October 18

Prayerful Leadership

By Marsh Chapel

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Mark 10:35-45

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We come upon our forebears, our spiritual parents of long ago, at an awkward and unappealing moment.  They are haggling, arguing, engaged in a bit of religious one-up-man-ship.  James and John are seeking power, authority, and places of honor.  It is sad to come upon those whom otherwise you respect, at such an awkward and unappealing moment.

There are dangers in religion, hence the need now and then for a reformation or two.  Superstition, idolatry, hypocrisy.  Pride, sloth, falsehood.  But another is this one:  religious rivalry.    Apparently in the emerging church of Mark’s day, in say 70ad, rivalry lived.  So the Gospel depicts a memory of James and John, the sons of thunder, asking an impolite question, and misunderstanding the journey of faith.

You need not take the word of today’s preacher about the awkwardness and lack of appeal in this portrait.   When Matthew and Luke, some twenty years later, wrote their gospels, in 85ad or so, they gave the passage a haircut, and a bath, and some perfume.  Luke eliminated the passage entirely, and Matthew took off the disciples’ lips the religious rivalry we hear today.

But there is—is there not?—something also helpful in all this.  It is in a way encouraging to know that even the great ‘sons of thunder’, even the disciples of old, even the church of old, even our spiritual parents, as well as our earthly parents, are utterly human beings, being human as they were and are.   That is encouraging.  They made some mistakes.  They needed some corrective conversation.  At points they too misunderstood the costs of life, faith, discipleship and growth.  As embarrassing as is the passage, perhaps Luke and Matthew missed something when not including it.   Some of the most endearing and enduring qualities of our loved ones are, sometimes, not too far away from their utterly human qualities, even their failings.  That too is helpful to recall.  My dad, who died five years ago, smoked a pipe for most of his life, clearly a failing I guess, now that we are more aware of the dangers of tobacco.  Yet what I would not give for a few moments just to sit and enjoy that typical, personal failing with him.  To be surrounded by an unmistakable aroma and a cloud of smoke.  It was so ‘him’.  Enjoy your parents while you have them, for all their foibles.  For they are such utterly human beings, being human as they are.

‘Be kind to one another, tender hearted, forgiving one another as God in Christ has forgiven you’, said the Apostle.

To the question of power and authority raised by the disciples, Jesus makes His reply.  Real leadership is prayerful, servant leadership. The way of faith, when it comes across the inevitable, and necessary landscape of power, breathes with prayer.  It is mindful, careful, soulful, prayerful.  It is simple.  It is communal.  It is humble.

I wonder as parents, and future parents, and as children and former children, whether you will hear this gospel and live it?  It is a respectful question, but a serious one.  Given your walking in faith, how will you handle the power you are given?  Given your journey in faith, will yours be prayerful leadership?


Is there not an existential simplicity in prayerful leadership?  We use often today the word ‘transparent’.  I am not sure we are always very transparent about what ‘transparent’ means for us.  In some measure, though, it conveys a sense of integrity, of openness or honesty.  

Mark wants to show that the disciples, as do many in his own church, miss the point.  The point?  There is no real greatness, there is no real leadership, without humility, none without suffering, none without pain, none without public rebuke, none without the patience of Job (of whom we read earlier), none without a pastoral heart for those who experience the consequences of decisions which others make.  

If, in your work, you have shown humility, known suffering, felt pain, had rebuke, summoned patience, found empathy—for all the cost, take heart.  You are not far from the leadership kingdom of heaven…

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, 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. The Christian community, we ourselves included, may not ever be unclear about the potential abuse of power.  That particular portal to blindness has been nailed, nailed shut.

I remind you 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 “live 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, Latin American base communities, and every spiritual nudging in our own very human church.

Who are you trying to please? And how? And why?

Think of someone you have known who lived with a heartfelt, powerful simplicity.

Who taught you about authority?

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 a simplicity, a way to live with abandon. Is there not an existential simplicity in prayerful leadership?  


Is there not a regard for community in prayerful leadership?  For simplicity, alone, has its limits.  What is good for the goose is not always good for the gander.  Protection of sheep means communal opposition to the wolf.  Machiavelli had a point or two.  Niebuhr bears reading still.  To acquire and then to use power in real life often involves more than love, or less than love.  Any community involves endless contention and intractable difference.

Our Gospel clearly addresses power and authority within the community of faith.  It less clearly addresses power and authority outside of that community.  ‘First..,among you’.   How are we to offer prayerful leadership in community?

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.  I emphasize the little phrase, slave of all, or servant of the whole. “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up,” said Paul.

In the late fourth century there emerged a good, great leader of the church, Ambrose of Milan. In just eight days he went from unbaptized layman to Bishop. His rhetorical skill, musicianship, diplomatic agility and attention to the preparations for Baptism provided the power behind his lasting influence in Northern Italy. Above all, Ambrose used his authority for the common good. Notice in the Scripture there is no avoidance of the need for leadership. Authority may be shared but responsibility is not to be shirked. What lasts, what counts, what is true and good and beautiful, finally, is what “builds up”.

The greatest teacher of the earlier church, Augustine of Hippo, came to Milan a non-Christian. From the influence of Ambrose he left baptized and believing and worked a generation to set the foundations for the church over a thousand years to come.

I find some striking parallels to the story of Ambrose in a once popular book by Jim Collins, “Good to Great.” Here are the qualities of those in authority in companies (and universities) that became great when they had before been good: quiet, humble, modest, reserved, shy, gracious, mild-mannered, self-effacing, understated, did not believe his own clippings—a plow horse not a show horse.  A plow horse not a show horse.

A lot of progress can be made when we do not linger too long over who gets the credit.

Some years ago I went to a church meeting near Canada on a very cold night. It was led by our Bishop. For some reason I was not in a very happy mood, nor was I very charitable in my internal review of his remarks that evening. I do not recall his topic or theme. I remember clearly seeing him help to move hymnals, borrowed from other churches for the large crowd, so they could be returned. Snow, dark, long arms carrying a dozen hymnals into the tundra. I forget the sermon, but I remember the hymnals.

Who taught you about power? Think of someone you have known who lived with heartfelt passion for the common good.

Who taught you about leadership? Is there not a regard for community in prayerful leadership?


Is there not a deep pool of humility in prayerful leadership? “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

A few years ago Charles Rice of Drew spoke about 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.

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, making it clear again.  A servant of the servants of God, washing away the accumulated piety before her…

Rice had a revelation about service and power and authority and leadership. And through him I did too. Maybe it will work for you. As he watched the woman in black cleaning the icon, he realized that this was what his ministry was meant to be. A daily washing away from the face of Christ all that obscured, all that distorted, all that blocked others from seeing his truth, goodness and beauty. Including a lot of piety.  Including pretense and presumption and position.  Service that lasts is deliberate and also deliberative, it is steady service.

Every one of us has some power. 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.

Think of someone you have known who provided heartfelt service to the servants of God.  Steady, sincere, suffering service. Is there not a deep pool of humility in prayerful leadership? Is there not a deep pool of humility in prayerful leadership?


For our gospel today, Mark 10:45, accosts us in this very way:

Can you drink the cup that I drink?  Whoever wants to be great shall be your servant.  Whoever wants to be first shall be the slave of all.  The Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.

Parents, Students, Community, Listeners:  Can you drink that cup?  It is a respectful question, but a serious one.

Sursum Corda:  Things are not quite always as they seem, says the gospel.  There is more than a little difference between appearance and reality, says the gospel.  Real leaders serve others, says the gospel.  Ambition unfettered will not lead to happiness, says the gospel.  A true life is not always an easy one, says the gospel.  The son of man did not come to be served, but to serve, says the gospel.   There is a mystery at the heart of life, says the gospel. 

And that mystery is Jesus Christ, and him crucified, one whose life, true life, is poured out like a ransom paid to free others. 

Underneath the tiny things lurk the great things.  A mystery, a ransom paid, a life laid up and laid out and laid down, lurking, waiting, present, like a breath, the eternal great things, hidden under the unlikely blankets of the littlest things.  Your calling to faith may be brewing…Under a desire for simplicity.  Under a love of community.  Under a feeling of hope, a longing for justice and a decision for humility.  And all through the cacophony of a noisy world, a hint, a glimmer, an echo, a breath, a prayer, and such a prayer as becomes prayerful leadership.

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

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