Weekly Seeds: Authentic Leadership

Sunday, Sunday, June 20, 2021
Fourth Sunday after Pentecost Year B
Proper 7

Focus Theme:
Authentic Leadership

Focus Prayer:
God our protector, you stood by David in the time of trial. Stand with us through all life’s storms, giving us courage to risk danger to protect those who are oppressed and poor, that they may know you as their stronghold and hope. Amen.

Focus Reading:
1 Samuel 17:32–49
32 David said to Saul, “Let no one’s heart fail because of him; your servant will go and fight with this Philistine.” 33 Saul said to David, “You are not able to go against this Philistine to fight with him; for you are just a boy, and he has been a warrior from his youth.” 34 But David said to Saul, “Your servant used to keep sheep for his father; and whenever a lion or a bear came, and took a lamb from the flock, 35 I went after it and struck it down, rescuing the lamb from its mouth; and if it turned against me, I would catch it by the jaw, strike it down, and kill it. 36 Your servant has killed both lions and bears; and this uncircumcised Philistine shall be like one of them, since he has defied the armies of the living God.” 37 David said, “The LORD, who saved me from the paw of the lion and from the paw of the bear, will save me from the hand of this Philistine.” So Saul said to David, “Go, and may the LORD be with you!”
38 Saul clothed David with his armor; he put a bronze helmet on his head and clothed him with a coat of mail. 39 David strapped Saul’s sword over the armor, and he tried in vain to walk, for he was not used to them. Then David said to Saul, “I cannot walk with these; for I am not used to them.” So David removed them. 40 Then he took his staff in his hand, and chose five smooth stones from the wadi, and put them in his shepherd’s bag, in the pouch; his sling was in his hand, and he drew near to the Philistine.
41 The Philistine came on and drew near to David, with his shield-bearer in front of him. 42 When the Philistine looked and saw David, he disdained him, for he was only a youth, ruddy and handsome in appearance. 43 The Philistine said to David, “Am I a dog, that you come to me with sticks?” And the Philistine cursed David by his gods. 44 The Philistine said to David, “Come to me, and I will give your flesh to the birds of the air and to the wild animals of the field.” 45 But David said to the Philistine, “You come to me with sword and spear and javelin; but I come to you in the name of the LORD of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied. 46 This very day the LORD will deliver you into my hand, and I will strike you down and cut off your head; and I will give the dead bodies of the Philistine army this very day to the birds of the air and to the wild animals of the earth, so that all the earth may know that there is a God in Israel, 47 and that all this assembly may know that the LORD does not save by sword and spear; for the battle is the LORD’s and he will give you into our hand.”
48 When the Philistine drew nearer to meet David, David ran quickly toward the battle line to meet the Philistine. 49 David put his hand in his bag, took out a stone, slung it, and struck the Philistine on his forehead; the stone sank into his forehead, and he fell face down on the ground.

All readings for this Sunday:
1 Samuel 17:(1a, 4–11, 19–23) 32–49 and Psalm 9:9–20
1 Samuel 17:57–18:5, 18:10–16 and Psalm 133
Job 38:1–11 and Psalm 107:1–3, 23–32
2 Corinthians 6:1–13
Mark 4:35–41

Focus Questions:
1. What motivates your leadership style?
2. How do life experiences shape our leadership?
3. How does your walk with God impact your leadership?
4. What happens when you try to put on someone else’s leadership style?
5. How can we lead from our truest selves?

By Cheryl Lindsay
What do you draw from when you are called upon to lead?

There’s no shortage of books on leadership or models to explore. When I was in seminary, one of the required courses was on Leadership. Regretfully, it was not a good experience (the only one of my seminary career). For some reason, we never discussed biblical or even historical models of pastoral leadership. We didn’t even do a deep dive into Jesus as a leader. Oh, as we discussed the servant-leader model, we touched on Jesus, but only in a very superficial way. The profession primarily referenced models from a business perspective even though his background was theology, ethics, and academia. When giving broad feedback to the class on an assignment that we, as a group, clearly did not grasp, he lambasted us for an extended period of time. When we pushed back, individually and collectively, he came to us the next week claiming that his tirade had been an exercise in poor leadership.

Yes, it was.

It’s easy to identify poor leadership–the kind that makes you want to go in the opposite direction of the way charged with paving the way. We can also recognize strong, compelling leadership that invites trust, participation, and engagement. But how do we cultivate leadership? The challenge in my class was that leadership is hard to teach with broad and general terms. In many ways, leadership is response to a need. We can hone our skills and increase our sensitivity and awareness, but by its nature, leadership requires us to address the unexpected, unanticipated, and uncontrolled.

In a crisis situation, you don’t want to follow someone who pulls out a book. You get behind the person with a point of view, a perspective, and a path forward. Leadership comes from whom we are, our attitudes and behaviors shaped over our lives.

The story of David’s battle with the Philistine is not about David becoming the leader the Israelites wanted; it’s about David leading from his essential self and succeeding because of that truth. As Abraham Kuruvilla states:

First Samuel 17 is part of a larger portion of text, 1 Sam 16:14—2 Samuel 5, that depicts the rise of David—how and why he became the legitimate successor to Saul.2 By the end of 1 Samuel 15, we discover that Saul has been rejected by God from being king; immediately thereafter, in 1 Samuel 16, his successor, David, is anointed by the prophet Samuel, and the Spirit of Yahweh comes mightily upon this young man (16:13). But why was he chosen? God obviously saw something [human beings] did not; … looking at David’s heart, seems to have observed David’s qualifications (16:7). What were they? What was in David’s curriculum vitae that fitted him for the task of being the regent of a nation under God?

It’s interesting that Saul is still part of the story. David has been identified and anointed, but Saul’s presence continues to linger. He still wants to lead, and even when it is apparent and accepted that David will be the one to approach the Philistine, Saul attempts to interject himself by insisting that David wear his armor. It’s not David’s and will not be. It still belongs to Saul, and Saul wants to use it to clothe David in his legacy and own the outcome of this moment.
How often do we attempt to hold onto roles and responsibilities that no longer belong to us by controlling some aspect of those who follow in those roles rather than transition and affirm the new thing God is doing in a new way through a new person? Saul’s way has failed and his leadership has been rejected, but he can’t seem to help but center himself in the moment that calls for David to come forth as himself.

Traditional interpretations of this text lift up David as the underdog. It’s a tale of an overmatched and scrappy young man triumphing against all odds. A close reading of the text tells us that David never saw himself that way. David knew that he was prepared for this moment. His role as a shepherd readied him not only to fight this battle but to have confidence in his victory. David doesn’t come reluctantly; he comes forward because he knows that he can do this. None of the doubts or skepticism he faces, even from his opponent, will dissuade him. He knows who he is. The Philistine–and everyone else–will find out.

Of course, the Creator already knew who they had chosen, and David understood who had chosen him. “I come to you in the name of the Lord of hosts,” he proclaims. It’s not Saul’s weaponry that David needs, it’s the strong name of his God. Calling upon the name of the Holy One reflects more than God’s identity, it asserts a relationship of connection, intimacy, and covenant. Much of contemporary culture is casual with the use of names, but that is a recent phenomenon. Different cultures still approach the use of given and surnames in a variety of ways that reflect relational standing, respect, and even reverence. Hebrew scriptures treat the divine name of God with such honor that the vowels are omitted, and the custom was to replace that particular name with another (that still reflect the sovereignty of God but was considered more accessible) in public reading of the texts. The name of God was treated with care. To come in the name of God is to come with all that God is. That was the primary mark of David’s leadership, and over the course of his tenure, his only failures came when he deviated from that model.

Still, David was chosen to lead. He doesn’t wave a magic wand or simply utter a prayer calling on his God to act. Leadership in the kin-dom of God is a partnership that joins divine and human action for God’s purposes.

The Philistine comes in a different manner, with an imposing physical presence and insulting dismissal of his challenger. Mary Evans suggests, “The weight of his armor suggests he was meant to frighten rather than fight.” It’s conceivable that the Philistine recognizes David as a formidable adversary and employs a strategy of bravado to avoid the fight.

How many challenges do we lose because we give up before engaging the battle?

Misty Copeland was told that she was too short, too old, and too curvy to reach the heights of a career as a ballerina, but she believed in her abilities and became the first African American women to be named principal ballerina at the American Ballet Theater.
In high school, Michael Jordan was placed on the junior varsity basketball team, but he used that to motivate himself to work harder and ultimately become one of the greatest players (of any sport) of all time.
Before achieving the record for the most home runs in baseball, Babe Ruth held the record for the most strikeouts.
Esther was chosen as queen because she had a pretty face and presumably would be more docile than her predecessor and yet she led her people to salvation and prosperity.
Moses had a speech impediment but served as prophet and priest through the Exodus narrative.
Elijah had a panic attack and mental health crisis yet recovered, continued to serve, and mentored his successor.
Every story of leadership is defined by the nature of the situation, the leader, and the way that particular leader responded to the circumstances–internal and external–they confronted.

David’s story proves that the only mold that a leader needs to fit is their own. And, when he confronts the Philistine, the protective armor of God fits him well:

The incident with the armor, also easily envisaged, brings out Saul’s need to depend on something other than divine protection and David’s unwillingness to be something he was not. Given Saul’s exceptional height, that he thought his armor would help David perhaps further indicates his inability to plan coherently. However, wearing another person’s clothes is sometimes a sign of acting on that person’s behalf or with the person’s power (cf. Elisha taking up Elijah’s cloak, 1 Kgs. 19; 2 Kgs. 2). David’s refusal to wear Saul’s armor could then be a symbolic affirmation that he needed God’s power, not Saul’s. David enters the field not as a soldier but as a young shepherd. (Mary Evans)

David does not need to be anyone or anything other than who God created him to be. Of course, Saul’s armor does not fit him. It wasn’t meant for him. But being a shepherd fits David, and the tools that he used in that part of his life will transfer to this new one. In last week’s lectionary, we were reminded that God looks at the heart, and it’s David’s shepherd’s heart that God calls into this moment. He’ll fight for God, but David isn’t a fighter. He cares for God’s flock and will be used by God to protect them. He’d rather worship, but for David, his willingness to move on God’s behalf is an act of surrender rather than a positioning for personal gain.

The purpose of David’s victory is not simply to save Israel or to defeat the Philistines. The purpose is the glorification of Yahweh in the eyes of the world. The intent of the encounter is to make clear yet again that Yahweh “saves”, not with the conventions of human warfare but in Yahweh’s own inscrutable ways. (Walter Brueggemann)

David is not perfect. His story is messy and at times, deplorable. But God keeps calling, and David’s testimony is that when he answers, he responds as his authentic self–servant, shepherd, worshipper. Because that is who he is, that is also how he leads.

How do you show up when God calls you to lead?

For further reflection:
We have to dare to be ourselves, however frightening or strange that self may prove to be.” ― May Sarton
“Authenticity is a collection of choices that we have to make every day. It’s about the choice to show up and be real. The choice to be honest. The choice to let our true selves be seen.” ― Brene Brown
“You’ll never know who you are unless you shed who you pretend to be.” ― Vironika Tugaleva

A preaching commentary on this text (with works cited) is at http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel.

The Rev. Dr. Cheryl A. Lindsay, Sermon Seeds Writer and Editor (lindsayc@ucc.org), is a local church pastor and worship scholar-practitioner with a particular interest in the proclamation of the word in gather ed communities. You’re invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.

About Weekly Seeds

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Weekly Seeds is a service of Local Church Ministries of the United Church of Christ. Bible texts are from the New Revised Standard Version, © 1989 Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Prayer: Reproduced from Revised Common Lectionary Prayers © 2002 Consultation of Common Texts. Used by permission.