January 15, 2017

Recognizing a Rabbi


Text: John 1:38: “When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, ‘What are you looking for?’ They said to him, ‘Rabbi’ (which translated means Teacher), ‘where are you staying?’”

When you have a job like mine, the person you’re drawn to in this story, the person you really feel for and admire, is John the Baptist. More than that, you sort of identify with him.

John is a hard-working leader of a faith community. He’s worked really hard to do the work he knows God has called him to do. He has managed to gather a small but dedicated group of fellow-workers around him to share in his work. In the language of his day, they’re his disciples.

But that doesn’t mean that they just sit around listening to him teach. They’re his co-workers. They help him in the work he’s called to do—bringing people closer to God. They travel with him. Maybe they find odd jobs in the towns they visit to raise money, so the group of folks with John can eat and sleep. They talk to people like John does about the need to give God’s place in their life a higher priority.

John knows his bible, and he believes deeply that God will keep the promise of coming directly among God’s people and changing forever how our relationship works. He has the sense that just maybe this cousin of his from Nazareth might be answer to that question. And despite all the work he has done and all the acclaim he has received, he has the humility to say to his own community—this guy might be the one. At the very least, John says, he’s something that I am not—he’s the person I’ve been proclaiming, he’s a greater teacher, a better prophet, than I am.

And as soon as he says it, two of those disciples who had joined his movement leave him, and go to follow Jesus.

That would be really hard. We don’t ever learn how many discples John had; maybe he only had two. He must have been so glad when they decided to come along as co-workers and fellow-ministers.

But now, he has recognized something in this other teacher. He sees it, and he is humble enough not just to see it but to say what he sees to his own followers; and some of them, at least, leave his side and go to follow Jesus, to find out for themselves. John recognizes a rabbi in his cousin. And he helps others, even his own followers, do the same. I hope I would have that humility.

I was so taken by this little scene that I decided this week to write to a friend of mine who is a rabbi, and to ask him: How do you recognize a rabbi? What makes one? What would you look for, what are the signs?

This isn’t just an abstraction. For us, this is a matter of some urgency. Because if you boil it down, the question here is: How do you recognize a leader? How you decide who it is you will follow?

We’re taught by our culture to think of ourselves as our own rulers. We imagine ourselves to be the absolute sovereigns over ourselves. We only agree to be part of movements that we fully agree with, and we refuse to join most of them.

But our human nature isn’t really like that. We are all followers. We all follow something. We are social creatures, and so we cannot thrive unless we’re part of organizations and communities, and they are always led. And we are known, whether we like it or not, by what, and whom, we follow.

The week that begins today presents us with two pretty profoundly different models of leadership to consider. One is that of Martin Luther King, Jr., whose work as a leader in civil rights we honor tomorrow. And the other is our new president, who takes up his new responsibilities on Friday.

How do we recognize, between these examples and countless others, the leaders worth our loyalty? How do we recognize the people worth following, the ones who will get us be the sort of people, the sort of community, the sort of society God intends us to be?

My friend the rabbi had some interesting insights when I shared today’s gospel reading with him. For one thing, he said, the only way you can understand who is a true rabbi is to see it and experience it for yourself—which is exactly what those two disciples decide to do. They don’t just take John’s word for it; they want to go along with Jesus and hear what he has to say, see how he treats people and exercises his own leadership. They follow along after him, and when he asks them what they’re looking for, they ask to know where he’s staying—where they can hear and see more.

Second, the true rabbi doesn’t become a rabbi by insisting that people to call him one. In fact a true rabbi never demands that. He becomes one when others recognize it in him. That happens here not just when these two followers call Jesus “rabbi,” but when Jesus answers their question about where he’s staying not just by giving them an address, but by inviting them to come along with him.

My rabbi friend taught me this old saying: “Make for yourself a rabbi, acquire for yourself a friend, and judge every person favorably.” The idea of a rabbi that you “make” is a little odd, until you know that what lies at the heart of it is the notion that true leadership isn’t a one-way affair, a top-down, my-way-or-the-highway arrangement. A true rabbi—a true leader—is as ready to be open to the wisdom of the community as he is to insist the community follow his lead.

If you think about it, all of these qualities are things that turn out to be made plain about Jesus over the course of his ministry. What gets manifested about Jesus is a willingness, even an eagerness, to invite people in to see for themselves. And what they end up seeing, when they look, is evidence of how God is alive and at work in the world through the power of love to transform us, heal us, restore us, and give us the strength to live that out ourselves.

Jesus never, ever insists on a title, or a privilege, or a position for himself. He never calls himself “rabbi,” or “Messiah,” or “The Reverend,” or anything else. He lets everyone else come to their own conclusions.

And what gets revealed to us over the course of living alongside him and watching his interactions with people is that we have not just a rabbi, but a god, who is willing to live among his own people, to let us make up our own minds, and to listen and learn from our experiences.

The direction we end up heading in, the things we end up being known for, the values we are seen as standing for, often come down to the leaders we choose to follow. I can’t offer you a better reminder of that than these words, written in 1963 in a jail cell in Birmingham, Alabama:

“On sweltering summer days and crisp autumn mornings I have looked at the South’s beautiful churches with their lofty spires pointing heavenward. I have beheld the impressive outlines of her massive religious education buildings. Over and over I have found myself asking: “What kind of people worship here? Who is their God? .... Where were they when Governor Wallace gave a clarion call for defiance and hatred? Where were their voices of support when bruised and weary people decided to rise from the dark dungeons of complacency to the bright hills of creative protest?

“There was a time when the church was very powerful—in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society. Whenever the early Christians entered a town, the people in power became disturbed and immediately sought to convict the Christians for being “disturbers of the peace” and “outside agitators.”’ But the Christians pressed on, in the conviction that they were “a colony of heaven,” called to obey God rather than man. Small in number, they were big in commitment....”

Those are Dr. King’s words. They signify one kind of leadership—one kind of leadership on offer to us this week. They do not insist that we acknowledge their superiority or demand our fealty. They only set before us one invitation to come and see—to come and see where the God who is the god of mercy and justice will lead us, if we dare to go.

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