On Leadership

Sermon by Reverend Dr. John W. Mann | October 17, 2021

Mark 10:35-45

My brother Joe once offered me some career advice. That’s what big brothers do. I was getting ready to leave after three years in my first parish and was trying to figure out where to go next. I remember Joe’s advice went something like this –

“If you want to get ahead in ministry, what you need to do is find a position as an associate pastor in a large church. Learn the ropes for a while and then you can move up to your own congregation where you’ll be the boss.”

That was sound advice – move up – be the boss. After what I’d been through during those first three years, being the boss sounded like a pretty good idea. I learned a lot in those first few years. Many lessons about life and work.

One of the challenges during that time was a struggle between humility and humiliation. By any measure life in those years could be described as “humble circumstances.” That was fine because I always knew that I was just passing through. This was a beginning and life would be out there beyond this time and place.

Lessons in humility involved such experience as trying to figure out ways to supplement a meagre part-time income. Such as going in halves on a lawn mower with another guy in the parish. We would contract with people who owned holiday homes on the lakes in the area to mow the grass before they would come up for the weekend.

Such as picking up the odd labor job. Breaking cement with a sledgehammer or carrying roof tiles up a ladder.

Such as working part time for a small engine shop.

Such as working as a lumberjack in the winter. A chord of wood for a day’s work. Twelve chords were enough for one winter.

That was all character-building stuff. Getting in there and getting your hands dirty; working with people who were in the same situation. No one too proud to dig in with some honest labor.

I thought Jesus nailed it when he said, “If any of you wishes to be great, then let them be a slave to all.” After being treated like a slave I wasn’t so sure I wanted to be great.

In the story of Jesus called the Gospel of Mark, Jesus arrives onto the scene as you would expect of a Messiah. If someone’s going to save the world, then you would expect him to be bold. He went around casting out demons; he spoke with authority; he healed the sick and raised the dead. He calmed the raging storm and walked on water. He fed the multitudes.

Jesus was a guy who raised expectations. It was only natural to think that he would get bigger and better with each new chapter of the story. But he went a different way. Instead of saying, “You ain’t seen anything yet,” he said, “It’s not about power and glory.”

He said, “My kingdom is not of this world.” He didn’t mean that it was from another planet. He meant that the common standards by which people measure things, like power, status and wealth, are not his measure. His way was about creating a new heart and soul. That was not an easy lesson to learn.

The way the story is told in Mark, Jesus is on a journey; a steady walk toward Jerusalem where he will meet his fate: The cross. It’s there waiting for him as the natural consequence to his life and teaching.

Along the way he reminded his followers, “You need to remember what this is all about. It’s not power and glory. It’s sacrifice and service.” Time and again he would tell them. It took them quite a while to get the drift of what he was telling them.

One day they were going along the road and a couple of his pals, James and John said to Jesus, “We want you to do a favor for us.”

“And just what might that be?” asked Jesus.

“We’ve been thinking about what you said, you know about what’s going to happen to you. We’re with you all the way on that, no matter what. So we were thinking that when you come into your kingdom, you’re going to need people you can count on. Guys you can trust like us. We want to be there on the ground floor, chief of staff or head counsel. However you set it up, we want to be your right- and left-hand guys.”

Jesus told them, “You really don’t know what you’re asking for. Do you believe you can go through what I have to go through?”

“Sure we do,” they said, “we’re with you all the way.”

Jesus went on to say, “My kingdom, as you say it, isn’t about setting up positions of power and authority.”

Some of the others along with them overheard what James and John were asking after and they got angry. They were mad that those two were jumping the queue. So they started arguing. So Jesus called them together and for the umpteenth time it seemed, he told them the way it was with him. It went something like this:

“Let’s talk about leadership. In this world there are all kinds of leaders. Most people see it as one thing and one thing only: power. You know the kind of people I’m talking about. You see them every day. They have to be lord and master. They like to tell people what to do. They love their titles and their chests-full of medals. They’re first in the queue for everything. They get what they want because they have the money to buy it or the power to grab it. If they say jump, the only thing you need to do is ask, ‘how high?’”

“But that is not the way it is with you. If you want to be great, then look for ways to serve others. If you want power, then learn how to be a slave to one and all. If you have learned anything from me, then it is that I did not come here to be served. I came to serve, and I will give my life in service.”

That’s the sort of teaching that landed Jesus with a death sentence. It doesn’t make sense really, but then his teaching isn’t meant to make sense. Making sense would have been for him to build a power structure that would rival the status quo and defeat it by being more powerful.

What he did was to say in effect to the powers and dominions of the world, “I’m not going to play your game.” He opted out of the system, which disempowered it. That was such a threat that the system killed him for it. We say, “He rose again from the dead.” Part of what that means is that you cannot kill a heart and soul reality. You cannot murder truth. It lives on no matter how many times it is put to death.

Over the years I thought about my brother’s advice – go for the big time; be the boss of a big steeple Presbyterian church where the pastor gets a six-figure salary. And over the years I studied leadership. I read the books, I attended the seminars, I earned the advanced degrees that play well on the marquee.

But I decided that achieving that was not worth the sacrifice. Not the sacrifice of hard work, but the sacrifice of relationships with the people I loved. I decided that I wanted to be available when my children came home from school. I wanted to cook dinner and sit down for a family meal. So that’s what I did.

At a session meeting once, one of the elders said, “You should learn to multi-task. You could so much more done!”

I said, “You’re right. Multi-tasking accomplishes a lot. But I try to follow the example of the supreme single-tasker, Jesus Christ.”

I remember one fellow standing up during the annual meeting of the congregation and saying, “This church suffers from a lack of leadership!”

I said, “There’s plenty of leadership – you just don’t want to follow the direction it’s taking you.”

I could take my brother’s advice and go for the big time. Be the boss of one of those big steeple Presbyterian churches where the pastor gets a six-figure salary. But getting there required following a path I decided I didn’t want to take. Someone once said, “It’s never ‘your church.’ It’s always “the church you serve.”

When Jesus said, “If any of you wishes to be great, let them be the servant of all,” he knew what he was talking about. In God’s realm there is nothing greater than that. And that is a humbling realization.

Something we learn along the way is that we think we are serving Christ. We remember him saying, “I came not to be served, but to serve,” and so we serve him gladly. But sometimes it hits us. It hits us that he is serving us. Every step of our journey, he is also serving us. Amen.

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