Servant Leadership

Concord United Methodist Church, Rockvale, Tenn.
September 23, 2018

Mark 9:30–37 (CEB)

30 From there Jesus and his followers went through Galilee, but he didn’t want anyone to know it. 31 This was because he was teaching his disciples, “The Human One will be delivered into human hands. They will kill him. Three days after he is killed he will rise up.” 32 But they didn’t understand this kind of talk, and they were afraid to ask him.
33 They entered Capernaum. When they had come into a house, he asked them, “What were you arguing about during the journey?” 34 They didn’t respond, since on the way they had been debating with each other about who was the greatest. 35 He sat down, called the Twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be least of all and the servant of all.” 36 Jesus reached for a little child, placed him among the Twelve, and embraced him. Then he said,37 “Whoever welcomes one of these children in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me isn’t actually welcoming me but rather the one who sent me.”

The commentator William Barclay says that this passage marks a milestone in Jesus’ ministry. In the preceding passages, Jesus had been in the north of Israel, where he’d been relatively safe from the religious leaders who sought to destroy him.

Now, he had begun heading south, towards Jerusalem, where he knew what was waiting for him. And so he rejects the crowds, and doesn’t want anyone but his inner circle to know his location. His priority now was teaching that inner circle, teaching those who would have to take on the job of spreading the Gospel after Jesus was no longer physically present.

Jesus hints at what is to come, saying that “The Human One will be delivered into human hands. They will kill him.” But the disciples couldn’t understand what he was talking about — and the gospel writer tells us that they were afraid to ask him!

So, with time running short, and with an emphasis on preparing his disciples to take the mantle of leadership, what does he teach them? He teaches them about servanthood, which is the most critical part of leadership.

The conversation starts because Jesus had overheard the disciples talking among themselves about who was the greatest. It’s not the only time in the gospels that we hear the disciples — or their mothers — arguing about this issue. After all, the disciples, in the backs of their heads, still think that Jesus is there to defeat the Romans and establish a new kingdom of Israel. And as his associates, they assume they’ll have positions of honor in this new government.

But Jesus tells them, “Whoever wants to be first must be least of all and the servant of all.”

Jesus and his disciples lived in the age of the Roman emperors, when the leader of the Roman empire was not only the unquestioned authority but was worshiped as a God. And that’s the image some of us have of leadership — a man on a pedestal, looking to the sky. But Jesus, who — unlike Caesar — actually is God, painted a different portrait of leadership. Jesus told the disciples that a leader was someone who serves.

Jimmy Carter, for four years, was the President of the United States, and, supposedly, the most powerful man in the world. But you could make a good case that he’s had a greater impact through what he’s done since leaving office than through what he did during those four years. He dedicated his time and his example to a charity started by a friend of his from Georgia — Habitat For Humanity.

Now, don’t get me wrong — a lot of wealthy and powerful people support some sort of charity, but what caught people’s attention in this case was the hands-on way in which Jimmy Carter lent his support. People were amazed, impressed, and a bit humbled by seeing this man who had lived in the White House and had access to the nuclear launch codes swinging a hammer and helping to build houses for people who needed them. Due in large part to Jimmy Carter’s example, Habitat For Humanity grew rapidly, and others volunteered their time and their resources. That is servant leadership.

Rosalynn and Jimmy Carter (Habitat For Humanity website photo)

There’s a TV show called “Undercover Boss.” I have to admit, I’m pretty suspicious of this show, because I think a lot of what we call “reality television” turns out to be more carefully scripted — if not in advance, then in the way the edit the footage afterward — than made-up stories are, but because it claims to be real I think it’s sort of dishonest and voyeuristic.

But “Undercover Boss” is, I have to admit, a fun idea for a TV show. The CEO, or some other top executive, from a big company is disguised and takes a low-level job within that company. They either have hidden cameras, or else they come up with some sort of made-up excuse for why there might be TV cameras on the premises. And so, we see the CEO find out, or be reminded, of what it’s like to work at the counter of a Dairy Queen or on the production line at a big car company.

One of the sad things about how large corporations can get nowadays is that there’s so much of a disconnect between the people in the board room and the people on the assembly line. The CEO may have been hired for his or her financial management and may have come from some other line of business altogether. You can have a head of a car company who knows budgets but who doesn’t know how to change his own oil, because he came up through the ranks at some other kind of business altogether.

One thing you often hear about good leaders is, “No matter how hard he (or she) asks you to work, you know he (or she) is working a little harder.” The leader you follow, the leader you believe in, is the leader who is willing and able to work shoulder to shoulder with you when the situation calls for it.

I heard a story, many years ago, and when I looked for the source last week I could not find it. So I can’t give you the names of the original author or the people involved, and that always frustrates me — I’m a writer myself, and I always like to give credit when I tell a story like this, because I’d want credit myself if someone told one of my stories. I hate these sort of floating, unattributed stories. But this story is too good not to use.

It’s about a megachurch — one of these churches with a whole staff of pastors, and thousands of people in the seats every Sunday. A recent seminary graduate had been hired for one of the pastoral positions, and on one of his first Sundays at church, the senior pastor came up to him.

“Listen,” said the senior pastor. “I have to go and pray with the choir before service. They just told me that one of our parking attendants called in sick this morning — can you go out and help park cars?”

“I’m a seminary graduate,” huffed the young man. “You want me to park cars?”

The senior pastor looked at him for a second, and then said, very softly, “Very well, then. You go and pray with the choir.” The senior pastor went out to the parking lot, put on a day-glo vest, and helped park cars. And the new associate pastor got a very potent lesson in servant leadership.

Jesus is about to demonstrate for his disciples the ultimate form of servant leadership: sacrificial leadership.

One of my favorite stories from history is that of the Four Chaplains. Some of you may have heard this story, others perhaps not. During World War II, there was an Army troop ship, the Dorcester, carrying soldiers to Greenland. On board were four Army chaplains: a Methodist minister, a Dutch Reformed minister, a Catholic priest and a Rabbi.

The ship was passing through a dangerous part of the North Atlantic, not only because of ice but because of Nazi U-boats. The soldiers were told to wear their lifejackets at all times, and even to wear their parkas. But it was miserably hot below decks, and a lot of the men were seasick — they were soldiers, remember, not sailors, and some had never been on a ship before. So when the ship took a hit from a Nazi torpedo, a lot of the men had to scramble.

The four chaplains faithfully loaded the men onto lifeboats. There were enough lifeboats, but some of them were unusable because the ropes were frozen, and some were launched prematurely, without being full. And a lot of the men didn’t have lifejackets. As they were loading the men onto the boats, each of the four chaplains ended up giving away his lifejacket to a soldier who needed one. Once all the lifeboats were gone, the four chaplains were seen on the deck of the ship, arms linked, singing and praying as the ship sank into the freezing waters of the North Atlantic.

That is sacrificial leadership. Many of the passengers of the Dorcester lost their lives, but those who survived never forgot the example of the Four Chaplains. Today, at the facility where Army chaplains are trained, there’s a classroom named for each of them. There’s a chapel in the Pentagon where they are depicted in a stained-glass window. They were even on a postage stamp.

It’s interesting that, after talking to the disciples about leadership, Jesus grabs a nearby child and gives him a big hug. Then he tells the disciples, “Whoever welcomes one of these children in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me isn’t actually welcoming me but rather the one who sent me.”

Children motivate us to sacrifice. Certainly, a parent has that very special love for their own child that inspires self-sacrifice. But all of us, even those who aren’t parents, feel protective of children, and a lot of people would sacrifice themselves for a stranger’s child who wouldn’t necessarily sacrifice themselves for the stranger.

Jesus says that we should have the same concern for all of God’s children that we have for our own children. And Jesus is trying to communicate the stakes of what is about to happen, and why it’s so important that the disciples be prepared to serve God’s children.

Within a few weeks, Jesus, at least in his earthly, physical presence, will be gone, and the disciples are going to have to serve, and ultimately sacrifice, to bring Jesus’ good news to the people of the world — God’s beloved children. God cares for each of us the way we care for our children. When we serve others the way that Jesus would serve them, when we love our neighbors, and our enemies, and random strangers, that is leadership, and it’s also a form of our love for God. And it was that leadership that allowed that first generation of apostles to turn the world upside down.

But it was servant leadership. It was sacrificial leadership. The book of Acts tells us that the disciples shared their possessions so that no one would go hungry. The disciples didn’t run for office or exalt themselves or seek to impose their faith on others; they boldly but lovingly shared their faith with others, and that sharing eventually cost them their lives.

Of course, the disciples were enabled to serve by the presence of the Holy Spirit. In this time surrounding today’s passage, when we see Jesus talking to them in the gospels, they can be rash and ambitious and they do things like arguing about who is the greatest and who is going to sit at Jesus’ right hand.

But after Jesus ascended into heaven, the Holy Spirit was sent down — that “sanctifying grace” that John Wesley preached about, allowing us to live lives beyond ourselves, to push forward to Christian perfection. The disciples were transformed, and their lives of servant leadership were evidence of that transformation.

All of us in the church are called to be leaders, in some form or another. Some lead by teaching, some lead by singing, some lead by organizing, some just lead by example. Everything you do, everything you say, and the way you live your life could have an impact in leading someone to Christ — or turning them away from Christ.

Jesus’s disciples may have been transformed by the Holy Spirit, but there was still plenty of ambition and avarice and jealousy in the early church. James, in his letter, wrote this:

James 3:13–4:3, 7–8a (CEB)

13 Are any of you wise and understanding? Show that your actions are good with a humble lifestyle that comes from wisdom. 14 However, if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your heart, then stop bragging and living in ways that deny the truth. 15 This is not the wisdom that comes down from above. Instead, it is from the earth, natural and demonic. 16 Wherever there is jealousy and selfish ambition, there is disorder and everything that is evil. 17 What of the wisdom from above? First, it is pure, and then peaceful, gentle, obedient, filled with mercy and good actions, fair, and genuine. 18 Those who make peace sow the seeds of justice by their peaceful acts.
4 What is the source of conflict among you? What is the source of your disputes? Don’t they come from your cravings that are at war in your own lives? 2 You long for something you don’t have, so you commit murder. You are jealous for something you can’t get, so you struggle and fight. You don’t have because you don’t ask. 3 You ask and don’t have because you ask with evil intentions, to waste it on your own cravings.
7 Therefore, submit to God. Resist the devil, and he will run away from you. 8 Come near to God, and he will come near to you.

James is calling for the believers to follow the wisdom from above. He says that wisdom is pure, and peaceful, and gentle, and obedient, filled with mercy and good actions, fair, and genuine.

Since the first of the month, I’ve been interim editor of the Shelbyville Times-Gazette, and it’s caused me to think about leadership. I have to say, on Wednesday of this week, I was not peaceful or gentle. Wednesdays tend to be busy for us at the paper in general, and this Wednesday was a bear. I had to be at the paper at 6 a.m. We had to put together the regular daily paper, of course, but on Wednesdays we’re also working, at the same time, on the Life & Leisure section that goes in our Sunday paper. And I was also putting the finishing touches on our Fall Fashion section, which came out on Friday.

It was a busy and intense day, and when some out-of-town public relations flack called and tried to bend my ear about something, I was rude to them. Even worse, later in the afternoon when one of the fashion section stories had to be redone at the last minute, I got really crabby, to the point where I apologized to one of my co-workers because I thought I’d been rude to her.

We are all only human. We are all going to fall short of servant leadership and God’s gentle, peaceful, loving wisdom. But God’s sanctifying grace is always there, available to us, to try to do better the next time around. It’s that wisdom from above that enables us to be peaceful, gentle, obedient, filled with mercy and good actions, fair, and genuine. It’s the Holy Spirit that enables us to be true servant leaders.