Berkeley Divinity School Commencement Evensong
May 22, 2009
Joseph Britton, Dean of Berkeley Divinity School
Editor’s note: Written version of comments may vary slightly from actual delivery.
“On the next day, when Jesus and the disciples had come down from the mountain, a great crowd met him.” (Luke 9:37)
This past Tuesday, I found myself standing on the top of Hillsboro Peak in the Gila Wilderness of southwestern New Mexico. Hillsboro Peak is the highest point in the Black Range, and on its summit there is a fire lookout tower built in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps.
As I came up the trail with my family toward the summit, a friendly ranger waved hello from the lookout, and invited us to climb up for a visit. Once we were safely inside the tiny glass house (only about 5 ft. square), ranger Phil showed us the astounding view: roughly 10,000 square miles stretching from Texas to Arizona, and all the way from northern New Mexico to the Mexican border. His job, he explained, is to spend six to eight hours a day sitting in this little house 50 feet up in the air, gazing at the mountains for signs of fire. If he sees smoke, he takes a bearing on the location, radios it in, and then settles back down to gaze some more. In the evenings he descends to a small cabin, where he reads, writes, and occasionally has dinner with his wife (when she hikes the 4-mile trail to the summit). Then the next morning he re-ascends to his perch for another quiet day of watching.
Ranger Phil is NOT a good model for ministry. However much we may all enjoy the mountaintop experiences—the times of solitude and contemplation and wonder—the real work waits for us below, like the firefighters that respond to Phil’s alerts while he remains safely above the fray.
Jesus himself knew that the mountaintop was no place for real ministry. As we heard in the lesson, having taken Peter, James, and John with him to the mountaintop of the Transfiguration, Jesus quickly brings them down again after this awesome experience to get to work. And the crush starts immediately: a man clamoring for his son to be healed; anticipations of Jesus’ betrayal; the disciples arguing about who among them is the greatest, as well as their dismay at having competition from another faith healer.
One of the things we try to impress upon our students during their seminary studies (you, who are graduating here this weekend) is that the work they are preparing to do—whether in congregations or schools, whether as lay or ordained, whether in the church or in the academy—each of these callings requires a capacity for leadership. Ministry, in other words, is a lot more than prophecy and prayer: the organizational role to which every minister is called requires a focused sense of mission and purpose; a shrewd political savvy; a keen managerial ability; and a real aptitude for strategic thinking. The lofty experiences of the mountaintop are good for firing our imaginations, but they don’t in the end get things done: one needs structure for that. Or, put in more theological terms, for God’s mission of reconciliation to be accomplished on earth, one needs the church, whose unique purpose it is to make Jesus known. And the success of that mission requires leadership.
You may have read David Brook’s piece on leadership this week in the New York Times. The most effective leaders, he observed, are not the visionaries (or prophets, as we might call them). They are the people who know how to make steady, incremental progress, and have that quality that my depression-era mother would call “stick-to-it-iveness.” Not to say that vision (or prophecy) have no place: but even the prophets (like Jesus and Moses before him) eventually have to come down off the mountain and put the shoulder to the wheel if they are to make a difference.
Think of Jesus’ own leadership challenges upon his descent from the mount of the Transfiguration: his very first encounter is with a stakeholder in the new Jesus movement, who wants to know whether Jesus can deliver on the product claims by healing his son. That takes Jesus right to the core of his sense of mission.
And then there is Jesus’ own foretelling of betrayal to his disciples, preparing them for what lies ahead: that’s political savvy at its sharpest, knowing how to read the signs of the times, and how to lead a community forward into that reality.
And what about the disciples’ argument about who is greatest? Doesn’t that amount to a test of Jesus’ ability to manage them as an effective team, turning their undermining passion for fame into a motivating force for greatness?
And then there is the disciples’ irritation at discovering they have competition in the healing business: realizing that they are working in a spiritual free marketplace ultimately forces them to sharpen their own strategic plan, and to differentiate the message of God in Christ from every other religious claim.
Leadership is ministry, and ministry is leadership.
When we sang this afternoon’s opening hymn, “Lord, you give the great commission,” we reminded ourselves that we aren’t starting from scratch in our efforts to become leaders in the Jesus movement, or the unfolding of the God love-life (as we recently heard it called). That’s the exciting thing: the mission we have been given to pursue is already defined, the purpose already made clear, the grace to accomplish it already given! So we can confidently embrace for ourselves the words of that first hymn, where we sang, “lest the church neglect its mission, and the gospel go unheard, help us witness to God’s purpose, with renewed integrity—and (so that we don’t forget the view from the mountaintop entirely), may we serve as God intends, amid the cares that claim us, holding in mind eternity.