Wednesday, September 28, 2016

If You Want to Lead... (9/25/16)

A Meditation on Mark 10:32-45
Sunday, September 25, 2016
Peace United Church in Santa Cruz

Tulsa, OK

So imagine Jesus and James and John walking the streets of Charlotte, North Carolina this week, or maybe Tulsa, Oklahoma.  Let’s say Tulsa.  It’s been a rough week in Tulsa.  And the three of them: they’re talking about Terence Crutcher, another black man shot to death with his hands up high.  And they’re talking about his family, another black family where the father isn’t coming home to his kids this week.  Imagine Jesus and James and John walking the streets of Tulsa with church folk and college kids and neighborhood activists who’ve had it up to here with death and guns and violence.  And they’re talking, amongst themselves, about the video—did you hear about this?—the police surveillance video and the officer in the helicopter telling the officer on the ground that Terence Crutcher is just another ‘bad dude.’  That’s the unarmed Terence Crutcher; that’s the Terence Crutcher with his hands up high; just another ‘bad dude.’  Imagine Jesus and James and John weeping sad tears for Terence Crutcher’s family and weeping angry tears for Tulsa and Charlotte and Ferguson and Cleveland and on and on and on.  That’s Mark 10.  That’s the gospel this morning.  They’re on their way, going up to Tulsa, and Jesus is telling them how it’s all going down.  And what’ll be asked of them.

And you know how this story goes.  You know how James and John are moved by injustice in the streets.  You know how they’re enraged by violence focused so outrageously on black men and brown boys and people of color in America.  And you know how James and John are convinced that they’re ready for leadership, they’re ready for responsibility, they’re ready to step up and do whatever it takes to bring racism to an end, to bring Tulsa to its proverbial knees, to install a new regime, a new kingdom (if you will), in Oklahama and California and so on and so on and so on.

And they say to him, they say to Jesus, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.”  Now these guys aren’t maniacs.  These guys aren’t zealots.  These guys have just had it.  These guys are like you and me.  And you get that way when you’re angry and when you’ve had it and when you’re ready to make your move.  “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.”  And God bless Jesus, he doesn’t even flinch; and he doesn’t look at James and John and judge them.  That strange brew in their eyes, in their voices, it’s familiar to Jesus.  He gets it.  And he just asks them: “OK, what is it?  What do you want me to do for you?”

And the two of them, they say: “Jesus, we are ready for leadership.  We are ready to leverage our skills and our training and our education.  We are ready to speak at rallies and moblize ground troups and activate your kingdom.  Right now, right here, in Tulsa.  Just the way you drew it up.”

And you know how this story goes.  You know how Jesus uses the occasion, the exchange, to do a little teaching around leadership.  You know how Jesus cautions James and John to practice leadership in a different way, in a different spirit, with different expectations.  “If you want to lead in Tulsa,” Jesus says, “if you want to lead in Charlotte or Washington or Santa Cruz for that matter, you have to be a servant.  You have to have a servant’s heart.  If you want be a catalyst for my kingdom,” Jesus says, “if you want to sow my seeds, you have to assume the posture of a slave.”  And that’s the gospel this morning: this teaching about leadership and servanthood, this bit about catalyzing the kingdom in the posture of a slave.

What do you do with this?  What do you make of it?  And is he serious—can he really be serious—about the posture of a slave?


I want to slip out of the Christian tradition for a moment and tell a Hindu story about leadership and compassion.  And see if this story sheds any light on the connection Jesus is making between the two.  Between leadership and compassion.  Between the kingdom and the posture of a slave.

In traditional Indian lore, there’s a story about an old sannyasi, a Hindu monk, who’s sitting quietly on the bank of a river, silently repeating his mantram.  Nearby, a scorpion falls from a tree into the same river, and the sannyasi, seeing the scorpion struggling in the water, bends over and plucks it out.  He carefully places the scorpion back in its tree, but as he does so, it stings him sharply on the hand.

The monk pays no heed to the bite, but goes on repeating his mantram.  And a while later, the same scorpion falls again into the same river.  Just as before, the monk pulls him out and sets him back in his tree; and again he’s stung, sharply.  This strange little drama is repeated several times; and each time the sannyasi rescues the scorpion, he gets stung, on the hand.

Now it so happens that a villager, unaware of the ways of monks, has come to the river that day for water and has seen the whole thing.  And at last, he’s unable to contain himself; and the villager approaches the sannyasi with some frustration:  “Swamiji, I have seen you save that foolish scorpion several times now, and each time he has stung you.  Why not put the rascal out of its misery?”

And the sannyasi replies: “Brother, the little fellow cannot help himself.  It is his very nature to sting.”

“Agreed,” answers the villager.  “But knowing this, why don’t you just avoid him altogether?”

And the monk says: “Ah, brother!  You see, I cannot help myself either.  I am a human being; and it is my nature to save.”


These stories—Mark’s story of Jesus and the Indian story of the sannyasi—they’re not exactly the same and they’re shaped by different world views and cultures.  But they have this in common: this connection between leadership and compassion; this insistence that a servant’s heart, a servant’s spirit shapes leadership and resists selfishness and risks everything to heal and transform the world.

And I think there’s this too, at the heart of both stories: servant leadership—the kind Jesus is talking about, the kind the sannyasi is talking about—servant leadership is on all of us.  It’s the human vocation.  It’s the disciple’s calling.  It’s the sannyasi’s mantram.  Which is to say that Jesus imagines all of us as leaders, all of us as servants in the world, all of us as servant leaders in the world.  He’s not  singling out priests and bishops and pastors, and leaving the rest of us out of the loop.  He’s not singling out CEOs and tenured faculty and professional politicans, and giving the rest of us a pass.

Like the sannyasi in the Indian story, Jesus’s laying this teaching on you and me, on all of us, and he’s imagining each of us as a servant leader in the world.  Some are going to
serve and lead in official capacities, political roles.  Some are going to serve in positions of church leadership and educational leadership and business leadership.  But what Jesus is laying out there this morning applies to so many other spheres of our lives: practice servant leadership as a parent; practice servant leadership as a neighbor or a friend; practice servant leadership as a preschool teacher or a TA on campus; practice servant leadership organizing a homeless shelter and fighting for immigration reform; practice servant leadership because that what it means to be human, that’s what it means to follow Jesus, that’s what compassion looks like in daily life and human community.

You know that we’re taking time this morning to celebrate with Nick Piediscalzi and his family the 60th anniversary of Nick’s ordination to Christian ministry.  Think of that.  Sixty years of ministry and service!  And I know you all agree with me that what makes Nick such an extraordinary man and such a shining example of Christian discipleship isn’t his stature in academia (though that’s undeniable); and it isn’t his stature in the church (though he’s achieved all of that too); and it isn’t his learned authority and expertise in such a range of intellectual and theological concerns.  Nick’s got all that going for him.  But what draws us to Nick, what brings out the best of us in his presence, is his compassion.  Nick Piediscalzi moves among us as a friend, as a teacher, as a brother: and he does so with a servant’s heart, always with a servant’s heart.  Whether it’s exploring complex ideas around death and mortality.   Whether it’s haggling over church process and working to get that process right.  Whether it’s sharing a cup of tea and swapping stories about grandchildren and their exploits.  Always, always, always, Nick leads from the posture of a slave.  With a servant’s heart.  And this we celebrate today as the essence of Christian discipleship, the catalyzing energy of the gospel itself.  Thank you, Nick, for being among in this way, in this extroardinary way.  And thank you for calling it out of us too.


There’s a key distinction in Nick’s life, and in Jesus’ teaching too, between what we might call “pity” and “compassion.”  Pity and compassion.  Pity seems to set us over and above the other, in a position of judgment really, maybe moral authority, and often power.  In pitying another, I maintain a sense of my own power, a sense of my own privilege.  And this is perhaps the reason that pity so easily morphs into manipulation or diminishment.  If we pity one another, we’re easily tempted to “lord it over” one another.  And Jesus is talking about another kind of leadership altogether.

And that is…compassion.  And compassion (rising out of ‘love’ or agape in New Testament Greek) puts us in a very different relationship with one another, with the suffering of others, with the world.

You know that part of the great commandment that says, “Love your neighbor as you love yourself.”  There are rabbis now who read the ancient Hebrew just a bit differently, and some even tweak the English translation in a very interesting way: “Love your neighbor,” they read Torah: “Love your neighbor who is yourself.”  So, take a moment to appreciate the tweak.  How about that?!

We’re used to seeing and hearing, “Love your neighbor as you love yourself.”  And that’s nice, that works, that’s a sweet sentiment.  Spread the love around.  Love yourself.  Love your neighbor.  Treat everybody equally.  That’s nice.  But the rabbis say: “Love your neighbor who is yourself.”  Love your neighbor who is part of you.  Love your neighbor who is one with you.  Love your neighbor who is connected to you.  Love your neighbor—because loving your neighbor, you love the wholeness of your own life, the big circle of your own world, the complete oneness of your own being.  Love your neighbor who is yourself.

Think about that, and how that notion transforms our understanding of compassion and our commitments to leadership.  The servant’s heart isn’t formed by pity or judgment or privilege.  The servant’s heart is shaped by union and solidarity and compassion.  We love the other because the other is us.  We serve the neighbor because the neighbor is us.  We assume the posture of a slave, in the presence even of an adversary, because the adversary is us.  That, says Jesus, is where leadership starts.  That, says Jesus, is what discipleship is all about.  “Serve your neighbor, work with your neighbor, love your neighbor…who is yourself.”


If we bring all of this back to Tulsa for a moment, we see that James and John have a lot to learn.  We all have a lot to learn.  Jesus isn’t saying, “Don’t be involved.”  Jesus isn’t saying, “Leave the heavy lifting to others.”  Instead, Jesus is asking you and me, urging you and me, to assume the posture of slaves.  To engage movements for justice and peace as servants: not as passive observers, not that, but as active and loving and daring servants of a daring God.

Baton Rouge, LA
This is so much the heart of Mark’s gospel.  Just as we mentioned last week.  Jesus is asking us, Jesus is urging us, to stay awake to the pain, to keep watch with the suffering, and to recognize that what’s happening in Tulsa and Charlotte and Oakland and’s happening to us.  It’s not happening to “them” (as if we can separate black folk out, as if we can separate brown folk out, and pity them and their predicament).  It’s happening to us, because in the eyes and mind and creativity of God, we are all one human family.  We are all connected by the sweet and strange bonds of grace and love.  We are sisters, brothers, neighbors: one body, one planet, one breath.  Let’s love our neighbors, all of them, every one of them, all shades of them...let’s love our neighbors who are indeed and always will be ourselves.