It is axiomatic that Britain is a divided society, and few recent events have done more to expose our internal divisions than the death earlier this week of Baroness Thatcher. I spend quite a lot of time online – perhaps more than is healthy – and I’ve seen at first hand just how polarized reactions to the news have been: not just across the country but among my own friends and acquaintances.
At one extreme, one old school-friend of mine was distraught at the news. For him, Margaret was not just the greatest British leader in living memory, but a symbol of everything he admires in our British heritage. At the other extreme, I heard from someone who feels such a backlog of anger over Margaret’s record in government that he can find nothing good to say about her even in death. And in between those extremes lies a whole spectrum of less polarized responses: many feel a poignant sense of loss, whether or not they shared Margaret’s political vision. Others simply put the politics aside, and pay her the respect due to anyone who has passed away. Everyone here will have their own perceptions, their own emotions. And before continuing, I am going to leave a few seconds’ silence here, in mid-sermon, so that we can each offer up our thoughts to our Father God……
Closer to home, most of us are still in shock over the loss of another leadership figure. This is our second Sunday without _____ and his family: the first week of our interregnum. This afternoon, several of us will be representing our Parish and Benefice at ________ for his installation as Archdeacon, and from the moment he is formally appointed to his new job, the process of consultation can begin to find a successor here in _________.
These two events – the divided national response to the death of Margaret Thatcher, and our search for a successor to ________ – should set us all thinking about the kind of leaders that we need at national and parochial level. There is no one right formula, of course; a leadership style is a very individualized thing, and what works in one place will not work for another.
But in general terms, Jesus himself gives us a vision, a guide as to what to look for in a leader. And today’s reading from John’s Gospel is just one of many passages in which Jesus holds himself up as a role model for enlightened leadership. Now it’s easy, looking back from the 21st century, to miss the impact that Jesus’ teaching would have had on the people of this day. And to get us thinking about the implications of what he says, I’d like you to imagine that you are on an interviewing panel. In front of you sits a candidate for an important post: perhaps a seat in parliament, or a senior management position, or indeed a parish incumbency. And you ask this candidate what qualifies him or her for this important post. Imagine your surprise if you heard them say, “I’d make a great fast food operative… or a superb hospital nurse… or a brilliant bodyguard…”
A fanciful picture, you might think, but when Jesus wants to set out his leadership credentials, he says, “I am the Good Shepherd”. And if we look back past the distorting prism of our own culture to how Jesus’ original hearers would have understood his words, we come to some surprising conclusions.
Firstly, in the minds of the people to whom Jesus was speaking, a shepherd – even a good one – was at the very bottom of the socio-economic ladder. To be a shepherd was like street sweeping or working in a fast food chain: grueling, unappreciated, humbled in the eyes of everyone else. In Jesus’ eyes, to be a leader was not to lord it over others, but to be a humble servant.
Secondly, being a shepherd was (and is) a caring job, in the same way that nursing is a caring job. It involves dealing with ailments, treating wounds, delivering young, comforting those who are frightened. And you can’t be a nurse or any kind of professional carer without getting your hands really, really dirty. And for Jesus, this was central to his idea of leadership.
Thirdly, being a shepherd was a dangerous job. It involved defending the sheep from brigands, wild beasts and natural hazards. It could involve going into dangerous places like caves or ravines to rescue animals that had wandered off and become trapped. Ultimately, in Jesus words, a good shepherd had to be willing to lay down his life for the good of the flock.
In Jesus, we have a leader who is all those things: A humble servant who did not exalt himself over others; a dedicated carer who sought out the sick and the needy and didn’t shrink from getting his hands dirty; and a courageous bodyguard who laid down his life for the sake of others.
Jesus offered himself as the definitive role model for all those who aspire to a position of leadership in any community that calls itself Christian. Different times and situations call for different individuals, but may we bear Jesus’ example in mind whenever we have a say in electing new leaders, in the church or in wider society.