31 Maple Street
Bristol, Connecticut USA
November 1, 2015
1 Kings 12:1-17, 25-29
Rev. Kristen J. Kleiman
What makes a good leader? It was a question being asked at the Leadership themed CT Conference Annual Meeting last weekend. It is a question we ask ourselves in our local church as our Nominating Committee works to fill our church’s leadership positions. It is a question we ask ourselves in our community and nation as Election Day approaches. What makes a good leader?
This morning, our Bible passages have for us the tale of three kings. The tale of three very different kinds of leaders.
The first is the tale of Rehoboam, the son and heir to King Solomon. Because of his father and his grandfather, King David, Rehoboam has grown up in a united kingdom, a prosperous and peaceful kingdom. As the son of royalty, he has grown up privileged and wealthy.
But things were not destined to remain prosperous and peaceful in the kingdom of Israel and Judah. Through a prophet, God prophesied that the kingdom of Israel and Judah would be divided, the 10 northern tribes of Israel would be torn from the hand of King Solomon (1 Kings 11:31).
Torn from the hand of King Solomon because Solomon has not walked in the ways of God; because King Solomon has begun to worship other gods; because King Solomon has been a harsh task master over his people, especially the northern tribes, forcing them to labor on his building projects.
King Solomon, despite his wisdom and previous faithfulness to God, did not hear this prophecy as a call to repent and turn back to God. He was not interested in changing his ways or losing the majority of his kingdom so in an attempt to prevent God’s will, he drove Jeroboam out of his kingdom and into exile in Egypt.
But now King Solomon is dead, and his son has come to power. As Rehoboam prepares to be anointed King over all of Israel and Judah, he picks a very symbolic location for his coronation, Shechem.
Shechem, the first place Abraham stopped in the Promised Land; Shechem, an important city located in the northern kingdom of Israel; Shechem, the place where another man, long ago, ruthlessly murdered his rivals and declared himself king.
And so it is at Shechem, that Rehoboam has two possibilities before him. He can listen to God’s people, his people, and he can listen to the men who counseled his father. He can reverse his father’s building policies that required forced labor. He can be a servant to the people and win their loyalty forever, continuing the peace and prosperity of his father and grandfather’s reigns.
Or Rehoboam can reject the wise counsel of the elders and listen to men, who despite being over 40 years old, are still called “the boys”. He can ignore God and listen to his peers as they vulgarly egg him on to assert his dominance, to seek more power, and build monuments to his own glory.
In our passage, we hear Rehoboam’s answer. He outright tells the people what kind of a leader he will be – a tyrant, a dictator, a harsh taskmaster, a man overly confident in his own power and privilege.
And the people in return will tell Rehoboam “no thank you.” They will say, “we will have no share, no part in this kingdom. We would rather live as wanders in the desert, as homeless people, than in houses in your kingdom.” And just as God has said, the ten northern tribes of Israel are torn from the hand of King Solomon’s line.
Because he refuses to listen to God, because of his sense of self-importance, because of his bravado and thirst for power, riches, and honor, Rehoboam loses his entire kingdom, except for one little tribe.
Which leads us to the tale of our second king, Jeroboam. Like King David, Jeroboam is anointed by God to lead God’s people. If Jeroboam will listen to all that God commands, walk in God’s ways and do what is right in God’s sight, then God will be with Jeroboam and build him an enduring house. (1 Kings 11:38)
And just as God has said, the ten tribes of the northern kingdom, the ten tribes of Israel, swear allegiance to Jeroboam and proclaim him their king. All seems to be well in his kingdom, except fear begins to niggle at the back of Jeroboam’s mind. What if, as the people go to worship God at the Temple in Jerusalem, in the one territory Rehoboam, has left, what if their hearts begin to return to Rehoboam? What if they become loyal to him, instead of Jeroboam?
So in his fear, in his desire to guarantee his power and position, King Jeroboam creates two calves made of gold, and he presents them to the people and says, “Here are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt.” (1 Kings 12:28). And King Jeroboam creates two worship centers in the northern kingdom to prevent the people from returning to Jerusalem to worship God in the Temple.
As one person did in Bible study, maybe you are shaking your head and saying, “Will God’s people never learn?” If you don’t know the story, Moses’ brother, Aaron, made a golden calf when the Israelites wandered the desert, and it was not pretty when the Israelites decided to worship it instead of God.
King Jeroboam did not mean to create a new religion. He did not intend to turn the people away from God. He just wanted to keep them away from Jerusalem. He wanted them to be loyal to him and him alone.
And because of his fear, because of his desire to maintain his power and position, because of his lack of faith in God, because he forgot that the only reason he was king was because of the will and grace of God, Jeroboam loses his entire kingdom to the Assyrians.
Fast forward, a thousand years to our third king. He has not been raised in a privileged royal household like Rehoboam. He does not speak with bravado and act as a bully and tyrant. Neither does he let his fear of losing his power, his kingdom, turn him away from God like Jeroboam.
When Jesus’ disciples, James and John ask to sit on Jesus’ right and left hands when Jesus comes into his power, Jesus does not respond like some leaders do. He does not seek to curry their favor and solidify his own position of power. He does not threaten and intimidate them into knowing their lowly place versus his high stature.
Instead, Jesus shares with them these words, “You know that among the Gentiles, among those who do not worship and believe in our God, those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:42-45)
“Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve.”
And because of Jesus’ humility, because of his dedication to serving God’s people, because of his faithfulness and never failing trust in God, Jesus’ kingdom has continued for two thousand years and will continue for thousands of years more.
Servant leadership. It is not a phrase we hear much in our world. If we want to be great, if we want to be first, we must be slave and servant of all. This kind of ego-less, other-centered leadership is rare in our world, but it is not gone completely.
Pope Francis has changed the papal tradition of washing the feet of twelve priests on Maundy Thursday to also include washing the feet of women, prisoners, Muslims, and people with disabilities. Pope Francis models for us the servant leadership Jesus calls us to.
Last Saturday, the churches of the Connecticut Conference honored Pat and Jerry Blakey of the Cornwall United Church of Christ. Pat and Jerry have organized work groups to Baja, Mexico for over 14 years; coordinated their community’s annual pancake breakfast; lead the Election Day lunch in Cornwall that brings lunch to poll workers and shut-ins; and organized Operation Overflow in Torrington, which provides overnight shelter in local churches for the homeless. They also volunteer at the Torrington Soup Kitchen. Pat and Jerry Blakey model for us the servant leadership Jesus calls us to.
And look at those in our own church, who give so much financially and who also give so much of their time. They are on committees and sub-committees and ad-hoc committees. They buy goldfish and supplies for the crib nursery. They pick up sticks and plant mums around our property. They care for parts of our building the rest of us forget need care, like the clock tower. They usher and stuff envelopes and send birthday cards. They model the servant leadership Jesus calls us to.
What makes a good leader? Look at Jesus. Look at Pope Francis. Look at Pat and Jerry Blakey. Look at all of those who are grounded deeply in their relationship with God. Look at those who are deeply prayerful, humble of heart, and ready to serve their neighbor. Look at those who want no thanks, power, or glory other than to hear God say, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”