Mark 10:42-45 – True Leadership

Jesus called them together and said, “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (New International Version)

Leadership as Service

I remember a time when all politicians, government officials, and police were known as “public servants.” It was routinely assumed that such persons served the common good of all persons, regardless of who they are. I am also not delusional about the fact that, back in the day, just as today, there are those who served themselves first. However, at least, the ideal and vision of service was continually before the people.

Power is to be wielded for the benefit of the powerless. Authority is to be used to help those who cannot help themselves. Contemporary understandings of authority for many people today often do not have the common good as their guiding principles of leadership.

Misuse of Leadership

Rather, authority becomes the means of convincing others of the leader’s opinion or position. Power is used to influence, even arm-twist people toward the leader’s ideas. What’s more, those who enabled the leader to come to power expect that leader to use authority to benefit a particular agenda and only one slice of the human population. Lost is the vision of meeting needs for everyone, not just a certain constituency.

The ultimate use of power is to share it, even lay it down. Jesus did it in his incarnation, life, and death. He only took it up again after his mission was finished. We are to follow his cues on power and authority. We have opportunities galore to follow Christ in his leadership practice. For example, I once lived in a community with a large single parent family population. After talking with the elders of my church about this situation, they became excited about the prospects of reaching moms and children struggling to make it day to day.

The discussion did a hard turn of direction when I suggested we have some of those moms come in, sit around the table with us, and dictate what would constitute effective ministry which meets their needs. I was intentionally proposing that we, as church authority figures, share our power with the moms. The elders weren’t having it. One of them said outright, “Well, we can’t do that! We know better!” (than the moms do)

Whenever those in power and authority believe it is their mandate to make decisions without even having conversations with those whom those decisions effect, then they have become masters of small worlds, lords of folly, and ideational bullies. It is not the way of Jesus.

Appropriate Use of Leadership

Proper use of authority doesn’t mean we boss people around. It means we do what we need to do to help everyone in our scope of power. Taking charge must always begin with self. The self-control and self-discipline of the leader is the basis of leadership.

The heart of Christianity is loving service to one another as Christians, and humble service to a world which doesn’t believe, or act like us. Christian leaders are to focus on others’ well-being, success, and growth. They are to value character over career.

Christian disciples follow Jesus in the use of power and authority through:

  • Taking a humble posture of consulting and collaborating with others. And when decisions are made, they maintain relational connections.
  • Including others, and never vilifying or casting blame when stating a case for something.
  • Dealing with trouble and working to clear a toxic environment of noxious attitudes.
  • Directly confronting those they have an issue with, without creating destructive triangles to diffuse responsibility.
  • Encouraging a healthy dynamic of love and service which seeks listening before acting.

Leadership is more about being than about doing. Responsible use of authority comes from the person who understands themselves, is curious about others, and seeks to wisely apply Christ’s compassion to meet human need.

The Leadership of Jesus

Jesus healed people and delivered them from evil, sometimes at great risk to himself. He continually eschewed the perks of power to single-mindedly pursue the Father’s will. Even in his selection of disciples, Jesus purposely overlooked others to choose a rather motley band of men made up of uneducated country bumpkins, the poor, and the overzealous.

The Lord Jesus proclaimed a kingdom that belongs to children, using power to drive out demons and forgive sins. Christ delegated his authority to the disciples to do this same sort of work.

Jesus isn’t offering leadership theories; he is offering himself. Christ is our model of the appropriate use of power. Therefore, humbling ourselves must become our ambition! Our Lord, the ultimate authority above all authorities, humbled himself. Though being powerfully divine, he took the form of a servant, and became obedient to death, even the particularly shameful death on a cross—the ultimate humiliation. Yet God exalted Jesus Christ as Lord of the universe. (Phil 2:5-11)

Will you divest yourself of the pride in believing you know what is best for everyone around you? Will you cease speaking and start listening? Will you follow Jesus to the risky place of sharing power and authority with the powerless?

God, I am far too often influenced by what others think of me. I am always pretending to be either richer or smarter or nicer than I really am. Please prevent me from trying to attract attention. Don’t let me gloat over praise on one hand or be discouraged by criticism on the other. Nor let me waste time weaving imaginary situations in which the most heroic, charming, witty person present is myself. Show me how to be humble of heart, like you. Amen.

Mark 14:26-31 – Pride Comes Before the Fall

Peter Disowns Jesus by Ethiopian artist Nebiyu Assefa

When they had sung a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives.

“You will all fall away,” Jesus told them, “for it is written:

“‘I will strike the shepherd,
    and the sheep will be scattered.’

But after I have risen, I will go ahead of you into Galilee.”

Peter declared, “Even if all fall away, I will not.”

“Truly I tell you,” Jesus answered, “today—yes, tonight—before the rooster crows twice you yourself will disown me three times.”

But Peter insisted emphatically, “Even if I have to die with you, I will never disown you.” And all the others said the same. (New International Version)

Learning to Trust

I have two sisters-in-law who were lifeguards when they were teenagers. One day I watched one of them handle a group of kids experiencing their first swim lesson. She went to each child and told them to put their ears in the water and their belly buttons in the air while she was holding them up. “When I count to three, you won’t feel my hands underneath you, but they’re there,” she said. Most of the kids frantically jerked their knees toward their chins and flailed their arms. Truth is, almost all people float when they assume a posture of rest. But people who think they will sink don’t keep their posture for long. 

The disciples had a hard time trusting Jesus. They just couldn’t seem to rest and relax with Jesus holding them up. After all, Jesus said and did things they were not expecting him to say and do. Jesus preached the necessity of humility and loving one’s enemies. He focused ministry on the least and the lost. 

Different Agendas

The disciples had not yet really bought into Christ’s kingdom agenda. They kept pulling their knees up, thinking Jesus was going to lead a rebellion against the Romans and put Israel back on the map. Bless their hearts, the disciples mistakenly believed Jesus was there to immediately restore the glory days of Jewish dominance in the land.

Despite Christ’s teaching and ministry, some folks believe God’s agenda ought to be restoring prayer in public schools and The Ten Commandments back in courthouses. But Jesus has a different agenda. Christ goes to the heart of the matter. New life is what he is after. Transformation leads to observance of God’s will so the least and the lost persons among us will be reached. 

Jesus turned the world upside-down by insisting not that people come to the temple but that the temple worshipers go to the people. It was not a popular teaching with the disciples, let alone everyone else. The disciples had greater (or so they thought) ideas about how things ought to go.  

Christ followers might neglect the upside-down teaching ministry of Jesus because we believe ourselves to be good people. We already assume we know what God wants. And we would never betray Jesus, right!?  O, sure, we sin occasionally, but not like murderers and child molesters. Our sins are respectable – a little resentment here, a little prejudice there, or a smidge of gossip just to make sure outsiders know and respect their place.

However, we must first hear the bad news before we can hear the good news. And once we hear the bad news and accept it, we need to receive God’s remedy for it. The disciples Peter and Judas are contrasting figures in grasping Christ’s message and responding to it.

Peter and Judas

Peter and Judas had similar ideas about how the future should look – seeing Israel restored to its previous glorious prominence. Judas was a religious and political Zealot. And Peter had no problem picking up a sword when it seemed the time was ripe for a political rebellion and takeover.

Peter insisted he would never turn on Jesus. Yet, Jesus flat-out told him that would happen. Sure enough, Peter did a big belly flop in the pool of denial by disowning Jesus three times.

Then there was Judas. He caught on quicker than Peter that Jesus wasn’t going to lead a military coup. Talking about wasting time on marginal people who couldn’t help usher-in a glorious revolution was the last straw for him.  After Judas clearly saw Jesus had no intention of fulfilling what he thought should happen, he actively sought an opportunity to betray him.

In fact, none of the disciples wanted to take a step of commitment into the world of suffering as the means of reaching others. They wanted glory, not suffering. But Jesus chose the cup of suffering.

Both Judas and Peter realized, after denying Jesus, they had made a terrible mistake. However, that is where the similarities end. Judas responded to his guilt by completing suicide.  Rather than throw himself upon the mercy of God, Judas handled the guilt himself. It was a refusal of grace.

Peter, instead, wept bitterly. He realized his poverty of spirit. He mourned over his sin. Later, Peter became a genuinely meek person with God’s righteousness taking root within him. Having received grace, Peter became a preacher of truth and grace.

Stubborn Pride

Renewal comes from spiritual transformation. It requires a brutally honest assessment of self and others. “I will never fall” comes from a heart that believes “I’m not so bad.” Our failures of faith stem ultimately from pride and a lack of trust. We keep pulling our knees up because we are too anxious to let the agenda of Jesus control our lives. 

Proud people have little need for prayer because they are self-sufficient. However, humble people pray a lot! They don’t want to fall into temptation and defame the name of the Lord. They pray because apart from Jesus Christ they know they’ll act like a cockeye little dog who thinks he is a big dog. Even Jesus himself felt the need to watch and pray so that he could face his hour of pain and suffering on behalf of humanity.

When Jesus was arrested, Peter followed him at a distance. That describes too much of our own following of Christ. We want to see how everything will shake-out before we commit. Jesus invites us to trust him, to commit, to make and keep promises before we even know what it all means. 

It could be that we need to acknowledge we’ve made a mess of our lives through being stubborn. Perhaps we have willfully held to our own ideas of how things ought to go, for far too long.

If you find yourself in a mess, whether it is of your own making or of somebody else’s, grace is the thing that can handle it. That is, coming to God with honesty and humility. Being willing to rest and relax when Jesus is telling you to. It’s okay to let your knees go down and stick the belly button out – to rest in Jesus.

Give us honest hearts, O God, and send your kindly Spirit to help us confess our sins and bring us the peace of your forgiveness, in Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Mark 6:30-34 – The Ethics of Rest and Work

The apostles gathered around Jesus and reported to him all they had done and taught. Then, because so many people were coming and going that they did not even have a chance to eat, he said to them, “Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest.”

So, they went away by themselves in a boat to a solitary place. But many who saw them leaving recognized them and ran on foot from all the towns and got there ahead of them. When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. So, he began teaching them many things. (NIV)

The Protestant work ethic is a real thing.

Although the German sociologist, Max Weber, coined the term, the idea has been around since the Reformation. Since I’m an old white Protestant minister with Northern European heritage, I can testify firsthand that phrases like “quiet place,” “get some rest,” and “solitary place” aren’t in my tribe’s vocabulary.

The typical understanding of sin in the Protestant work ethic is laziness, sloth, procrastination, and disorder. Heck, even sleeping and eating are viewed more as necessary evils than healthy practices. Hard industrious work is considered a high value. All other activities fall underneath it.

So, it is not surprising that today’s Gospel lesson rarely gets attention from anybody, especially with people who share my heritage. Yet, there it is in Holy Scripture for all to read. And I can’t think of any better or sage advice to give my fellow Protestant Christians as “get some rest.”

Having heard my share of folks, after me insisting they practice some self-care, say goofy things like, “I’ll have plenty of time to rest when I die,” I now go full-frontal retort with my own words that go something like, “And that death will happen a lot sooner than you think, if you don’t obey the Lord through solitude and rest.”

Moving from guilt to grace.

Although I know better, I often find myself burning the candle at both ends. Its far too easy for me to forget eating lunch because of work. And I sometimes catch myself wanting to justify to others the reason for putting my feet up for a few minutes. Make no mistake about it: The Protestant work ethic is mostly motivated by guilt, not grace.

Perhaps we need to say the phrase of Jesus out loud, using several different versions of the Bible. Go ahead. Say the following, slowly… gently… as if Christ himself were speaking directly to you….

“Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest.” (NIV)

“Come, let’s take a break and find a secluded place where you can rest a while.” (TPT)

“Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” (NRSV)

“Come with me privately to an isolated place and rest a while.” (NET)

“Let’s go off by ourselves to a quiet place and rest awhile.” (NLT)

“Let’s go to a place where we can be alone and get some rest.”

Jesus (Mark 6:31, CEV)

I want us to see what a gracious invitation we are being extended by our Lord. This is the same Lord who said:

“Come to me, all you who are struggling hard and carrying heavy loads, and I will give you rest. Put on my yoke and learn from me. I’m gentle and humble. And you will find rest for yourselves. My yoke is easy to bear, and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30, CEB)

At odds with Christian discipleship.

It is high time we see that much of the Protestant work ethic is at odds with Christian discipleship. Although the ethic rightly lifts the need for faith to be expressed in diligence, discipline, and frugality, it elevates hard work as a visible sign of God’s grace. So, ironically, people end up working their tails off to prove the grace in their lives. And it has created a false self for many who are fearful of being seen by others as slothful and irreligious.

For example, I once had an elderly parishioner who often told me how little sleep she got, the part-time job she held, and the many volunteer opportunities she regularly engaged. I thought it odd that an older person could truly do so much without much rest. And my hunch proved spot on. Turns out she fudged on how many hours she really worked and slept, sometimes outright lying to me.

This lady felt compelled to prove to me, her Pastor, that she was on the straight and narrow, doing the things a good Protestant Christian does. What is sad about this is that the stories are multiplied with many other dear people obsessively relating to me untrue facts about themselves so that I will accept and affirm their superior religiosity expressed in hard work.

However, the axis of the world does not spin on effort and working harder but on grace and love. Behind all the posturing and continually striving for an almost superhuman work ethic are terribly insecure folk who need to rest in the grace of God in Christ.

Embracing both work and rest.

None of this is to say that work is somehow bad. No, work is inherently good. Adam and Eve were placed in the Garden of Eden to work it and tend to it. We need not denigrate work to emphasize rest. Whereas you might doth protest that younger generations today have no idea what hard work is, I will pushback by saying they intuitively see the foolishness of the Protestant work ethic and want to steer clear of it.

Millennials, I argue, are ready to roll up their sleeves and work hard. They just need a bit of direction from us older generations. And that guidance cannot be in the form of disparaging them. Rather it needs to be gracious, forging real mentoring relationships which are helpful.

So, let’s get a hold of what Jesus did: He worked, yes, worked, to get his disciples to a place of rest and refreshment. Christ wanted nothing to do with compulsively working without proper care of body and soul. Rest must come before work. We do well to follow his example.

Be present, O merciful God, and give us refreshment through the anxieties of the day and the silent hours of the night so that we who are wearied by the changes and chances of this fleeting world may rest upon your eternal changelessness, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Mark 12:18-27 – Go Ahead, Ask Jesus Anything

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Then the Sadducees, who say there is no resurrection, came to him with a question. “Teacher,” they said, “Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies and leaves a wife but no children, the man must marry the widow and raise up offspring for his brother. Now there were seven brothers. The first one married and died without leaving any children. The second one married the widow, but he also died, leaving no child. It was the same with the third. In fact, none of the seven left any children. Last of all, the woman died too. At the resurrection, whose wife will she be, since the seven were married to her?”

Jesus replied, “Are you not in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God? When the dead rise, they will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven. Now about the dead rising—have you not read in the Book of Moses, in the account of the burning bush, how God said to him, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not the God of the dead, but of the living. You are sorely mistaken!” (NIV)

Okay, let’s dive in with some observational lessons from today’s Gospel reading:

  • Don’t be a dip-wad and try to trip-up Jesus with philosophically ethereal questions.
  • If you want to be rebuked by Jesus for being ignorant, mistaken, and wrong, just try and control how a conversation with him ought to go.
  • Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Jesus are all alive – Sadducees, not so much.
  • Jesus will take the time and attention to listen and give feedback – maybe the kind you weren’t looking for.
  • What we get hung up on, Jesus doesn’t – and what Jesus sticks on, we act like Teflon about.

Do you want to keep going….?

To deny resurrection is to deny Jesus. Christ died. He’s now alive. Hence, there is a resurrection. More than that, because Christ lives, others live. This is the Christian’s hope. 

I fully understand plenty of people don’t believe in resurrection. That’s fine. I would simply point such a person no further than their own mind and heart. “Search your feelings,” as the Jedi would say, “What do they tell you?”  The evidence you need, you already have.

And this was the penultimate lesson of Jesus to the inquisitive Sadducees. They already had the answer to their question for Jesus. It was right under their noses the entire time. They just didn’t see it.

You already have everything you need for life and godliness in this present evil age.

One of the great sages of the last century, Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz, wisely said:

“If I ever go looking for my heart’s desire again, I won’t look any further than my own backyard.  Because if it isn’t there, I never really lost it to begin with.”

Resurrection has always been there because God has always been around – even when we don’t see, perceive, or acknowledge the divine.

It probably wouldn’t be a good idea to procrastinate the inevitable end of life scenario that awaits us all. Anytime is the right time to do a bit of personal funeral planning. Yet, if we mire it all with the esoteric hypothetical questions about what would happen in the most far-fetched of scenarios, methinks God is big and smart enough to see through our puny charade.

Better to ponder what is truly within your own soul, and how Jesus might already be present within and around all things, without us even knowing it. 

A good place to start in peering within is to give a straightforward honest reading of the New Testament Gospels and discover what resonates deeply with you about the person and work of Jesus.

Feel free to question him about anything you want; just brace yourself for what kind of answer you might receive.