Servant leadership is not a new phrase for us, and it’s not a new idea. It was made popular in the US in the second half of the 20th century by Robert Greenleaf and has impacted how corporations and governments talk and think about leadership. Greenleaf worked for AT&T for forty years, but became weary of the authoritarian type power he experienced in US institutions. He took an early retirement in 1964 and committed himself to researching and writing about leadership ethics. He wrote a highly influential essay that was called “Essentials in Servant Leadership,” which included these words: “The servant-leader is servant first… Becoming a servant-leader begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead. That person is sharply different from one who is leader first… The difference manifests itself in the care taken by the servant first to make sure that other people’s highest priority needs are being served. The best test, and the most difficult to administer, is this: Do those served grow as persons? Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants?” Citation HERE
The idea of servant leadership goes back a long ways. Five hundred years before Christ, in China, Lao Tzu wrote in the Tao Te Ching: “The highest type of ruler is one of whose existence the people are barely aware. Next comes one whom they love and praise. Next comes one whom they fear. Next comes one whom they despise and defy. When you are lacking in faith, Others will be unfaithful to you. The Sage is self-effacing and scanty of words. When his task is accomplished and things have been completed, All the people say, ‘We ourselves have achieved it!’
Any of us who have had good mentors, good teachers, good managers, good parents, know the power of servant leadership to inspire and transform. It changes lives. It changes the mission of institutions. Any of you who are mentors, teachers, managers, or parents, know that it is not always easy, and even if our intentions are good, we don’t always achieve our highest hopes.
It’s encouraging when a teaching so important to our Christian faith tradition gains traction in the secular world, and when we discover that the other wisdom traditions of the world have also been saying this all along. Anabaptists have had an emphasis on servant leadership from the very beginning, a big part of this being because the movement was a response to the corruptions of power in the 16th century church hierarchy. And when that hierarchy is literally trying to kill you, there’s some added incentive to promote a different leadership model.
Servant leadership is a central theme in today’s lectionary gospel reading. Jesus says to his disciples: “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant,and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.” That’s a good line from Jesus, pretty straightforward, but the story overall presents a rather sobering picture of how easy it is to get turned around in how we exercise power toward one another.
When James and John step apart from the other disciples and approach Jesus with their request for him to do for them whatever they ask, it is toward the end of a long journey they were all on together. The disciples had given up so much to follow. James and John had left their fishing nets – their source of livelihood and income and probably the only life they had ever known. Had left their father and mother and family, their social structure of support and security; had left it all because of an enticing and somewhat mysterious invitation from a Galilean preacher who had approached them one by the lakeshore and said: “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” They had followed him. The other disciples had given up just as much.
As the Gospels tell it, Jesus had numerous faithful followers. At one point Jesus chooses 70 of them and gives them the assignment to go ahead of him in pairs to all the towns on his travel itinerary, and instructs them to carry no travelbag, and no money. They weren’t even supposed to wear sandals. They were to be completely and utterly dependent on the hospitality of the people they would meet, and if they found a home where they were welcomed, they were to give them a blessing of peace and tell them that the kingdom of God, the beloved community, had come near. I’m also wondering if they were collecting phone numbers and emails to sign people up for the movement that they were already pre-qualified to join just by opening their home to strangers.
There were many followers, but the gospels emphasize that there was an inner circle of twelve. They had listened to Jesus’ teachings, been present when he had healed the sick, the blind, and the dying. They had gone on private retreats with him away in isolated hills and wilderness area, and they had witnessed crowds of thousands flocking to him because of all that had been said about him throughout the region. The crowds had come and gone, but the twelve had been by his side the whole time.
And within the twelve, there was an even tighter circle of three – Peter, James, and John, who would sometimes be the only ones Jesus would have accompany him. Into the home of the synagogue leader, whose daughter had been deathly sick and who was feared dead. They saw Jesus go up close to the child, take her by the hand, and say to her: “Little girl, get up.” And she got up. And they were the only ones Jesus took with him up the high mountain when Jesus was transfigured, engulfed in light, and had a counseling session with the spirits of Moses and Elijah. They had witnessed things they wouldn’t have imagined during the daily grind of throwing their nets in the Sea of Galilee and hoping for fish.
Now they are, as Mark tells us, on the road, to Jerusalem. It’s clear they have this destination in front of them, but it’s not clear to the disciples why they are headed there and what exactly will happen once they get there. The end of a long journey. The climax of weeks, months, and years of walking the countryside, being astounded, bewildered, exasperated, and wondering what exactly it was they were doing, and why. To what end? There was also a sense of impending confrontation that many of them must have been sensing. They were headed to Jerusalem, and Jesus now tells them for the third time that when they get there he’s expecting not to be so well received – he will be handed over to the religious and political leaders, put on trial, condemned, mocked, and killed, rising on the third day. Jesus says: “The Human One will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death.”
This is where it starts to get rather sobering. As much as we want to pull for the disciples, Mark is intent on letting us know that they aren’t getting it. This training curriculum ministry apprenticeship program, has not done the trick. The path of discipleship they have been on is apparently not so much a matter of learning, adding one thing to another to produce something greater; but a matter of unlearning old habits, perspectives, and aspirations – subtracting things we thought for sure we knew how they worked.
James and John are taking all this in, interpreting it in the only way that made any sense to them. They know Jesus is a powerful person, and have difficulty imagining any other kind of power other than the kind that dominates and subjugates. And, when Jesus gains the kind of control they have in mind, they’d like to have the top two cabinet seats in the new administration. “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” “What is it you want me to do for you?” Jesus replies, with one eyebrow lifted. “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand, and one at your left, in your glory.” Jesus replies, “You do not know what you are asking.” If you flip ahead a few chapters in Mark, you notice that there are a couple unfortunate guys who end up on the right hand and the left hand of Jesus, and they’re not exactly the most desirable seats in the house. The whole order of things gets stood on its head, upside down; or better yet, what was backwards and upside down gets turned right side up. The dominating powers get exposed for the real harm that they cause. They’re a killer. And a new way opens up right in the middle of the old for a new human possibility.
Jesus doesn’t rebuke the disciples when they make their request, he redirects their desires and ambitions. It’s not that they’re asking for too much, it’s that they’re asking for too little. There’s a much more constructive, adventurous, mysterious path that Jesus has in mind for them. He highlights, one more time, the path of the Human One, the one who teaches us how to be authentic, healthy, human beings. “The Son of Man, Human One, came not to be served, but to serve.”
The aspiration to love the world by serving it is an impulse that lies at the very creative heart of the universe. In Christian language, we say that it is the very Spirit of God, the living Christ, alive within us, seeking to become more realized in the world. Whether it is happening in the world of business or politics or nonprofit or church life, it is the same Spirit at work.
Having an infant in the house once again is a rather startling reminder of how much parenthood is a round the clock training ground for those of us still trying to unlearn our self-serving tendencies. It’s not always pretty, but it is certainly a holy task to be passing along the best of oneself to the next generation who we pray will discover their own unique gifts and aspirations for loving the world by serving it. Incidentally, when you have your third child, you run out of sides when each wants to sit one at your right and one at your left. So far, the lap seems to be a good third option, but I’m thinking it’s not going to last forever. That thought came from Abbie yesterday when I we were talking about what the text was for this morning.
Part of the good news is that there are so many ways to lead by serving. In the church office this past week Violet was putting the finishing touches on the congregational Time and Talents list, which was overflowing with names of people willing to serve at Community Meal, host visitors from out of town, provide meals for those recovering from a surgery – or a birth, lead worship, or read scripture, or be with the children in the nursery. These are small acts of service, but they are what make us into a caring, lively community. And they are ways that each of you are practicing leadership through service.
I also like to think that there is a really big idea behind all this. That as we care for and serve one another and our neighborhood, that we are also always listening for the way that we can best be of service to the world in how we direct our life path and where we choose to invest our energies. That big question of calling, vocation, that never quite lets us go until we’ve reached our final day and given our last breath to the world. Each of us is on a journey with that call, and that feeling of slight discontent that we can be more true to that call is that creative impulse of the universe, the Spirit, working itself out in our lives.
And part of how all this takes shape is through this powerful, provocative, even bizarre image that we have in our scripture. One of the central icons seared into our consciousness, is this suffering human, Jesus the Christ, betrayed, mocked, and crucified. We can’t get it out of our minds. Humanity couldn’t put up with the Human One. It’s a sobering symbol of the power of domination, which is still with us. And so we can’t help but pay attention to those places where we still witness crucifixion happening. Where there is suffering and violence and fear and where creation is being stifled. James and John, on the other side of Easter, have this image in the front of them, and believe that wherever there is crucifixion, there is also resurrection. And wherever the call of service takes us, it takes us to places where there is some suffering, and it asks us to be signs of resurrection, simply by loving, and serving.