A sermon preached by the Rev. Jeffrey Gill on October 30, 2011
Sermon for Pentecost 20 (Proper 26A)
October 30, 2011
Christ Church Andover
Psalm 107:1-7, 33-37;
1 Thessalonians 2:9-13;
Well here I stand, wearing my fringe and praying long prayers. This passage always feels like it hits just a little bit below the belt for those of us who do things that sound frighteningly close to Jesus’ description of the scribes and Pharisees. Please, no one call me Father today, or I’m in real trouble!
Throughout these past several weeks in this long teaching section of Matthew’s gospel, we’ve heard a sustained confrontation with the leaders of the Jerusalem establishment. This was an “Occupy Jerusalem” moment. Jesus and his disciples had already come from Galilee to Jerusalem, and were received on a wave of popular enthusiasm, with crowds cheering him and waving palm branches as he came into the city. They were hoping he was the one who was going to turn things around in this corrupt place. He engaged in an act of bold and very public protest, walking into the Temple and turning over the tables of the money changers. They were the people who were profiting unfairly from the system of temple sacrifice, and were at least partly responsible for the growing inequality between the rich and the poor. This was not the nice, sweet, passive Jesus you thought you learned about in Sunday School. He could be a rabble-rouser. And enough was enough.
He’s been going head to head with the powers that be – the scribes and Pharisees. They are the 1% – the intellectual and political elite.
The analogy, I’m sure, will not hold indefinitely, but it is interesting to note some of the similarities between this movement inspired by Jesus and some of the concerns we hear being voiced around the country in our own growing protest movement.
One thing is clear. Jesus was concerned about the effects of a spirit of entitlement on people. He was not just concerned in an earnest but passive sort of way. You can almost hear the anger in his voice:
"The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses' seat; therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach. 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. They do all their deeds to be seen by others; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long. They love to have the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have people call them rabbi.”
His argument was not so much with what the scribes and Pharisees were teaching. His argument was with what they did! They made nice speeches, and they taught people good things right from the Law, but they did not live up to them themselves, and they privileged themselves in how they expected people to actually live.
Something was missing.
And in his final statement, he looks at his disciples and tells us what that is. “The greatest among you will be your servant. All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted."
The greatest among you will be your servant.
In the 1970s Robert Greenleaf began talking about what he called “servant leadership.” Greenleaf coined the term in The Servant as Leader, an essay that he first published in 1970. In that essay, he said:
The servant-leader is servant first… It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead. That person is sharply different from one who is leader first, perhaps because of the need to assuage an unusual power drive or to acquire material possessions…The leader-first and the servant-first are two extreme types. Between them there are shadings and blends that are part of the infinite variety of human nature…
The difference manifests itself in the care taken by the servant-first to make sure that other people’s highest priority needs are being served. The best test, and difficult to administer, is: Do those served grow as persons? Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants? And, what is the effect on the least privileged in society? Will they benefit or at least not be further deprived?
But Greenleaf takes the idea of servanthood beyond the personal to the institutional, and suggests that service must also be at the heart of our social and corporate life. In his second major essay, The Institution as Servant, he articulated what is often called the "credo." He said:
This is my thesis: caring for persons, the more able and the less able serving each other, is the rock upon which a good society is built. Whereas, until recently, caring was largely person to person, now most of it is mediated through institutions – often large, complex, powerful, impersonal; not always competent; sometimes corrupt. If a better society is to be built, one that is more just and more loving, one that provides greater creative opportunity for its people, then the most open course is to raise both the capacity to serve and the very performance as servant of existing major institutions by new regenerative forces operating within them.
Jesus’ invitation to servanthood must be personal, and it must be something we all seek to live. But the personal must also become manifest in the trans-personal institutions we build: families, churches, communities, and yes, I dare say even corporations and government, for they are mere extensions of what is personal.
Servanthood is the missing ingredient in so much of our society and our world, and we will not set things right until we see serving one another as the key to the kind of world we really seek.
Margaret Wheatley is one of the more noted organizational behavior experts in the country who consults with the military, corporations, and civic organizations. Here’s her take on the idea of servanthood at the heart of our corporate life:
There are many patterns, many beliefs, out there about leadership, about people, about motivation, about human development. The essential truth I’m discovering right now is that when we are together, more becomes possible. When we are together, joy is available. In the midst of a world that is insane, that will continue to surprise us with new outrages…in the midst of that future, the gift is each other. We have lived with a belief system that has not told us that. We have lived with a belief that has said, ‘We’re in it for ourselves. It’s a dog-eat-dog world out there. Only the strong survive and you can’t trust anybody.’ That’s the belief that’s operating in most organizations if you scratch the surface. The belief that called you to be a servant-leader, I believe, is the belief of who we are as a species. We have need for each other. We have a desire for each other, and, more and more, I believe that if the real work is to stay together, then we are not only the best resource to move into this future—we are the only resource….We need to learn how to be together: that is the essential work of the servant-leader.
So, how do we do that? It seems so counter-intuitive to the model on which our politics and our economics work. But isn’t that because we have fallen back into the trap of a kind of social Darwinism – the survival of the fittest – where your loss is my gain, where we imagine and live our lives based on the idea of scarcity, and the more I get for myself of scarce resources, the more likely I am to outlive you?
But how about if we begin to re-imagine ourselves living in a world not of scarcity, but of abundance. If we truly believe that there is enough to go around, we won’t need to hoard anything for ourselves, and we’ll begin to see that our highest goal is the flourishing not just of me as an individual, but of our world and of society as a whole. It’s so much more important that everyone have enough than that I try to outlive and outsmart death by looking only to my own well-being.
“The greatest among you,” Jesus said, “will be your servant. All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.” What kind of world would we create if we really believed it? It doesn’t work to believe that it’s only about my personal life. Yes, it is that, but we undo the good we seek to create if we imagine there is some insurmountable barrier between the personal and the social and political. We also miss the point if we hold back, and don’t try to live it out in our personal lives unless and until all the systems are in place to insure that I do not fail if I dare to live this way.
Jesus is our model for this kind of life. He has shown us that it is a way that is not without sacrifice, but is one that ultimately leads to life.