Sunday, September 23, 2012

Sermon for September 23, 2012

“Servant Leadership”
Mark 9:33-37
At times, Jesus can really be annoying.. It’s impossible to sneak anything by him and his special Jesus mind reading powers, at least I am sure that is what it felt like to the disciples when, out of nowhere, he asked them, “So, what were you arguing about back there.” Talk about being caught red handed. They answered his seeming innocuous question with silence, which, in a way, was answer enough. None of them wanted to admit to their petty immaturity. They knew Jesus would not be impressed with their conversation topic—who was the greatest. 
It is moments like this when it is clear how well Jesus perfected the art of the “rhetorical” question. 
Which of these three, do you think, was really a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers (Luke 10:36)?” 
“Suppose one of you has only one sheep and it falls into a pit on the Sabbath; will you not lay hold of it and lift it out? How much more valuable is a human being than a sheep (Matthew 12:11-12)!”
"Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake (Matthew 7:9—10)?"

We can imagine how uncomfortable his audience might feel in the wake of these questions. Jesus doesn’t accuse or reprimand with venomous words or at loud decibels, instead he gently points out the obvious. He holds up a mirror so that those who are listening can see their own foolishness.  Today’s passage is all about the disciples’ need to feel superior to one another. We are not given the gory details about their pissing contest, but if we are honest with ourselves, we may admit that we know this scene all too well. 
So, what did you get on your PT test? I got a 290… says one, while the other retorts with an even better score. Top block on an officer evaluation, promotion below the zone, or even better, my kid got on the honor roll, did yours? I am not saying that we shouldn’t be proud of our kids or even ourselves when we have had a significant accomplishment. But, as one of my friends would say to me whenever I would talk about how many pull-ups I could do-- nobody likes a bragger. 
In our passage this morning, the disciples are so focused on who is “greatest,” more valuable than all the rest, that they lose sight who they are to one another. In their blind pursuit for glory, they forget all they have learned from their time spent in Jesus’ company, that they are called not to win, not to be the best, but to love and serve one other. This is what Jesus has been teaching them from the very beginning. This is the reason he called them away from their fishing nets and their families and friends in the first place, so that they could learn this lesson of self-sacrifice from him. In the end, Jesus put the needs of the world before his own. It may be an impossible example for us to ever follow, at least fully, but still, Jesus is our only real model of leadership.  
Luke phrases this same exchange between Jesus and the disciples like this: A dispute also arose among them as to which of them was considered to be greatest. Jesus said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who exercise authority over them call themselves Benefactors. But you are not to be like that. Instead, the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one who is at the table? But I am among you as one who serves (Luke 22:24-27).
Back in the 70s, an entrepreneur of sorts named Robert Greenleaf, coined the term “servant leadership.” After working in business for a number of years, he became concerned with the authoritarian, power centric leadership that he witnessed. He retired early, and decided to spend the rest of his life promoting an alternative model of leadership: the servant leader. In one of his first essay’s on the subject, he wrote,
"The servant-leader is servant first… It 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, perhaps because of the need to assuage an unusual power drive or to acquire material possessions… (Robert K. Greenleaf. The Servant as Leader, an essay that he first published in 1970)”

According to the Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership, a servant leader embodies certain characteristics. 
  1. Servant leaders know how to listen both to what is said and even to what is left unspoken. Being tuned in helps them make decisions which positively impact the whole team. 
  2. Servant leaders are empathetic to those they lead, striving to understand better what their people are going through. Ultimately, nurturing these relationships further contributes to both the individual’s personal development as well as the performance of the team as a whole. 
  3. Servant leaders make room for healing. They value healthy problem solving by encouraging resolution of conflicts and aiding reconciliation where damage has been done. 
  4. Servant leaders are aware both of themselves as well as what is happening within the community. They are more interested in the truth, than being comfortable, even if the information is hard to swallow.
  5. Servant leaders are persuasive instead of coercive. They do the hard work that is necessary to get all the team on board, even when it takes extra time and effort. 
  6. Servant leaders have foresight. They look beyond the status quo, the way it has always been done, and strive to create a better future for the community through understanding the past.
  7. Servant leaders are stewards of the privilege of leading. They view those they lead as more than workers, but as individuals who are worth investing in both personally and professionally. 
  8. Servant leaders give themselves to their team, realizing that the community is only as strong as the resources and investments that have been made on its behalf, starting at the top. 

This model of leadership echoes Jesus’ own instruction. And, we know that this concept of servant leadership is important because it doesn’t just appear in one place in the gospel but is an ongoing theme. Those who want to gain life must be willing to lose their lives. Those who are first will be last and those who are last will be first. Jesus turns everything on its head and this is why following him is so important. We don’t know how to live upside down without Jesus to guide us. 
Sadly, when given even a modicum of power or prestige, most of us don’t handle it very well. It goes to our heads. Despite when we have sworn up and down that we will not become one of those leaders, it often happens without us even realizing it. But Jesus sees this coming before we have even begun. And, just as he is there with the disciples, reminding them of the servants they are called to be, he is also here with us, holding up a mirror so that we can find our way again.   
“Those who exercise authority over them call themselves Benefactors. But you are not to be like that. Instead, the greatest among you should be like the one who serves… I am among you as one who serves. (Luke 22:24-27)”
We are each called to serve. We may forget what this looks like on some days, but Jesus reminds us of the purpose of our calling. We look to the one who has given us life, the one who has taught us how to live our lives well. With ears to listen, minds prepared to grow in awareness and foresight, hearts willing to empathize and assist with the difficult process of reconciliation, and, always, always, as stewards of the privilege of leadership, may we endeavor to serve one another in a spirit of love and generosity. To first be a servant of all, this is where true leadership begins. This is what Jesus has shown us. It is what Jesus has done himself. May we follow his lead. Amen.

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