In the text before us, we encounter Jeremiah's lament and harsh words to shepherds who have failed in leading God's sheep. Fortunately, Jeremiah's message is instructive for those of us in leadership. His message offers all of us an opportunity to learn from the failure of leadership. More importantly, we are given this lesson to learn about our choices and their respective consequences.
Most of us have experienced failure. All of us have been affected by failure in leadership. We also have failed, sometimes miserably, in our own lives. We have deep, emotional and social scars to remind us. But some of our best lessons come from failure. If we stick around long enough for the lessons, we can learn and grow from our failures as well as from the failures of others.
What does failure teach us? What can we really learn from our shortcomings and flaws? I have been reflecting on these two questions as I consider my own experiences of failed leadership. As a young boy, I dived off the starting block into a pool of swimmers competing in a 400-meter freestyle relay race. The cheers from the crowd provided the adrenaline rush necessary to speedboat through the water to the finish line. Because I was tall, lanky and fast, my role was to make up for lost time when our team had fallen behind. I gained ground on my opponents and brought the race within inches. As I made my final move and passed my competition to secure first place, I was swimming at full speed to the finish. And, then, the unthinkable happened. Within a few meters of the finish line, my legs began to cramp; I lost my momentum and lead. We lost the race that day as well as an opportunity to qualify for the semi-finals. As I reflect back on the race and our preparation for it, I realized my own mistakes as well as those of my team members. Finally, we had to decide as a team whether or not we cared enough about winning consistently in competitive swimming. I, on the other hand, had to make a choice about whether or not I cared enough about what competitive swimmers do in order to train at the Junior Olympics level. In the end, I learned a great lesson about choices and how my choices are informed by what I really care about.
As leaders, employees, parents, partners, spouses and children, we all have stories about how we became aware of the choices we have made and why we made them. We all have made important choices in our life. Whether we realize it or not, what we care about--what really matters to us--is at the center of our choices. In moments of failure and uncertainty, we can glean a certain kind of clarity regarding what we care most about. In these moments, we tend to care a great deal about what is important to us. At the same time, we appear to be less concerned about the consequences of our choices on others, especially our neighbors near and far.
We make choices all the time--what to eat, what to wear, where to go and what to do with our lives. Our lives are made up of choices we have made in the past and the ones that we will make in the future. Choices emerge ultimately from what we care about and value, and they materialize often in our preferences and interests. But do our choices serve the well being of the community or our own interests? Only time will tell. However, when leaders and their communities see their choices and future as intimately intertwined, only then will they approach their choices as a collective act. Until then, they will treat their choices as a private matter, lacking any interdependence or an acknowledgement of individual fallibility.
In our very own country, leaders have made choices during uncertain times that have not always considered the wellbeing of the collective inside and outside our borders, organizations and communities. As a result, many employees, citizens and neighbors live in exile. They are scattered throughout the land, banished from things like adequate food and shelter, clean water, job security, economic prosperity, good government, environmental justice, compassion and empathy, vital faith communities and good, courageous leadership. In these exilic moments, some leaders are forced, but many choose, to live out of a spirit of scarcity versus abundance, fear versus courage, selfishness versus graciousness, the survival of the fittest versus the well-being of the community. Choices like these represent a failure of leadership and a failure of our ability to live up to our highest ideas and morals about who we are, our relationship to each other and what we can accomplish together on behalf of God's saving work in the world.
In the story, Judah, the Southern Kingdom of Israel is in exile--taken away from their native land as political captives of the Babylonian Empire--partly due to its failed leadership. It should be noted that Judah's leaders were politically and religiously accountable to God. Described as shepherds, Judah's kings where called to pastor God's sheep--the people of God. However, even after they were instructed to care for aliens, orphans, widows and God's people and forewarned about the consequences of failing to choose what God cares about, Judah's shepherds chose otherwise.
What does God care about? Jeremiah suggests that God mostly cares about the people of God and especially leaders who care for them. The prophet notes that caring for God's people is done in a way that enables them to flourish--be fruitful and multiply. And caring for God's people is not dependent on what they do or do not do. Rather, the act of caring is a reflection of what we value, what really matters to God.
What does caring for the people of God look like in practice? It looks like leaders who choose to create a space--pastures--to develop versus neglect and destroy God's people's sense of call. To ask provocative questions that connect versus scatter God's people from a call to an abundant life together. To reflect on God's covenant with Israel that draws versus drives God's people away from God's blessings and healing work in the world. And to establish opportunities that nurture the individual and collective vocation of God's people to be fruitful and multiply and to perpetuate God's blessings for generations to come so that all the families of the earth shall be blessed.
Ultimately, our choices have either positive or negative consequences. We can choose to care for what God cares about or not. However, Jeremiah is certain that the Lord will attend to those of us who have not lived up to our capacity to be good stewards of what has been entrusted to us. The prophet infers that God will raise the next generation of shepherds--pastoral leaders--who will care.
So what is at stake for those of us in congregations, denominations and theological institutions? What does Jeremiah invite a church in transition to care about? What are those of us who love the church called to do? Jeremiah advises that you and I are called to care about God's sheep and the next generation of leaders who will care for them. We are called to choose.
When we don't choose to care for what God cares about, we undermine the promise God made with our ancestors to be fruitful and multiply. We threaten the everlasting covenant that was made between God and our fore-parents to be builders of nations, exceedingly fruitful and the womb of future kingly leaders who will emerge. We reduce the likelihood of young people hearing and responding faithfully to God's call in their lives. We cease to be the image and the presence of God in our communities. We no longer have an authoritative presence in the world.
Therefore, we must choose to care about an emerging movement to raise leaders, care for God's people and bless the world. Choosing to care requires great courage. Choosing to care about what God cares for may lead us to let go of many things that occupy our time and attention. This is an invitation to take stock in what you and I really care about and what really matters to God.
Like the autumn wind, we hear the sound of this invitation whistling throughout our country in our organizations, theological institutions, denominations and congregations. This invitation calls us to choose now what is possible. Choose now to suspend business as usual and imagine a church where God's people and leaders can be fruitful and multiply. Choose now to care less about what's popular and in your own best interest and instead consider the well being of God's people, aliens, orphans and widows. Choose now to exercise your episcopal, denominational and congregational authority to change church processes that encumber the next generation of pastoral leaders from serving. Choose now to make theological education affordable and create new models for educating the next generation of shepherds God is raising up. And if congregational pastures are not vital and healthy places where God's sheep and the next generation of shepherds can serve and care for each other, then we must choose now to change the conditions of these pastures so that God's people and leaders can live and thrive until David's righteous Branch comes.
Until that time, the future of the church and our children's children demands nothing less from you and me. We must choose this day what we really care about because in the beginning God chose that we also might choose. And the ability to choose is what makes us most like God or not. Choose to care or else.
Let us pray.
Gracious God, in your infinite wisdom you chose us,
the crown of your creation,
in hopes that we would choose you.
Guide us in our choices,
so that we might be a reflection of you in all the earth.
 Dr. Sheena Iyengar on the art of choosing on Ted Talks, July 2010: http://www.ted.com/talks/sheena_iyengar_on_the_art_of_choosing.html
 1 Samuel 8.
 Jeremiah 22:1-10
 Genesis 12:3