Sunday, July 12, 2009

Servant Leadership

Grace Episcopal Church, Madison NJ
July 12, 2009

Year B, Proper 10: The Sixth Sunday after Pentecost
2 Samuel 6:1-5, 12b-19
Psalm 24
(Ephesians 1:3-14)
Mark 6:14-29

Servant Leadership

What makes a good leader? Is Christian leadership different from good leadership in the world?

These are questions I think about a lot. And fortunately I have some time to think about them because one of the best parts of my job at Grace is that I am not the one in charge. But now that Lauren is on vacation a few people have said to me, “Oh, now you get to be in charge!” Not true! For the record, I’d like to point out that in the absence of the rector it’s the wardens who are in charge – not me.

But, of course, as a priest I am in a position of leadership and so I do think very seriously about what makes a good leader – and I wonder if good Christian leadership is different from good leadership in the business world and the political world.

Most, if not all of us, at some points in our lives are called to be leaders. Maybe we are called to be leaders in our families, or our communities or leaders at work.

So, naturally, since most if not all of us serve as leaders at some point lots of people think about – and write about – leadership. The other day just out of curiosity I typed in the word “leadership” at and found over 20,000 titles were listed!

After scanning through some of these titles it’s safe to say that the general understanding of leadership is the ability to get people to do what you want them to do. Apparently most would agree that leadership is about accumulating and exercising power over other people.

But in reality is that good leadership? And is that good Christian leadership? Does God call us to the kind of leadership that is about accumulating and exercising power?

Today’s lessons give us the chance to see several different leaders in action. We see King David and we see Herod Antipas. And we also see the leadership of John the Baptist.

And of course above all of these we have the example of the leadership of Jesus Christ.

So here are two questions. What makes a good leader? Is Christian leadership different from leadership in the world?

From the Old Testament we heard the next installment in the amazing adventures of David. Over the past few weeks we’ve heard the unlikely story of Jesse’s youngest son’s rise from tending the sheep to being anointed as the king of Israel. We heard the story of God choosing David through the prophet Samuel. We heard the familiar story of David proving himself by slinging a rock and defeating the giant Goliath. And last week we heard how, after the death of Israel’s first king, the elders of Israel anoint David as their new leader.

Which brings us to today’s lesson. David has a triumphant victory parade, gathering “the chosen men of Israel” – some thirty thousand we’re told – and processing with the ark of God. The ark was a container which contained the stone tablets of the Ten Commandments – but more than that the ark was believed to contain the very presence of God.

So this is quite an event – and quite a statement by David. By moving the ark and “dancing before the Lord” David is making it very clear that he is God’s anointed and he’s letting everyone know that to oppose David was to oppose the God of Israel.

There are two ominous notes in this story, however. It’s too bad that one of these ominous notes was left out from the section we read from Second Samuel.

The part that’s left out describes how during the procession, Uzzah, one of the men helping to move the ark, reached out and touched the ark when it was in danger of tipping over. Despite his good intentions, he violated the taboo against touching the ark and Uzzah was immediately struck dead.

David is understandably upset by this event and temporarily changes his plan to bring the ark to Jerusalem. After a few months pass without further incident, though, he is able to work up the courage to bring the ark into his city – and eventually it will be placed in the Temple.

Maybe David should have hesitated even more and reflected on the danger of trying to use God for his own political purposes.

The other ominous note is included in what we heard today. The author of Second Samuel writes, “As the ark of the LORD came into the city of David, Michal daughter of Saul looked out of the window, and saw King David leaping and dancing before the Lord; and she despised him in her heart.”

We’re not given any explanation here for Michal’s strong emotions. She was a daughter of Saul, the previous king, and later she will criticize David for making a spectacle of himself in the procession with the “common people.” But perhaps as a king’s daughter she recognized the danger of a leader flaunting his relationship with God and the danger of abusing his status as God’s anointed.

Although David surrounded himself with the trappings of religion, in truth he governed Israel pretty much like any of the pagan rulers of his time and for that matter pretty much like dictators and absolute monarchs of today.

He placed himself above the law and violated God’s justice. The most famous example of this is his adultery with Bathsheba and the sending of her husband Uriah to the front lines to die in battle. Like other leaders then and now he did all of this because he wanted to – and because he could.

As a leader David transformed Israel for the first and last time into a political and military power – and yet he betrayed many and most especially he betrayed the God who had anointed him as king.

Today’s second king, Herod Antipas, is not quite as complex as David. Herod was a son of Herod the Great and he was ruler of Galilee during Jesus’ earthly lifetime. He was essentially a puppet of the Romans. As long as he maintained the favor of Rome he remained in power. When that favor was withdrawn, he was finished.

He is best-remembered for his relationship with Herodias – who was both his niece and sister-in-law! John the Baptist, of course is critical of this relationship and according to the gospel this leads to his demise.

Herod isn’t a one-dimensional character. Mark notes that Herod fears John the Baptist and recognizes him as a righteous and holy man. Mark tells us when Herod heard John “he was greatly perplexed; and yet he liked to listen to him.”

But Herod is an essentially weak man and so he needs to boast and exercise his “power” to impress his guests with bold oaths to Herodias’ daughter Salome (incorrectly and confusingly called Herodias in our bible translation). And so, probably with a mix of fear and regret Herod orders the beheading of John.

And Herod is painfully reminded of his essential weakness when Jesus gains notoriety for his teaching and healing. With dread, Herod is convinced that the righteous and holy John has been raised from the dead.

And what about the leadership of John the Baptist? He doesn’t surround himself with religious trappings the way David did, and yet even Herod is able to see that John is righteous and holy.

John leads a radically simple life in the wilderness and attracts a committed group of followers including, most scholars think, Jesus himself.

John speaks the truth to both the powerful and the not so powerful. He condemns Herod for his relationship with Herodias but he also challenges ordinary people to repent of their sins and change their ways. And his leadership attracts crowds to the River Jordan and transforms lives.

John the Baptist – John the leader – will pay the ultimate price for speaking the truth to power and yet his power and his leadership can still be felt today when we imitate him at the baptismal font.

There isn’t much Jesus in today’s lessons, but if we are looking for what makes a good leader – a good Christian leader – we have to look to Jesus.

Jesus didn’t need the religious trappings of David. And unlike Herod, Jesus was no one’s puppet.

Like John, Jesus spoke the truth to the powerful and the not so powerful. And, like John, Jesus paid the ultimate price for that honesty.

But there is something distinctive about the leadership of Jesus. Jesus practices a leadership of service.

Jesus does nothing to glorify himself. Instead he makes it very clear that he has come into the world to serve human beings and to glorify God the Father. Over and over he offers this service in his teaching and his healing. Jesus reveals this servant leadership at the Last Supper when describes the bread as his body broken for the world and the wine as his blood poured out for the world. And Jesus models that servant leadership when he gets on his knees and washes the feet of the apostles.

Servant leadership is leadership. Servant leadership is Christian leadership.

Bennett J. Sims, the late bishop of Atlanta once wrote, “Servant leadership defines success as giving and measures achievement by devotion to serving.”

As Christians all of us are called and challenged to follow the example of Jesus and to be servant leaders. In baptism we all promise to seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbor as our self. We don’t have to look very far to see opportunities for servant leadership – opportunities for giving and serving.

And with God’s grace we all can be far greater leaders than David or Herod. With God’s grace we can be servant leaders – defining success as giving and measuring achievement by devotion to serving.