When you hear the word “leader,” who do you think of? What qualities are important in a leader? These questions were important to the Disciples following Jesus. They were important in the early church. And they are important in our church.
Being a leader is a mixed bag. When we are asked to lead, we take on responsibility to make things happen. We want to be knowledgeable on the topic in which we lead. We want to be reliable. We want to be inspiring. We usually want to get things done. On the other hand, we don’t want to do all the work ourselves. If we have accepted responsibility, there are times we might find ourselves hustling at the last moment to complete tasks that volunteers committed to, but were unable to finish. And we sometimes get the credit for the work others have done, which is also uncomfortable. Sometimes as leaders, there are others who don’t like the way we lead, who challenge us out of jealousy or another reason. We often don’t want to put ourselves in a position of power over others, or be seen as doing so, yet we might have skills or knowledge that other people don’t have.
The prophet Isaiah today talks about the fate of people who stick their neck out, of prophets who accept or who are compelled to tell the truth to rulers and whole communities of people who need guidance. Many times, that help and challenge is not accepted, and that person is punished, made to suffer for doing what he or she had to do because of conscience or the Holy Spirit.
The readings for today help us think about leadership, our own, and that of others. According to Isaiah, a leader is a healer, someone has a certain kind of knowledge, someone who is often abandoned, abused, and even crushed. A leader is sometimes punished unjustly. However, in the end, God will not forget someone who leads righteously, who selflessly gives and serves and tells the truth. Such a leader will eventually find prosperity and celebration, and community. This kind of leader will be eventually recognized for his or her gifts and sacrifices.
We, of course, think of Jesus. But this refers to what prophets have endured through the ages. This is a story that recurs, over and over again.
According to Hebrews, a leader is able to “deal gently with the ignorant and wayward, since he himself is subject to weakness.” A leader not only relies on his or her strengths as a guide, but isn’t it the bad things we’ve done and the weaknesses we’ve endured that help us serve others the most? Some of our pantry clients have come to be some our best volunteers. Because they know what it is like to be without food, they come to make sure others don’t have to go through that. Many hospice volunteers give their time because they’ve been through a death of someone very close to them. They know what that’s like to hurt so deeply and feel so lost. So they serve out of a place of pain.
This leadership that comes from a place of pain or weakness is a good thing. It takes a terrible situation and creates power, the ability to act, to do something to relieve the suffering of others. It creates community. It says, “I’m not going to sit home with my problems and let them overwhelm me.” Instead, this kind of service links us to other people.
In the reading from Hebrews this morning, we find that leaders are to be obedient. We associate obedience with being a kid. We don’t have that many positive associations with the word “obedience” for adults. But being obedient to God, is to trust God’s vision and direction and humble ourselves to be followers of the only one who is trustworthy and has the complete picture.
Finally, in Mark, we learn that a leader is to be a servant. Jesus is the ultimate example of that. He is a leader who spends his time with the lowest of the low, at the bottom of the heap. Jesus prioritizes those who others completely disregard. He got no recognition for it. He did it because those people matter in the Kingdom of God and were open to meeting him and were actually able to see God in him. He found people who knew what all was wrong with this world, what was crushing people, what was causing suffering, and he joined with them in a vision of the Kingdom of God where everyone is valued and has a voice, where children are leaders, blind people are leaders, grieving people are leaders, sinners are leaders, all of us following Jesus our Savior, our shepherd, the only trustworthy leader, the only one who could give us what we really need, abundant life.
Jesus disciples desperately want to lead. Who knows if they want the recognition, or if they just want to be close to Jesus. They want the seating chart in the next life. Jesus tells them that he doesn’t make the seating chart, but if they want to be near him, they must be near the poor, the hungry, the imprisoned, because that is where Jesus is.
He is so kind to them. Jesus doesn’t get angry when they are jockeying for their position next to him in the next life. Instead he askes them if they have what it takes. Are they prepared to drink the cup and be baptized with his kind of baptism? They say, “Yes,” not knowing what they were saying. Jesus refers Holy Communion and Baptism, the two sacraments, the two things Jesus commands we do and does himself to experience the real presence of God. He will be present with us when we follow him faithfully despite suffering and pain.
The cup is a cup of celebration. But it is also a cup of blood. This is Jesus’ blood poured out. Are the disciples ready to pour out their blood? They say they are willing, and they will as martyrs. I think of the cup from the 23rd Psalm, “My cup runs over.” There is blessing in the cup that spreads out to others. This is a cup more than half full. I also am reminded of the cup that Jesus prays about in the garden of Gethsemane. “If it by thy will, take this cup from me.” This is a cup of suffering, of death, of sacrifice, of servanthood.
Jesus asks if they are willing to be baptized with a baptism like his. A baptism is celebration of a person’s place in the community of believers, a washing away of sin, a moment when we are claimed by God. It is also a commemoration of the Israelites passing through the Red Sea, crossing over into a whole new life in which they would learn to trust God and be God’s people. It was a death of the old Israelites, and the birth of a new nation. When we baptize we baptize into Jesus’ death and resurrection, drowning the old self, and rising to new life. When the disciples were agreeing to his baptism, they didn’t realize they were agreeing to live in a whole new way in which their old self would die, the old self that was blind, the old self that wanted the seating chart, the old self that wanted to be important. In baptism, too, we die to our selfish ways and are reborn into the body of Christ. We are responsible to all others in the body. It isn’t about us anymore, but about the health and wellness of the weakest members. But the Disciples agreed to it anyway, and eventually his disciples would all learn what it meant to die to their old self and rise to become servants.
In this church we have the most amazing leaders. I have been so impressed by the people taking leadership. Some pastors complain that they have to drag their congregations out into the community to lead. But here, you're all telling me which community meetings it is important for me to attend. You know your commissioners, the Mayor of Milwaukie and everyone in his office. You are volunteering in the community and making a difference. You are leaders. We have a strong Stewardship Team. Lots of people come up with ideas and work to make them happen. The leaders in this church are phenomenal!
I don’t know if this is going to change how we see leaders, and put our faith in Jesus rather than earthly rulers and tyrants. Of course, I urge you to vote. And then I urge you to hold our elected leaders accountable to the people who are hurting the most, who lack power and influence, because this is who Jesus told us to look out for, because we are joined with them in one body. Their pain is our pain. Their joy and health is our joy and health.
And even though we are imperfect leaders, we shouldn’t give up. We have the forgiveness and love of God, and a community of imperfect people who understand when we mess up. We should strive to be trustworthy, however, we know that only God is good and reliable, so we step up with humility, never to draw attention and glory to ourselves, but to participate in God’s vision of healing and hope for all the world.