Leaders are Raised Up | AND IN THE POWER OF THE HOLY SPIRIT WORSHIP SERIES
Emma Gonzalez. Remember her name.
Emma is a senior at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. She is a survivor of the February 14 massacre at her school, and just one of the many young people from her community who have turned into an activist advocating for stricter gun control laws. Overnight she has become a leader, a national voice for change. She is eighteen, with close-shaved hair, a powerful voice, the courage of a soldier, and wisdom beyond her years. She is part of a movement that is rising up out of the ashes of the latest mass killing at the hands of an individual armed with a semi-automatic weapon.
It has been inspiring and humbling to watch the young people from Parkland take on a problem that we adults have failed to solve. I don’t know about you, but I am glad to hand over the reins to these emerging leaders. They are my hope for a better future.
A few years ago I volunteered to teach the youth Sunday School class on a temporary basis after the sudden departure of the youth director. I hadn’t been going to the church for very long and didn’t know the kids. But I have to say, those six months or so that I spent with the youth Sunday School students at Kern Memorial United Methodist Church have had a lasting effect on me.
In the beginning I ordered some curriculum and tried to lead the group in discussions about controversial topics. It didn’t go all that well, so I invited my young adult son, who was a student at the University of Tennessee and an environmental activist, to come and talk to the group about his concerns. That went better.
Having not yet found the right fit in terms of study topics, finally I asked the group what they were interested in talking about. Several of the girls suggested that I read the popular dystopian novels with female heroes that inspired them, and then we could have a discussion: The Hunger Games trilogy, Divergent, and other young adult novels of this type. And so I did.
We had several discussions about why these books had been so impactful, especially for young women in the group. I had not ever read any of this type of literature before. But I loved these novels. I read the entire Hunger Games trilogy and then watched the movies that had come out. I’m currently reading the Divergent series.
If you’ve read these books or seen the movies, you know that the hero in both sagas is a courageous and powerful young woman. In the Hunger Games the heroine is named Katniss. Over the course of the story, Katniss emerges as the leader of a resistance movement against the corrupt government and the wealthy and elite members that benefit from their rule while the majority of people suffer lives spent in hard labor and poverty.
In the story, children and teenagers are forced to engage in a futuristic version of Roman gladiator-style combat: they fight to the death for the entertainment of the masses.
I was struck as I watched Emma Gonzalez speak at a rally for gun control in front of the federal courthouse in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, a few days after the massacre, by how much her courage, poise and dignity reminded me of Katniss. In her eleven minute and forty second speech, she called upon not just the crowd in front of her, but the nation, to change the laws in order to prevent another massacre. She rallied the gathered body to join her in a call and response. She said some hard things. She refused to back down to those with power, money, and control. She had clearly done her homework. Her speech was thorough, heartfelt, and challenging. It is my opinion that we adults should be listening to Emma and her co-leaders in this movement.
Recently my father made a comment that he felt that he was fortunate because he had studied at Duke Divinity School during what he considered to be the peak academic years of the institution’s history. He was a student there in the early sixties. It is true that he was able to study with some great theologians from his day: Frank Baker, Robert Cushman, Frederick Herzog, Thomas Langford, Ray Petry, Waldo Beach. A great lineup of scholars, many of whose work I have read.
But as I’ve thought about my father’s comment I’m aware that missing from the list are the women and racial minority scholars—persons who were also missing from the student body. At the time my father went to seminary, only fifty-eight years ago, all of the professors and students were caucasian. And in my father’s class all of the Divinity School students were male. It was indeed a critical time in the institutional history of Duke, but perhaps what made it important had less to do with the fine professors than the students. This was a turbulent time in the American south. It was a time of change for our nation as the civil rights movement emerged. During the late fifties and into the early sixties at Duke University, multiple student petitions were drawn up demanding that the Board of Directors desegregate the school. Young people led the way to bringing about necessary change to their campus and community. It is no wonder that my father remembers his time at Duke with such reverence. I can only imagine what the conversations in the classrooms during those years must have been like.
I went to seminary at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in the early nineties. I was not a teenager, but I was in my mid-twenties, as were many of my classmates. I was fortunate to study with Rosemary Radford Ruether, Rosemary Skinner, Linda Vogel, and Lallene Rector, and other amazing female scholars who helped shape my sense of myself as a woman in ministry. I was exposed to American history told from the perspectives of both whites and non-whites, women and men, Western European and the wider global community. During my time at GETS, the LGBT movement was just starting to gain some momentum, but there was still a great deal of discrimination. Emerging theologies coming out of the so-called third world were shaping our conversations. Sexual harassment, when it happened to the women I knew, was swept under the rug. It was a turbulent time in its own way, and I’m grateful for the variety of theological perspectives to which I was exposed through my education as a young woman. I was well-prepared for leadership in some ways, and not so well-prepared in others.
Maybe there’s a pattern here.
It seems like whenever a society comes to the brink of necessary change, God raises up the needed leadership. Often these leaders come from the ranks of the rising generation. They may or may not have a formal education. They may or may not have been prepared. They may or may not look like leaders from the past.
How old were the disciples? I googled this question but couldn’t find anything definitive. I’ve never really thought about it before, and I don’t remember ever studying this. I was taught that Jesus was likely in his early thirties when he began his public ministry. Most scholars seem to think that his students—his disciples—were younger, most likely under the age of twenty. I imagine then that they must have been teenagers or young adults.
In today’s scripture lesson we find the newly-minted young church leaders in need of a replacement for one of the twelve male disciples who will not be continuing in his role: Judas. The new leader is to be chosen from among the many followers of Jesus who had been with him for his entire ministry.
Now let me just say here that although the church has tended to focus on the twelve male disciples, and one later honorary disciple named Paul, scholars believe there were more than twelve men who accompanied Jesus on his journey from the point of Baptism by John to his ascension, and who witnessed his resurrection. Not all of them were male. Women such as Mary Magdalene, Mary and Martha, and other women likely accompanied Jesus throughout his entire ministry. Women such as Phoebe and Lydia and others founded and led early church communities. Women played a critical role in the development of the Christian faith.
But the grip of the patriarchy of the wider culture apparently seized the church quite early, and so the replacement disciple was chosen from among the men.
Did the eleven disciples choose the replacement based on his gifts for ministry? Did they make their decision because of his resume, or credentials, or education, or because of previous leadership experience, or a certain skill set, or age, or race, or hair color? No. Apparently, by the time the church was starting to develop leaders, the only thing that prevented a person from being a disciple was gender. The eleven male disciples proposed two candidates from among the men. They prayed for the Lord to show them the one that was chosen, and then they cast lots. The lot fell on Matthias and so he was added to the eleven.
How willing are we to trust in God’s provision for God’s church? My guess is not very. We have so many hoops people have to jump through in order to become official leaders in the church that it has become more of a way of fencing people out than trusting God to raise up leaders from our midst.
I’m not suggesting that the church doesn’t need leaders with training and education and experience. But I am saying that having the right credentials doesn’t always add up to good leadership. Sometimes God raises up leaders out of a crisis. Sometimes the leaders God has provided have a theological perspective we don’t agree with, or a lifestyle we have deemed sinful, or they are the wrong gender or ethnicity or body size, or they seem awfully young and inexperienced. Sometimes we dismiss God’s call on a person to lead because of our own flawed human beliefs and prejudices.
The good news of this story is that the Lord knows the hearts of God’s people. Ministry requires many different kinds of leadership, and God prepares many different kinds of people to lead. Leaders are both lay and clergy. They are young and old. They consist of those formally educated and skilled and unskilled workers. They are male and female and LGBTQ. They are lifelong church goers and persons whom God has raised up suddenly to respond to a particular need. They are born in wealthy nations and in war-torn nations and in refugee camps. They are experienced and inexperienced.
Our job is to prepare as best we can to receive the leaders God has identified. Let us pray that God will show us the ones God has chosen. Let us trust in God’s provision for God’s church. And let us not allow ourselves and our own narrow viewpoints get in the way of listening to and following those whom God has selected.