Thursday, January 19, 2017
Businesses often develop succession plans--how leadership will pass from one individual or group to the next without disrupting the company. Churches, it seems, don't do as good job of this. Sure, individual clergy or congregations might have transition in their mind, but, in my limited experience, ministers and lay leaders get uncomfortable when one or the other starts asking questions like, "Should we begin thinking about our next pastor?" Even the most careful planning cannot guarantee neat and tidy clergy transitions, but, when clergy and congregations keep in mind the importance and inevitability of changes in leadership, the church is in a better position to focus on the unchanging gospel instead of the drama of the revolving door that can be the clergyperson's office.
In Sunday's gospel lesson (Matthew 4:12-23), we read about the end of a critical transition in leadership that enabled Jesus to take center stage while John the Baptist stepped out of the limelight. It helps to go back and read all of Matthew 3 & 4 to see how this transition happened. Remember that Matthew 2 featured the wise men, the Holy Family's flight to Egypt, and their return to settle in Nazareth. Then, in chapter 3, Matthew picks up the synoptic tradition and begins the mature account of Jesus' ministry with John the Baptist. Quoting Isaiah, he writes, "The voice of one crying in the wilderness: prepare the way of the Lord." Just like Mark and Luke, this version stresses John's role as Jesus' forerunner. Although it seems that John was a historically significant Jewish prophet in his own right, the gospel tradition has always linked his ministry with that of Jesus, and Luke goes so far as to identify them as cousins. Perhaps there was a time when John was perceived as a rival of Jesus, but the gospel accounts go out of their way to show us a smooth transition.
John's preparatory message leads to Jesus' baptism in Mathew 3:13-17. The Spirit descending and the voice declaring become the legitimization of Jesus' priority. John sees it and recognizes it and begins to step out of the way. (Although different in many ways, John's account makes this even clearer as he encourages two of his own disciples to follow Jesus instead of himself.) When we turn the page and get to Matthew 4, Jesus is led by the Spirit into the wilderness, where he is tempted by the devil and confirms his identity as God's anointed one--able to do battle with evil itself. And then we get to Sunday's lesson, which begins, "When Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee."
This is where Jesus' ministry starts--where John's left off. Matthew didn't need to include this detail. Jesus could have simply started doing his miraculous works and teaching is captivating sermons. But Matthew wants us to see that Jesus picks up right where John stepped aside. When Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he left the region of Judea and returned home to Galilee, where he gained the attention of the people. Notice later in the passage that, "from that time, Jesus began to proclaim, 'Repent, for the kingdom has come near.'" John himself had declared, "Repent, for the kingdom is at hand," in Matthew 3:2, and it is no accident that Jesus not only picks up where John left off but actually picks up his very message. John's prophecy becomes Jesus' prophecy, and the work of God continues.
Last year, as a bit of a stunt, I announced to our Vestry, "I am leaving St. John's..." As everyone in the room gasped at the thought of having to manage a parish in transition, I completed my statement, "...someday." I don't have specific plans to leave my parish yet, but I trust that someday God will call me to serve elsewhere. I explained that I wanted all of us to remember that transitions happen. Together, we acknowledged that we need to use the resources God has given us at this time to do the particular work we are able to do and trust that the next chapter will bring its own resources and ministry. We still don't have a real succession plan in place, but we're shaping our shared ministry around the reality that, when a transition comes, the work continues. It's the same work. It may take a different shape or have a different tone, but it's the same work that God has given us to do. With God's help, the content of that work--the message of repentance and new life in Christ--will remain our focus no matter what sort of transitions happen in the people proclaiming that good news.