Preacher Ruth Martin
Yesterday morning when I was enjoying watching the sun come into the garden, I saw a pair of magpies and a pair of squirrels competing for access to the only bird feeder I have from which they can feed, as the others are all squirrel proofed! The squirrels worked together, giving each other space, taking turns, whilst the magpies squabbled with each : one magpie far more able to reach the tasty morsels than the other. The smaller birds kept out of the way, hovering in the background and occasionally heading for their feeders safe in the knowledge the big ones couldn’t get a look in.
Throughout Gods amazing creation there is competition , mainly competition for scarce resources and those with resources can survive and procreate. In so much of God’s wonderful creation it is straightforward, inevitable and sometimes amusing.
But human beings go a step further, both in joy and the promise of new life but also, certainly, darker and bleaker – the competition beyond survival is for status, power.
Gods teaching to human beings through scripture is how human leadership needs to be God centred, to recognise and live lives to show that God is God.
In Rabbi Jonathan Sack’s book, ‘Not in My Name’, which explores the human tendency to justify violence through religious belief – he explains that the bible understands that the fundamental conflict in the human condition is between the Will to Power and the Will to Live. Too often leaders choose the Will to Power. And not the Will to Live, to celebrate life.
Life on Earth is holy, it is also fragile. Do you know the beautiful Hebrew word Hevel, mere breath. We are mere breath.
This week we have seen the consequences of the Will to Power in the grotesque activity and the even more responses to the killing of the Saudi activist Jamal Khashoggi.
In our Gospel reading Jesus patiently explains ‘you know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognise as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them’.
Unfortunately it is so. And the age we live in of individualism, materialism and social media only exacerbates egotistical, self indulgent if not paranoid leadership, and that can have dreadful consequences.
As religious belief in God declines in our society and culture so our communities also are at risk of losing the values that Judeo-Christian religious heritage has brought us; loyalty, reverence, respect for human dignity, relief of poverty, collective responsibility.
It is not surprising that three egotistical leaders, Trump, Erdogan and Muhammad bin Salam’ have sought to use the death of Jamal Khashoggi to capitalise on their power, their Will to Power, and not the fundamental rights to life that is fragile and holy.
In scripture even those whom God has chosen for leadership, anointed and blessed, can get this badly wrong. Scripture is full of them.
And so to James and John in today’s Gospel reading.
James and John – together with Peter – had been with Jesus when he went up the mountain, and was transfigured in the mountain top, and in Marks version of this, Jesus was seen talking with Elijah and Moses the great fathers of Jewish faith.
James and John have seen Jesus’ miracles of healing and they were part of the quarrelling between all the disciples about who was the greatest amongst them as they journeyed along. Despite Jesus predicting his own death, they continue to seek to bask in a reflected glory that they have misunderstood. Jesus’ glory was not of course going to be one of human glory.
So they have already been quarrelling with the other disciples when we reach our Gospel story of their special request to be one on the right and the other on the left of Jesus in His glory. Jesus by this time has already predicted his death and knows that whoever is on one side or the other in his death is not going to be glorious.
James and John, albeit fleetingly, get it wrong as we all can when glory or power might go to our heads. However they do go in to drink from the cup of suffering service, we know they go on to give their lives for their faith. They show that human frailty seeking the will to power can give way, with grace, to the Will to Live, to know the life that God through Christ offers each of us.
So Jesus embodies for us the upside down world of servant Leadership. Whoever will be first will be last, to enter the kingdom of heaven you must be like a small child. Leadership is a gift and a privilege and the other disciples become resentful. Whoever wishes to be great amongst you must become your servant’.
To be a servant leader is always to seek to serve, to serve God, to serve others. It doesn’t ignore the need to take care of ourselves, but it requires a constant focus on how, whatever our different roles in life, we are placed to serve.
Exercising authority over others requires those same qualities of Love that Paul describes so movingly in his letter to Christians at Corinth. Love is patient, kind, does not envy, does not boast, is not proud, is not rude, is not self-seeking. It is the same for servant leadership. Love is not easily angered, keeps no record of wrongs, does not delight in evil but rejoices in truth. It is the same for Servant leadership. Love always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. If we simply substitute Servant Leadership then we can see that they require the same qualities of God’s Love shown in human beings.
And so In our reading from the letter to the Hebrews we can’t be surprised that effective priestly leadership is described as gentleness with the wayward, the recognition of our own limitations and weaknesses brought to bear in human leadership. Sadly I am not here next weekend as we say a special thank you for the ministry of Alan Sykes but Alan’s priestly, pastoral leadership has always been one of gentleness, of servant leadership.
Jesus is the high priest, a servant leader and a leader who knows suffering. Who would we put at the right and left of Jesus in his glory, would we put a worldly human leader or would be put a little baby with all the promise that life can bring – or – perhaps a nurse from the Windrush generation who was invited to come over to work in this country only to encounter racism, poverty, humiliation and perhaps deportation.
In our own lives we can just keep trying, learning and praying to embody the Will to Live and not the Will to Power. Or in the words of the contemporary Christian poet Malcolm Guite we Stand to Prayer;
‘The Splendour of Nirvana is not ours,
We have no middle eye, no mystic wings, And our brief visions take us unawares.
We stand to prayer as rows of earthen jars Whose dark mouths open on to hidden things A secret kingdom where the poor are king.