Wishing to be Great
A sermon on Mark 10:35-45 by Nathan Nettleton, 18 October 2009
© LaughingBird.net

True greatness comes in devoting ourselves to recognising and liberating the greatness in others, and that will often come at the cost of misunderstanding, sniping and rejection.


You might be forgiven for thinking that our readings from Mark’s gospel recently have been hammering the issue of pride and humility, greatness and servanthood, or the first shall be last and the last first. I think this is the third time in just over a month that we’ve had the disciples jostling for position and Jesus pointing to either children or slaves as the model for greatness in the new culture of God. Well, maybe the hammering at it is necessary, because the idea has got through to me a bit more this third time. It has bumped into some other stands of thought that have been running for me about the nature of true leadership. Many of you know that I have been working at rethinking my understandings of what it means to be a pastoral leader in the church. That’s been happening for a while. More immediately, last weekend I was involved in organising the Baptist Union’s ordination service and, appropriately, the ordination service always stirs up thinking about what being a good pastor means. But the wildcard in this collision of ideas has been the Harry Potter novels. I’ve read a couple of them in the last few weeks — trying to catch up with Acacia — and I’ve become somewhat fascinated by the character of Albus Dumbledore, the wise old headmaster of the Hogwarts School of Magic. It is not just that I have long harboured a dream to one day be an old man with a long silver ponytail! I’ve been thinking about Dumbledore as a model of leadership, and some of my thinking about him was confirmed when I read these words from Jesus this week.

One of the troubles with what Jesus says about true greatness, and no doubt one of the reasons he has to keep repeating himself on the subject, is that it is actually very very easy to get what he is saying wrong. I don’t think it is just that his disciples are particularly dumb, because I don’t think I’m particularly dumb either, but I realise I keep making the same mistake. We are so used to the normal kinds of hierarchies of greatness that when Jesus upends them, we try to apply the same system of oneupmanship to the inverted hierarchy. Jesus catches the disciples arguing about who should be regarded as number one among them, and he says the first among you shall be the last, and the last shall be first, but next day they are at it again. And probably they have changed their line a bit so now they are all jockeying to be recognised as the one’s who put themselves last! Now he says the greatest among you is the one who is the slave of all, and so next they will all trying to out manoeuvre one another for the honour of being recognised as the slaviest of all! It’s almost a Monty Python sketch! “That’s not slavery! I slaved for you all mowing the lawn with a pair of nail scissors.” “Call that slavery?! I slaved for you all sweeping the whole street with a toothbrush that only had two bristles left!”

It is easy to make James and John look hugely arrogant in their request to be seated on Jesus’ right and left, but I think we are probably being a bit unfair when we do. They were probably not requesting power. They were very much recognising the supreme authority of Jesus and in no way trying to usurp it. Rather they were putting their hand up for a job. “You need help? We’re your men.” They are offering to put in, big time. And since Jesus has been going on a lot about the inevitability of him being rejected, persecuted and killed, it is a fair bet that they knew their offer was going to be a costly one. They might not have realised that the ones who eventually got the places on Jesus’s right and left hand would be hanging there on crosses, but they probably had a fair idea that they were signing up for a dangerous mission. Most leaders would be happy to have more people like James and John who were willing to put in and have a go.

But Jesus recognises that there is still something wrong. There is still a key motivation in the mix that is tripping them up and undermining their desire to be true supporters of the Jesus agenda. The description given here suggests perhaps two things that were awry. Jesus points out that in the world around them, “those whom they recognise as their leaders lord it over them.” In the ordination service there is a line in the vows that comes from this, where the candidates commit themselves to “serving the people of God and not lording it over them.” I remember when we first wrote the service, there was some controversy over that line. Some people felt it was a negative item in an otherwise positive list. We successfully defended keeping it on the grounds that not only did it come from Jesus, but that as Jesus says, it addresses one of the most common misunderstandings of leadership and was therefore necessary.

Which brings me back to Albus Dumbledore, Headmaster of Hogwarts. One of the distinctive features of Dumbledore is that he doesn’t seem to feel any need to lord it over anybody. There is no discernible aggression or macho posturing. He doesn’t show any need to prove his leadership. He doesn’t demand that it be recognised. There is a very real humility without any of the pretentious false humility that causes many of us to downplay our gifts. Dumbledore can acknowledge that he has a great intellect and unusually great powers, but he does so simply as a statement of fact with no demand that anybody therefore bow down to him or put his name up in lights. And this calm and unpretentious self-assurance gives him enormous natural authority. I see the same phenomena when I’m training dogs. The more desperately a person tries to assert their authority over a dog, the less the dog respects them. But when a person characterised by a calm, strong self-assurance walks in, most dogs instantly and happily defer to them.

The second problem that Jesus points to is closely related to the first, and I think it also has to do with the need for recognition. It is kind of a further distortion of the first. It is not entirely explicit in this passage, but I think it is there in Jesus use of the image of the slave. You see, somewhere else, Jesus talks of a slave preparing the master’s meal and points out that the slave does not expect to be applauded for doing so. They are just doing their job, nothing more. And here in this passage, one of the issues appears to be the need for recognition and applause. So maybe when we try hard to not lord it over anybody, we are prone to making the opposite mistake and expecting to be recognised and applauded for being the slaviest slave of all. We throw ourselves into every menial task, desperate for someone to notice and promote us. But the slave’s task is not to be noticed and draw attention to themselves.

In Jesus we see this over and over. “I came not to be served but to serve,” he says, “and not to be noticed for serving,” he might have added. Because primarily his serving is about enabling others to shine; enabling others to discover their gifts and bring them to centre stage. Again, I see this in the depiction of Albus Dumbledore. Despite having great and even spectacular powers, he never looks for opportunities to display them. Instead, he is devoted to bringing out the best in others. His enemies suggest that his greatest weakness is his capacity and willingness to always believe the best of others. It is indeed a “weakness” that costs him dearly at times, but it is the essential nature of his service too. Discern the good in others and believe it into life. For him then, as for Jesus, the measure of his service is not the recognition he gains for it, but the growth of others and the recognition they gain. He is not expending any energy trying to conceal what he does — that would again be a form of pretentiousness — he is simply unconcerned with attracting the credit because his focus is on enabling others to shine.

In her report to the meeting this afternoon, Sylvia described our congregational leadership as “a motley lot, just like the early disciples”, and so it is no surprise, inevitable in fact, that we will make much the same sort of mistakes as they did. Those disciples heard Jesus banging on repeatedly about humility and servant leadership, and we here, all of us, have had Jesus similarly challenging us over and over on this in recent weeks. The servant leadership that Jesus calls all of us to grow into is not about doing everything for everyone — that is almost always just an attempt to be noticed and validated. Instead it is about doing all we can to enable everybody’s gifts to be brought to the fore in advancing the cause of the new culture of God.

And, as the example of Jesus, and indeed the example of Dumbledore show, this is not a recipe for recognition or validation for ourselves. Both were ridiculed, rejected and despised by as many as loved them. But as both of them show, the one who has truly mastered servant leadership is not thwarted by such rejection. Not only do they not need applause, but they can cope with outright hostility and still go on calmly affirming and calling forth the good in others so that the good may grow and be shared.

I’ve been quite inspired by Dumbledore as I’ve read lately, but really what he is doing is pointing me back to Jesus. Which, of course, is precisely what such a leader does — not accumulate the credit but point to those behind them who have enabled them to be what they are. And we see Jesus doing the same — always pointing us to the Father and the Spirit and urging us to look to them and celebrate the gifts they are sharing freely with all.

Can you drink the cup that I drink, or be plunged into the baptism that I must be plunged into?” Jesus asks James and John and us. As we step forward to drink that cup shortly let us do so aware of what an astonishingly costly cup it is. A cup that Jesus prayed he would not have to drink. A cup that many hold at bay by lording it over others, asserting their authority, and demanding recognition and respect. A cup that calls us, like Jesus, to lay down our pretensions of grandeur and our false humilities, our need to be recognised fairly; to lay down our lives for one another that all may have life.