Mark 9:30-37

The Kid from Capernaum

Check out these helpful resources
Biblical Commentary
Children’s Sermons
Hymn Lists

Mark 9:30-37

The Kid from Capernaum

By The Rev. Charles Hoffacker

The modern organizational leader and that child Jesus picks up: What do they have in common? Let’s consider this question, in the name of the Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Lately I have been reading a book entitled Deep Change. The author is Robert E. Quinn, a professor of organizational behavior and human resource development at the University of Michigan’s Graduate School of Business. The subtitle of this book is Discovering the Leader Within.

It’s a good book. In fact, even the tables it contains are good. My favorite is Table 14.1, “Three Paradigms of Organizational Life.” [Robert E. Quinn, Deep Change: Discovering the Leader Within(Jossey-Bass, 1996), p. 123.] Here Quinn describes three roles, even three kinds of people: the Individual Contributor, the Manager, and the Leader. Bear with me a moment as I describe these roles, these kinds of people, and I think you will recognize each one. What professor Quinn presents to us sounds familiar.

First, we have the Individual Contributor. Several terms apply here.  Technical competence. Technical standards. Cynical. Factual communication patterns. Shaped by professional training. Plans in a way that is rational and tactical. Is comprehensible to us.

The Individual Contributor is the sort of person you want to have working on your car, or doing surgery on your heart, or servicing a plane where you will be a passenger. The Individual Contributor knows what need to be known, does what needs to be done, in order for something technical to work.

The Manager is a different sort of creature from the Individual Contributor.  The Manager functions in a political system rather than a technical one, dealing with people more than things. Instead of technical competence and standards, the Manager is concerned with effective transactions and organizational position. Rather than have a cynical attitude to authority, the Manager is responsive. What makes the Manager is not facts, but concepts; not professional training, but administrative socialization; not what happens at school, but what happens at the workplace. The Manager’s rational planning is strategic rather than tactical; aware of the big picture. Yet like the Individual Contributor, the Manager is committed to conventional patterns of behavior that most people understand.

The Manager is the sort of person you want to have as your attorney or business partner or boss. The Manager knows how to get things done; who to talk to and what to say in order for the right transactions to happen.

The Individual Contributor and the Manager are different roles, different kinds of people. Sometimes an outstanding Individual Contributor is promoted to Manager, and must make a tough transition to a different way of acting and a new set of concerns. But the Manager and the Individual Contributor have this in common: their first objective is individual survival.

So far Robert E. Quinn’s explanation may not seem all that surprising. The Individual Contributor and the Manager may come across as simply two stock characters who walk across the stage of every organization. For those with little patience for this sort of thing, the question soon arises: “OK, so what?”

Now enters the last of the three paradigms, the person that Quinn calls the Leader. What the Leader inhabits is not a technical system or a political system, but a moral system. What empowers the Leader is not technical competence or effective transactions, but core values. What makes the Leader credible to others is not technical standards or an insider’s position, but behavioral integrity.

The Leader communicates through symbols, vivid mental images that provide a general guideline, rather than through narrow, specific objectives. The Leader’s concern does not center on technique and transaction. What the Leader brings about is transformation, deep change. It’s never business as usual with the Leader. Instead, the foundations are shaken.

And so the Leader comes across as unconventional, difficult to understand, beyond normal expectations and outside the rules of self-interest. Where the Individual Contributor and the Manager put personal survival as their first objective, the Leader puts as first objective realizing the vision, realizing the vision regardless of the sacrifice it involves. Fear of failure, firing, or even assassination is not enough to stop a Leader. A Leader is driven to do the right thing.

People who are Leaders in this sense can appear in any organization, at any level. They are, as Quinn puts it, “rare but dramatic.” [Quinn, p. 128.]  They take risks for the greater good, and they inspire others to do the same.

SermonWriter logo3

A SUBSCRIBER SAYS: “You give me clear, concise exegesis, which I appreciate. Being an inner city priest with an active community ministry, I do not have the luxury that many suburban clergy do, with staff, etc., where they can work on their sermon all week. Most of us in urban ministry in small parishes cannot spend hours on sermons because we’re usually alone.”

Resources to inspire you — and your congregation!

Click here for more information

So much for Robert E. Quinn and his “Three Paradigms of Organizational Life.”  Let’s put aside this professor. Let’s take up again the story we heard from Mark’s Gospel.

Jesus and his disciples are traveling through Galilee. Jesus spells out to them what awaits him in the future. He’ll be betrayed into human hands, and put to death. Three days later, he will rise again.

What Jesus says has the same effect on all the disciples — in one ear and out the other. He might as well have been speaking an unknown language for all that they understand him. They don’t get it, and they are afraid to ask.

They arrive in Capernaum, a small waterfront town that serves as a home base for Jesus. There Jesus asks his disciples what they were arguing about along the road. The disciples fall silent. What they had argued about was which of them was the greatest. They were preoccupied with who among them was Number One at the same time Jesus was trying to tell them that what awaited him was the agony and shame of the cross.

Whether the disciples are Individual Contributors or Managers is not what’s important here. Here’s what’s important: Like Managers and Individual Contributors, like so many of us here this morning, these disciples have personal survival as their first objective. That Jesus is unconcerned with personal survival and is focused entirely on realizing his vision of God’s kingdom puts these disciples — and us — to shame.

Though books and their tables can be useful, Jesus does not write a book or design a table to make his point about what constitutes real leadership.  Instead, he lives his vision to the point of dying for it. And neither he nor that vision can ever stay dead. His commitment bears fruit in his resurrection and ascension. The vision still resides in his heart and is realized through his church.

But before he goes to the cross for this vision, he speaks through a symbol, a metaphor — an image that still haunts the imagination of his disciples. Jesus steps outside into the village street and returns holding a toddler, an ordinary child from an ordinary family. He places this little one in the midst of the circle of his disciples.

Now remember that in the ancient world, children were especially powerless.  They simply didn’t count. They were the last and the least, the bottom of the pile.

The person who “wants to be first, …shall be last of all, and servant of all.” That is what Jesus says before he steps outside to fetch the child, the kid from the streets of Capernaum. It is as if he says: So you want to be a leader, you want to be first? Fine. But do it the right way. Don’t worry about your own survival. Die to your old self. Get born again. Start over as a child.  That’s where the real leadership is — those who are transformed, and help to transform others.

Have a child’s purity, simplicity, fearlessness, trust. Get a vision and pursue it for all you’re worth, like a little child running full tilt for daddy or mommy. Be single-minded as you chase your vision, even as I’m single-minded making my way to my Friday death and Sunday resurrection.

The toddler from Capernaum starts climbing all over Jesus, stepping here and there, reaching out for his beard, sticking fingers in Jesus’ mouth. The man can barely get out his next words: “Whoever receives one such little child in my name, receives me, and whoever receives me, doesn’t receive me, but him who sent me.”

The child represents the new birth, the fresh start, necessary to real leadership and real life. To welcome this in someone honors Christ, honors his Father who makes it all possible. Vision, trust, willingness to risk.  These appear in a toddler, in Jesus, in every saint, and in the people Quinn calls “transformational leaders.” It’s the same Spirit at work in all of them.

When we catch that Spirit, or allow that Spirit to catch us, we are set free from fear. Personal survival is not our number one issue. Instead, the vision is what matters. And so the world can change. It DOES change, starting with us.

I have spoken to you in the name of the God who works to transform the world through those rare ones whose last word is not themselves, but a vision given to them by the God we know as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Scripture quotations from the World English Bible.

— Copyright 2003, The Rev. Charles Hoffacker. Used by permission.