I was an impressionable teenager on St Bartholomew’s Day 1956. I remember clearly that the preacher that Sunday climbed into the pulpit and said “Oh, blessed Saint Bartholomew, how little there is we know of you” – and he was right. Bartholomew is named in the synoptic gospels where he is linked with Philip. St John’s gospel refers instead to Nathanael, again linked with Philip, so perhaps Bartholomew and Nathanael are one and the same person – of whom little is known! What we know for certain is that he was one of Jesus’ closest male followers and is therefore a model for us who also seek to follow Jesus. That preacher preached a very short sermon, but afterwards expanded on his theme of leadership. However, the leader he referred to was the then Shadow Foreign Secretary (a man who had recently overseen the establishment of the NHS) whom he called “the scum of the earth”. I did not dare to ask if he intended to quote St Paul. Do you recall the passage we heard just now? Paul was writing about public regard for Christian leaders, Jesus’ apostles, whom he said had become “the rubbish of the world, the dregs of all things” or in the King James Version “the filth of the world, the offscouring of all things”! That led an impressionable teenager to reflect on links between being scum, being a follower of Jesus and being a political leader.
When I retired from work, I was invited to spend time in a university department with political leaders who were visitors or students or fellows. Being retired, I did only those jobs I found most inviting. That meant that I sat in committees with some of the most senior figures in our civil service and worked with chief executives in local government and in some of our national institutions. Their work was all about leadership: we called it governance and public management. I hope it does not surprise you if I say that what struck me most was their commitment to service. Government ministers, senior civil servants and chief executives of local authorities are, more and less directly, servants of their constituency and have to answer to our representatives.
During my time at that university I heard many stories of leadership and service. Much of what we shared rightly remains confidential, although some older stories are in the public domain and can be told. One such dates from the tragedy of the Lockerbie bombing in 1988. Just after 7.00 pm that night, 259 passengers and crew of Pan Am Flight 103 and 11 citizens of Lockerbie were killed when a terrorist’s bomb shattered the plane and it fell, with almost full fuel tanks, onto the little town. As soon as the police alerted Dumfries & Galloway county council, the chief executive exercised leadership he had hoped never to put into operation. Within minutes he was moving to the scene, calling out his staff. For the next 72 hours he worked ceaselessly on site overseeing rescue and recovery near the crater caused by the explosion and fires, overseeing evacuation, co-ordinating operations with police, fire and ambulance, opening emergency accommodation, ensuring that his staff were able to do their jobs effectively, clearing red tape so that every facility that might be needed was available. He did not leave that site until the job was done and was seen everywhere encouraging, deciding, directing, comforting and supporting traumatised citizens, rescuers and council staff.
Thank God that our local government chief executives do not often have to execute their emergency plans, though we can rest assured that there are such plans in every local authority, and that these plans are rehearsed and revised as a routine part of local government service to us.
The picture of local government as self-serving and its officers as paid lackeys living at our expense is, in my experience, far from reality, though, of course, the recruitment pool for government leaders – like the recruitment pool for doctors, clergy or teachers – is sadly limited to the ranks of us, of you and me, human beings. Small wonder, then, that there are some failures and some self-servers to be found.
Part of the mutuality of servant and served is that we should recognise that our servants have limits. Just as you would not shout at or insult a waiter in a restaurant, so we should speak respectfully to our politicians and, in doing so, recognise their limitations. But I am not speaking only of their personal limitations. I’m thinking about what they are up against. St Paul wrote about what he called the “rulers and authorities” of his time. He was somewhat ambivalent about rulers and authorities, because in Titus 3, he says that, as good citizens we should be subject to them, but elsewhere – in Colossians 2.15 - he makes it plain that the risen Christ has conquered all rulers and authorities and made a derisory spectacle of them. And, in another letter attributed to Paul – Ephesians 3.10 – it says that the church’s task is to show up these rulers and authorities by the wisdom of God. It seems then that we are to be subject to all lawful authorities, but to confront whatever does not conform to the wisdom of God.
Let me give you an example of what rulers and authorities might look like nowadays. Imagine a global corporation – the kind that deals with your pension fund, or sells you your coffee when you’re out shopping. Imagine that corporation has, say, 6,000 subsidiary companies. There is only one reason why a corporation would have all those subsidiaries, and that is to avoid paying tax. It may not be illegal, it probably isn’t, but it is almost certainly depriving some of the world’s poorest people of their proper due. Or imagine a modern day ruler of, say, a small state with a rapidly growing international hub airport, one to which billions of dollars of aid money is diverted, only to disappear in a network of irretrievable bank processes. What can our leaders, our Prime Minister (never mind which party) do about it? Well, without the co-operation of many other prime ministers across the world, probably not very much. Our Prime Minister would be up against one of the “rulers and authorities” of which Paul wrote.
These rulers and authorities challenge even the best leadership. The former French juge d’instruction Eva Joly has proclaimed for decades that power nowadays is most often found in the boardrooms of global corporations and the conspiracies of corrupt officials. Our leaders have limited power to act. What is to be done? I cannot – I should not - try to set out political solutions. The kind of leadership a preacher can offer is the leadership that is available to all of us who make up the church. We have to confront those rulers and authorities with the wisdom of God.
John’s gospel tells us that when Jesus met Nathanael / Bartholomew he hailed him as “an Israelite in whom there is no deceit”. A person in whom there is no deceit can exercise powerful leadership. If we are to confound and frustrate rulers and authorities we need Bartholomew’s honesty, perception, and clarity of vision. We have to show leadership, by presenting people with the wisdom of God in our own communities and our workplaces.
How we choose to spend our time, how we spend our money, how we invest money, how we vote and encourage others to vote, how we speak with our neighbours, where we buy our clothes, what food we buy – all these are exercises of power. They are very small, but remember that the universe is made up of incredibly small entities which together make that universe. When we take decisions, when we speak honestly and fearlessly, we are exercising leadership in our communities, in the network of relationships that God has given us. Take courage then and remember that Jesus told his followers “I am with you to the end of time.”