God calls us to lead by sharing in his serving 

Sermon preached at St. Peter & St. Paul, Marietta, GA 

by The Rev. Tom Pumphrey, October 17, 2021 

Proper 24, year B, Job 38:1-7; 34-41; Hebrews 5:1-10; Mark 10:35-45 

 

Mark 10:35-45: There was once James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to Jesus and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” And he said to them, “What is it you want me to do for you?” And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” But Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” They replied, “We are able.” Then Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.” 

When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. So Jesus called them and said to them, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” 

 

 

We see lots of examples of leadership these days, and all the examples of leadership influence us. In the 1990s, “leadership” started to become a buzzword in the business world, and companies sought to be better, more holistic places to work, and forces for good in the community. The concept of leadership was maturing and expanding beyond the image of the strong-man commander. In business and in the church, we worked to rethink how to be a leader. 

 

But both leaders and supporters in recent years have turned away from these ideals, degenerating into ego and name calling and shaming and “us vs. them” style of cancel culture. No party or community is immune to these trends. What are we, as Christians, to do with such a confused vision of leadership? How does God call us to lead? 

 

In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus gives us God’s vision for leadership, a vision of service. James and John, undoubtedly two of the leaders of the disciples and part of Jesus’ inner circle, ask Jesus to sit at his right hand and at his left hand, in his glory. Of course, James and John don’t know what they are asking of Jesus. They probably still saw Jesus as an earthly messiah, one who would lead his people to victory over the Romans and set up a new regime, with the Messiah as king. So their question is sort of like asking “can the two of us be your Secretary of State and your Secretary of Defense when you take control?” They wanted the places of power and prestige once Jesus came to power. But Jesus came to bring a new kind of kingdom. 

 

Jesus did not come for military conquest or simply to change the names on a system of political patronage. Jesus came for a spiritual and relational revolution that renews and restores people to God and to each other. This has political impacts, for sure, but this is not about power and prestige for those who lead. Leading in the Kingdom of God is about sacrificial love, and sharing the sacrificial love of Jesus. Jesus’ first throne was a cross. 

 

In the Kingdom of God, we lead by following Jesus’s lead. We lead not simply by serving people, as if the worlds priorities are always God’s priorities. But we lead by serving Christ in the world, caring for others with God’s love for them. God calls us to lead by sharing in his serving. This is really stewardship, isn’t it? Leading as God would have us lead? But let’s stick with Jesus’ language of service for the moment. 

 

Jesus said to his disciples “whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” Jesus came to conquer through dying for us. Jesus gave his life for us sinners to free us from our sins and to give us new life in him. This life—this kingdom of sacrificial love—is where Jesus leads, and where he calls us to follow. God calls us to lead by sharing in his serving. 

 

Someone once told me that leadership is about knowing where to go, and getting others to follow. For Christians, the direction of leadership is toward God. This is what makes this kind of service stewardship. This primary direction forms and shapes all other considerations and all other priorities. Whether in business or in health care or in the church or in the community or family, our leadership is toward God first. God’s priorities then direct where to go as a church or a welding company or a lawyer or a teacher or friend.  

 

Sometimes we think of leadership as organizing and directing tasks. This is part of leadership. But leadership is also about building relationships. What we value in those relationships shapes the task and how we do our tasks. We see this in the church. We often have tasks to do in the church, like any organization. But we also do these tasks as the church—as the body of Christ—the Christian Community. So our relationships in Christ matter, and they change how we do and what we do. The tasks matter, but so do the people, and so does the vision we pursue together. 

 

For instance, the ushers who serve each week have to keep things organized, get everyone a bulletin and keep the flow of communion going. But their purpose is to serve others—not to merely serve their task. Their task serves us and helps us feel welcome and helps us to focus our attention on God rather than to be distracted or self-conscious.  

 

We see this in the choir as well. The choir is a ministry that has tasks and disciplines to provide music well done and with excellence and beauty. But the choir is not there to serve themselves or glorify themselves. Rather, they are there to glorify God, especially by helping the congregation to sing God’s praises. They serve God and serve you in their service. The choir is also a small piece of Christian Community. They not only sing, but pray together, support each other, study the texts of the music they sing, so that they can grow as disciples of Jesus, and so that they can more effectively grow new disciples for Jesus in their ministry. 

 

The vestry leads by serving God. We not only lead in making budget decisions in meetings, but even more importantly in constantly seeking God’s vision for us, and by engaging people in conversations at coffee hour or in Bible Studies or while serving with others. We talk about God’s vision for us and pray for each other, seeking God together, serving God together. 

 

How do we build up the church? Not by prestige and power, and not by serving our own agendas. But rather, we build up the church by serving—by serving Christ in the church and in the world. Remember, the Kingdom of God is God’s kingdom, not ours. God builds his kingdom, God builds his church. The good news that Jesus shares with us today is that God invites us to participate in what he is doing. God calls us to lead by sharing in his serving. 

 

The church is not primarily made up of individuals. The church is made up of relationships. So God calls us to serve these relationships. The first relationship is our relationship with God in Christ. And the second is our relationship with each other and the world in Christ. 

 

In secular careers and in schools and communities, we can still lead as God calls us to lead. God’s vision for leaders in business is to be effective in business, yes, but primarily to serve. First, we serve God, seeking God’s priorities in where we lead. Then we serve others: our employees, shareholders, customers, vendors and neighbors. We invest in these relationships in the long term. Sometimes this means missing out on profit opportunities. Sometimes this means taking risks and losses to invest in people. But we can answer God’s calls to share in his serving.  

 

I said two weeks ago that God calls us to love, and that in this broken world, suffering is inherent to love. So it is when we lead, and in all of our pursuits, whether in business or the church or our families and communities. We serve this way, trusting that the Holy Spirit is already at work bringing his transforming grace to the world. So we embrace the sacrifices that Christian leadership brings. Jesus came to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many. God calls us to share in that serving. 

 

When we serve God, when we serve Christ in the church and the world, we avoid the common failures of putting ourselves first or the subtle failures of putting the world first, chasing after godless goals. When we serve God first, we get on board with what God is already doing, not always able to see the whole picture, but following in faith and doing our part in God’s sacrificial love for the world, giving our selves for God as God gave himself for us. 

 

God is leading us in career, in community, in the church and family. God sustains us and blesses us along the way, even when we can’t see fully what God is doing. God is blessing the world through Jesus, and God calls us to lead by sharing in his serving.