Pastor Steve Molin
Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Dear friends in Christ, grace to you and peace, from God our Father, and His Son, our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
Several years ago now, a family in this congregation granted my request of them to fund what we called A Theologian in Residence Program at Our Savior’s. It was the chance to have in our midst, in addition to our two pastors, some bona fide Lutheran scholars who would teach, preach, and live with us for a few months each. The first one to join us was David Preus, the former president of The American Lutheran Church. For four months, David and Ann Preus lived among us and David fed us richly with his sermons. At 80 years of age, the man could still bring it! But the highlight of that time, for me at least, was the Tuesdays when Pastor Keith and I would join David for lunch and he would share tales of his career as pastor and president. Oh, the stories he told. One day he told this story.
David’s grandson had applied for admission at Luther College. You would think it was a slam-dunk; David had played basketball for Luther, and Great-Grandpa and Great-Great Grandpa had served as Luther College presidents. Still, the parents of the applicant received a questionnaire to fill out about the son. One of the questions was most troubling; the college asked, “Is your student a leader?” How would they answer that question? Their son was a great kid, great student, and a model son, but in their hearts, they knew that he wasn’t really a leader. There the letter sat, on the dresser, for several days, until mom finally filled in the blank: “No, our son is not really a leader.” Weeks went by, and then a letter to the parents arrived, sent by the Luther College President. “We are pleased to welcome your son to the Luther College Class of 2004; a class of 349 leaders and one follower.”
How did following get such a bad name? When did being a worker bee give into the aspiration of becoming the queen bee. When did being a member of the team lose value if we weren’t captain of the team? “Be a leader, not a follower!” that’s what we teach our children. But you know it’s true; we teach our children to be the best, and that means better than everyone else, doesn’t it? And the natural result of that thinking is that, once we become a leader…a captain…a CEO, we no longer have to do the grunt work of the worker bees. It’s beneath us. It’s not that we don’t work hard – we may still work hard – but now the work is of a higher order, a more important work. And the conclusion is that, as the leader, we are the most important worker. Now who wants to be a follower?
The gospel text this morning from the 8th chapter of Mark’s gospel finds Jesus smack dab in the middle of his ministry. Eight chapters down, eight chapters to go; a turning point, really. He had performed miracles, healed people, fed the multitudes, and faced down the religious bigots of the day, all in the presence of these disciples. Now was the time for Jesus to take inventory of his ministry, so he asked his friends, “Who do people say that I am?” They started guessing; “Um, Elijah?” “Nope,” Jesus says. “John the Baptist?” “Getting warmer, but no, I’m not John the Baptist.” Then Jesus changed the question: “Well, who do YOU say that I am?” And it was Peter, astounding the others when he said, “You are the Christ, the Messiah come from God.” No one had said that before; no one had recognized him as the Messiah before. Jesus wasn’t the stately, well-groomed, all-powerful leader the world had expected. Until now.
“Yes, Peter! You are correct! Finally, someone understands.” And Jesus decided that now was the time to tell these followers about God’s plan for the world, so he did. “In the coming days I am going to Jerusalem, and there I will be ridiculed and rejected and nailed to a cross by the religious leaders.” And it was Peter…the same Peter who had this amazing insight just moments earlier now loses his sight altogether. “No Jesus, may that never happen to you!” And Jesus turns to his friend and says, “Peter, be quiet! You have a worldly view of success, but it’s not God’s view.”
And then Jesus turned to all of the disciples and said, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” At that moment, Jesus redefined what it means to be a leader – it means to be a servant. It means to dirty one’s hands, to sacrifice one’s comfort, to set aside one’s insatiable desire of success in order to do the work of the Kingdom.
I can imagine that the disciples were shocked at Jesus’ words. This isn’t what they signed up for. They were seeking fame and security and delight, and now they seemed to be promised hardship, conflict and death. But when Jesus gave his speech, none of them walked away. They all stayed to the end, and in fact all but one died a violent death as servant leaders.
Perhaps you think that sort of approach to leadership has died as well, but it hasn’t. History is filled with servant leaders who were willing to step down from ivory towers and into the messiness of life because the words of Jesus compelled them to.
Albert Schweitzer was the foremost authority of Bach’s music in Europe. After music school he went on to seminary to become a Lutheran pastor. He wrote Quest for the Historical Jesus which became a must read for every pastor in America, and after all of this, he went to medical school so that he could spend the last 25 years of his life serving a leper colony in Africa. That’s a servant leader.
Henri Nouwen is the most popular Catholic writer of all time, a professor at Notre Dame, Yale and Harvard, but he gave it all up to live and serve as chaplain at a home in Toronto for people with mental disabilities. That’s a servant leader.
Millard Fuller was a millionaire at the age of 30, with a brilliant future at Proctor and Gamble, but he and his wife took the admonition of Jesus seriously. They sold all of their belongings, gave the money to the poor, and went to Atlanta to start a little organization called Habitat for Humanity. That’s a servant leader.
All of these servant leaders have two things in common: The first is their faith in Jesus Christ. The second is that their lives would not be defined by wealth, fame and power. They are followers, with dirty hands and tired feet and joyful hearts, because they took Jesus at his word.
Well let me say that we don’t have to live in poverty to follow Christ. We don’t have to quit our jobs and move to a third-world country to be servant leaders. We can do all of that right where we are now. But the cross we carry may need to change. In a world where we think, “It’s all about us” Jesus seems to say, “No, it’s really all about others.” In a nation where what matters most is our wealth, Jesus seems to say, “No, what matters most is what you do with your wealth.” In an age when peoples’ needs are overwhelming and the easiest thing we can do is send a check, Jesus seems to say, “Go in person, to touch them, to listen to them, to see their circumstance and to understand their story.” That’s a servant leader.
A generation ago, a man by the name of Laurence Peter wrote a book called The Peter Principle. His theory was that as long as people did a good job at work, they will always be promoted. But ultimately, they will be promoted to a position of incompetence. Someone might be a great teacher, but when they reach their aspiration of being a principal, they are horrible. Someone might be a really good assistant coach, but when they are promoted to head coach, they fail. A person might be an amazing associate pastor, but when they finally arrive at being a senior pastor – case in point – they suck! That’s The Peter Principle.
Jesus created his own Peter Principle when he called his followers to lead by serving. Somehow he knew that there would always be room at the bottom of the ladder, at the back of the line, in the unpopular places. We might not become famous, or wealthy, or powerful by volunteering at Bethlehem on the Midway, or by our job at the checkout counter at Cub. But if we count it a privilege to love God and serve people wherever we go, we will always have jobs to do. That’s a servant leader. And that’s what it means to be a follower. Thanks be to God. Amen.
©2012 Steven Molin