A sermon by Jack Cabaness
First Presbyterian Church of Katonah
January 10, 2016
Texts: 1 Kings 3:5-12; Luke 2:40, 52
Not long after King Solomon’s coronation, the Lord God appeared to him in a dream and asked, “Solomon, what shall I give you?” And Solomon asked not for long life or riches, or for revenge over enemies, but instead he asked for understanding to discern what is right. And then God told Solomon that because you have asked for wisdom and not for a long life or riches, I will grant you the wisdom, but I will also give you what you have not asked, both riches and honor all our life.
Suppose that the Lord God appeared to church leaders in a dream and asked what we would like. And we replied that we ask not for budget surpluses and worship attendance bursting at the seams, but we simply ask for wisdom to discern what is right, and then how great would it be if God were to give us not only the wisdom but also the budget surpluses and the increased worship attendance as a bonus?
What does it mean to ask for wisdom?
As Lyndon Johnson famously said, every President wants to do the right thing. The trouble is knowing what the right thing is.
And the same dilemma faces church leaders. Nearly all of the literature about churches these days says that we are in the midst of something as revolutionary as the Protest Reformation of 500 years ago. The old way of doing and being church is out, a new way is emerging. But while the literature is nearly unanimous in saying that the old way is out, there is not yet a clear consensus about what the new way is.
In the words of Craig Barnes, who is the current president of Princeton Theological Seminary, and, who, in that capacity, seeks to instruct future leaders in our churches:
Leadership is not easy. The hard part is not the long hours or the lack of affirmation. The hardest part is being forced to make difficult choices and not always knowing the right choice. If leadership is an art, it is a confusing and messy one. Often it is the leader’s soul that is the most confused. The leader inevitably feels compromised by the system, which only allows a certain number of options. At times the leader wonders if she/he will be able to survive the hard decisions, to lead through conflict, or to handle the loneliness that all leaders experience. (from a sermon by Craig Barnes, “The Wisdom to Lead,” preached at the Shadyside Presbyterian Church, Pittsburgh, PA, May 27, 2012, when he was pastor at Shadyside and on faculty at Pittsburgh seminary, prior to his becoming president of Princeton seminary).
When Solomon prays for wisdom, he prays, “Give your servant, therefore, an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil.”
To quote Craig Barnes again,
There it is! That is what we need most from our leaders. We need them to be wise. We do not need our leaders to always have the right plan. Sometimes leadership is best demonstrated by confessing mistakes and failures …The wise leader sifts through the complexity of mixed motives—including the mixed motives of the leader—with the goal of determining the good and then doing it…
The difference between a leader and a manager is that the leader does not attempt to manage competing agendas or minimize unhappiness. The leader just leads people toward the good.
Craig Barnes says that many of his students at the seminary ask how to avoid conflict once they become pastors.
They assume they will be good leaders if there are no conflicts in the churches they serve. But this will only make them good managers, not good leaders. To lead is to invite people to change, which means to experience loss. And whenever there is loss, there is always conflict. Most of the conflicts Jesus had were conflicts he initiated. He could have left well enough alone, but it wasn’t actually well enough. So he kept exposing the conflict we all have with God’s understanding of what is good. And this is the leader’s real dilemma: what is the good choice for my family? For our school? For our church? For our nation? For our world? (Craig Barnes, “The Wisdom to Lead”).
So far we’ve said that wisdom consists in doing what is good, even if it generates conflict.
What else should we say about wisdom?
The Gospel writer Luke says that the boy Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor. If part of wisdom is aligning ourselves with the good as God sees it, then there is another part of wisdom that focuses on the human favor. And you might think that what I am about to say next contradicts the first part of the sermon, but that only underscores how challenging it can be to do the wise thing.
The New Testament book of James talks about wisdom. In Eugene Peterson’s The Message, James 3:17 reads
Real wisdom, God’s wisdom, begins with a holy life and is characterized by getting along with others. It is gentle and reasonable, overflowing with mercy and blessings, not hot one day and cold the next, not two-faced. You can develop a healthy, robust community that lives right with God and enjoy its results only if you do the hard work of getting along with each other, treating each other with dignity and honor.
James was likely speaking to a church in which leaders would sometimes try to tear one another down, sharing something that might sully the other’s reputation. And James is saying that the true leader is one who finds a way of getting along with others peaceably.
Yes, we seek to do what is good, and we do so without a paralyzing fear of conflict, but neither do we ride roughshod over others. Ruling elders, deacons, and all of us by virtue of our baptisms, are called to build up this body, this church. We are called to discern what is good, and we are called to get along peaceably with each other.
There’s a story told by Presbyterian minister Gregory Knox Jones. It goes back to British colonial rule in India. There were British living in Calcutta that found they really missed the game of golf. So, they built a golf course in Calcutta. But playing golf in Calcutta poses a very unique challenge. Monkeys!
Every time they would play golf, the monkeys were fascinated, and they would take the little white balls and just throw them everywhere. This, of course, drove the British colonialists and golf enthusiasts crazy!
So, they decided they had to come up with a plan. They were going to build a fence around the entire golf course. This sounded like a great plan. On paper. But while a fence can be very effective in keeping short-legged corgi dogs out of mischief, it’s not very effective with monkeys because monkeys love to … climb! So, the monkeys would scamper up one side of the fence and scamper down the other and play with the little white balls as they did before.
Next, the British tried to lure the monkeys away from the course. But whatever lure they tried to use, nothing was alluring as watching the human beings go crazy whenever the monkeys messed with the little white balls.
So, finally, the British in Calcutta developed a novel and unique golf course rule. And that was, “You simply play the ball where the monkey drops it.”
As you can imagine, playing golf this way could be maddening. You might have, for the first time in your life, that perfect, center drive down the fairway, and then a monkey comes along and throws your ball in the rough. Or, you could have a hook or slice that produces a miserable lie, and then a monkey tosses it back out onto the fairway for you. You simply play the ball where the monkey drops it. (Gregory Knox Jones, Play the Ball Where the Monkey Drops It: Why We Suffer and How We Can Hope, New York: HarperCollins, 2001, pp. 3-4).
Part of what it means to be wise is knowing that wisdom is not usually something that we possess. More often than not, wisdom is something that we receive. It is the spiritual equivalent of playing the ball where the monkey drops it.
Listen again to the Gospel writer Luke: “Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor.” In other words, Jesus is the embodiment of the good from heaven.
In Craig Barnes’s words,
Jesus is the wisdom of heaven that has come searching for us. The Christian leader does not ask, “What Would Jesus Do?” as if Jesus were just a moral teacher who lived long ago and died on a cross. By faith we proclaim that Jesus was raised from the dead and is now continuing his ministry among us through the Holy Spirit.
So the Christian leader instead asks, “What is Jesus doing?” What is Jesus doing with those around me? What is he asking of my finances? What is the change Jesus is asking us to make? What is the future Jesus is inviting us to inherit? What is the good Jesus is still doing?
The way the leader gets to these questions is by first asking, “What is the good that Jesus is doing within me?” That is because the leader’s own life is always a symbol of the redemption that Jesus is offering to others. (Craig Barnes, “The Wisdom to Lead”).
Likewise, the New Testament writer James insists that wisdom begins with a holy life. For the wise person there is no mismatch between what a person says and what a person does. There is no mismatch between who a person claims to be and who a person actually is.
Not a single one of us lives up to such a standard of perfect, flawless integrity.
But, like Solomon, we can approach God with humility, and pray to know the good thing God is calling us to do and lead others to it.
All glory and praise be to our God. Amen.