Servant Leadership

(The comment by BIshop Wilby about bishops as servant leaders reminded me that I preached on servant leadership two Sundays ago. For those interested in a small meditation on the matter, here it is.)

Sermon, St. Peter's Episcopal Church, Lewes, Delaware, Sunday October 21., 2012

The sermon text for this Sunday is from the close of the reading from the Gospel from Mark, “For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many, “
Let’s begin with the matter of coming to serve, rather than to be served.
That’s right Good News indeed.
We know what this means, and why we might hope for leaders that wish to serve, rather than be served.  
Leaders who are servant leaders are hard to come by. As Jesus says, “"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.” We want something else, we want leaders, who are not tyrants and lords, but who serve the people.  But truly serving the people is no easy task built on slogans. It requires stand with and for people. And that is what Jesus says he expects from his followers , “…whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.”
But of course this is also what we want from our pastors and priests, from our spiritual advisors and or counselors, as well as our civil leaders. We want people who come to serve, who come to ease the trials, joys and tribulations of this life by helping to bind us up, and give us strength and courage. We don’t need any more potentates and princes and powerful people serving their own ends.  
And Jesus knows this goes for our hopes for God among us as well. We don’t need God among us as a tyrant, potentate, prince or power. We want God to be with us, and for us, and around us and a source of blessing.
All through the Good News about Jesus we find again and again that Jesus is no king or ruler as the world defines them.
He does not lord it over people, but rather he serves.  We remember his washing feet, and hanging out with the wine steward at the wedding feast, holding children, talking with women at the well, working as a carpenter.  There are no stories of his conquering a city or having a fine house, or owning great property. He was not a landlord or a prince, not a general or a politician.
Jesus speaks of himself as  “The Son of Man.”  “Son of Man” is a puzzling title. Until shortly before the time of Jesus it mostly was a reference to humanity as a whole, or to an individual standing in for the general human family.  It was a phrase one might use about humanity as powerless, or dominated by the ruler, or by God.  But in Daniel “one like a Son of Man appears”  and sometime later the notion arose that the servant, the lowly, the ben-adam, son of man, might also be exalted, the Ancient of Days, the new man, the one who comes in the form of a servant, but is in actuality the holy one of God. So the idea of God might come among us as a servant arose. 
I sometimes wonder what Jesus thought about in the desert those forty days… I sometimes think he thought about this: God could not come into the world as yet another tyrant, as yet another power. There was already too much of that, and people were imprisoned and held captive by those powers. God as prison warden or author of captivity was no good news at all. 
I like to believe that Jesus had this epiphany out there in the desert, that his work was to be like the “sons of man”… humble and lacking in power, a person of the land (ben hariz) and a  person like others, a ben-adam, but to be among them as one who serves.
So Jesus calls his followers to be servants of all, and begins to think of himself as the anointed one, the Messiah, but anointed to serve, not to be served.
Jesus and the early church used the phrase, “the son of man” to indicate a profoundly transformed world, in which humanity itself is transformed and made new, and Jesus, the Son of Man, becomes the first fruits, the first example, of the servant leader. And we, we are meant to follow. 
So now we have Jesus the servant messiah, the Son of Man, the first fruits of what is to come…. A world of servant leadership. 
The vision is one of hope, yes? This is GOOD NEWS indeed. We can expect it from God, and we ought to expect it from one another.
But what about this business of “being a ransom for many?”
W are fortunate enough to live in a place and time when ransom is not a regular means of earning an income. It is still a proven money raiser in some parts of the world, and in the past was a regular feature of life. It is not, by the way,  recommended as a way to meet the parish budget.
All sorts of people have been held for ransom: two of the children of the Bishop of Haiti, people captured by pirates off the coast of Africa, invading militia in the bay of pigs fiasco, several kings and princes in the crusades, Julius Caesar, and so forth. The whole thing is a miserable way to make money. It is unfortunately completely human, involves domination, and confirms the person held as a helpless human being. It is a mess of the first order.
The person being held for ransom is a captive. The ransom is paid to set the captive free.  Remind you of anything?  How about Isaiah 61:1
“He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners.”
Jesus understood his work to be BOTH a servant leader AND willing to give his life for our release, for putting us back together, healing our wounds.  Whatever we are captive to, Jesus gives himself to the task of bringing us back, of saving us.
Now the problem with this ransom business is that it is an economic idea.  It’s about the exchange of something of value for something else of value.  Over the years Jesus saying he is a ransom for many has been interpreted to mean that someone (God, the Devil?) requires payment for our captivity, which is itself viewed as a captivity to sin. And the understanding arose that Jesus died for our sins.  Well, yes and yet…
I believe Jesus dies, not for our sins, but rather he died of our sins.
That is Jesus was killed by the powers, principalities and potentates that are always there… leaders who want to be served, not to serve. When Jesus did not serve their ends, but rather challenged them with an alternate universe of servanthood, he was executed.
Jesus says he is a ransom for many…that he pays the price that frees many who are held for ransom.   Who or what is holding them for ransom?
Well, I can’t speak for you, but I am held captive by the images of what the good life is about, what beauty is about, what wealth is needed. I am held captive by the desires of this age. I want stuff, and people and power. There is never enough of it. 
I believe Jesus is here to turn me around, to snap me out of it, to snap the fetters, the chains, that bind me, and that he is here to free me and make me whole. It cost him his life to do this then, it costs any of us who are free now in the Lord and are servant leaders the same.
How do we go about being a ransom for many, as Jesus was?  How do we give our lives to that end?
It’s called ministry.
It is the ministry that  you and I have in so many ways. It’s not big time power stuff.  We are after all the ben-adam, the sons and daughters of man, frail and short sighted.
We are the priesthood of all believers, who struggle with our own weaknesses and yet we stand with and for others, finally giving our lives.
And I believe we, like Jesus our Lord, give our lives as a ransom for many. We give our lives so that others, captive to this or that power can go free.
You know how this works: Weak as I am, I can be a source for your freedom from captivity, I can help pay off the powers that make you captive. You can do this for me.
Even my dog could do this. Sarah made me more human.
This is not rocket science, this is not high flown theology. This is not a theory of Jesus’s being savior of the world. This is about the economy of captivity and freedom. We are here to free those held captive, and the ransom we offer is our lives. We put ourselves on the line for others. We show up at 2 in the morning at the hospital. We are in dangerous places where powers are great that line up against us… on the streets, in strange places and times, before people with great power over us. We stand with the poor, the week, the downhearted, the sick, the just plain miserable, and our lives are used up. That’s what it is supposed to be about.
Jesus redeems, and so do we. Jesus is the ransom for many, and you and I for some, so that in the end we hold captivity captive and let the prisoners out. And it will cost us our lives and sacred honor. Its OK by me.
That’s what I believe and I’m sticking to it.


  1. "I believe Jesus dies, not for our sins, but rather he died of our sins."

    That's fine, but it is clearly a view that the NT holds. Rather widely as well.

    Or is it simply a matter of kantian conviction? Every individual sizes up what he/she prefers and that is 'belief.'


  2. Since it was the principalities and powers (including the religious leadership) who killed Jesus,that begs the question: How do WE participate in the domination system of OUR time?
    And can we be ransomed from that?

  3. Correct. "I crucified Thee" (Herzliebster Jesu) remains a central Christian truth. So Jesus died at the hands of sinful men and women and we are them. But his death is the redemption from sin for those who die in Him and by the Spirit live to His Risen Life.



OK... Comments, gripes, etc welcomed, but with some cautions and one rule:
Cautions: Calling people fools, idiots, etc, will be reason to bounce your comment. Keeping in mind that in the struggles it is difficult enough to try to respect opponents, we should at least try.