October 18, 2015 by jmar198013
Today at Central Church of Christ in Stockton, CA, we had a meeting directly after services to discuss the future direction of the congregation, and what new leadership will look like to take the congregation in that direction.
Our lessons for today were Mark 10.35-45 (my “anchor” for the sermon); Isaiah 53.4-12; Psalm 91.9-16; and Hebrews 5.1-10. I wound up interacting with all the texts to explore what a more servant-oriented leadership model would look like: more bottom-up, democratic, grassroots, empowering people based on giftedness.
Leaders are servants–they don’t coerce
Our Gospel reading today dealt with problems of leadership. Now, sisters and brothers, I’ve been in the church since before I was born. I heard hellfire and brimstone in the womb. I grew up in the Bible Belt, and I have the welts to prove it! And I’ve seen and experienced many things in my life with the church. The church has been my mother. And she has often been the tenderest, most nurturing, most supportive mother anyone could hope for. But there have also been instances when she was an abusive, drunk, neglectful mother who was stepping out on dad. And the leadership within the church has always been what made the difference between the two.
My point is this: We do well to consider Jesus’ take on leadership among his people before we make any decisions. That’s crucial. One of the problems I’ve seen in my time is that we want to run straight to Timothy and Titus to get our elder and deacon checklist. And maybe we want to buttress it with highlighting Ezra and Nehemiah’s bold leadership in the Old Testament.**
Rarely have I seen the church use Mark 10.35ff as our first and final word for dealing with leadership matters. And—because I am an unrepentantly Red Letter Christian—that sort of irks me.
So in our Gospel lesson, James and John approach Jesus and say, Allow one of us to sit on your right and the other on your left when you enter your glory. So here’s the thing—they want to be leaders. They desire the work.
But Jesus quickly bursts their bubbles: You don’t know what you’re asking! Can you drink the cup I drink or receive the baptism I receive?
Still more eager than wise, James and John reply: We can. God bless them, they have no idea what they’re talking about.
On this side of the cross, we know what they do not: The cup he has to drink is a cup of wrath. Not God’s cup of wrath, mind you. But the wrath of people who need a scapegoat. Of people whose deep wounds lead them to inflict wounds on others. Of people who are too afraid to question the crowd chanting, Crucify him! Of people who would rather do what is convenient than what is right. The baptism he will endure is a baptism of suffering, as all the pent-up junk of the human condition bubbles over and spills onto him.
Jesus wants them—and Mark wants the church—to know that leadership is messy and painful and can even get you killed in certain circumstances. Are you ready for that?
Jesus tells James and John—and Mark tells the church: You will drink the cup I drink and receive the baptism I receive. That’s mostly true. According to church history, John was the only one of the Twelve to die of natural causes. But he was bullied and exiled for most of his life, so it’s not like he didn’t do his fair share of suffering.
Now look, y’all. Today we’re going to be meeting after services to discuss matters of leadership and the future of this church. And I certainly don’t want to frighten anyone off from that. But I do want us all to be informed going into it. Being a leader of a people is often painful. You will deal with angry people. Confused people. Downright pathological people. People who take it out on you. Because you’re dealing with the human condition in a fallen world. Because you’re working with God in his long-term project to rescue hostages from Satan, who does not give up his loot willingly.
Mark tells us that the other disciples were pretty burned up by James and John trying to worm their way into positions of authority. Probably they were just mad at themselves for not thinking of it first. I suspect Jesus knew that, so here’s what he said: You know that the ones who are considered the rulers by the Gentiles show off their authority over them and their high-ranking officials order them around. But that’s not the way it will be with you. Whoever wants to be great among you will be your servant. Whoever wants to be first among you will be the slave of all, for the Human One didn’t come to be served but rather to serve and to give his life to liberate many people.
You know, when life got too real, Mr. Rogers said his mom used to tell him to “look for the helpers.” Look for the people who are doing good in the world. Who are nurturing. Who are taking time to be merciful and generous. The people who are vulnerable for others.
Jesus is more or less saying the same when it comes to leadership in his church. When it comes to leadership that Jesus advocates, it’s going to come from people who have nursed babies and changed diapers. It’s going to come from people who have cared for disabled children and elderly parents. It’s going to come from people who have fed the hungry and held hands in the AIDS hospice. It’s going to come from people who have treated the ingrown toenails of prisoners. It’s going to come from people who have told women running from abusive relationships that they are worth so much more than that. It’s going to come from people who have pulled their neighbors from burning buildings. It’s going to come from carpenters and artists and poets and singers who pursue their craftsmanship as a gesture of the image of a creative God.
When James and John came to Jesus asking for positions of authority, he told them: to sit at my right or left hand isn’t mine to give. It belongs to those for whom it has been prepared.
In other words, Jesus doesn’t want leadership doled out based on someone wanting to be a leader. Jesus wants people stepping into leadership that has already been prepared for them. And that requires that they be prepared for the work to which we call them. And our Gospel lesson today suggests that means we “look for the helpers.” Those will be the people to guide us.
God’s servants are wounded healers
Jesus took his cues—and I would suggest that a Jesus-shaped leadership should also take its cues—from Isaiah 53. The song of the Suffering Servant.
According to Isaiah 53, God’s Servant is someone who has suffered, and who knows sickness well. This is a person who can live and move and work in solidarity with suffering people. Jesus learned this through personal experience. We heard it in our New Testament lesson this morning: he learned obedience from what he suffered. After he had been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for everyone who obeys him. Those who will lead the church know what suffering is, and how to nurture and support those who are hurting. Those people have been matured through suffering, and are thereby able to reach out to those who hurt and become touchstones of salvation. In other words: reconciliation, relationship, and redemption.
Isaiah 53 holds up God’s Servant and says: It was certainly our sickness that he carried, and our sufferings that he bore. When we talk about leadership for the church—leadership of which Jesus would approve because it echoes his leadership—it’s going to be empathetic leadership. It’s going to be people strong enough to bear the sicknesses and suffering of others. To intervene with God for the sick and suffering as if it were their own bodies and souls that were in danger. Because, like Jesus, the church leader should identify intimately with those who are sick or abused or mourning or mistreated or hungry or in prison or humiliated or excluded. Jesus wants leaders who identify with the people our world forgets, and who elevate those people. Welcome them. Embrace them. Suffer with them. Cry with them. Nurture them. Empower them.
Isaiah 53 also says this about God’s Servant—the sort of leadership Jesus embodies and desires for his church. Isaiah 53 says: He was pierced because of our rebellions and crushed because of our crimes. He bore the punishment that made us whole; by his wounds we are healed. The leadership that Jesus longs for in his people will always be wounded healers. People who are not only willing enough, but strong enough; brave enough; patient enough; and humble enough to take the sins and suffering and sicknesses of others into their own lives. Who have been formed by their own hurts and weaknesses so that they can minister out of their own woundedness. Not people who have festering sores—because they still need to be served and healed—but people who can show their scars so that other hurting people can see and identify and know that their leadership is well-acquainted with suffering.
Oh leaders, your scars are gestures of God’s healing and resurrection power. Never forget that the risen Jesus showed his uncertain disciple Thomas his scars to prove who he was. There are people in the church and in the world who just cannot see God’s healing and life-giving power until they see your wounds, your scars. Only when they see how God is healing you, and his resurrection power at work in your wounded life, can they trust that God can do the same for them. Leaders that Jesus wants for his church are those who know that others are healed by their wounds.
The promise of the servant
So as we gather today to discuss leadership issues in our congregation, I’d like us to keep all the readings we’ve heard today in our hearts. And look for the helpers.
I want you to hear Jesus’ word in Mark 10, that he didn’t come to be served but rather to serve and to give his life to liberate many people. The work you will be called to do will require you to pour out your life for others. But you will see them set free. God places you among us for our liberation and healing.
I want you to listen to Isaiah 53, where we heard this about God’s Servant: Through his knowledge, the righteous one, my servant, will make many righteous. The person with a servant’s heart, the person whose character has been formed by their own suffering and suffering with others, possesses a deep knowledge about how the world really works. They are able to walk alongside others on the way to salvation.
I want you to hear Hebrews 5, where she says that: During his days on earth, Christ offered prayers and requests with loud cries and tears as his sacrifices. And that he was heard because of his godly devotion. God is listening to your prayers on behalf of others, and on behalf of this little flock. He acknowledges your tears and theirs. You will be heard by God. God will empower you with wisdom and strength and courage.
And I also want those who we select as leaders to know the promise we heard in Psalm 91: Because you are devoted to me, I’ll rescue you. I’ll protect you because you know my name. Whenever you cry out to me, I’ll answer. I’ll be with you in troubling times. When you do this trying work for God—when your heart is breaking and things just seem hopeless—God hears your prayers. He is with you as you are his presence to his people. He will strengthen and sustain and save you.
Martin Luther King used to always preach that the cross comes before the crown. Every lesson we heard from the Scriptures today teaches that fact. Church, as we begin this process of choosing new leaders for our little flock—and as some of you are being called to leadership—never forget that the Jesus plan for leadership is not about you wearing a crown.
In fact, if you read Rev. 4.10, you’ll see it’s all about throwing your crown at Jesus’ feet.
You are taking up a cross. But you’re walking along with Jesus. And you’re inviting and empowering and pulling your sisters and brothers from within. Like Jesus. Not pushing and goading and prodding and barking orders from behind.
So sisters and brothers, I pray that our discussions of leadership in this church will be utterly baptized in the Scriptures we have heard today.
** I got some pretty substantial pushback on this part of the message from a few members. Their concern was that I was “thumbing my nose” at The Pastoral Epistles and Ezra-Nehemiah. I can understand that concern. I will say the following regarding 1 Tim. 3.2-7 and Titus 1.5-9.
First, I don’t think this list of qualifications was meant to be comprehensive or exhaustive. I also think it’s a dangerous thing to say there’s this standard for church leadership–that they not be bullies, or that they are hospitable, or that they are ethical–that is not applicable to the rest of the church. I suspect that’s how the “elder qualifications” often come across. That seems too close to counsels of perfection for my liking. I would suggest that the reason those particular items are underscored by the author of the Pastorals is that there were already leaders in place, and some of them were bullies, drunks, shady, had troublemaking kids, etc. The purpose of the “qualifications checklist,” I would argue, is more corrective than prescriptive.
Second, my purpose was not so much to pooh-pooh the Pastorals as to suggest that what we see Jesus say in Mark 10.35ff is prior to the items on the checklist. Both chronologically prior (Jesus said what he did about servant leadership first); and theologically prior (in other words, more crucial for the faithful witness of the church than whether or not a specific checklist has all the boxes marked).
In other words, I would suggest that the “qualifications” for church leadership contained in the Pastoral Epistles are one example of an early church attempting to be faithful to Jesus’ plan for leadership among his people in the face of issues specific to their church context.
For more on this, please see my Re-Thinking the “Qualifications” of Elders.
For my take on good, bad, and downright ugly in the leadership of Ezra and Nehemiah, see my Can Ezra-Nehemiah be Reclaimed?