Asbury First United
Text: Mark 10: 35-45
Who taught you about power?
Who taught you by precept or example about the use of authority?
Think for a minute, or for a good stretch of a lifetime, about those who modeled for you the spiritual dimensions of leadership. Unreflectively we follow their lead if reflectively we do not assess their example. And every one of us has power, exercises some authority, and leads, especially in our example.
Carlyle Marney used to ask us: “Friend, who told you who you are?”
The Gospel today asks of us a narrower question: who taught you about power? The Gospel today tells us that authentic authority, real responsibility are a matter of the heart. What are your models of power?
Is one the heartfelt happiness of simplicity? Heartfelt leadership is ultimately very simple.
Said John Wesley, repeatedly, “if thine heart be as mine, give me thine hand”.
And Calvin: What is the chief purpose of human life? To glorify God and enjoy God forever.
There will come a day when you wake up to the purity of the heart that, as Kierkegaard said, is to “will one thing”. That is conversion, often wrought in power struggle.
You may come to a morning hour, even this one, in which you sense a new opening, a desire to live a life that makes God smile. You will become kinder, happier, more generous, more forgiving. This is the purpose of being alive, to speak and act and be in a way that brings a smile to the divine countenance.
It is intriguing that the Gospel lessons about living, in Mark, are set in the humble reaches of the lake country. Writing in Rome in trouble in 70AD, there must have some comfort, some folkloric encouragement for the persecuted urban Christians in these polished memories of Jesus teaching along the shores of Galilee. There is beauty along the lake. There is calm along the lake. There is peace along the lake. There is serenity along the lake. Along the lake there is space and time to sift, reminisce, remember, sort.
Who taught you what you know about power?
Along our lakes and rivers in this lovely region there arose a utopian sect, first in Albany and then in Cleveland, who embodied the simple life. In their work, their dress, their furniture, their devotion, their relations, the Shakers lived simply. The heart of their simplicity, and ours at our best, is the desire to “live a life worthy of the calling to which we have been called”. Every renewal in Christian history has had this feature: Paul mending tents, Augustine chaste again, Luther and Erasmus cleansing Rome, Wesley and his coal miners, Latin American base communities, and every spiritual nudging in our own very human church.
Who are you trying to please? And how? And why?
Think of someone you have known who lived with a heartfelt, powerful simplicity.
Who taught you about authority?
Is another model the heartfelt affirmation of the common good?
Mark 10:35 is one of the few spots in the earliest gospel at which the emerging institutional needs of the church are visible. Christianity wrestled with formational questions in the first century: For whom is the gospel? What are the definitive texts? And especially, who shall hold authority. What, How, Where. And Who?
As this passage shows, from the outset it has been terribly difficult for the Christian church to maintain its own authentic form of authority, over against the lesser models abroad in every age. I emphasize the little phrase, slave of all, or servant of the whole. “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up,” said Paul.
We saw the film “Under the Tuscan Sun” last week. It was beautiful. Aristotle taught us to attend to the true, the good, the beautiful. In the late fourth century there emerged a good, great leader of the church, Ambrose of Milan. In just eight days he went from unbaptized layman to Bishop. His rhetorical skill, musicianship, diplomatic agility and attention to the preparations for Baptism provided the power behind his lasting influence in Northern Italy. Above all, Ambrose used his authority for the common good. Notice in the Scripture there is no avoidance of the need for leadership. Authority may be shared but responsibility is not to be shirked. What lasts, what counts, what is true and good and beautiful, finally, is what “builds up”.
The greatest teacher of the earlier church, Augustine of Hippo, came to Milan a non-Christian. From the influence of Ambrose he left baptized and believing and worked a generation to set the foundations for the church over a thousand years to come.
I find some striking parallels to the story of Ambrose in a now popular book by Jim Collins, "Good to Great." Here are the qualities of those in authority in companies that became great when they had before been good: quiet, humble, modest, reserved, shy, gracious, mild-mannered, self-effacing, understated, did not believe his own clippings—a plow horse not a show horse. A lot of progress can be made when we do not linger too long over who gets the credit.
Some years ago I went to a church meeting near Potsdam on a very cold night. It was led by our Bishop. For some reason I was not in a very happy mood, nor was I very charitable in my internal review of his remarks that evening. I do not recall his topic or theme. I remember clearly seeing him help to move hymnals, borrowed from other churches for the large crowd, so they could be returned. Snow, dark, long arms carrying a dozen hymnals into the tundra.
Who taught you about power?
Think of someone you have known who lived with heartfelt passion for the common good.
Who taught you about leadership?
Is another the example of deliberate and deliberative service?
Clint and I drove down through Ithaca in July. It was wonderful. Our two older kids were born there but I really have not been back in over twenty years. I believe there is a physical dimension to mind, to memory and maybe even to hope. It is important to be in certain places in order to receive certain insights, past and maybe even future. That is why reunions can be so powerful. Forgotten familiar spaces can evoke long buried memories. (It happens that just as this sermon was finished yesterday, a group of Doublers came to visit their former classroom next door to my office.) I remembered powerfully the experience of discovering, in a simple pamphlet in the Ithaca library, the graduate program that would form 10 years of our lives in Montreal. It was one of those uncanny moments when you feel that something beyond you is taking you by the hand and putting you somewhere.
Going north meant that I would not learn from Charles Rice at Drew. But I followed him through the years. A few years ago he spoke about the servant of the servants of God. He told about an Easter when he was in Greece. He sat in the Orthodox Church and watched the faithful in devotions. There was a great glassed icon of Christ, to which, following prayers, women and men would move, then kneel, then as they rose they kissed the glassed icon. Every so often a woman dressed in black would emerge from the shadows with some cleanser, or windex, and a cloth and –psh, psh—would clean the image, making it clear again. And he had a revelation about service and power and authority and leadership. And through him I did too. Maybe it will work for you. As he watched the woman in black cleaning the icon, he realized that this was what his ministry was meant to be. A daily washing away from the face of Christ all that obscured, all that distorted, all that blocked others from seeing his truth, goodness and beauty. Including a lot of piety. Service that lasts is deliberate and also deliberative, it is body and mind.
My friend Henry told me a while ago that when his new leader came he helped the man put on an old frayed black robe. But by the time he retired, the man was wearing a white, purple, ostentatious gown. Henry felt like something had been lost.
This last week I attended an annual meeting through which I saw again the freshened image of Christ in the person of our host. For a year he sent, monthly, carefully crafted letters about various aspects of our gathering, both to novices and “grizzled veterans” as he said. These epistles were beautiful overtures to the event to come. A month before the meeting he directed his staff to telephone those who had not fully finalized their plans. That would include delinquent me. He prepared lodging and meals, program and transportation. Every day those in attendance received a bag of information, treats and jokes. On the first day he spoke, at our beginning, with brevity and power about the need for attention to detail in our work. He spoke personally about his own father and some of the issues of authority and power there, and also of his own son who had died of suicide at age 30. He did not shirk responsibility and yet he did not horde authority. He set the beat and guided the conversation, no mean feat with 30 preachers and no agenda. He was up early with the details of hosting and stayed late for those last minute conversations. Every so often he inserted a brief, but telling comment to highlight or shade another’s thought. On the last day, he again spoke, before the Holy Communion, again with brevity and power, about Real Presence. He offered a prayer of consecration, broke the loaf and raised the chalice and placed them on the table, then stood back inside the circle saying, “no one need hold this”. We came one by one to bread and cup, prepared by a servant of the servants of God.
Think of someone you have known who provided heartfelt service to the servants of God.
Who taught you about power?
Every one of us has some power. If you have a pen, a telephone, a computer, email, a tongue, a household, a family, a job, a community, a church—then you have some authority.
Who taught you, by precept and example, how to use it? How much of what you picked up needs keeping and how much needs to be put out on the curb?
A simple passion for the common good of the servants of God is at the heart of leadership.
For the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many.