Rooted in Love I: Are You a Servant Leader? | Mark 10:35-45 | October 17, 2021

Updated: Oct 25, 2021

"Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant."

Two brothers, James and John, nicknamed the "sons of thunder," hatch a plot. I bet it wasn't the first time. I imagine them out fishing together, with visions of the Jesus movement turning the world upside down, righting the wrongs, and transforming society. They were among the first disciples to join, and they deserve to be at the vanguard of the new kingdom. "Brothers rule! Us against the world! Mom and Dad will be so proud when they see us at the left and right hand of Jesus." These are the dreams and ambitions of young men. Remember Jesus is only 30 at the beginning of his ministry, the age when a rabbi can take on disciples. James and John may only be in their late teens or early 20s. Peter is married, likely the oldest among this unruly and idealistic group around Jesus. Jesus called him the rock upon whom he would build the church.

James and John make a pact to challenge Peter and be install into positions of power. I wonder what they were thinking. Had they been listening to their Rabbi? Jesus taught them a different way, a more egalitarian community. He keeps teaching them to be mindful of people who are overlooked and unconsidered by the status quo. Jesus modeled a life of service and sacrifice for others. His plan for going to Jerusalem leads to a cross, not a throne. Do you really want to be at his left and right hand then? Luke tells us two thieves were given that honor. No wonder Jesus pushes back and asks them if they are able to drink the cup he is about to drink. In their idealism, they insist they are ready.

The brother's demand gets out, and it creates a significant conflict among the twelve. Jesus must go back and repeat Discipleship 101 class, which he taught just last semester. In Mark 9, only the previous chapter, the disciples argued over who was the greatest. Jesus said, "if you want to be first, then you must be the servant of all." Did James and John think that was said for everyone else, but the rules don't apply to them? That is the essence of privilege and entitlement, right? While I marvel at how clueless the brothers are that the lesson must be repeated, I understand the challenge. Who wants to be a servant? Merrian Webster dictionary defines a servant as "one that performs duties about the person or home of a master or personal employer." Synonyms include flunky, lackey, menial. No wonder Jesus has a hard time making his point. He keeps doing this, recommending that we "turn the other cheek, love our enemies," and now "be a servant."

Here is another way to hear this word. In the Greek New Testament, Jesus says to be a "diakoneo," the root word for the vital office of Deacon. In the book of Acts, Deacon is the first office after the twelve Apostles appointed in the early church. Perhaps the lesson finally sinks in. Be a servant leader, a Deacon, for others.

Robert Greenleaf created a movement in leadership thinking with his 1974 book, "Servant Leadership." Greenleaf worked at ATT and was skeptical of hierarchical and authoritarian leadership patterns. He launched a leadership movement when he asked, "Do those I serve grow as persons? Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants?" Servant leaders facilitate more than command, listen more than speak, and ask questions more than make pronouncements.

It is easy for me to accept the servant-leader philosophy, but it is tough to do in practice. I can think of three reasons it is just as challenging now as it was for James and John. First, as a young pastor, I occasionally try to fix people rather than serve and help them grow. Does anyone like being fixed? Dogs certainly don't. Fixing people often involves giving advice to people. We take our life experience as an example and say, "I know what you need to do." We mean well. We genuinely want to help. But be honest. How many people really take your advice? How often do you take advice from others? If you have ever had a medical condition, aren't you amazed at how many people practice medicine without a license by giving you advice? Fixing people through advice-giving is not serving people. I seldom give advice, even when asked. I'm afraid people just might take it, and my experience may be wrong for them. What works for me as a six-foot, two-inch straight white male may not work for a black lesbian pastor.

Six years ago, I became a coach, and the rule was I could not give advice, only empathize and ask questions. At first, it was agonizing. But it became liberating for my congregation and me. Trying to have all the answers was exhausting and a significant burden. Helping people find their answers was more of a joy. I am still a recovering fixer, but that is often the journey that servant leaders must make.

This leads to a second reason being a servant leader is so hard. Like James and John, how much time do we spend comparing ourselves to others? Are we as successful, wise, wealthy, or creative as the person with whom we are speaking? It's not a conscious activity. Most of us aren't walking around thinking every minute, "I'm smarter than him, but she is brilliant. This person has more power than I do, but at least I'm thin." These calculations are more background noise while we make lightning-speed judgments about others based on their clothes, how they stand, the color of their skin, how they talk. Occasionally, when there is a conflict, or we need something, it becomes more conscious, and we feel anxiety about where we stand.

In general, if we determine we are not the power person, we might become anxious, deferential, eager to please and hold back what we honestly think. We listen more. When we believe we hold power, we are more relaxed, freer with our opinions, and more likely to talk and give directions than listen. In either mode, we are not a servant leader. We are paying attention to our rank; we are focused on ourselves, not on the other person and why we are in the room with them. Acting as a servant leader isn't just choosing to take the lower rank all the time. Servant leadership is an attitude, a way of being. It is meeting another person and thinking, "I wonder what good thing can happen because we are together right now." What could I learn? What might I offer to be a blessing to this person? In a spiritual sense, what do I see of God in this person?

Maybe this attitude sounds hard to do. It is, and yet it isn't. We are so conditioned to rank and compare. We live in a real-world where relationships are transactional. We want something from people, or they want something from us. Will I get it? Will I give it? But that becomes exhausting and dispiriting after a while. We have much more freedom when we think like a servant leaders and think, "What can I learn? How can I be a blessing?" Really, how much life energy do we lose thinking and feeling inadequate? How many mistakes do we make because we feel superior? What if we just want to be a blessing, no matter who we are with?

Jesus pushes James and John a step further because of their great desire to lead. When he says, are you willing to drink the cup I will drink" I hear him asking, "Are you willing to be uncomfortable, to lead and serve when you might suffer for it, when you must make a sacrifice for someone else, or for the common good? Not every interaction can be win-win. Doing the right thing involves an element of risk. Let me flesh this out at several levels.

To love someone involves risk. Your heart may be broken. They might not love you the way you had hoped. You may find that loving them means giving up some control. If another person suffers, you will suffer. If you ask someone who is going through cancer or divorce, they will tell you that one of the hardest things is people pulling away. People get uncomfortable around suffering. They don't know what to say, so they edge away. It is hard to drink from the cup, to be a servant leader, to truly love and be present through suffering.

Being a servant leader in any organization right now is fraught and exhausting. Would you run for elected office right now? You can be lambasted for not toeing the party line, even have your life threatened. We have seen our nation's capital violently stormed over a lie, brutalizing police and threatening the lives of Congress members. Wearing masks to prevent COVID has become politicized to the point where nurses are threatened for asking people to mask in the ER. Servant leadership is costly in our divided society. How will we drink this cup?

I believe Greenleaf's principles of servant leadership are a good start:

Rather than fixing people, how can we serve so that people grow, become healthier and more autonomous?

Instead of focusing on comparing our rank and status to others, how can we be a blessing?

Are we willing to be uncomfortable, even suffer, to stand for the common good?

Remember Jesus's lesson: "Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant."

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