Weekly Seeds: Compassionate Leadership

Sunday, June 27, 2021
Fifth Sunday after Pentecost Year B
Proper 8

Focus Theme:
Compassionate Leadership

Focus Prayer:
God of hope, you are ruler of night as well as day, guardian of those who wander in the shadows. Be new light and life for those who live in the darkness of despair, for prisoners of guilt and grief, for victims of fantasy and depression, that even where death’s cold grip tightens, we may know the power of the one who conquered fear and death. Amen.

Focus Reading:
2 Samuel 1:1, 17–27
1 After the death of Saul, when David had returned from defeating the Amalekites, David remained two days in Ziklag.
17 David intoned this lamentation over Saul and his son Jonathan. 18 (He ordered that The Song of the Bow be taught to the people of Judah; it is written in the Book of Jashar.) He said:
19 Your glory, O Israel, lies slain upon your high places!
How the mighty have fallen!
20 Tell it not in Gath,
proclaim it not in the streets of Ashkelon;
or the daughters of the Philistines will rejoice,
the daughters of the uncircumcised will exult.
21 You mountains of Gilboa,
let there be no dew or rain upon you,
nor bounteous fields!
For there the shield of the mighty was defiled,
the shield of Saul, anointed with oil no more.
22 From the blood of the slain,
from the fat of the mighty,
the bow of Jonathan did not turn back,
nor the sword of Saul return empty.
23 Saul and Jonathan, beloved and lovely!
In life and in death they were not divided;
they were swifter than eagles,
they were stronger than lions.
24 O daughters of Israel, weep over Saul,
who clothed you with crimson, in luxury,
who put ornaments of gold on your apparel.
25 How the mighty have fallen
in the midst of the battle!
Jonathan lies slain upon your high places.
26 I am distressed for you, my brother Jonathan;
greatly beloved were you to me;
your love to me was wonderful,
passing the love of women.
27 How the mighty have fallen,
and the weapons of war perished!

All readings for this Sunday:
2 Samuel 1:1, 17–27 and Psalm 130
Wisdom of Solomon 1:13–15, 2:23–24 or Lamentations 3:22–33 and Psalm 30
2 Corinthians 8:7–15
Mark 5:21–43

Focus Questions:
1. How do you define compassion?
2. What role does compassion play in leadership?
3. Can you think of an example of compassionate leadership you’ve experienced?
4. What happens when leaders lack compassion?
5. How can we cultivate compassion in relationships?

By Cheryl Lindsay

Leadership relationships are messy, complicated, and conflicting. Do we weep over our enemies?

In this passage, there is no surprise that David weeps over Jonathan. The two shared a relationship that challenged the boundaries, expectations, and limits that are too often placed on love. We would expect David to mourn the passing of Jonathan and to do so deeply. It is his equating the loss of Saul–the one who aggressively pursued him–to the loss of Jonathan that surprises and perhaps even confounds.

Saul and David maintained a relationship that was structured around succession. The only reason that the two encounter one another is because Saul’s leadership has been rejected and David has received God’s anointing to succeed Saul as Israel’s new king. Saul’s response to David envelopes the totality of his new de-elevated stature as not only a lame duck, but as a failed monarch. Saul must have viewed David through the lens of “what if?” What if Saul had made different choices? What if Saul had a different background that prepared him for the role of leader? What if Saul had another opportunity to get it right? What if David didn’t exist and wasn’t available to take on the mantle of leadership? What if…?

Saul only recognizes David as a tangible repudiation of his tenure and a threat in his remaining term of leadership. Jealousy, bitterness, and resentment consume Saul and fuel his treatment of him. As Hayyim Angel notes, “It appears that Saul loved David but also envied him to the point where he lost all balance.” Unresolved feelings of disappointment, anger, betrayal and grief impact Saul’s relationship with David. Transferring leadership in an acrimonious environment presents the potential for all of that and more. The threat of being replaced has caused tension between an established leader and an emerging one, and even a planned and welcomed transition can evoke nostalgia and bittersweet reflection.

In the United States, we have a long tradition of the peaceful transition of power:

In the early morning hours of March 4, 1801, John Adams, the second president of the United States, quietly left Washington, D.C. under cover of darkness. He would not attend the inauguration ceremony held later that day for his former friend—now political rival—Thomas Jefferson, who would soon replace Adams in the still-unfinished presidential mansion. On the heels of his humiliating defeat in the previous year’s election, Adams was setting an important precedent. His departure from office marked the first peaceful transfer of power between political opponents in the United States, now viewed as a hallmark of the nation’s democracy. (Sarah Pruitt)

The events of January 6, 2021 demonstrate how precariously that tradition has been held. It’s a reminder that leadership matters, not only in setting a long-term vision, enacting that vision, and the day to day minutia of governance; how we depart from leadership has an impact on our legacy and the tenure of those to follow. That transition was remarkably different from the manner in which George H. W. Bush may room for his successor, William Jefferson Clinton. Bush wrote a note to the man that defeated him. In that letter, which has since been publicized and widely circulated on social media, Bush wished Clinton the best, expressed his hopes for a successful presidency, and offered his support. That note forged a path toward a lasting friendship between the two former rivals and created a new transition tradition in the same way that Adams had done nearly two centuries before. Both illustrate compassionate leadership.

So did David in his assumption of his new position, for surely, Saul wasn’t the only one who struggled in this relationship. “David expressed conflicted emotions of loyalty to Saul as God’s anointed coupled with a desire for God to judge Saul harshly for his unjust actions.” (Hayyim Angel) At Saul’s death, David’s grief, that likely first took root with the turn in the relationship, fully blooms:

David’s lament over Saul and Jonathan is powerful, passionate poetry commonly regarded as being directly from David’s hand. Its directness, passion, and innocence are reflective of a genuine grief not inappropriate to David, who had lived with Saul so long and loved Jonathan so deeply. In this poetry, placed in the mouth of David, we have a deeply moving, pathos-filled personal statement that is at the same time a magisterial statement of public reality. (Walter Brueggemann)

As the new and undisputed leader of the nation, this grief takes public form as the private self and public self often merge for leaders.

When Israel witnesses David in his grief, it sees David in his fullest, most faithful, most powerful form. This poem marks a deep, precious, and hurtful moment in the life of Israel….out. There is a moratorium on power for the full honoring of grief. Such poetry serves to give the community time, space, and means whereby to treasure and to relinquish.” (Walter Brueggemann)

For David, he does not have the option to privately deal with the emotions spurred by the death of Saul and Jonathan. His public face must show up, and he does so with authenticity and transparency. His lament is genuinely his but, at the same time, belongs to the nation who also needs a common expression of loss. David asks them to “weep for Saul.” After all, Saul was the king the people petitioned God to appoint through the prophet Samuel. They wanted a king like those of the nations around them, and Saul provided the answer to that prayer.

David, in his lament, reminds the people of what would have been easy for them to forget or diminish as the failures of Saul would have been evident and prominent in their remembrance. David reminds them that Saul was their king, and his leadership was not all bad. This is a compassionate stance to take. It may have also had a self-serving element as the incoming king would have wanted to receive the same graceful perspective upon his own reign. The degree to which David advocates and specifically gives voice to mourning Saul, however, suggests that he was not thinking so much of himself as he was of the man who preceded him…and the people who looked toward his leadership in public lament. Their needs propel him to frame Saul’s death as cause for collective grief rather than personal relief that his adversary will no longer torment him.

Perhaps, as he faced the reality of assuming the mantle of leadership gave David a new perspective on Saul and his actions as a king. It’s one thing to be one of a group of leaders, but to hold the full authority of the office with all the associated responsibilities feels different. As David takes Saul’s seat, he also enters into Saul’s condition. The view is different. Certainly, David weeps for Saul the person, the father figure, and even the threatened, rejected king. But David also grieves with Saul, the man with a position beyond his character, a role too big for his isolated and independent leadership style, and regret for the failures he could not overcome. That’s why David’s insistence that the people also mourn, not the rejected and failed monarch, but the ruler who did some good and provided some benefit to the nation under his governance.

Human beings never get everything right and rarely get everything wrong. Leadership involves complex choices rooted in reality rather than the ideal. There’s almost always something that can be fairly critiqued, and strong leaders welcome accountability and constructive evaluation, but compassion invites us to even enter into the story of the leader…who so often has to journey alone.

Compassion means “to suffer with.” By its very definition, it isn’t necessary when things are going well. It requires us to recognize the hurt and pain experienced or anticipated by the other. In particular, Saul was sensitive to how he would be perceived in death. David reflects that concern in his lament and even adopts it as his own:

The forlorn hope that the news would not be spread among the Philistine cities and not become a matter for rejoicing there (v. 20) is unrealistic but heartfelt. Saul wanted to die before he could be mocked (1 Sam. 31:4); that mockery should take place in Philistia after his death added to David’s sadness. (Mary Evans)

In part, David asks the Israelites to weep over Saul as a counter to the glee that will take place among the nation’s enemies. In the end, David embraces solidarity with Saul and allows the adversarial nature of their relationship to die with him. By doing so, he frees the nation to do the same and give Saul the mourning to make up for the rejoicing of the Philistines.

Much of the turmoil over succession found in the books of Samuel comes because lineage isn’t producing leaders. Samuel’s sons will not take his mantle as Judge. Saul’s sons will not follow him either. Yet, lineage remained important to the people of Israel and the covenantal relationship they maintained with God. The messianic promise foretold the arrival of a new sovereign who would come from the line of David.

Jesus fully embodied compassionate leadership. From his birth, he enters into the human condition, and throughout his life, he reflects care and concern for not only friends and family but also opponents and foes. He sets aside his desires for the good of his people, weeps over and grieves human pain, and suffers with us all. David would go on to assume the mantle and authority of his office and lead to impressive victories on the military field. Jesus, in contrast, in ushering in the kin-dom of God on earth as it is in heaven, sets aside his enthroned status and secures an ultimate victory through an impressive failure. Both models of leadership pivot on radical compassion and perhaps that lineage was the most remarkable–and necessary–of all.

For further reflection:
“All I ever wanted was to reach out and touch another human being not just with my hands but with my heart.” ― Tahereh Mafi
“Courage. Kindness. Friendship. Character. These are the qualities that define us as human beings, and propel us, on occasion, to greatness.” ― R.J. Palacio, Wonder
“In the end, though, maybe we must all give up trying to pay back the people in this world who sustain our lives. In the end, maybe it’s wiser to surrender before the miraculous scope of human generosity and to just keep saying thank you, forever and sincerely, for as long as we have voices.” ― Elizabeth Gilbert

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.

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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.