The Servant Leader

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The bold way of Jesus calls us to be humble servant leaders. This way is counter to the narratives of power and dominance we hear so often in our world. We find our hope in the remembrance of the lives of all who have gone before us and stand as beacons on a hill, reflecting Christ's resurrection glory for all the world to see.

The New Revised Standard Version Jesus Denounces Scribes and Pharisees

23 Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, 2 “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; 3 therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach. 4 They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them. 5 They do all their deeds to be seen by others; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long. 6 They love to have the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues, 7 and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have people call them rabbi. 8 But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all students. 9 And call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father—the one in heaven. 10 Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah. 11 The greatest among you will be your servant. 12 All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.

Last week, we were reminded that the Lord of our lives is Christ alone. Many people, powers, and principalities will vie for that position in our hearts, but we claim Christ and Christ alone to be out foundation, our rock, our Lord.
This morning, I cannot apologize for how “on the nose” the next reading from the Gospel of Matthew is. Thanks to the Revised Common Lectionary weekly Sunday readings, this is what we are presented with as we stand on the cusp of Election Week in the US. I can only hear these words from Jesus, calling out the Pharisees and scribes, as God’s direction for us to tune into the question of Lordship once more and do a compare and contrast with the leaders we have in our world, against and in opposition to the model of humble leadership Jesus models.
We need this teaching from our Savior and Lord and we need to keep it at the front of our minds, especially in the days ahead. We need this sharp teaching from Jesus as we long to be wise as serpents and gentle as doves in the world. We need to this critique of the powerful to also present us with another way, a way of humility, that we must expect for those who call themselves leaders, those who we entrust with our lives, our livelihood, our longings.
This morning, I am not going to draw the direct parallels to the political moment we are in. You are smart people, you can do this yourself. If you do not see it, I pray that God will open your eyes. We pray for wisdom and discernment as we place our hopes in people — wisdom to trust in what is truly an act of humility and service and wisdom to distinguish truth from lies.
What I am struck by in this text is Jesus’ intention to focus us on the only rabbi, the only leader, the only instructor, the only King, the only pastor, the only teacher that we may truly claim: The Messiah, the Holy One of God. The Christ.
The Christ presence, as it rests on Jesus and speaks out here, is something that we as people of wisdom and hope, can see in the world and must look for in others. We do not denounce our leaders simply because they are human, we do not critique our pastors simply because they use religious language. No, the Christ presence can and is very often seen in such people. Think about it. Who do you regard, in your life, to have modeled the way of Jesus? Who have you seen practicing being a servant, like Christ is a servant?
I see the Christ presence, the Holy One, at work in so many places and this gives me hope. I see the Christ at work in someone like former President Jimmy Carter, who has devoted the final years of his life to serving others, participating in build after build after build with Habitat for Humanity. I see the Christ at work in my friend Kate, who boldly tells her story of pain and trauma to students at The Seattle School of Theology & Psychology in hopes of bearing her wounds through which healing has come. I see the Christ presence in the stories of the saints, like Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador, who was shot and killed while serving Eucharist at the alter in his parish, murdered because he courageously spoke up for justice for the poor and oppressed. I see the Christ presence in the humble generosity of a child sharing Halloween candy with a friend, knowing that it is better to give than to receive.
Friends, this passage from Matthew certainly stings if you are someone in a position of power who likes to make sure people pay you tribute and honor your title. It honestly stings a little if I think about what it can be to be a pastor — I have an advanced degree, years of training, position and authority. I have a special pulpit to stand in and a captive audience who listens to what I say. I have a door on my office with a nameplate that says “Pastor” and my salary is funded by your generous gifts to the church. I can hear this passage and it can sting — because it is so easy to let all of that power and position get in the way of what it truly means to serve — what it truly means to humble myself and step out in service. If you have known leadership or position, you know that it is very easy to let it get to your head — and extend beyond into getting into a way of entitlement and expectation.
I resist this. We must resist this.
So, shall we have no leaders? Shall we dismantle the clergy, overthrow corrupt officials, and fall into anarchy and chaos?
No. That’s not what’s going on here.
I am so grateful that we are presented with this text today. It is the Sunday before the election, certainly. And it is also All Saints Day. The day when the church remembers the great cloud of witnesses that have gone before us into glory. These saints — they present us with opportunities to remember our ancestors in the faith who have found glory through humility, position through their relinquishment of power.
The Book of Sirach, which is found in the Apocryphal section of our New Revised Standard Bibles, includes this beautiful hymn in honor of these ancestors. Sirach 44 says...


44 Let us now sing the praises of famous men,

our ancestors in their generations.

2 The Lord apportioned to them great glory,

his majesty from the beginning.

3 There were those who ruled in their kingdoms,

and made a name for themselves by their valor;

those who gave counsel because they were intelligent;

those who spoke in prophetic oracles;

4 those who led the people by their counsels

and by their knowledge of the people’s lore;

they were wise in their words of instruction;

5 those who composed musical tunes,

or put verses in writing;

6 rich men endowed with resources,

living peacefully in their homes—

7 all these were honored in their generations,

and were the pride of their times.

8 Some of them have left behind a name,

so that others declare their praise.

9 But of others there is no memory;

they have perished as though they had never existed;

they have become as though they had never been born,

they and their children after them.

10 But these also were godly men,

whose righteous deeds have not been forgotten;

13 Their offspring will continue forever,

and their glory will never be blotted out.

14 Their bodies are buried in peace,

but their name lives on generation after generation.

So, what are we to do?
We have been looking for leaders to take us through this COVID-19 crisis. We have been looking leaders who will guide our faith communities into the work of justice and repentance. We have been looking for leaders who will stand up against racism with sustained commitment. And we are often disappointed.
Friends, what we do is we look for the Christ.
We look for servants who are embodying the humble way of Jesus with their lives. What does this look like?
A few ideas. Actually, they’re not my ideas. They’re Jesus’ ideas and they come from the central teaching of his ministry, the Beattitudes, from the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5.
Do you want to know what a servant leader, a humbled, Christ-like guide looks like? Let’s start here.
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meet, for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
Friends, the problem is so very clear, isn’t it?
I found this alternative list of Beatitudes online that hammers in the point of our compare and contrast exercise:
Blessed are the powerful, for they will dominate the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for the righteousness of others, for they will be filled with self-righteousness.
Blessed are the theologically merciless, for they will be merciful to themselves.
Blessed are the sure in heart, for they will think they are seeing God.
Blessed are those who wage war, for they will call themselves children of God.
Blessed are the powerful who consider themselves persecuted, for theirs is the kingdom of The End That Justify The Means.
Do you hear it? Do you perceive it? Do you want to know what it looks like to be humble, a servant like Christ, in contrast to the power grabbing we are so often taught to emulate and encourage?
It is all here.
Finally, I want to turn us to hope.
This morning, driving in and sitting down at my desk in the church, I felt a mix of exhaustion and hope. Exhaustion, because this year has been so difficult and discouraging. We are weary, amen?
But hope, as well. Hope that there is such clarity about what it means to be Jesus’ people in this time and place in life. Because there is so much that feels bleak, it brings greater clarity of all that we long for and hope for and that is possible if we embrace this alternative way that Jesus calls us to.
One of my favorite songs is by the musician Andrew Peterson and it’s called “The Dark Before the Dawn.” Friends, we are in the dark before the dawn. That is what the Christian church proclaims — there is night, but the night always gives way to the morning, to the hope of a new day, to the reality of resurrection.
Every Sunday is an Easter Sunday, every day an opportunity to awaken and reclaim that power of hope for all people. Today and every day, we bear witness to this truth with our lives. We WILL do this as a church, we WILL choose humility and solidarity with the poor and oppressed, we WILL stand for righteousness, lit up like a beacon on a hill. This is our calling.
I’ll close by continuing on with Jesus’ words in Matthew 5, the call to be salt and light.

13 “You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.

14 “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. 15 No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.

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