Sometimes leaders stay on too long.
They get tired. They lose their sense of mission. They remain because they’ve grown used to power and can’t imagine not having authority. Some leave gracefully, like Julius Nyerere in Tanzania; others hold on like Mubarak in Egypt.
Most stay too long.
Institutions get nervous during times of transition. It’s one reason monarchies develop – business can continue smoothly. Even non-monarchies like Syria, North Korea, India and the US each have their peculiar political dynasties. And the problem of succession is not merely experienced by nations, but by corporations, churches and other bodies that get work done.
There are good reasons to be anxious. If succession doesn’t happen well, we run the risk of civil war. In the midst of such trouble, it’s easy to forget the basic rules that keep the nation peaceful. We look to the rule book to ensure peace. In our political life, for example, we can disagree, but everyone has a right to vote (well, perhaps not these days).
In the reading last Sunday, David had ruled for nearly forty years; he’d been running the kingdom from the office, and although he remained enthusiastic and confident in his abilities, his soldiers were unimpressed. David’s son Absalom wanted his own turn. He’d gathered support and was undermining his father.
Perhaps Absalom thought the throne should have been his; perhaps he thought his father was too disinterested, too old to rule effectively. He knew he could do better.
But Absalom’s thick, long hair was caught in a tree, and as he hung, Joab, David’s advisor, disobeyed the command to keep Absalom alive.
Joab believed, perhaps, Absalom would not truly submit; that there would always be the risk of Absalom’s treason. Perhaps Joab was jealous of Absalom. Joab had worked for David’s favor; while Absalom held David in contempt but David still adored him.
The story does not have a clear moral – it lifts up for us to see how family love and political necessity create chaos. We do not know if Absalom would have been a good king or not. We only know that David also had a deep love that was stronger than his son’s betrayal.
In the day’s gospel, alluding to Torah, Jesus tells us he is the bread of life. In the wilderness, generations had passed; the older generation that remembered Egypt as a secure home was being replaced by a new generation looking forward. Remember there was conflict along the way; in part because of the differences in generations succeeding each other; and the temptation of ineffective Gods along the way. But they were fed, and would come to the new abundant land.
The way we think of the bread of life is one way the church asks us to look at the threat of chaos and civil war. Jesus is the son of the Father; who takes on a role as the obedient son – who survived his own death. We eat the bread to represent ritually that even though we are individuals, who may be stubborn, proud and envious, we nonetheless share in this one participatory act of mutual honor and submission. We trust that we need not be defined by our urge to kill each other; that we need not always fear being the loser in our daily work.
For around the table, as we eat the bread, scripture says there is enough for all. The raised Jesus is meant to free us from the worry raised by the disappearance of strong leadership. Instead, the reminder: when we learn we have enough, there will be enough for all.
It may be too much to hope for a world where we can all acknowledge our limits; that we can be free while accepting our common inheritance; and that liberation requires responsibility. But we elevate the bread and wine of life, if only to show the contrast, that we still have a choice: Life or death; together we will survive. Alone we will not.
Not as a nation. Not as a world.