(A Sermon for the Ordination/Installation of Deacons based on Numbers 13 and preached on Sunday, June 13, 2010. I borrowed the title and acknowledge the inspiration I received from Henri Nouwen's book.)
The church needs leaders.
In the way that our church functions, we look to our deacons to be spiritual leaders among us. Note, please, how I put that. We look to our deacons to be spiritual leaders among us, not over us; we need and expect our deacons to be here with us, sharing in the good and the bad and the middling of our lives.
When the Lord told Moses to send spies into Canaan to scout out the land, he instructed him to send one man from each of the twelve tribes. So those who were sent were not some elite who had no contact or experience with the people; they were of the people. They had shared in the sufferings of the Hebrews in Egypt and in their glorious liberation from bondage; they had been there when God established the covenant with the people at Mt. Sinai and they had been there when the people violated the covenant before Moses even got off the mountain.
In similar fashion, our deacons are called out from among us; you are like us and from us and with us. You have been with us and among us in all of the positive and negative experiences that we have had. We don’t expect you to be superheroes—we expect you to be someone who has experienced life like we have and to have gained experience in life that enables you to go before us effectively.
It was the Promised Land to which the Israelites were trying to get and that’s where we’re trying to get, too, but we will learn as they learned that even the Promised Land is fraught with difficulty and that even if you’re there constant vigilance is required to keep it a good and healthy place.
Along the way, though, we need a vanguard; we need a group of people who will probe and prod and take chances and step out and give us an idea of what it’s like in the next phase, what it’s like in the future.
We need our deacons to be that vanguard. We need you to be the ones that we send out to find out what’s over yonder and what we will face as we try to move over yonder. We need you to go first.
Is it an honor to be asked to go out ahead of us? Yes, in a sense, it is, because for a Christian there is no higher honor than being asked to serve. But be very clear about this: for a Christian there is also no greater risk than that which comes with being asked to serve. It’s dangerous out there.
And you might get hurt.
That should be no surprise to you, though, because you have already been hurt and you are presently carrying the wounds resulting from your hurts. If you have been faithful to the Lord, you have been hurt; if you have been faithful in your service, you have been hurt; if you have been a Christian leader, you have been hurt; if you have lived a normal balanced human life, you have been hurt.
You don’t need to mask those hurts. You do need, though, to learn from them and to let your experience inform your leadership. Only as you get in touch with your own hurts and wounds and understand how God has worked through them to make you who you are can you help us with our hurts and wounds.
We need you to be a healer, but we need you to be a wounded healer. Wounded healers are the most effective because they are the ones who are honest and who have the most integrity and who have the most compassion—and we need your honesty and integrity and compassion.
It’s a challenge to be the vanguard. Moses sent the twelve spies into the land and commissioned them to come back with an honest and accurate appraisal of the situation; that was necessary because the Israelites were about to enter the land and they needed to know what faced them. So the twelve went into the land, traveled all over it, and then came back to Moses and the people to make their report. It was a good land, they all agreed; it was everything that they had hoped it would be.
But when it came to offering a risk assessment, disagreements arose.
Oh, they all agreed on what the risk was—there were mighty people with mighty armies in the land and so taking it was going to put the people into a dangerous, risky situation.
Ten of the twelve said, “They’re too powerful; we can’t fight them.”
Two of the twelve said, “Yes, they’re powerful. But the Lord is on our side and we can overcome in the power of the Lord.”
Therein lies much of the risk and the challenge that you face as spiritual leaders in the church: based on your past experience, based on your relationship with the Lord, based on your spiritual maturity in the moment, you will be asked to scout out the territory and then lead us in the way we should go.
We remember the names of the two, Joshua and Caleb, because they trusted in the Lord and believed that the Lord would overcome any opposition so long as the people were faithful. We don’t remember the names of the other ten—even though the Bible gives them to us—because they were judged to be disobedient and the people—all of the people—followed them.
Remember: it is easier for people to follow you when you lead out of fear than when you act out of faith and so it will be easier for you to lead out of fear rather than out of faith.
It is better for you to get hurt—and for you to lead us to get hurt—out of faithfulness than to avoid hurt—and to lead us to avoid hurt—out of fear.
It is better to get healed---and to help us get healed—when we have been hurt out of faithfulness than to just keep us comfortable and to lead us to play it safe.
So to our new deacon and to our returning deacons and to all of our deacons I say: be a wounded healer and a wounded leader among us; you will thereby lead with compassion and you will thereby lead us into a future in which we are willing to serve faithfully, to take risks for the sake of service, and to be hurt and healed for the sake of Christ and his Kingdom.