Summary: For Ascension Sunday; and in preparation for my retirement as pastor. What stands in our way? Exhaustion? Gather all, gather the marginalized, and pray. Planless? Remember our core values and do them. Lack of urgency? We are accountable to God.
When a leader and those he leads part company, we learn a whole lot about both of them. Their true values become apparent. The things they are really about become clear. There is no more game-playing when it is time for a leader and those he leads to part company.
Sometimes they separate involuntarily. Sometimes there is an accident, or a death, or a family circumstance. Sometimes things just happen, and a leader is suddenly snatched away. That’s one of the times when we find out what sort of person that leader really was, and when we find out what kind of people he led. I think of those terrible days, one of them in November of 1963, when John Kennedy was killed, the other in April of 1968, when Martin Luther King was assassinated. We found out then how much we valued them. And we learned that the American people will step up and do what needs to be done. When leaders are taken away in sudden catastrophes, we learn to value them, but we also honor them by committing ourselves to the things they were all about.
However, sometimes leaders and those they lead do not part company because of disasters. Sometimes they part company because the leader sees another opportunity elsewhere. She is offered a new environment. He is given a chance to work on a new problem. Leaders sometimes leave what they are doing because they feel drawn to a new venture. When that happens, we get suspicious, don’t we? We start thinking that it’s all about money, and that people in leadership positions are interested in nothing more than high salaries. From what I read, most universities cannot keep a president more than three or four years, because some other university outbids them. Many cities cannot keep a police chief more than a few years, because there is a very active market for people of that caliber. And don’t even get me started on school superintendents. Hey, for six hundred thousand dollars I’ll take that on, won’t you, politics and all?! It is true that leaders and those they lead part company over money sometimes; but let’s remember that sometimes it’s about a new vision. And that’s not a bad thing. It gives a leader a chance to find out more about who he is; and it gives those he leads a chance to figure out who they are. Let’s not be cynical and think that people do what they do only for money; some do not. It’s also about vision and opportunity.
So, what have I said thus far? Leaders and those they lead may part company because of disasters. Leaders and those they lead may part company because of new opportunities. But there is another way in which leaders and the led part company: because the leader decides to make a strategic withdrawal. Because the leader believes that the best way to mature the people he is leading is to back off, give them some room, trust them, and let them grow up. Because the leader sees that if she gets out of the way, those she has led will mature and take responsibility. A teacher, for example, decides that she will no longer do her students’ math problems. She has showed them how to solve them, and now they must do the work. A parent decides that he will no longer repair his teenage son’s car; he has showed him how to fix it, and now fix it he must. A grandparent determines that he will no longer guide his little granddaughter’s tricycle down the sidewalk, especially when she says, “Let me do it myself, grandpa.” You know who I’m talking about, don’t you?! That means the time has come for a strategic withdrawal! And when that happens, you really do find out what people are made of. When a leader and those who are led part company because the leader is making a strategic withdrawal, backing out in order to push the people toward maturity, you find out that there is no substitute for faith. Faith is the victory that overcomes that situation.
Jesus had taught His disciples for three years. He had instructed them in Kingdom principles. He had put them out as apprentices, visiting towns and villages two-by-two to preach. Jesus had demonstrated what He valued. And His people had gone through the depth of crisis at the cross and the exhilaration of victory at the empty tomb. They were ready. In Jesus’ estimation, they were ready. Whether they thought they were ready is another matter. Their leader saw that it was time. Jesus’ ascension is a strategic withdrawal. Jesus recognized that if He were to stay around any longer, they would never grow up. They would remain dependent. And so He withdrew, but not before He had made them a promise and had given them a plan.