Leading Through Servanthood
Based on 2 Samuel 5:1-10, 2 Corinthians 12:2-10, Mark 6:1-13
Already this year in the U.S. there have been more than 300,000 books published – more than 1.3 million worldwide. Note here that we are only mid-way through the year. None of us can read even a fraction of the books published in any year, and many default to the Washington Post or New York Times “best seller” list to choose something for summer or beach reading to try to stay current. Maybe you have a specific focus for your reading – a genre that speaks most to you? Perhaps you are in a management position in your job and are required to read “leadership” books. Having been in management roles for about 30 years now, I have seen many come and go – and my wife routinely is reading the latest book from a management guru du jour.
It got me wondering…how many leadership books alone are published in a given year? The latest statistic I could find was from 2015 and stated that there were an average of four leadership titles published every DAY that year. Four per day!! Just in that one year then there were almost 1500 books published on leadership alone. A dizzying array to choose from, and if 2015 is a representative year, then it wouldn’t be very long before one could be buried by books on becoming a better leader. I know that both in my days as a leader in a Pharmacy Department and consultant to those leaders as well as in my current leadership position, there are always books being touted by the next great leader that should be read and applied immediately to change the culture of the place that one is currently leading.
Back in 1970 a man who spent his work life in AT&T (back when it was THE monopoly of phone use), coined the term “servant leadership” in a book he wrote. He stated over the years in this and follow up works that his books were not specifically religious, but they certainly reminded me of the teachings of a man who I studied in seminary, who lived and led in Palestine in the first century C.E. The book about Him has been in continuous publication for about 500 years, and can be found in many translations and most if not all human languages. Let’s thank God for sending Him to us so that we might become better people and better leaders…
We hear today about David becoming king over all of Israel. After his second anointing, he goes on to conquer Jerusalem and kick out the nasty Caananites from their last stronghold. He then built up Jerusalem and it became known as the “City of David”. David was beloved of God and became greater because he followed the lead of God and was just and righteous to God’s people. All of Israel prospered under David and he became their great king; and for the most part, set the standard for all the kings to follow.
Paul is finishing up his second letter to the faithful in Corinth. He wants to continue to make the point to these newly minted believers that any success they have in adding to their numbers or doing anything good, comes from God’s grace and not their own efforts. Even Paul, who had been blessed more than any to be in the position to plant and lead new congregations for Christ, was given a “thorn” to keep him humble. No one is sure if this is a reality or a metaphor, but the upshot is that he sees his predicament as something to be celebrated as it keeps him humble and focused on the source of his strength. He winds up our reading for today with this sentiment: “…For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions and calamities; for when I am weak, then I am strong….” (verse 10)
The Gospel reading today has Jesus hanging out again in Nazareth with the twelve. He teaches in the synagogue and the locals are amazed that the son of a local blue-collar worker might actually be a powerful prophet. They are offended because he seems to be beloved of God and they marvel that he is “little Jesus, son of Joseph and Mary”, local kid who made good. Because of their jealousy toward him (which led to unbelief), Jesus could not heal many. This lack of faith (in contrast to the woman from last week) kept the people of Nazareth from being healed when the kingdom of God was right there at hand. This caused Jesus to wonder about them that they could be so hard hearted toward him. Jesus uses this situation to teach his Disciples a valuable lesson.
Jesus decides that it is time to put the twelve to work. He divides them into two’s, gives them power over unclean spirits and sends them out with nothing but their buddy and that power. His point was to teach them to trust in the power of the Holy Spirit and the largesse of the people who they meet. He also tells them pointedly, as he has seen in Nazareth, if folks welcome you – great, but if they don’t then don’t even let the dust from their town hang onto you and leave them without healing. The twelve did go out in the power and healed many and cast out demons.
All of the scriptures today point us to the same thing…true leadership comes from a place of humility and an understanding of in whose image we lead. We need to lead from behind and below – that is from a place of servanthood. Servanthood calls us to lead with our hearts and not our heads. It calls us to a place of emptiness where we bring nothing with us to our leadership except our faith in God and our trust in God’s faithful love. This is the kind of leadership that Robert Greenleaf wrote about in 1970 – roughly that many years after Jesus showed it to His Disciples. He said, “…This is my thesis: caring for persons, the more able and the less able serving each other, is the rock upon which a good society is built. Whereas, until recently, caring was largely person to person, now most of it is mediated through institutions – often large, complex, powerful, impersonal; not always competent; sometimes corrupt. If a better society is to be built, one that is more just and more loving, one that provides greater creative opportunity for its people, then the most open course is to raise both the capacity to serve and the very performance as servant of existing major institutions by new regenerative forces operating within them….”
Let’s tease that apart a bit because there is a lot going on in that paragraph. He says that s rock solid society is built when everyone cares for each other and no one is marginalized. Everyone has something to offer no matter how they are abled. He goes on to state that whereas in Jesus’ time, communities cared personally for each other, by 1970 that had been relegated to large and impersonal institutions which, though well meaning, were often incompetent and corrupt – corrupted and made incompetent because they didn’t understand the people for whom they were caring. Finally, he says that if a more just and generative society is to be built, then it will have to be rebuilt from disciples within who can channel “new regenerative forces” (aka God’s grace).
Friends, this is what Jesus is teaching us and his Disciples. This is what, in David’s very human and flawed manner, the King’s behavior shows us. This is what Paul is talking about when he writes that he is kept humble and in the power of the Spirit because of the “thorn” that has been given to him. We need these reminders that even when society doesn’t see the need for us “religious folk – that doesn’t mean that we and our witness are not needed. The kingdom of God being built here on earth, Greenleaf’s call for a “better society” that is more just, loving and provides creative potential to all its citizens, requires all of us to fully live into the image of God which is in each of us.
Leading through servanthood requires that we first believe in the power of God that has been given us, that we live lives that are modeled after the teachings of Jesus, and that we stay humble and point any success back to the source. We know, as Greenleaf has reminded us, that things have gotten more and more impersonal and marginalizing. In order to turn this around, we must lead from within with a different perspective – and not a perspective that is being touted by the newest leadership guru. We need to go back to the source of our wisdom as disciples and follow the leadership of Jesus. 1500 leadership books a year to read – or just one that has been handed down to us and continues to speak to us. The Bible is ever our guide reminding us of our beloved-ness, reminding us of our better selves, reminding us that Jesus has shown us how to lead by first showing us how to serve. Building a better society from within will be accomplished through God’s grace and our servanthood. Thanks be to God, amen!