet determination, the young people vowed to walk together again next year. It struck me again yesterday that a lot gets done by showing up. By standing up. Sometimes leadership is simply putting one foot in front of another. . . .one step. But then, of course, you know that anything is possible.
There is a leader in our church who fits few of the typical leadership categories. John has shared some of his story with you—that he’s spent some time in prison, and works hard, even today, to stay in recovery. Frankly, he’s not one to sit in church. “I get too restless,” he told me once. His rough ways belie a tender heart. But every Sunday morning he drives his battered old Dodge Charger down to a Safeway grocery store and loads it up with discarded food: lots of bread and bakery items and produce and canned goods and delivers them to Metro Caring and New Genesis and to people he knows living on the streets. Last year, John gleaned 398,000 pounds of food that would have been tossed out without a thought. And in this way John proclaims the gospel, if not with eloquent wisdom, then by the saving power of God in the vulnerability of human need.
Friends, let us support our leaders as they serve. Let us pray for them and encourage them and thank them. But let us also remember that every one of us is called by God to this mission. We are united by a single purpose, to share the love of God in this place and time; with young and old; among the proud and the humble; the appealing and the appalling; right here and out there.
One step. . . just take one step. . . . . . and see where God will take you. Amen.
Prayer by the late great pastor and leader William Sloane Coffin, Jr.
May God give you grace never to sell yourself short; Grace to risk something big for something good. Grace to remember that the world is now too dangerous for anything but truth, and too small for anything but love. May God take your minds, and think through them. May God take your lips, and speak through them. May God take your hearts, and set them on fire. Amen.
++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++Two people were talking and one asked the other, “What do you think this year will bring?” He replied, “Flowers.” “Flowers?! How can you be so sure??” Came the reply “Well, because I am planting flowers.” Go into the world in peace. Love and serve. And then we’ll know, by the grace of God, what this year will bring.