October 18 2015

21st Sunday after Pentecost

‘SERVANT LEADERSHIP’

BIBLE READINGS
Isaiah 52:13-53:9
Mark 10:35-45

Hebrews 5:1-10

REFLECTION

There is a children book that tells the story of the Rainbow Fish. The Rainbow Fish was the most beautiful fish in the ocean because it had shining scales of different colours. But the Rainbow Fish was also very selfish and self-centred.

One day, the little Blue Fish asked the Rainbow Fish for one of its beautiful scales, but the Rainbow Fish refused. Because of this, the Rainbow Fish became very unlikeable in the ocean. It was not only the most beautiful fish; it was now the loneliest fish in the ocean as well.

So the Rainbow Fish went to the wise Old Octopus and asked for its advice. The Old Octopus told the Rainbow Fish that if it wanted to be happy, it had to give its beautiful scales to the other fish. The Rainbow Fish couldn’t imagine giving away its scales.

One day, however, when the little Blue Fish asked for one of its scales again, the Rainbow Fish reluctantly gave it to the Blue Fish. Soon after, the other fish asked for its scales and the Rainbow Fish gave away all of its beautiful scales, except for one. Without its scales, the Rainbow Fish was no longer the most beautiful fish in the ocean, but it also noticed that it was happier than before.[1]

Friends, the Rainbow Fish knew that the road to happiness was not through becoming the most beautiful, but through serving others. But somehow, Jesus’ disciples failed to understand this concept.

In our reading from Mark’s Gospel today, Jesus and his disciples were on the way to Jerusalem. The disciples were hoping that Jesus, the Messiah, would finally overthrow the Roman ruler and declare himself King!

But previously, on two different occasions, Jesus had told his disciples that the Messiah would suffer and be killed (Mark 8:31 and 9:30-32). But James and John failed to understand Jesus. They may have heard his words, but they didn’t really listen to them. They still expected that following Jesus would give them glory. So they wanted to be ahead of the other disciples when they asked for the seats next to Jesus.

Now, to be sitting on the left or right hand of a king was a great honour, and James and John wanted to make sure that Jesus would keep those places for them. But at the end of the Gospel, the only people who ended up on Jesus’s left and right hand were the bandits who were crucified with him (Mark 15:27). James and John were asking for something that they neither knew nor understood.

Indeed, Jesus offered a different kind of leader: a leader as a servant. Emperors and kings in his time had servants, many of them; and they were lavishly served. But for Jesus, the true measurement of greatness was not how much a person was served, but how much a person served. In a controversial manner, he used a person who was at the lowest level of the social ladder in ancient time: a slave, as an example of what a good leader should be. “To be great, one must be like a slave to others,” he said.

One characteristic of a slave was invisibility. A slave was invisible. He may be present, but his presence was not important enough to be noticed. Indeed, to be invisible was a quality expected of a slave.

Remember the house slaves in America before the 20th century? These slaves must be as quiet as possible when they waited in the dining room while their masters was entertaining their guests. In one of the scene in the movie, Django Unchained, one senior house slave told a new house slave that to survive in the house, she must stay in the “blindside”. To draw attention to herself would only bring problems.

Perhaps, this invisibility was a quality that Jesus looked for in a leader when he told his disciples that one who wanted to lead must be a slave to others. The great Chinese philosopher, Lao Tzu, once said, "A leader is best when people barely know he exists; when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves."[2]

This description of a great leader as a slave matches the description of the humble servant in our reading in Isaiah. Let me read once again verses 2-3 of Isaiah 53.

He had no dignity or beauty
to make us take notice of him.
There was nothing attractive about him,
nothing that would draw us to him.
We despised him and rejected him;
he endured suffering and pain.
No one would even look at him—
we ignored him as if he were nothing.[3]

This image of the humble servant in Isaiah was like the image of a slave in the past. His presence was ignored, yet he had been sent by God to bring healing and wholeness. I am reminded of the words of John the Baptist when his disciples asked him about Jesus’ growing influence and what to do about it. John told his disciples, “I am not him, the Messiah, but I have been sent before him.... He must increase in stature, but I must decrease.”[4]

We often think that a great leader is someone who stands in the front, leading and inspiring everyone else. But Jesus imagined a different kind of leader. For him, anyone who wanted to be great must be a ‘slave’ to others. That means, he must be ready to become insignificant and ignored as long as the people, whom he has been called to serve, meet their needs; as long the work, which he has been called to do, is done. If one wants to be first, he must be ready to be last. It means that a great leader must never put himself ahead of the people he serves or the task he has been trusted with.

There is a story about a boy named, Shay, who was physically and mentally handicapped. One day, Shay and his father was walking pass a baseball field where some boys, that Shay knew, were having an important match against one another.

So Shay asked his father, “Do you think they’ll let me play with them?” His father knew that there was little to no chance that the boys would let someone like Shay to join them, but he approached one of the boys and asked anyway. To their surprise, the boys allowed Shay to play with them. They gave Shay the team shirt and put him immediately in the field.

Well, Shay was not doing anything in the field really. He was just standing there with his wide smile, his pride, and a tearful father watching him from one of the sidelines.

His team was behind in the game, but they somehow managed to fight back and finally had one opportunity to have a winning run and snatch victory. The thing was, Shay was next in line to bat and many people wondered whether or not his teammates should allow him to bat at this very crucial point. Shay didn’t know how to hit a ball properly and asking him to bat now would be a disaster. But, to everyone’s surprise, his teammates allow him to bat, thus giving away their one and only chance to win the game.

As Shay stood on his position, the pitcher, the one who throws the ball, realized that his opponents had put aside their opportunity so that Shay could have his moment. So, instead of throwing the ball as hard as he could, he came closer to Shay and lobbed the ball softly to him. Shay tried to hit the easy ball, but he missed. So the pitcher picked up the ball and, once again, lobbed the ball softly to Shay. This time, Shay managed to touch the ball with his bat and the ball rolled back to the pitcher.

The game could have been over by then. The pitcher could have picked the ball and thrown it to the first baseman for a tag. But, instead, he threw the ball as far away as possible, out of reach of any of his teammates.

At this moment, all of the spectators yelled, “Run Shay, run!” So Shay ran as fast as he could to get to the first base. As he ran to the second base, one of his opponents finally had the ball. This boy was the smallest one in the team and he had the opportunity to stop Shay and be the hero of the game. But, again, he too threw the ball away, out of reach of his own teammates.

So Shay rushed to the second base and then the third and the spectators were on their feet yelling, “Run home Shay! Run home!” Gasping for breath and mustering all the energy he had left, Shay ran to the home base. When he finally reached the home base, the field exploded with cheers from all the spectators and players. Shay won the game for his team. For one day, he became the hero who snatched victory at a crucial moment.

Shay didn’t make it to another summer. He died in the winter that year, but he died knowing how it felt to be a hero on this earth.

Friends, servant leaders are like those boys in those baseball teams: they exist to make other people’s dreams come true. They are willing to sacrifice their own victory because they always seek for the greatest good. In other words, servant leaders like them exist for the sake of others.[5]

May we follow the example of these boys in our own life. May follow the example of Jesus, the High Priest in the letter to the Hebrews, who became weak and humbled himself so that he could be the source of salvation to all. May we too have the courage and willingness to put aside our desire for personal aggrandizement so that other people will shine and God be glorified.

Amen.

Rev. Toby Keva

[1] Who is the Greatest, on http://www.sermons4kids.com/who-is-greatest.html (Retrieved: October 15 2015)

[2] Paul Schmitz, Richard Murphy: A Powerful Example of Servant Leadership,

on http://www.huffingtonpost.com/paul-schmitz/true-servant-leadership-f_b_3016044.html?ir=Australia (Updated on June 10 2013; Retrieved on October 15 2015)

[3] Good News Translation

[4] John 3:30 - ESV

[5] Tony Baron, A Moving Example of Servant Leadership, on http://www.servantleadershipinstitute.com/servant-leadership/a-moving-example-of-servant-leadership/ (Uploaded on March 30 2010; Retrieved on October 15 2015)