June 1, 2014
The Reverend Philip Tierney
When the Great Recession hit, all sorts of people lost jobs. One of them was my younger son, Andrew. He had been working as a cad. No. He wasn’t dishonorable toward the ladies. He had a job in computer assisted design—CAD for short. The architectural firm he’d been working for shed several of its employees, and he found himself in the ranks of the unemployed. Try though he did, he couldn’t seem to line up a job for several months. Then he was hired by the US government to develop telecommunications systems. He was sent to Afghanistan to do it, though. While he was there, whenever we talked, he’d express frustration. It wasn’t so much the IEDs, the extremes of the climate, or even the camel spiders and venomous vipers under his cot that bothered him the most. It was his supervisor. Apparently, the fellow was the kind of manager given to micromanagement, and yet Andrew seemed to think the manager had limited technical grasp of the work.
You may have encountered what I’ll call management issues of one sort or another at times. There can be all sorts of variations on that theme, but the two extremes usually take the form either of too much or too little managerial involvement. You know… there’s the organization that gives a worker too little guidance, letting workers fend for themselves to succeed or fail on their own with insufficient direction. Then again, there’s the organization that provides too much direction, when a manager looks over a worker’s shoulder at every turn—to correct, require permission, or negate the workers’ efforts, thereby creating a bottle-neck. Both extremes of management style can undermine effectiveness.
I have a dog and a cat. Both are exceptional pets. But they’re quite different from one another, and require different styles of management. My wonderful dog requires a master to sometimes let him know what to do and when to do it. My equally wonderful cat, instead, requires what might be called support staff, not to direct but to provide the essentials. People can have similar needs for different management styles.
Now, last Thursday was the Feast of the Ascension. We heard about the event in today’s first reading from the Book of Acts. The apostles were talking with Jesus, and all of a sudden “as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.” That must have seemed a bit drastic to them—numbing, jaw-dropping in its suddenness and finality. They must have wondered, “What now?!”
In fact, according to the story, just before his sudden departure, the apostles had just been asking that very question—“What now?” Well, in the more theo-politically nuanced words of the text, they asked, “Is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” You see, they were still apparently under the impression that Jesus’ mission, as Messiah, was to liberate Israel from Roman dominance and to instigate God’s rule over the Jewish people. Notice the implications of that brief interchange. They asked, “Lord, will you restore…?” And Jesus replied, “You will… receive power and be my witnesses.” Even then, after all they’d been through, the apostles were clearly on a different page from Jesus. And, if you stop to think about it in modern terms, the difference was a strategic management issue.
Here’s the thing about the disciples, and it may come as a rude awakening that it applies to us as well. They seem to have had a very different understanding about their role, their purpose and function, than Jesus did. They seem to have thought, and we most certainly do, that Jesus had called them to into his company to teach them what God wanted them to believe and how God wanted them to behave. Isn’t that honestly what you think—that being a Christian is all about what you personally believe and how you individually behave? Well, of course, that’s part of it. But that’s not really why Jesus called them into his entourage, and it’s not ultimately why he called us. Jesus was their teacher. Of course he was. But Jesus treated them differently from the way he treated others in the crowds around him. He devoted quite a bit of those three years, give or take, to training them as well as teaching them. He explained to them the whys and wherefores of what he taught the others. He showed them how to do what he did.
You see, Jesus didn’t call those early disciples to be shills, to be some kind of reliable audience that would draw other people’s curiosity. And he didn’t call them to keep him company during what otherwise might be a lonely itinerant mission. Instead, Jesus recruited those earliest disciples to become apostles. A disciple is someone who learns a discipline from someone in order to practice it personally. An apostle, from the Greek word αποστελοσ, was a delegate, an emissary, a representative, a stand-in for another. When Jesus recruited the disciples he meant to train them to serve as his replacements—to carry on what he started. And that’s Christ’s intention for us as well. In that sense, we’ve been recruited to be Jesus, here and now, and not just to adhere to his ways.
Remember when Jesus said, you will do greater things than I do? Well what do you suppose he meant by that? In my experience, it’s not qualitative. I’ve never encountered anyone who’s been able to do greater things than Jesus did. No. It’s quantitative—more of us in more places and times attempting to do what Jesus did. We talk about the so-called incarnation at Christmas-time. And we conceive, no pun intended, we conceive of that as an aspect of the omniscient and omnipresent God voluntarily becoming human. What we don’t always consider is the inherent sacrifice of that move—the voluntary choice to limit oneself in space and time. Jesus, and I dare say even the Risen Christ, could only be at one place at a time. So, in order to multiply the effectiveness of the impact of his mission, in the same way that God had to limit himself to meet people where we are, he also had to figure out how to, again no pun intended, how to rise above those limitations—among other things, how to be in multiple places at the same time. I’m pretty sure that’s what Paul meant by the concept of being the body of Christ. The apostles, the early Christians, and we are the physical extension of the Risen Christ, here and now, wherever we happen to be and whenever we happen to be there—trying to do the kinds of things he did, as his representatives in this world. In that sense we are also the incarnation of Christ in the world.
It’s all about management. God, Christ, has neither been an overbearing micromanager nor has he left us on our own to fend for ourselves to make it all up as we go along. Like the apostles, we have been given the responsibility—the mission—to carry out what Jesus began. Our role is to say and do what he said and did. He gives us his teachings to guide us, his example to flesh it out, his Spirit to empower us, and companions to encourage us along the way. He doesn’t intend to do it for us. He expects us to do it for him. I think that makes the risen and ascended Christ an exceptional manager. He provides the support he knows we need and releases us to do what we’ve been recruited to do—as his witnesses, his representatives in our various walks of life and circles of influence.
So, among other things, as St. Martin’s seeks to recruit a new rector, please resist the long-standing temptation to find someone who’ll do ministry for you, but instead, who’ll continue to point to Jesus—to encourage you to do it yourselves—to do Christ’s mission, what he said and did, in your own spheres of involvement and influence. That’s why he left—to make us into Christ’s body—his physical extension, his physical presence, here and now. So let’s do it.