The other day Verlee Owens sent me an article entitled, ‘Why is Jesus a Minor Character in The Religion Named After Him?’ As I was preparing something for Wednesday night’s Lenten Service, I thought, “You know, this Lenten thing is about Jesus. We should probably focus on Jesus—you know?!”
That led me to Luke chapter 9. As I read and re-read that chapter, it dawned on me that leadership was a theme that tied the whole chapter together. It became apparent to me as I looked at Jesus’ approach to leadership, there was something very profound about his radical counter-cultural leadership style.
The first couple verses says:
“…He sent them out to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal the sick…He told them, ‘Take nothing for your journey—no extra staff, no bag, no bread, no money, no extra shirt.’” (Luke 9:2-3)
From a leadership perspective this is pretty radical. For one, this is exactly the kind of (Jubilee-type) work Jesus comes here to do. And here, he is delegating work that is central to his mission. In other words, Jesus is not saying, “If I want this done right, I’m going to have to do this myself.” Rather he is saying, ‘My mission isn’t to do my mission all by myself.” But by letting others in on this mission, he is risking messiness and failure. Which is what we see later in the chapter when Jesus expresses some frustration when he says, 41 “You unbelieving and perverse generation. How long shall I stay with you and put up with you?”
On the flip side of the frustration that is inherent in delegation, is faith. This faith isn’t so much in God as it is in others. Jesus shows his disciples that he believes in them when he sends them out to do the mission. Leaders who believe in others, in spite of running the risk of failure, are the kind of leaders who motivate. Leaders who operate from a position of power, (i.e. a sense of ‘Go do this because I said to’) don’t tend to motivate. As Jim France pointed out on Wednesday evening, before Jesus ever delegates, he spends years building a relationship with these guys. That is also implied in this passage.
In addition to this, Jesus has been living this out himself. In short, he has been modeling this type of ministry to his disciples. He has been showing them about how one goes out and proclaims the kingdom and heals the sick with nothing more than the clothes on his back. So for him to tell them to do the same, is perfectly fitting.
And because of the type of relationship he is building up with his disciples, this request is less a chore he is dumping on them and more of an honor that he is bestowing on them. In loving relationships, there is a sense of ‘We really want to live up to those expectations.’ That is a totally different place than a power-based position of leadership that works from a place of instilling fear of messing up or comes from a downward position of “You do it because I’m the boss and you’re not.”
And that is perhaps the most radical element of leadership in this chapter. Jesus’ leadership approach comes from a position of vulnerability. Jesus doesn’t send them out saying, “You guys have been licensed by God to do this holy work. You now have the authority to go tell people the truth.” Instead, he says, ‘Take nothing for the journey.’ None of this is about posturing and displays of power.
It’s worth noting that Jesus himself is the very incarnation of vulnerability and humility. Vulnerability is a part of his very identity. In Christ the Creator God of the Universe is personified as a man. That’s extreme vulnerability. So when he says to proclaim the Kingdom from a position of vulnerability, again this isn’t a theory. He literally is it.
Why does he call them to radically get out of their comfort zone like this and go into an almost Lakota type Vision Quest? Isn’t there some more effective way to do this important work? But maybe vulnerability is the most effective way. Transforming the world doesn’t come from the old notion of power.
Instead it would seem Jesus believes true transformation comes from a position of vulnerability. He doesn’t say, “Hey guys, you all better have some fear of my authority and you better bow down and respect my credentials and do what I tell you to do. Nor does he tell his disciples, “Hey you guys have been chosen by the God. You tell them that you’ve been commissioned by God and because of this, they better listen to you.”
Instead the Christ who creates the universe and chooses to be born in a barn, simply says to some fishermen, “Don’t take a back pack. Just go. Spread love. And this can change the world.” It is truly a radical counter cultural approach to leadership.
The vulnerable approach is powerful in a backwards way. One thing I’ve seen in my travels is that the more vulnerable I travel, (i.e. hiking the Appalachian Trail, Biking across the desert alone, canoeing the Missouri) the more people I meet and the more beautiful acts of human generosity I see.
For instance, in 1994 when I was hiking the Appalachian Trail alone, one day I ran out of food. Running out of food when you’re hiking twelve hours a day with sixty pounds on your back is not a good thing. Luckily, I found a house in the woods. No one was home. But the house had fully stocked bird feeders hinging on the porch. I figured that since the birds ate the seed for free, I could also eat the birdseed for free. I dumped it in a zip lock bag and later that night I boiled it up a pot. I was hoping for something akin to oatmeal—only made of birdseed.
I made a big mistake by adding some sugar to the batch. [In case you ever get into this situation, I do not recommend adding sugar to your birdseed mash.]
But it was all I had. As I was eating it, another hiker came by and asked, “What in the world are you eating?!” I told him the story. He literally gave me a whole days’ worth of food. It’s one thing to give someone a day’s worth of food when a grocery store is just a short drive away. But giving someone food on the trail, where restocking with food may be days away is a huge act of generosity. I would never have seen such an act of generosity had I been well-stocked.
I’m not saying that anyone should go onto the Appalachian Trail, or any other trail of life, purposely without any provisions just in order to see how generous the world can be. I’m just saying that when I was in a vulnerable situation, I experienced amazing kindness. This man’s trail name (Everyone on the AT chooses their trail name) was Knot Hole Willie and we had a great conversation that lasted late into the night. I wonder if we may sometimes miss these wonderful conversations with strangers simply because we are so not in need of anything.
Another time I rode my bike alone across the Sonoran and Chihuahuan deserts of Northwest Mexico and the Southwest United States. Two times I had strangers pull over and hand me a slip of paper with their address on it saying that when I got to the town ahead that I could stay the night at their place. Can you believe that? In today’s world of fear of strangers, the ancient human value of hospitality is still there. I stayed at those places. One of them was an Engineer at White Sands Missile Range named Robin even took me out to eat. Robin and I stayed in touch for a few years that.
Another time a friend and I were canoeing the Missouri River and we had to portage around the massive Fort Peck Dam. Near the dam was a bar appropriately named, The Best Dam Bar. And the best dam bar it was. A bartender named Patricia Gilbert not only gave us some tall cold brews, she gave us a ride to her place. There she let us wash all our swampy clothes, fed us, and let us hang out in her house. Still today I cannot look back on that evening without laughing.
Here’s how it worked out.
As we sat on her orange couch, there was a huge pet boa constrictor slithering around on the floor. We spent the evening looking at her photo albums. The photo albums were loaded with nothing but pictures of sunsets. She had been taking pictures of sunsets for every evening for years. She had volumes and volumes of photo albums with nothing but pictures of sunsets. There she was showing us the photo albums while Willie Nelson music blared and she was yes yessing about her photo albums pointing to pictures and saying, “Wow, look at that one!”
The next day she took us around the dam and eventually picked us up hundreds of miles downriver after we had ran out of time and money. We eventually named our canoe, the Patricia Gilbert, in honor of her. There are many more stories of people I’ve met as I once traveled more along the lines of those first couple verses in Luke chapter 9.
In the years since those days on the trail or river, I’ve gotten into flying, VRBOs, and the highly industrialized comfort-based form of travel—called tourism. And you know, I don’t have as many Patricia Gilbert type stories. The less vulnerable I am, the fewer Knot Hole Willies I meet.
As our culture bundles itself into every type of fear based phobia, we simply are designing a world where we seemingly need each other less. And I believe we see less of the ancient human spirit of hospitality. Which only further perpetuates the fear of the stranger.
Jesus doesn’t lead from a position of fear—and especially a fear of strangers. Instead, he calls his disciples into the world from a position of vulnerability. But he doesn’t do it as a boss who commands people below him to do things he’s not willing to do himself. Instead, his very essence as a person embodies humility and vulnerability. He lives what he preaches. And from that humble place, he calls his disciples to bring about the kingdom of God on earth.
Later in this chapter, Jesus says two times, that this is actually a very dangerous path for him. In fact, it’s going to get him killed. Instead of troubling the disciples, they get into an argument about who is the greatest disciple. And here, Jesus clearly states his flip-flopped values and says, ‘The least of you is the greatest.’ He also adds that if anyone wants to go with him on this journey, that he or she must take up the cross. Jesus doesn’t sugar coat what it means to follow him. Following Jesus is about a crucifixion of the ego. It is not a journey into the familiar. The comfortable.
It is a humble call toward vulnerability. It is a humble call to dine at the table of this world with the Knot Hole Willies, the White Sands Missile Range Engineers, and the bartending Patricia Gilberts, with their odd boa constrictors and photo albums full of sun sets and Willie Nelson playing On The Road Again in the background. And yes the world is still this good! And the kingdom of God is already here. Let’s not miss it by staying comfortable. This to me is the heart of Lent. This is the joy of Lent.