The first one. That’s what a leader is.
Now, I think we have the idea of leader all wrong in our culture. Being a leader is not in having something that other people don’t have. It’s not having power or the ability to influence or change others, or having great ideas for everyone else. It’s not in being able to tell people what to do, or to find a way to get people to respond the right way by pushing the right buttons. It’s not in being able to manage large groups or systems, in bringing about success and profit. It’s not in bringing out the best in people or in teams or companies. No, it’s much simpler than all that.
A leader is just the first one to go where everyone else is going to go.
Last summer, I was on cafeteria duty at the elementary school in the parish. Every day, a line of little ones formed to get ready to come into the caf, take a milk carton, pick up a meal tray, and go have their little ID card scanned in. Then, one by one, they took their seats to eat. Now, who was the leader of this gang, who was the leader of this bold collection of six and seven year olds ready to pass through the cafeteria food line and come out the other end with a plate of hot dogs and tater tots? Well, that’s easy. It’s just the first one. It’s the one in the front of the line. And everyone else follows, one by one. Well I tell you, everyone of them wants to be at the front of the line. Every one of them wants to be the leader when it’s time to go eat hot dogs and tater tots. I wonder who would want to be at the front of the line if all they were serving was string beans and carrots?
St. Paul in his first letter to the young church in Corinth talks to them about what’s been happening at the memorial of the Lord’s Supper when they get together. Everyone is running to be first to eat the good food that people are bringing. That means that there are a lot of leader wanna-be’s. But he tells them that the Eucharist is not about eating and drinking and getting satisfied bellies and building popularity. It’s about proclaiming the Lord’s death, which means you gotta die yourself. In first-grader language, it’s not about getting hot dogs and tater tots. It’s about getting the string beans and carrots. I wonder how many Corinthians rushed to be first in line after that?
Being Christian isn’t about getting the comfortable things of life. It isn’t about finding a comfortable fit to rise up in the system, or finding a remote island to retire to. It’s about dying, and getting the vegetables of life. It’s about being a true leader. It’s about being the first to listen, the first to be inspired, the first to give thanks, the first to share, the first to give good gifts at the expense of your own good things, the first to build relationships, the first to break out of the mold and lift up the ones at the bottom of the totem poles, the first to protect the vulnerable. The first to say no to selfishness. The first to have enemies, the first to suffer the consequences of jealousy and hatred and greed. The first to get marginalized and kicked out. The first to be crucified.
And the first to rise again.
But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep. For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. (1 Cor 15:20-24)
When we remember all who have gone before us, let’s remember what we are about as followers of our Leader. Wherever we are in life, whoever we’re with, let’s take risks and be the first to love. Let’s be the first to suffer the consequences.
And let’s be the first to rise again.
“If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you… But take courage, I have overcome the world.” (Jn 15:18;16:33)
Happy Memorial Day ~