Many of you know that I recently returned to work after a hiatus of about a 14 months, this time. This is my third time of returning part time after my retirement at the end of 2011, from the position of Chief Deputy Agricultural Commissioner of Ventura County. This is a position that is basically an assistant department head an administrator. The first time was to help my successor through the transition, and it lasted for 18 months. However after about two years that person left to take a position in another county. My former position remained vacant for over two years and during that time I returned for a second time to “help out” by administering one of the Department programs in the Pest Management Division. Again I was there for about 18 months and left because I needed surgery on my neck. Many of you saw me in church with my neck brace and later with my shoulder in a sling. I am in fact rather a mess of inadequate bones. I thought I was really retired this time…. However the Agricultural Commissioner (the Department Head) left rather suddenly in February and there was nobody in the department with the necessary license to allow them to legally continue to operate….so I seem to have returned in a new iteration as the Agricultural Commissioner. Finding myself out front as the actual leader is a bit unnerving and I have prayed for guidance as I am accustomed to being behind the leader rather than being the leader myself.
When I was in my forties and in middle management in a Central Valley Department, there was a very popular book called “Searching for Excellence” or The Search for Excellence something like that. One of the topics in the book was called “Management by Wandering Around”. I know that many people believe that government employees spend most of their time wandering around anyway, so the mention of this management style always caused people to roll their eyes. However, I found in this an explanation of something I had believed for years about managing people. People are not groups they are individuals, each with his own talents and challenges. Wandering around in a purposeful way and “visiting with staff” is in fact an excellent way to acquire the necessary knowledge to get everyone to pull in the same general direction.
In our scripture today, we find Jesus appearing to the disciples in the Upper Room after his resurrection. This appearance along with a few others transformed the disciples from a bunch of frightened and discouraged men hiding from the authorities into men who went out and boldly proclaimed the good news to the ends of the earth as they knew it. Thomas was not there and in the famous passage says to the others “I will not believe unless I see the evidence of the crucifixion on his body”. Jesus obliges him some time later by appearing and specifically showing Thomas the holes in his hands and feet and asking him to put his hands on his wounded side. He does not say to Thomas, oh you fool, I told you I would rise from the dead, he simply meets Thomas where he is and provides what is necessary to nurture his faith.
We see Jesus do this repeatedly, both before and after his death and resurrection. Later in the gospel of John He appears by the Sea of Galilee. Peter along with six of the disciples go fishing. I can just see Peter saying as I might myself, Geez everything is a real mess and I have no idea what we should do, so we might as well do something useful and go fishing. Six of the other disciples agree and they all head out. They fish all night but catch nothing. In the morning they see Jesus standing on the beach, but they do not recognize him. He tells them where to throw the net for a spectacular catch and John the introspective one says, “You know that is the Master” and they all recognize that it is Jesus. After this Jesus cooks a breakfast of fish and bread and eats with them. This helps them to realize he is alive and not a spirit because it was a belief then that spirits could not eat. Before He disappears He specifically approaches Peter and asks “do you love me” three times. I believe this is to help Peter to deal with the fact that he denied Him three times. Peter afterward becomes the leader and the founder of the church according some doctrines.
Again, in the gospel of Luke we see Jesus appear to two of the disciples on the Road to Emmaus. They were going to a village, about seven miles[a] from Jerusalem. They were discouraged about what had happened when a stranger comes alongside them and asks
“What are you discussing together as you walk along?”
They are surprised that He does not know and tell him about their hopes for Jesus and then how he had been handed over to the authorities and crucified. They also told him their doubts about what the women had told them and about the empty tomb. He explains the scriptures to them and at their urging stays with them. As he breaks the bread they recognize Him. They return to Jerusalem and reunite with the other Eleven. Jesus meets them where they are and explains what they need to know in order to believe.
This is the scene even at the empty tomb as the two Mary’s sit together in the silence, wondering what to do next. They tell the disciples that the tomb is empty but because they were only women, the disciples do not believe them. The book of Mark Chapter 16, tells us that Jesus rebuked the men for failing to believe what the women had seen, even after Jesus had told them about His coming death and resurrection. Jesus seems to be preparing them for a world where even women and children, strangers and immigrants, the disabled and the poor deserve respect and have status.
Mary Magdalen remains in the garden and weeps at the tomb because she does not know where they have taken the body of Jesus and she wants to honor Him and prepare the body for burial. She is confronted by Angels who tell her that Jesus is not dead but among the living. She turns away and sees someone who she thinks may be the gardener. The King of Heaven and Earth appears as a gardener. This should make all of the farmers out there feel very good, because what are you but God’s gardeners. As she confronts Him he speaks the very words that will help her understand what has happened, He calls her by name. She falls at his feet saying Raboni or teacher. Again, Jesus appears to his followers individually or in small groups and meets them where they are and provides what they need to move forward in the appropriate direction, to proclaim the Good News.
It appears that “Management by Wandering Around” is not such a new idea after all.
We live in a culture that encourages us to stand out, to be important, and to stride off confidently and everyone will follow. I recently saw a commercial for some automobile that begins “How do you want to live your life? A good husband? A good father? ( and I am thinking what a concept this is great) and then it says, No you want to stand out in the crowd and live your life above the rest. So, this man is shown racing around recklessly in a Lexus or an Audie or some gorgeous car. As if that translates to a life well lived. What is the message here, no wonder there are so many high-speed police chases on residential streets and freeways? We are bombarded by messages like this on television, radio, billboards, junk mail everywhere you look. We must dress for success, be slender and fit, drive fast in the latest model luxury hybrid, and make sure that our children have the latest toy or gadget. And above all be Rich, Rich, Rich.
The political rhetoric says that you should “tell it like it is, pay back insult for insult, and get back at those who disagree with you by ruining their career, or throwing them under the bus. Serial adultery seems to be the recommended procedure rather than something to confess and repent of. We are repeatedly asked to believe that words do not matter, whatever you say, you can take back later or just deny that you ever said it.
But if we look at the model of Jesus, he seems to actually wander around with purpose even after his death and resurrection gathering up his followers, addressing their particular spiritual needs, giving them those exact words they need to move forward into the light Rather than being out in front like the dog in front of the snow sled urging all of the others to follow Him, and going boldly off whether anybody follows or not Jesus seems to Lead from Behind, much like the Mother Hen who gathers her chicks to her and shelters them under her wings. He does not distain our weaknesses but comforts us where we are, like the women at the tomb, like the disciples in the Upper Room, like the fishermen in the Sea of Galilee. We are fed by Him, sheltered by Him and visited by Him in our weakness. He covers us in His generous spirit and sends us out gently to tell others of the comfort and joy that is available for all who seek His presence.
So, what should we do with this example? What does this tell us about what is important? How can we live this out in this place, in this church?
We are called to use the gifts that God has given us, for the benefit of others. We could take this to mean that we should run off quickly and start as many ministries as possible, nagging and urging others to help us out in this great endeavor that we are starting. If our friends and fellow Christians do not cheerfully pitch in and make our spectacular idea a reality we could then feel hurt and abandoned. After all we are called to Go Boldly and Proclaim the good news Right??
We could take the example of Jesus to mean that what has worked for us in the past, must certainly work now Right?? Those ministries or fund raisers that we have always done should certainly be possible now. If we have read to preschoolers on Friday mornings for several years, then we should certainly continue to do so. I mean Jesus said “Suffer the little Children to come onto Me” Right??
I think in many churches the fight is over money, what ministry should be funded by the church. When there are hard feelings it is often over what has taken priority in a financial sense. We have the endowment fund here which of course will not last forever but for the present allows us some financial cushion to do things that we want to do. Also, in our case many of our more successful children and youth ministries collect a little money extra or at least break even and that serves as a reserve for the next time. We have very generous people in our church who choose to fund things like our wonderful sign out front, given by Monty and Maio and the handicapped chairs funded by the Hurds. When we argue, for those of you who are not in there maneuvering, it is almost always about space. The facility is small and stacked in layers. There are precipitous stairs from one level to another. We have only two small bathrooms. So, if you want to do something or continue to do something you must always consider whether there is space enough. Now we could view this as a disadvantage “If we could find a bigger church, or build another building out there, everything would be simply Sinooobias”. But I think we could also look at our predicament as an opportunity to practice generosity, following in the example of our Lord.. We are forced to deal with each other, to work around each other’s faults, our weaknesses, our lack of a generous spirit. There is no place in this facility where you are not jockeying for space with somebody else.
I have seen such wonderful examples of generosity in the past several years. When Kid’s Story Time was displaced by that demanding but very successful fundraiser “The Semi Annual Rummage Sale”, I was quite put out which is an understatement. I loved reading and doing crafts with the little kids and my little dog. While I was digging in my heels, that bastion of generosity Grandma Sharon moved it to the chapel, and when that got taken over by the Rummage Sale she moved it to the Brides Room. When that became unavailable she moved it outside and read to kids on the grass. I had to rethink my position, and my attitude. Kids Story Time is gone now but the Rummage Sale continues to make money time after time, money that UMW uses for their programs and often uses to help pay for repairs around the church.
The bells had always been in the back of the church. People had been listening to those lovely bells behind them for years. But when Marcia began recruiting youth to play bells and people had to craine their necks to see their children and grandchildren, it was suggested that we move the bells up in front. Well the chancel choir was already up there and that created another set of maneuvers over space. Should we continue to have the bells in the back, as we had done for years and years? Or should people be able to watch their children and grandchildren play bells in comfort, or should we rip out the pews and embark on an entirely new arrangement? Clearly the bells moved to the front and the choir moved out of the way. Marsha Porter particularly and the members of the choir were another example of generosity and flexibility. As we face Marsha’s retirement the choir may survive, or it may not, time will tell, but that spirit of generosity will live on as an example for the rest of us.
When Linda Wareham suggested that we have a vaudeville show, in order to raise money, I confess that my first thought was “How far away from the church can I get on that weekend”. I was not shall we say in the “Spirit of Service to my fellows here in the church”. In my defense I was planning to write a big check before I left, but even so….. There is nothing that I would less rather do than “The Amateur Hour”.
But I have come around, not to the point of actually doing anything up front but of asking and helping Linda find some barbershop acts to perform for the show. Linda is another generous sole, she rarely complains although she certainly has some challenges, she participates despite the fact that it is hard for her to get up and down those stairs, and she always finds so much to be thankful for.
Our lack of space and our desire to have multiple ministries and at the same time raise money, gives us the opportunity to examine our attitudes and adjust our expectations to accommodate the priorities of others. If we truly believe that we are the hands and feet of Jesus then we must look at the example that he set. I think the essential lesson is that we need to approach each other as Jesus approached his disciples in all their weakness, trying our hardest to serve each other rather than to be important or to shine as the leader. Our Lord set an example that we can use to set priorities in our church. He demonstrated that words do matter. His words repeatedly led his followers out of the darkness and into the light. He gave us an example of leadership that did not make itself obvious, did not attempt to talk the longest or shine the brightest, and that met everyone He encountered where they were to provide words of comfort and healing. Jesus still leads from behind today to usher and gather us into the light of compassion and awareness of each other as Children of God. May we all go forth and do likewise.