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Lectionary Reflections for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day (A)
By Donald Whipple Fox
Readings for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, Year A, January 17, 2005
Isaiah 44:6-8, 21-23
Jesus is always surrounded by activity. In almost any reading of the Gospel, one hears the action and dynamism of our Lord and his ministry. Jesus is on the move: he listens, he teaches, he commands, he ordains, he advises, he admonishes, he heals, he commissions, etc. So, it would seem that following Jesus and “doing ministry” is much more than simply accepting the status quo and waiting for things to happen in a passive way.
Mark's story of Jesus is full of just such events. Jesus is constantly calling forth individuals around him to allow themselves to be transformed into leaders of the community. The skills of leadership are inherent in the people and Jesus never fails to point out the potential in individuals and groups. This calling forth of leadership is never to be manifested for its own sake, but for the benefit of and within the context of community.
The Apostle Paul writes in his letter to the Ephesians of the gifts of God given to the church. Leadership is a gift of the God. He names some leadership positions: apostles, prophets, evangelists, teachers. We could add some contemporary job descriptions such as usher, babysitter, Sunday School teacher, preacher, and Eucharistic lay minister. Mark and the other Gospel writers have depicted Jesus imparting divine authority to the disciples to proclaim, to heal, to go into the world. The potential is activated by the power of God. Leadership is to be received and then offered back to God.
In Lakota culture, the individual can only be defined within the context of the community. Individualism and individual achievement were traditionally celebrated only when an individual helped the community. . . To think of oneself first and foremost would foster the breakdown of the community's survival and identity.
In John Neihardt's book, Black Elk Speaks , the Lakota holy man (who was also a Roman Catholic cathecist) speaks of the gift of visions. Like the holy visions of medieval mystics, the visions must be shared with the community. To keep the vision to oneself would be to the detriment of the community. In Lakota (also known as Dakota and Nakota) culture, the individual can only be defined within the context of the community. Individualism and individual achievement were traditionally celebrated only when an individual helped the community. A hunter was great because he brought food to share with the people. He was a great leader because he offered his gifts to the people. To think of oneself first and foremost would foster the breakdown of the community's survival and identity.
Like other gifts, leadership must be shared with the community. To not allow that potential to break forth is a denial of the transforming power of the Good News that is Jesus Christ. To not foster leadership in oneself is quenching the light. That does not mean that all are called to be bishops and politicians. Indeed, it may mean discerning one's leadership in a small essential role. I know of many women and men whose ministry of serving coffee and cookies with sincerity and love has outshone the greatest of sermons and liturgy.
Leadership, however, is such a fragile gift. While ideal leadership is intended for the well-being and good of the community, too many of us know the ill effects of poor or bad leadership. Whereas good leadership involves authority and sharing, bad leadership is based in power and control. Being a leader should always be involved with those sometimes painful issues of justice and reconciliation. It puts one in the spotlight and calls for one to advocate for the rights and well-being of the whole community, but not to the detriment of individuals. It's a balancing act that is often seen as unrewarding and lonely. It involves giving up self-interest to true humility and respect.
Perhaps our own national elected leaders should learn something about leadership from the Dakota people and the other indigenous peoples of the earth. True leadership does not stem from naming the enemy abroad and among us. True leadership involves listening to all of God's people and learning to put others in front of oneself. True leadership requires justice for all of God's creation. Only by helping the entire community and creation, our extended community, can one help oneself. Jesus' acts of leadership are dynamic and show forth the transforming power that is inherent in all of us. May we and our world that is parched for justice continue to lift up the divine gift of true and sincere leadership.
The Rev. Donald Whipple Fox (Santee Sioux/ Dakota), a lifelong Episcopalian, is executive director of the Indigenous Theological Training Institute (ITTI) in Minneapolis, Minn. He travels around the church to support theological education efforts in local communities. Donald also serves as senior warden of All Saints' Episcopal Indian Mission in Minneapolis, and he may be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org .