October 21, 2018

LEADING BY SERVING

BIBLE READING
Mark 10:35-45

REFLECTION

One event that is shaping the world today is the disappearance of Jamal Khashoggi. Jamal was from Saudi Arabia. He was a seasoned journalist and had written articles for the highly acclaimed newspaper, the Washington Post. He was a fierce critic of the Saudi’s ruling elites, especially its Crown Prince, Mohammad Bin Salman. 

He fled Saudi Arabia last year to escape persecution amid waves of arrests to silence dissidents like him. He migrated to the US and became a permanent resident there.

On October 2 this year, he went to the Saudi consulate in Turkey to collect paperwork for his upcoming marriage. He came with his fiancée, but she was waiting outside. Ever since he stepped into the consulate, Jamal was never seen or heard again. It is widely believed that he was murdered there by a hit squad that was specially flown from Saudi Arabia. And it is widely believed that the Saudi ruling elites, especially its Crown Prince, were behind his killing. 

As tragic and barbaric as his killing was, we shouldn’t be surprised. This is what tyrants do. Throughout history, tyrants rule with an iron fist and like to have full control over their people’s life. They do not tolerate dissidents and will take any necessary step to silence them. Sadly, Jamal Khashoggi joins the long list of those who have lost their lives for standing in the way of tyrants. 

But people often forget, or even ignore, this dark side of power, especially absolute power. We can see this ignorance even amongst Jesus’ disciples themselves, especially James and John. They fell into the trap of making the powerful rulers of their time their ideal for leadership. It has been said there are three poison pills in leadership: position, prestige, and power. James and John wished to swallow these pills. In their ignorance, they likened Jesus’ vision of God’s Kingdom to the ruling of tyrants in their lifetime. 

But Jesus was well aware of the dark side of the absolute power of absolute rulers. In his time, the land of Israel was being occupied by the Romans. For sure, the Romans brought order and culture and wealth and knowledge to the Jewish land. But all these came with a price. The Romans ruled with an iron fist. They were famous for their brutal methods of executing and silencing dissidents.

But we still have to be fair to James and John. Now, I believe none of us here want to make any tyrant, in history or in other country, as a role model. But there are other leaders that people, in our time, like to put on a pedestal; leaders that people like to idolize.

I’m talking about the famous founders and CEOs of global companies like Apple, Amazon, and Tesla. Yes, I’m talking about celebrity CEOs like Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos, and Elon Musk. For many people today, these leaders live in the pantheon of genius innovators and great entrepreneurs. Their companies are multi-billion-dollar global companies that influence the lives of billions of people combined. These leaders are the emperors of the modern world.

Yet, these three people particularly are also known for their poor social skill. It is widely known that Steve Jobs, the founder of Apple, liked to treat his employees with contempt. While Jeff Bezos creates a harsh working environment for his employees in his global company, Amazon. Elon Musk, the founder of the car company, Tesla, has recently emerged as a brawler on Twitter.

Yet, despite their apparent lack of people skills, many still see these leaders as their role models. People tend to ignore their dark traits and see only their achievements in life.

Fortunately, these leaders are the exceptions, not the rules. The majority of CEOs are not like them, at least according to an expert on radio that I once listened to. There are an abundant of research that show that employees perform best not under pressure; that people work best when their leaders treat them well and understand them.

Even 2000 years ago, Jesus knew that a bully or a tyrant did not represent the best model of leadership. The tyrants method of ruling made people under their rule suffer. This is why Jesus reminded his disciples not to make the ruling elites of their time as the model of leadership. For him, the best model of leadership is where the leader is the servant of all.

There was a man who had a desire to become a Bishop in his church. He heard about and was inspired by the work of William Booth, the founder of the Salvation Army in England. So, he crossed the Atlantic from America to England to join William Booth’s ‘army’. 

But William knew of this man’s ambition. He wanted to instill humility in him first before enlisting him in his ‘army’. So, he asked the man to work by cleaning the boots of other trainees.

At first, the man was so angry by the job given to him. Cleaning boots did not match his vision of becoming a great leader in the Church one day. “I didn’t cross the Atlantic to clean other people’s boots,” he said to himself. 

But he had a revelation. He was reminded of Jesus who washed the smelly feet of his disciples, many of whom were fishermen. So, this time, he said, “Lord, if you could wash feet, I can clean boots.” 

The man’s name was Samuel Brengle and he would later become the founder of Salvation Army in America. Before his death, he sent a note to all of his leaders. The note only had one single word written on it: “Others.”[1]

Henry Nouwen, one of the most well-known theologians in 20th century, once said,

"The long painful history of the church is the history of people ever and again tempted to choose power over love, control over the cross, being a leader over being led."[2]

Indeed, Jesus’ model of leaders as servants are as relevant today as it was in his time.

 

Friends, each one of us is called to be a leader in our own way. We don’t have to be a CEO or a politician or a coach of a sport team to be a leader. Each of us is called to be a leader to our family, friend, workmate, church family, and especially ourselves. That means, whoever you are, you are to be a leader. In the church, whether you are an elder or a member or a regular attendee, you are called to be a leader. And you are called to follow the model of leadership that Jesus had taught and shown in his life: the model of leadership where leaders are not rulers, but servants; the model of leadership where leaders have the best interest of other people in their hearts.

Amen.
Rev. Toby Keva

[1] From King Duncan, Collected Sermons, on Sermons.com

[2] Kenneth L. Carder, The Call to Downward Mobility, The Christian Century, Oct. 8, 1997, p. 869 on Sermons.com