Writer, teacher, and activist Parker Palmer has written a book entitled Let Your Life Speak. In it, he tells the story of Rosa Parks, a forty-year-old African American woman, who changed history on December 1, 1955. On that day, she boarded a city bus in Montgomery, Alabama, and sat in a front seat reserved for whites.
It was a dangerous and risky move in a racist society. The police were called, and they told her if she continued to sit in that seat, she would be taken to jail. She answered politely, "You may do that..." Parker Palmer interprets her answer: "What could your jail of stone and steel possibly mean to me, compared to the self-imposed imprisonment I've suffered for forty years...?"
Palmer says that years later a graduate student asked Rosa Parks why she sat in the front of the bus that day. She is reported to have answered, "I sat down because I was tired." I imagine she was tired from a long day working as a seamstress. Palmer says her soul was tired of living a divided life.
I think about that moment of leadership when Rosa Parks stepped into action. She had no guarantees on the fateful day. She had no guarantee that anyone would back her up or take up her cause. She stepped into the moment, following her heart, soul and mind. Parker Palmer describes this critical moment as the time when we will no longer act on the outside in a way that contradicts the truth that we hold deeply on the inside. How often do you and I, faithful followers of Jesus Christ, live divided lives? How often do we simply accept the status quo? How often do we just go along with something when we know on the inside it is wrong?
Today's sermon is about the courage to be a leader and to stand up for Christian values we hold dear. When I speak of values, I think first of our baptismal vows and the words of the Gospel. These values can be like seeds that are planted within us. They take root and grow, so that they spring forth in actions that will transform the world into the Kingdom of God. These values are deep within you.
We have such a rich Christian formation program here in St. John's, including classes this morning and bible studies and groups meeting during the week. In these settings, I hear you speak of Christian values. Yet, I think many of us are intimidated by the idea of being a leader. Today I make the case that some of you are preparing for a leadership role right now. Your life experience, as well as your Christian formation, is preparing you as a leader. Think about what you do as a leader in your family or what you do in a school or civic organization. Think of your leadership in the business community, and the times you are willing to step into a circle of action in that setting. Think of the ways you have cared for and nurtured friends, neighbors, and colleagues, or served as a mentor or guide.
Leadership in gospel terms in about a relationship with God and a relationship with others. A faithful leader has a deep love of people and a desire to see them flourish and grow. You love it when a child makes a break-through in learning or moves to a new level of self-understanding. You are touched when someone finds their way out of a difficult life circumstance. You want to help others. When you see a story about a migrant worker, or you see a homeless person on the street, or you see a child who needs help, you want to help.
You and I are in the school of leadership all the time in life. That was true of the apostles, too. Today in the Acts of the Apostles we hear a story that takes place after our Lord's ascension. Peter tells the eleven that scripture must be fulfilled. Judas, who betrayed our Lord and killed himself, must be replaced. The person selected must be experienced in the patterns of apostleship. One faithful follower will be chosen to serve as a witness to the resurrection. So they proposed two: Joseph, called Barsabbas, also known as Justus, and Matthias. And they prayed, "Lord, you know everyone's heart. Show us which one of these two you have chosen to take the place in this ministry..." And they cast lots – rolled the dice − and the lot fell on Mathias.
Notice the high level of trust evident in this story. They trusted that the right person was already in their midst and ready to serve. They trusted God to make the right decision. A strong Christian community takes responsibility and trusts God to provide direction.
I want to suggest to you that the number given for the whole gathering – 120 – is the number required by Jewish law for the formation of a synagogue. This number also suggests to me that there were many others – men and women − who were ready to serve and could have been chosen.
The church today needs leaders. Your formation is taking place all the time. There may be a sense of vocation already present within you, planted there by God. It is vitally important for priests of the church to raise up lay leaders. We have an amazing, gifted group of leaders already doing great ministry here in this place. Day after day they labor with teams of parishioners to carry out God's work. I am asking you today to consider new ministries, new opportunities in the world. You have seen places where the Holy Spirit might transform lives. Perhaps you already have a fire within you to lead a particular ministry.
This past week, Jim Davis was the commencement speaker at Virginia Theological Seminary. He spoke about unexpected hope. He said the church must always be in the business of providing unexpected hope. That is what our leaders will provide to a world that so desperately needs it. So what are the signals in your life that you are being called to serve as a leader?
This sermon was preached by the Reverend Randall Hehr in St. John's Church, Tampa, Florida, on the Seventh Sunday of Easter, May 20, 2012.