“Mantles of Leadership”
A reflection by Rev. Dr. Thom Bower
For August 27, 2017
Based on 2 Kings 2:1-14 and Psalm 77:1-2, 11-19
I awoke this morning thinking of one of my seminary classmates. While we were in seminary, he served a congregation as the Student Associate Pastor. A lot of small congregations near our seminary remained open by relying on student pastors rather than ordained pastors. Part of the covenant in using student pastors was to provide quarterly evaluations.
My friend’s first evaluation included the comment he did not preach “from the bible.” Two things are going to be important in this story. First, this congregation’s evaluations came as a written report from a committee; there was no process for formal dialogue. Second is that specific phrase “from the bible.”
This troubled him, because he spent a lot of time in bible study. He thought maybe he wasn’t referencing the morning scriptures enough in his sermon, so he increased the number of explicit statements related to the morning text. He was still told he was not preaching enough from the bible.
He asked one of the evaluating team what this meant. He was told “We want a pastor who preaches from the bible.” He then began to work in connections to other scriptures, pointing out who biblical writers included allusions to other bible stories, bringing in the psalms, quoting some of the more familiar passages of the bible in his sermons. His next evaluation said he was still not preaching enough from the bible.
He began to include every week the phrase “the bible says” to point out when he was quoting the bible. His next evaluation again declared he was still not preaching enough from the bible. One Sunday, to illustrate a point, he stepped out of the pulpit. As he began to move, the sleeve of his suit jacket caught the pulpit bible, and he caught the bible before it fell. He continued walking and talking, holding the bible.
After worship, several people said “It was nice to see you preach from the bible for a change.” What they had meant the entire time was that they wanted a preacher who held the bible while delivering the morning sermon. So the next week he printed his sermon on smaller sheets of paper, stuck them into the bible, and held the bible when he preached. Again, several members told him “Now you’re really preaching from the bible.”
And his next quarterly evaluation also said “Good to see you are finally preaching from the bible.”
My friend decided to try an experiment. He reused one of his previous sermons – one that had been heavily criticized for not being from the bible. He preserved it word-for-word, printed on the smaller sheets that fit into his bible, and delivered it as closely to the original as he could. After the service one of the members said “Now that you’re preaching from the bible I could actually feel the word of God in your sermons in ways that were never there before.”
A little later he was able to ask “Why does it matter that I hold the bible while I preach?”
“Well,” he was told, “we used to have a pastor here who always held the bible when he preached. It felt like everything he said was grounded in the word of God.”
My friend happened to know that pastor. Actually, that pastor was the last called pastor before this congregation began with student pastors over two decades earlier. It was because of that pastor’s divisiveness that the congregation rapidly shrunk in size and could no longer pay a called pastor. While some of the congregation recalled that pastor as forceful, others recalled that pastor as hurtful; my friend’s evaluation committee was full of people who remembered that pastor as forceful, and thought all student pastors should emulate that period of ministry – all the way to the physical behavior of holding the bible while preaching.
We sometimes get caught up in trying to replicate the experience of God’s presence. We have these profound encounters with the divine. We think if we do everything the same way again we’ll recreate that profound feeling. But God doesn’t work that way. God is not that predictable. Encountering God is not that mechanical. Spirituality is not a mathematical formula, or for that matter a magical formula.
Yes, we have these repeated patterns for prayer and worship, patterns like the labyrinth, patterns like our weekly order of worship. They are meant to help us through a process of spiritual expression, to stay focused on seeking God’s presence. Their power of their repetition is not in recreating the past but in breaking from it: by having the familiar, we’re able to notice what has changed to make this particular moment unique. The value in walking the labyrinth as a spiritual exercise is not in keeping it the same every time but instead to walk it fresh each time, to be aware of how walking it today is different than when it was walked last time and the time before. The value in keeping our order of worship consistent from week to week is to be able to note what is different from week to week, because it is in those little differences that we become aware of God’s presence in both the steadfast and the changing.
I know you have endured a lot of changes in the two years since Bob von Trebra departed. How has God been present in those changes? I know many of you are fatigued from the changes – and I feel I need to forewarn you: when you call a settled pastor, there are going to continue to be changes. Just as I am not Bob, your called pastor will not be Thom – or Bob. Lyonsville is not going to return to “the way things used to be.” But God will be present.
And sometimes God’s presence will be reminders of the past. Elisha used his mentor’s mantle to separate the river Jordan as a reminder of how Elijah had separated those same waters with that same mantle. And Elijah’s act was a reminder of how Joshua separated those same waters when the children of Israel first entered the promised land. Joshua did not use a mantle, but instead held his mentor’s staff – a reminder of how Moses had used that staff to separate the waters of the Red Sea as the children of Israel fled from Egypt. When Moses parted those waters, it was a reminder of how God had parted the waters of creation.
The essential word there is reminders. These acts did not replicate the earlier acts. Instead they provided some continuity through which to perceive God’s presence: then and then and then again, similar but different each time. That is embedded in the very pattern of the labyrinth: winding around, walking through the same quadrant but in a new place, nearer the center, nearer the exit.