Have you ever wondered who it is that holds back the advancement of society? Have you ever wondered who’s responsible for the mediocre performance of many of our institutions? Have you ever wondered who stands blocking the road that leads us all to a better tomorrow?
Various answers are offered. The problem, some say, is with evil people or stupid people or apathetic people. The problem is people who have sold out to the system. The problem is people who refuse to get with the program.
There are people who fit all these descriptions, and they tend to make the job harder, whatever it may be. But the real problem lies elsewhere. Author and management consultant Robert Greenleaf puts it this way: “the enemy is strong natural servants who have the potential to lead but do not lead, or who choose to follow a non-servant.” [Robert K. Greenleaf, The Servant as Leader (Robert K. Greenleaf Center, 1991), p. 35.]
Let me repeat that uncomfortable observation from Robert Greenleaf: “the enemy is strong natural servants who have the potential to lead but do not lead, or who choose to follow a non-servant.”
So the problem is not with people who are stupid or evil or apathetic. The problem is not people who refuse to get with the program or people who sell out to the system. The problem is a lack of leadership by servants. It results from strong natural servants failing to take the lead or allow one of their own to do so.
A SUBSCRIBER SAYS: “I do my own exegesis, but the ‘sticky’ areas that always took so much time for me to figure out I usually find explained in your exegesis.”
Resources to inspire you — and your congregation!
But wait a minute! Greenleaf’s statement fuses two things we don’t usually see together: servant andleadership. Usually we see these two in sharp contrast to each other. Greenleaf places them together. His entire view of the way institutions work best can be summed up in a single phrase: servant leadership.
Greenleaf took his inspiration from a book by the German writer Herman Hesse entitled Journey to the East. The central figure in this story is Leo. He accompanies a party of travelers as their servant doing menial chores, but he also sustains them with his spirit and his song. He is a person of extraordinary presence. All goes well for the travelers until Leo disappears. Then the group falls into disarray; they abandon their journey. Without Leo they cannot make it.
The story’s narrator, who is one of the travelers, wanders for years until he is taken into the order that had sponsored the journey. There he is surprised to discover that Leo, whom he had known as a servant, was in fact the head of the order, its guiding spirit, a great and noble leader.
Christianity tells a similar story. Its central figure appears first as a poor child, then a man without worldly power. He moves among the poor, the marginalized, and the sick. He heals, teaches, encourages, and points to the kingdom of heaven. He is a person of extraordinary presence, a servant helping a world in need.
Throughout this story, the leadership of this remarkable figure becomes increasingly apparent. He sets food before the hungry, washes his followers’ feet, accepts death on a cross, and is raised up in power and glory. He is manifest as both servant and leader to all who dare recognize him.
The story does not end there, however. He pours out his Spirit on his followers, people of every sort and condition, empowering them to live out in their circumstances his paradoxical reality as both servant and leader. He expects the community that bears his name to be a servant leader in the world.
Certainly there are forces working in the world that cause leaders to focus on their own enrichment and their own advancement. Certainly there are forces working in the world that turn servants into people who are timid, passive, and fearful. Often a great divide looms between servants and leaders, to the detriment of both. That divide does not run only through the ranks of societies and corporations and institutions. It runs through the interior landscape of each of us. Often enough each of us is alternately servant or leader. We are controlling or controlled, dominating or dominated. Rarely are we the synthesis: the servant leader who grows more powerful by giving power to others.
These destructive forces also come into play when we look for leadership. Sometimes we want our demands satisfied at little cost to ourselves. We want a fearful servant who dares not lose votes or popularity or the support of stockholders. At other times, we want to abdicate our responsibilities. We enthrone a leader who will dictate to us, tell us what to do, live our lives for us. If by grace a servant leader appears instead, we won’t know how to respond. We will drive that one from our midst. Too often we get the leadership or service we deserve, and not the servant leadership we need.
One reason the Church baptizes people is in the hope that they will become servant leaders after the pattern of Jesus. Sometimes this happens, and sometimes it does not. We may believe this is too much to ask of people. God seems to believe otherwise.
In a few minutes, we will renew our vows of baptism. We do this in the hope that increasingly we may become servant leaders after the pattern of Jesus. To take as our guide the Baptismal Covenant, its beliefs and practices, is to leave ourselves susceptible to being reshaped and re-formed after the model of Jesus the Servant Leader. It is to commit ourselves to recognizing and accepting and supporting this servant leadership in others because we know that it is needed.
Have you ever mistaken somebody for somebody else? When you realize you have done so, you usually find there is some point of resemblance between the two that is the basis for your mistake.
We are baptized as persons and as a community so that we can be mistaken for Jesus. The resemblance between us and him has nothing to do with the details of Jesus as a thirty-something first-century Jewish male. The resemblance runs deeper than that. It comes from Jesus inviting us to share his baptism, to become what he is: a servant leader.
The Church needs to move about in the world and individual Christians need to move about in the world so that we are mistaken for Jesus. Today we hear again the story of his baptism, and we know about the servant leadership that follows from it. Today we recall our own baptisms, asking that servant leadership may be sufficiently manifest in how we move about in the world that we may be mistaken for him.
Copyright for this sermon 2008, The Rev. Charles Hoffacker. Used by permission. Fr. Hoffacker is an Episcopal priest and the author of “A Matter of Life and Death: Preaching at Funerals,” (Cowley Publications).