john davies
notes from a small vicar
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK

    In search of leadership in a time of darkness

    Lydford, Remembrance Sunday service,

    1 Thessalonians 5.1-11, Matthew 25.14-30

    (Introduce Gospel reading: 'Jesus told his listeners a parable about leadership, and being led....')

    The parable of the talents reads rather like a contemporary initiative test, a training exercise which might be given to young military hopefuls, or business apprentices, to see what they can do with the resources entrusted to them. It is a parable about leadership, and how people respond to being led by a particular person in a particular situation.

    Jesus told parables like this to provoke in his listeners conversations about the way things were, at that time, in their society, as a way into introducing a big new idea to them, the radical difference of the Kingdom of Heaven which he was bringing in. Jesus's parables can still serve this useful purpose today. So this story - about the man who rewarded those members of his staff who gave him a good return on his money and punished the one who made nothing - prompts us to contemplate the nature of leadership today. A fitting subject for Remembrance Sunday.

    We have all been influenced by good leaders. Think for a moment of one who has played a special part in your life. If you have a military background then perhaps that person was an officer in command of you, whose character, whose strategic thinking, whose example, helped you learn how to follow in his good ways; or in other walks of life maybe it was an influential parent or family member, a teacher, a friend, a colleague, perhaps a member of the clergy, whose help and encouragement guided you effectively. As we make our act of remembrance today it is good and right that we should recall these people to our presence, and give thanks again for them. [.... pause ....]

    It is interesting to reflect that, besides these good leaders, we have each also been influenced by people who in themselves were not necessarily that good - but who gave us something, showed us something, which led us nevertheless. Not everyone we remember at our war memorials and in our churches today was necessarily the best or most inspirational of characters, but we remember them because they made at least one very influential decision: to join the armed forces and fight for a cause they saw as just. Regardless of any other flaws they may have had in their characters, generations since have been touched, moved, motivated, led by them in their decision, and the consequences of that decision. We value their commitment to the well-being of their people, and their concern for the well-being of subsequent generations. Age has not wearied them, nor the years condemned: they continue to encourage us and built us up. Their example also reminds us that even the most ordinary people are leaders, and that each of us, in particular situations and at every stage in our lives, lead and are led.

    In the parable which Jesus told, the leader was notably not a good man, not a fair man, in character - he provoked such fear in the third servant that the man was paralysed into doing nothing with the talents entrusted to him. But, although a harsh character, the leader did do these good things to those he led: first he entrusted them with his property, in the expectation that they would develop it in his absence; then he resourced them, with some talents; and on his return he variously disciplined or rewarded them, according to their performance, thus helping them - even the one who had failed - to learn and grow from the experience.

    As we make our act of remembrance today we do so in a society and a world which needs good leaders. People who will not shrink from difficult decisions in government and economics, and conflict, who will embrace the realities, grapple with the complexities, act on conviction - people of all generations who can help and influence others along the way. Leaders like you and me.

    Especially we need leaders (parents, grandparents, friends, neighbours) who can teach deep values to others, especially the young, who may be in the dark about such things: in a recently-published book on just war, the former defence advisor and leading public Christian David Fisher argues (along with General Lord Dannatt) that many modern soldiers have had little prior education in religion or morality: he says that "It was striking how Lynndie England, one of the participants in the Abu Ghraib abuses, claimed in her defence that she had assumed the abusive practices were acceptable because no one had told her otherwise." [1]

    Followers of Christ are not in the dark, says St Paul, but are 'children of light and children of the day' - so we can share our light with others, and lead them out of their darkness. Followers of Christ are to live expectantly, says St Paul, in the understanding that we are not to be concerned so much with a coming so-called Day of the Lord, but that we are to live each day 'with him'. And being expectant means living consciously, embracing the realities of life today, grappling with the complexities, being prepared to make difficult decisions and to act on our convictions. Being expectant means understanding that as we are led by our good leader Christ, so we can and must embrace our role as leaders; leaders in our own way, leaders in our own place. Expect him to lead us, expect to lead others.
    'For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep we may live with him,' says St Paul.
    Christ is a leader we respect and love, for all the generous love and talents he gives to us. He is not a leader who will paralyse us by fear, but release us into lives of fulfilment. Christ is a leader whose ultimate act of self-giving has influenced so many over the centuries to give of themselves wholeheartedly, completely, not least those who we remember with warmth and respect today. Christ is a leader who, if we ask him, will help us to express our own forms of good leadership to those around us, young and old, for the sake of this and the coming generations.

    'Therefore encourage one another and build up each other,' says St Paul. This is our calling, this is our mission, and this will be the source of our joy.


    [1] From a Church Times book review, 11/11/2011, of David Fisher, Morality and War: Can war be just in the twenty-first century?