October 17

Servant Leader

By Marsh Chapel

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Mark 10: 35-45

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Friday on the walk into the office a dear friend caught up and came alongside to walk along with me.  As friends do.  Coming alongside that is, walking with us that is.  The luxurious, languid autumn of New England this year allows more outdoor conversation.  The river to the right, the buildings old and new to the left, with students and faculty kicking up some leaves along the way.

We had not seen each other to talk since Covid.  We talked about exercise and failing knees, about what we done or not in the pandemic.  Outdoors, no distance, no mask, no immediate existential worry.  Just two friends, a while apart and now again together again.  What a simple joy, an authentic moment in the midst of various forms of service.  He like many at this good University has given simple, authentic service, servant leadership, over many years.

He then told me that in Covid he would come alone to the Chapel, now and then.  You have heard me say already and many times that the very best thing we do at Marsh is–nothing:  we do nothing, we unlock and open the doors and let people come in, bask in the beauty of the nave, sit, relax, snooze, meditate, pray.  Yes, he said.  I know he said.  One day, he continued, I was getting up to leave and decided I would take a video on my phone of—nothing.  A video of the empty church.  A video of the quiet nave.  A video of stone and glass and wood and all.  He said, I timed it to one minute.  So that, every day, when I wanted to, though I was miles away from BU and Marsh, I could return, return to the simple, the authentic, the quiet.  Thank you, he said.  It was nothing, I responded, truly nothing, I replied.  It was nothing.  And that is the best thing we do.  Nothing.

Carrying some quiet then from Covid, we meet Jesus this morning on the hinges of the earliest Gospel, as the flow of the Gospel continues to swing from Lord to apostles. In the announcement of this good news is included a measure of empowerment for each one of us. This is the kind of day on which, for once, for the first time, or for once in a long time, we may be seized by a sense of divine nearness. The kingdom of heaven is at hand. The kingdom of heaven has come near to you. When that sentence makes a home in a heart, or in the heart of a community, a different kind of life ensues.

Now faith may come like a blinding light on the Road to Damascus.  It may.  But most of the time it rather comes one stumble, one step, one stop at a time.  One step.  One step on the walk of faith, wherein it helps to have a friend alongside.  As a person of faith.  Take a step a day, a step a week.  Health, healing, salvation, salvus, wellness, wellbeing come in small doses, occasional, discreet, bit by bit. Some like Paul are blinded by a moment on the road to Damascus. Most of us though are seized in faith, brought to healing, in a gradual way, over time, as my teacher of blessed memory Fr. Raymond Brown was used to say. Not lightening but enlightening and enlightened day by day. Sermon by sermon we could say. One step at a time. The Gospels tell us so, whatever the Epistles may opine. Faith comes one step at a time.  This week can you take a step in faith? The step this week may just be toward simple, authentic service, akin to that of the Lord Christ, Servant Leader?

One step in faith comes in service.  The considered use of influence, of leadership, in service.  The Gospel today tells us that authentic authority, real responsibility are a matter of the heart. What are your models for this?  Do they include at least a little simplicity, a little steady service?  Can you take one step, a step this week, a step of faith, in some manner of service?

It is intriguing that the Gospel lessons about living, in Mark, are set in the humble reaches of the lake country of Galilee. Writing in Rome in trouble in 70AD, there must have been some comfort, some folkloric encouragement for the persecuted urban Christians in these polished memories of Jesus teaching along the shores of Galilee. There is beauty along the lake. There is calm along the lake. There is peace along the lake. There is serenity along the lake. Along the lake there is space and time to sift, reminisce, remember, sort.  The still waters still restore the soul to stillness.   The regatta, later this month, outside our Chapel, at the head of the Charles, in its pristine beauty and vigorous discipline, will bring a kind of peace, too.

Yet, though our lesson is ostensibly set in the country, up in the north country lake region, make no mistake:  these few phrases are crafted in urban Christianity.

Our Gospel lesson today is a place where the priority, of Mark, is clear.  Mark is the earliest gospel.  Notice how his successors cringe at his composition.  Most tellingly, Matthew removes the selfish request from the lips of the disciples, and has their mother ask!  But then Matthew still has Jesus respond to the disciples!

Luke simply erases the passage, and so ‘spares the twelve’.  They too knew the embarrassment of some ranges of inherited Scripture, as we do too when troubling passages arise:  what is your sense of the most offensive? John, the Jews? Psalms, and the revenge therein? Genesis, rape and violence? The full story of David (not a children’s story)? The household codes in Colossians, and the NT assumption of slavery and of patriarchy? it is a long list. These readings come around and we mutter, ‘Is this really necessary?’  In that spirit, Luke simply erased the today’s passage, 15 years later.

For Mark is determined to show that the disciples, as do many in his own church, intentionally miss the point.  The point?  There is no real greatness, there is no real leadership, there is no service worthy of the name, without humility, none without some anxiety, some suffering, none without pain, none without public rebuke, none without the patience of Job (who today hears the crushing voice of the Lord from the whirlwind) none without a caring heart for those who experience the consequences of decisions which others make.  If, in your work, you have seen humility, known suffering, felt pain, had rebuke, summoned patience, found empathy—for all the cost, take heart.  You have taken a step, one step, a step in faith.  Good.

Here also in Mark 10 we have a strange reference to ‘glory’. The intonation of glory is a clue that we are reading from years after Golgotha.  The stark reference to the cup of sorrow bears a memory of Golgotha.  The knowing, and the counter knowing of the question about baptism, and its portents reveals the hurt of Golgotha.   The shadow of grief that darkens this discourse is the shadow of the Cross of Christ. And the final phrase is unmistakable in its reference:  to give his life as a ransom for many.  And this, this cost, this cost of discipleship is ever a steep hill to climb, a hard lesson to learn or teach.

“The basic inability of the disciples to grasp or accept Jesus’ concept of messiahship or its corollary, suffering discipleship, becomes reflected more and more in their total relationship to Jesus.  The conflict over the correct interpretation of messiahship widens into a general conflict and misunderstanding in almost every area of their relationship” (Weeden).

Yet there is a true kind of encouragement here, for us, as we take one step in faith.  Our Gospel records the misunderstandings of the disciples, and their reluctance quickly or easily to comprehend in full the nature of faith.  It takes them time.  That should reassure us.  It took them time.  And it takes us time.  It takes one step at a time.  But that one step can bring an opening to faith.

You may come to a morning hour, even this one, in which you sense a new opening, a desire to live a life that makes you smile, that makes others smile, that makes God smile. Step by step it may be, you may become kinder, happier, more generous, more forgiving. This is the purpose of being alive, to speak and act and be in a way that brings a smile to the divine countenance.  In your own life of service, of work, even of leadership, there may emerge, may be wrought, a fuller, a more authentic, a simpler way.  A step toward servant leadership is a step, one step, in faith.

Think of the Shaker community.  In their work, their dress, their furniture, their devotion, their relations, the Shakers lived simply. The heart of their simplicity, and ours at our best, is the desire to “lead a life worthy of the calling to which we have been called”. Every renewal in Christian history has had this feature: Paul mending tents, Augustine chaste again, Luther and Erasmus cleansing Rome, Wesley and his coal miners and class meetings, the Civil Rights movement with its various and contending interpretations today, the Latin American base communities, and every spiritual nudging in our own very human church.

There is an authority that is visible in every person who has found the freedom of vocation, the freedom to live with abandon.  Look around at the windows in this charming Chapel, following worship, and you will see the faces of women and men who found an authentic simplicity, a way to live with abandon, to take oneself lightly and so fly, like the angels.  They learned, over time, to model a daily heartfelt affirmation of the shared good, the common good, the communal good.

Mark 10:35 is one of the spots in the earliest gospel at which the emerging institutional needs of the church are visible.  And Christianity wrestled with institutional, formational questions in the first century:  For whom is the gospel? What are the definitive texts? And especially, who shall hold authority?  What, How, Where. And Who?  That should reassure us too.  They struggled to make things go right in shared, communal, institutional life.  And so do we.  They resisted triangles, they reached for I and Thou relationships.  And so do we.

As this passage shows, from the outset it has been terribly difficult for the Christian church to maintain its own authentic form of authority, over against the lesser models abroad in every age. Notice and emphasize in your hearing the little phrase, slave of all, or servant of the whole. “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up,” said Paul.

In a time like ours, the very real fears of pollution, pandemic, politics, prejudice and pain tend to shove us toward a fearful taste for authoritarianism, here and around the globe.  The fears of the day and night can make us afraid of freedom, our birthright, and inclined to align with authoritarianism at all levels, including at the highest ones.  Be careful here.

A few years ago, my friend Charles Rice spoke of service, and of the minister as  the servant of the servants of God. He told about an Easter when he was in Greece. He sat in the Orthodox Church and watched the faithful in devotions. There was a great glassed icon of Christ, to which, following prayers, women and men would move, then kneel.  Then as they rose they kissed the glassed icon and moved on.

Every so often a woman dressed in black would emerge from the shadows with some cleanser, or windex, and a cloth and –psh, psh—would clean the image—phs, phs–making it clear again.  A servant of the servants of God, washing away the accumulated piety before her.  Maybe that is part of what we hope for come Sunday, a gentle washing away of accumulated piety, to make room for what is real and what is authentic and what is not simplistic but bright and simple.

My friend had a revelation about service and power and authority and leadership. As he watched the woman in black cleaning the icon, he realized that this was what ministry was meant to be: a humble daily washing away from the face of Christ of all that obscured, all that distorted, all that blocked others from seeing truth, goodness and beauty. Including a lot of piety.  Including pretense and presumption and position.  And such service, service that lasts, is both deliberate and also deliberative, it is steady, one step at a time.

Think of someone you have known who provided heartfelt service to the servants of God.  Steady, sincere, even suffering service.  Think of someone who helped you once when you needed help.

Every one of us has some influence, some leadership. If you have a pen, a telephone, a computer, email, a tongue, a household, a family, a job, a community, a church—then you have some authority. The question, one that provokes a response and that then allows us to take a step forward is just this:  how will you use, render, apply, shape and offer the authority you have?  Just how will you use the authority you have?

Our gospel today suggests a response.  A simple passion for the common good of the servants of God is at the heart of servant leadership.

Here is leadership:  simple, authentic service.  Here is leadership:  simple, authentic service.  Here is leadership:  simple authentic service.

For the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many.

Faith comes one step at a time.  This week: can you take a step in faith toward simple, authentic service, akin to that of the Lord Christ, the Servant Leader?

Faith comes one step at a time.  This week: can you take a step in faith toward simple, authentic service, akin to that of the Lord Christ, the Servant Leader?

-The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill, Dean of Marsh Chapel

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