Leaders, Heroes, and Love Under Fire

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US Army Capt. William Swenson (far right).
Photo: US Army.

Genesis 45:3-11
Luke 6:27-38

Sometimes in preaching, allowing yourself to jump headfirst down a proverbial rabbit hole is the best way to get into the text. 

This week, as I was doing research for our retreat, I watched one video recommended by a member of the bishop’s staff. I loved that video — the first one we watched yesterday about “finding your why” — then I saw that there were related videos, as there often are, listed below that. The title of this video, also by speaker Simon Sinek, was called “Why Good Leaders Make You Feel Safe.” Intrigued, I clicked. He began with a story, which I’ll tell you now.

It’s about a man called Captain William Swenson, who was awarded a Congressional Medal of Honor for his actions on September 8, 2009. On that day, Captain Swenson was part of a column of American and Afghan troops making its way to protect a group of Afghan government officials who would be meeting with some local village elders. And on that day, these American and Afghan troops were ambushed, surrounded on three sides. 

Captain Swenson earned his medal of honor by running into live fire to rescue the wounded and pull out the dead. One of the people he rescued was a sergeant, and they made their way towards a medevac helicopter. By coincidence, one of the medics had a GoPro on his helmet that day, and he captured the whole scene on camera. Captain Swenson and his fellow soldier haul their badly injured comrade into the helicopter. And then the captain did a remarkable thing. He leaned over and kissed the sergeant on top of the head before turning back to go and rescue more. It was tender, almost parental, as if the captain was putting a child to bed.  

Sinek pauses and poses the question: “Where do people like that come from?”

He says, in the military, they give medals to people who are willing to sacrifice themselves so that others may gain. In most of the rest of the world: business, politics, and your everyday offices — we reward people who are willing to sacrifice others so that we may gain.

Sinek posits at first that maybe people who are attracted to professions like the military are just better people. But of course, that can’t be right. Certainly not everyone who has ever served in the military or any helping profession is like that, exactly, and people like that exist in the business and political world, too, if you know where to look. 

The conclusion? “You’ve got to get the environment right.” It’s not the person, really, it’s what the person has learned from the culture and the organization. We all have this capacity, and others do too, if the culture in a place is right. When such heroes are asked why they do these extraordinary things, they often respond with a similar phrase: “they would’ve done it for me.” (1)

That’s why good leaders make us feel safe; they have us believing that we should care what they think and follow and protect them because they will do the same for us. Think of the best boss or coach you’ve ever had. Why did you love them? I’m willing to bet it is, among other things, because you knew they’d stick their neck out for you, too.

Right, but, “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them.  If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same” (Luke 6:32-33). There’s Jesus, keepin’ it real. 

There’s also Joseph, in the Old Testament passage for today, and on the cover of your bulletin. His act of forgiveness certainly wasn’t because he expected that his brothers would do the same for him. Last he saw them, they were throwing him into an actual pit and selling him into slavery and telling their dad he died. Siblings, amIrite?

Well, as far as I can tell, you’ve got two choices for this. First, you can keep your enemy as your enemy and treat them well exclusively out of self-interest. You might’ve noticed a local church nearby whose sign says, “Love your enemy; it will drive him nuts!” 

In the same vein, former Emory professor John H. Hayes writes in his quintessentially Southern book, If You Don’t Like the Possum, Enjoy the Sweet Potatoes, “Feed your enemy: it’s always harder to fight with a full stomach.” Hayes quotes the Egyptian Instruction of Amenompe from more than a thousand years BCE, “which admonished a person in treating an enemy to ‘fill his belly with bread of yours, so that he will be satisfied and ashamed.’” Or as Hayes himself puts it, just as your mother told you to wait half an hour between eating and swimming, “The same perspective should be applied to relations with your enemies: keep them stuffed and they may avoid excessive exertion, like military activity.” (2)

There’s nothing wrong with self-interest, either; some of our greatest economic achievements and inventions have been borne out of self-interest. It’s not like Henry Ford or Thomas Edison were exactly philanthropists. Even the best political arguments, in addition to being humane, take into account the self-interest of the people — the left and the right strive to do this all the time. You could even argue that Joseph forgave his brothers partly out of self-interest; making peace with them enabled him to see his beloved father Jacob again. The Golden Rule, which appears in the Gospel text for today, you know — “Do unto others as you would have them do to you” — assumes that you want to be treated well. No one wants to follow around a masochist who abides by the golden rule.

That being said, I’ve often found myself driving by church signs that say things like “love your enemy — it’ll drive him nuts!” yelling, THAT’S NOT THE POINT!

Because no matter how self-interest can work for us, love takes us beyond self-interest into something deeper. 

A lot of us have favorite Scriptures that help us make sense of other Scriptures. We all do it, from the most conservative evangelical to the most liberal Christian you can find. You may even have your own. For me, it’s Matthew 25, when Jesus talks about the sheep and the goats and says that everything turns on how we treated “the least of these.” It’s a famous, revolutionary kind of sentence: God incarnate says, “I tell you the truth, whatever you did for the least of these, you did it to me.” Naturally, Jesus knows, his followers want to treat him like a VIP. Imagine a President or Prime Minister telling the people of her country, “Treat the poor and the homeless like you would treat me.” Put them in a limousine. Protect them with your life. Listen to what they have to say the way you would listen to me. 

That’s what Jesus is getting at. It’s a radical, almost impossible proposition, and it’s exactly what Jesus says: treat the most low the way you would treat me. 

I think this also applies to our enemies. 

What if we lived in the kind of world where when your enemy is injured, you risk your life to bring him to safety, and before you leave him in the ambulance and send him off to the hospital, you lean down and kiss him on the forehead? What if we treated everyone with this kind of tenderness?

Simon Simek is right. It really is about the environment. As we’re thinking as a church about what it is that we have to offer the world, I offer you this: what if we were the kind of environment that produces people like Captain Swenson? The kind where we do things for one another because we know that the other would do it for us? Where we steep in that kind of trustworthiness, so much that we are inclined to treat everyone with trust and respect, even our enemies? What if our mission, our big picture, was the same as Jesus’ in this passage: to make the world a more trustworthy place?

“Give,” Jesus says at the end of the Gospel passage, “and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.” 

No matter how it sounds, it’s not a latte recipe. It’s solid life advice. By daring to show love and care to everyone — whether you’re “supposed” to love them, or whether they deserve it, or not — you make the world a more trustworthy place. 

Before Captain Swenson put that sergeant in the helicopter, I’m betting that he did not stop to inquire whether the sergeant was a good solider. Of course he is; he’s one of his people. That kind of trust only comes from love. In the same way, Jesus doesn’t stop to inquire whether we’re worthy before dragging our butts out of whatever it is we’ve found ourselves in. 

As we should do for one another, so Jesus does for us: we are rescued, we are loved, we are brought here, we are offered water and wine and bread and words of hope, and we are kissed, gently, on the forehead, because we belong to God. Thank goodness. Amen.

1. You can watch Simon Sinek’s whole “Why Good Leaders Make Us Feel Safe” TED Talk by clicking here.
2. John H. Hayes, If You Don’t Like the Possum, Enjoy the Sweet Potatoes, Cascade Publishing, 2009, p. 13.

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