October 21, 2012 – Slaves in Training

For the recorded version of this sermon, click here: Slaves in Training

With the elections coming up in a few weeks, everyone has done a lot of thinking about what makes a good leader. We’ve been watching debates between the candidates, and there’s been a lot of talk about who was the winner of each debate. Who was able to dominate the argument? Who appeared more in control of the issues? You score big if you can make your opponent look smaller. People are looking for a leader who is strong, who can exercise authority over others, someone with the ability to have the upper hand over our enemies. That’s how things work in human government. And it’s all part of running for public office that a candidate has to learn those kinds of leadership skills, to be coached even in the way they speak and the gestures they use, so that they can display that air of authority and power that a leader is expected to have.

The reading from the gospel of Mark today is about a very different kind of leadership. Jesus was taking the apostles through an intensive time of teaching, to prepare them for the days ahead. Those twelve men, who started out as common laborers and tax men and wild-eyed radicals, were being formed into the foundation of the Church. It all began with a teacher from Nazareth and a dozen ragtag followers. They weren’t well-educated, they didn’t come from the “better” families. This was leadership training like no one had ever imagined. And we can see in these passages that it took a lot of teaching for these men to understand what Jesus was trying to teach them.

It wasn’t hard because they were stupid. They were just average men, not really any dumber or smarter than any of us. They knew perfectly well what leadership looked like; they knew what power was. They were surrounded by successful leaders all the time, every day, with the Roman legions that they passed on the streets and in the marketplaces. The power of Caesar and his centurions, that was the very picture of leadership. And that’s just the kind of leadership James and John had in mind when they approached Jesus. He had begun to prepare them for the suffering and fear and condemnation that awaited them in Jerusalem, but the Twelve hadn’t taken it all in yet. Their minds fast-forwarded to the end, to the glorious victory they had in mind, when the Romans would be crushed and their Master, whom they followed faithfully and courageously, would at last be seated in the place of power. They had their eyes on the prize. That’s what real leaders do.

But that wasn’t the kind of leadership Jesus was training them for. Getting ahead in the kingdom of God wasn’t anything like advancing through the ranks of Roman legions, working to get noticed by those who are higher up than you, wielding authority over those who are beneath you. The centurion who once came to Jesus to ask him to heal his servant described it perfectly. “I’m a man under authority, with men under me,” he said to Jesus. “I say to one, “Go,” and he goes; and to another, “Come,” and he comes; and to my servant, “Do this,” and he does it.” But the leadership Jesus was preparing his friends for wasn’t anything like that, and he had been saying things along the way to let them know that the assumptions they had always made were in for a shaking-up. “If anyone wants to be first, he must be last of all and servant of all,” he told them, when they were all arguing about who was the greatest. “The kingdom of God belongs to people like this,” he told them, holding a little child in his arms. And “Many who are first will be last, and the last first,” he said, when the rich young ruler turned and walked away.

Forget everything you ever learned about power, about winning, about leadership and about glory. I’m here to teach you something new. The way of the kingdom of God is categorically different from the way of the world; so power and authority in the kingdom of God isn’t going to look like any power or authority the world has ever seen. The first – the rich, the well-respected, the clever and powerful – are going to come last, and the last – the poor, the outcasts, the despised and downtrodden are going to come first. And your role models aren’t Emperors and centurions, they aren’t even priests and Pharisees – they’re children. They are servants.

It was not an easy concept to grasp, and the apostles were not any faster at catching on to it than you or I would have been. “Suffering along with you, OK, we can do that. Yes, danger, we’re up for that. Even self-denial. For now. Until we win, and we’re in charge. When we win, then it’s our turn to rule over those foreigners that have been polluting the land God gave us.” They still didn’t get it; they were still 180 degrees off the mark, and James and John weren’t alone in that. So Jesus called the Twelve together to tell them plainly: “You know how the whole power thing works among the Gentiles,” he told them. “Well, that’s NOT how things work in the kingdom of God.”

In the kingdom of God, moving up the corporate ladder consists in being a servant: not just to the guy above you, but to the guy you think is below you as well. And reaching the top? That means being a slave to everyone else.” And then Jesus told them, more plainly than he had ever spoken, “The reason I came was not to be served by my creation, but to serve it by giving up my own life as a ransom for this creation that has so long been in bondage.”  The enemy never was Caesar, or the Roman army: the enemy was and had always been pride, and selfishness, and fear, and hatred, and sickness and death. And the only power great enough to overcome that enemy was the power of love, love that gives freely, not to raise itself up but to stoop down and lift up others. And that is the power that Jesus was passing on to his disciples; that is the leadership training he had for them, kingdom leadership training, which is like nothing in this world.

And the world hasn’t really changed much since then. This world still works on the same principals of power and authority, the survival of the fittest, that drove the Roman legions. We still admire the one who tells one to “Go” and he goes, and to “Do this” and he does it. The world still puts its faith in the one with the money and the power and the influence. The world loves leaders like Abraham Lincoln, who rose from a humble beginning in a little log cabin to the highest seat in the land. He did great things, led the winning side in the war, passed important laws that helped to end the practice of slavery. That kind of a leader garners the respect of the world. He gets a monument; he gets cities named after him; he gets his image imprinted on money.

Jesus didn’t rise from humble beginnings to become great. He began as the perfect Son of the Almighty God, and he emptied himself, willingly and for no other reason than love, of his power and his glory and all  that rightly belonged to him, and he got himself born into a poor carpenter’s family. He grew up to be a homeless itinerant preacher and after just three years of that he offended the authorities so badly they threw him in jail. And they saw to it that he was put to death. That kind of leader just leaves the world bewildered. They don’t know what to make of it; in the eyes of the world the life of Jesus of Nazareth was a failure: at best a tragedy, at worst a folly. The monument Jesus gets is the symbol of what the world sees as his failure – the cross, on which he offered up his life as a ransom for many. Through the power of love, the kingdom of God broke into the kingdom of this world, as the Creator himself became the servant of his own creation.

And I think one of the most terrifying and glorious things about what Jesus has to say in this passage is that we are called to follow him. Like the Twelve, each one of us is in leadership training for the kingdom. And like the Twelve, we are called to live out the way of the kingdom of God even as we still live and work and grow in the air of this world. “You know how the world runs,” Jesus reminds us. “You know all too well how frantically people scramble for money and power and the admiration of others, how so many people spend their lives in a desperate struggle to find at least someone they can look down on so they can feel just a little better about themselves. That’s not how we roll in the kingdom of heaven. Remember – you’re not here to be served, you’re here to serve.”

That might sound like we got a raw deal. The world gets to sit around and we Christians have to wait on them. But what it really means is that as children of God and followers of Jesus, we have something that the people around us need. Each person in this room is different, with different abilities, and different personalities, and different situations. But every single one of you, as you seek to follow Jesus, will find that God has equipped you to serve the people around you in your own unique way, if only you are willing to lay aside your fear, or your impatience, or your pride – if only you are willing to set aside your rights, to your time and your comfort and your possessions.

None of us are called to the ministry of redemption like Jesus, but we can minister encouragement, or forgiveness, or prayer. We can serve by sharing our faith, or by sharing a loaf of bread. We can serve by giving money, and we can serve by giving up a little of our time.  Even if we can do nothing more than show love we are faithful servants, but if we serve without loving we have failed to serve. And that is because the reason we give is not that we want to punish ourselves or to become more spiritual by making ourselves miserable. We pour ourselves out because we are beloved children of God, so that no matter how much we give we have all that we could ever possibly need.

James and John were called by Jesus when they were young men, a little vainglorious, and so hotheaded that Jesus gave them the nickname “Sons of Thunder.” But we know that they grew to become faithful servants of God and his people, in humility and courage serving as they were called. James was killed with a sword, by the order of King Herod, but John lived to be an old man. And in his old age, when he was so frail that he had to be carried in and out of the worship service, his teaching had been refined, like gold that stands the test of time, so that he taught only one thing: “Little children, love one another.” In his long walk of faith the one who called himself “the beloved disciple” had discovered what it truly meant to be the servant of all.

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