What follow is the manuscript of a sermon I gave at All Soul’s Episcopal Cathedral in Asheville today. It was such a gift to be back with my friends in that vibrant faith-community.
When I say leader, what images flash across your mind? For me, the word conjures up a crowded room of people. Among them are:
Sojourner Truth, former slave and fierce crusader for abolition and for women’s right. Her famous “Ain’t I a Woman” speech began, “Well, children, where there is so much racket there must be something out of kilter”
Abraham Lincoln, who bore in his heart the tragedies of civil war and led the nation to peace with gritty grace, deep wisdom, and savvy political skills. Wouldn’t it be astonishing to hear a contemporary politician say something like, “With malice toward none. . . “?
Martin Luther King, Jr, whose dream for America, a dream for which he gave his lifeblood, hasn’t yet been fulfilled. It’s crucial, by the way, to be able to say, “I have a dream”—a noble dream—before saying. “I have an agenda.”
Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker Movement. I delight in her saying: “Don’t call be a saint. I don’t want to be dismissed so easily.”
Robert Shaw, legendary choral and symphonic conductor, and Wynton Marsalis, amazing jazz musician and band leader who together remind me that harmony comes from differences well-used, that music, like life, depends on rests and pauses, and that rhythm—timing—sometimes makes all the difference.
I’ve got leaders and leadership on my mind because, in part, of our reading from Mark’s Gospel (Mark 10:35-45), and, in part, because I think we face an urgent cultural crisis. Originally, crisis was a medical term. In the course of an illness, the crisis was the turning point from which a patient either began to regain health or to move more surely toward death.
Our crisis is in the body politic: will the fever of fear break, the virus of violence lose strength, the blockage in the vessels of love be repaired, and the grip of paralysis loosen? To turn toward health—toward shalom—will require leadership different from the kind that brought us to this point.
Jesus’ friends often misunderstood him, sometimes because they couldn’t and, sometimes, because they wouldn’t let themselves take-in the difficult things he said to them. Their failures to hear him were especially glaring when he told them, as he often did, that he was on his way to Jerusalem to die.
Jesus had decided to confront the establishments of government and religion—to raise his voice against Rome’s oppression and the cravenness of some religious leaders who, in exchange for uneasy peace and cozy kickbacks, provided pious-sounding legitimacy for those who had power over them. Jesus knew that his dreams of peace, justice, and abundance threatened their status quo of violence, fear and scarcity. In Jerusalem, he would threaten the empire and, as empires always do, it would strike back.
His friends continued to tell themselves a story which they liked better: in Jerusalem, Jesus would lead a revolt against the oppressors and the grateful liberated nation would make him its king. They would share his triumph, bask in his glory, and receive positions of privilege. So, on the road to Jerusalem, while Jesus spoke clearly and firmly of his impending death, they dreamed about lives of power.
Two brothers, James and John, asked Jesus for honored places in the coming kingdom: “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” Make us Secretary of State and Secretary of the Treasury. When the others heard their request, they were furious, because they were all sure they were the ones who deserved plum appointments—not the nakedly ambitious James and John.
I think we can understand why they were all seduced by the allure of power: people scurry into action when you give an order, curry your favor, and cater to your ego. It’s intoxicating to be on the inside track, to have access to information others don’t have, and to be in the room where significant decisions are made.
Like many of us, the disciples thought that greatness was a matter of what rung you occupy on a ladder of status. In their culture men mattered more than women, male children were more prized than female children, and children were worth more than slaves. Jews ranked above Samaritans. The healthy had more value than the sick. They perceived life hierarchically: top to bottom, first to last, and higher to lower (see Fran Ferder, Words Made Flesh, p. 142)
So do we, and it starts when we’re very young: A small boy was asked his age, and he replied, “I’m just four years old, but there are lots of them who are only three” (Bibelot, 1988, 3:6, p. 4).
The military is divided among the commissioned and the non-commissioned, with clear gradations of rank and privilege in each of those divisions. University departments differentiate full, associate, assistant, and adjunct professors. Corporations distinguish between chair of the board, chief executive officer, chief operating officer, other c-level officers, senior vice presidents, vice presidents, and multiple layers of management and labor. Football teams have head coaches, offensive and defensive coordinators, assistant coaches, trainers and assistant trainers. No wonder so many of us think of work as a race up the org chart.
Hierarchical systems generate feelings of tension, jealousy, superiority, and insecurity. It’s not inevitable, but it’s predictable that we come believe the illusion that a person’s standing in an organization says something meaningful about his or her worth as a person.
Jesus subverted these hierarchies. He welcomed and blessed children; shared table fellowship with sinners; treated women as equals; reached-out to the excluded, and embraced the untouchables. His mercy and compassion unmasked smug self-righteousness, and his clever parables deflated the egos of the proud. He had no patience with “command and control” power and untamed ambition.
So, when his friends jockeyed with each other for positions of privilege, Jesus challenged them: “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. Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.” Jesus that leadership is a form of servanthood; you climb downward to greatness on your knees.
We learn from Jesus about right uses of power; it can be destructive or creative—it can dominate or liberate. It’s safe only in the hands of the one who views it as a stewardship, as a way to serve. Jesus calls for leadership which engages in power-sharing, not power-wielding, which empowers, not overpowers other people.
Real leaders practice unselfish generosity and remarkable self-forgetfulness. They know that they aren’t the center of the universe or the hinge of history. They don’t decide what to do on the basis of narrow self-interest.
Choreographer Twyla Tharp said: “To be a great choreographer (or teacher) you have to invest everything you have in your dancers. You have to be so devoted to them and to the finished creation that your dancers become your heroes. Without that generosity, you’ll always hold something back” (The Creative Habit. NY: Simon and Schuster, 2003, p. 136).
Real leaders, leaders like Jesus, don’t hold themselves back from the vulnerabilities and risks of investing themselves in others. As he said: “The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” He poured out his life for the rule and reign of God. He lived for and toward the day when the world as it is would become the world as God means in to be.
In his book, Suffering: a Test of Theological Method, Arthur C. McGill said: “Force is no attribute of God”. . . “God’s divinity does not consist in the ability to push things around, to make and break, [and] to impose. . . God invites and persuades.” (82).
God doesn’t use us for the sake of self-aggrandizement; God serves us for the sake of our wholeness. God doesn’t take. Instead, in and through Jesus, God gives love and grace, without limit or condition. Secure in that love and sure of that grace, we are free to give ourselves away.
In “On Thy Wondrous Works Will I Meditate,” Mary Oliver wrote:
I know a man of such
mildness and kindness it is trying to
change my life. He does not
preach, teach, but simply is. It is
astonishing, for he is Christ’s ambassador
truly, by rule and act. But, more,
he is kind with the sort of kindness that shines
out, but is resolute, not fooled. He has
eaten the dark hours and could also, I think,
soldier for God, riding out
under the storm clouds, against the world’s pride and unkindness,
with both unassailable sweetness, and tempering word.
We need people—leaders—of such shining kindness and resolute wisdom, people who know the darkness and can weather the storm.
They are people who have let Jesus love them and show them how to love; let Jesus serve them and teach them how to serve; and let Jesus lead them so that they know how to lead.