When my son was in Afghanistan, one of the most important aspects of what his infantry battalion did was to meet and build relationships with the local tribal leaders. Afghanistan, like many other nations in the Middle East and Asia, is still organized along tribal, ethnic, and religious lines. We hear about these groups all the time on the news: the Kurds and the Turks are one very recent example.
It was important for the U.S. military to have these relationships. Because, through them, they could learn what the Afghan people were thinking, they could build alliances, and they could work together to root out the Taliban or Isis or other similar groups.
If you were here last Sunday and you listened carefully as we read from the opening verses of Ruth, you might have heard these words: “During the day when the judges ruled…” You see, as the descendants of each of Jacob’s 12 sons had grown, each of these families became tribes. The 12 tribes of Israel.
So, by the time of the book of Ruth, these tribes had grown to the point where God had appointed leaders for each of them. Judges is the term used in Scripture. And yet, these judges, were really no different than the local tribal leaders that my son’s battalion dealt with in Afghanistan.
Today, though, we move into a new way of being for Israel. The book of Ruth acts as a kind of hinge in the Old Testament, moving us out of the early developmental years of the nation of Israel, into the years of the monarchy. The book of Samuel, broken into two separate books, begins to trace the kings who ruled over Israel. In Samuel we follow three main characters. Anyone want to take a shot at naming them? Samuel, the prophet. Saul, the first king anointed by God through Samuel. David, Saul’s successor.
First Samuel covers the reign of King Saul. A reign that begins magnificently, but eventually fails. It seems that Saul experiences what leaders often do - that absolute power corrupts absolutely. Saul has turned away from God, failing to follow what God has asked him to do. By the end of this first book, Saul has been killed, along with his successor - his son, Jonathan.
As our reading opens, Israel has just been through a civil war - a battle to determine who will be the next king. We read in 2 Samuel 5:1-5.
Then all the tribes of Israel came to David at Hebron, and said, “Look, we are your bone and flesh. For some time, while Saul was king over us, it was you who led out Israel and brought it in. The Lord said to you: It is you who shall be shepherd of my people Israel, you who shall be ruler over Israel.” So all the elders of Israel came to the king at Hebron; and King David made a covenant with them at Hebron before the Lord, and they anointed David king over Israel. David was thirty years old when he began to reign, and he reigned forty years. At Hebron he reigned over Judah seven years and six months; and at Jerusalem he reigned over all Israel and Judah thirty-three years. --2 Sam. 5:1-5 (NRSV)
How many of you have ever herded sheep? It is not easy. And I speak from experience. They often run in circles, are easily spooked, and regularly led astray by sheep within the herd who lead them in the exact opposite direction where you want them to go. It is a frustrating and crazy-making thing - this being a shepherd. To be a shepherd takes great patience. Great calm. And an ability to gently nudge the sheep forward. In the direction you want them to go.
This is exactly what David - the shepherd of sheep - has been called to do by God with the 12 tribes of Israel. With God’s own people. To show great patience and calmness. And to gently nudge them in the way God wants them to go. This is what, in God’s eyes, a leader looks like. How God desires David to lead. How God desires us to lead.
Do you think of yourself as a leader? I would venture that you are. Perhaps you hold or held a leadership position in your workplace. At school. In your community. In an organization. Or among your friends. Certainly, if you are or have ever been a parent, you are a leader. What is your model of leadership? From what source do you understand what leadership looks like?
We are living in fraught times at the moment. When this question of leadership looms very large, especially as we move into a season of elections. When we look in the public sphere, what kind of leadership do we see? Is it the leadership of empire? Of power and dominion? The kind of leadership the world seeks, where power is the goal. Power and wealth. And control. Leadership that seeks to keep people apart. That seeks to keep people fighting against themselves. To preserve its power and wealth and control.
Or do we see leadership that is shepherd-like? Like David. As complex and human, as much a saint and sinner as all of us, yet humble. Patient. Caring for his people as a shepherd preserves his sheep.
Our reading continues in 2 Samuel 6:1-5.
David again gathered all the chosen men of Israel, thirty thousand. David and all the people with him set out and went from Baale-judah, to bring up from there the ark of God, which is called by the name of the Lord of hosts who is enthroned on the cherubim. They carried the ark of God on a new cart, and brought it out of the house of Abinadab, which was on the hill. Uzzah and Ahio, the sons of Abinadab, were driving the new cart with the ark of God; and Ahio went in front of the ark. David and all the house of Israel were dancing before the Lord with all their might, with songs and lyres and harps and tambourines and castanets and cymbals. --2 Sam. 6:1-5 (NRSV)
As they moved the Ark to Jerusalem, David and all Israel celebrated. Notice that this was their greatest celebration. Not the battle victories or even the unification of Israel. Instead it was this Ark. This place where God resided. Where God’s Word resided. David knew that Jerusalem was already the cultural, economic, and political center of Israel. But, he also knew that Jerusalem would not, could not, be complete, could not become the people God desired them to be, without the Ark of the Covenant. Without the presence of God. As the Ark was moved to Jerusalem, it was this that led David and all Israel to their greatest celebration. To dance with abandon, with all their strength. To sing and to dance in complete and utter passion and joy in the knowledge that God was present with them.
I pray that as we act in ways of leadership in our homes and communities and workplaces. As we elect new leaders in our congregation next Sunday. And as we elect leaders in our state next month and in our country next year, I pray that we will keep in mind these images of God’s desired leadership. Leadership that is shepherd-like. Humble. Patient. Leadership that is like that of our Good Shepherd, Jesus Christ. Leadership that seeks to bring people together.
But, mostly, I pray that we will seek leadership that has, at its very core, the joy and passion for the presence of God. So that we, too, like David, may sing and dance with all abandon.
Preached October 20, 2019, at Grace & Glory Lutheran Church, Goshen, KY
Readings: Mark 11:8-10, Psalm 150, 2 Samuel 5:1-5, 6:1-5