Sermon for the 16th Sunday after Trinity

Reading: Mark 9: 30 – 37

Matters of leadership have been in the news this week. Jeremy
Corbyn, newly-elected leader of the Labour Party, is on-the-record as
wanting to offer a different sort of leadership from those we are
used to in our politicians. Less of a focus on personality and
charisma, more on policy and principle. Most of us will wish him well
in that endeavour at least, even if we do not share his politics.
Yet, in order to be a leader, he will still need to lead. Time will tell
whether his unassuming style will give his party, let alone the
country, a style of leadership that compels.
The church too needs to be led. You will all have your views on my
own leadership, my strengths and weaknesses, and that of the
Church Council, with whom I share the leadership of St Mary’s. Some
of you like to comment to me on the leadership of the Church of
England over coffee. To all of this we each bring to our expectations
of leaders our own experience, personal psychology and
development. Somewhere, however, in that mix of personal
expectation, preference and thinking, there will be something about
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a leader that stands out, something that enables others to feel as
though this person is worth following. Countless books – at least if
the evidence of travelling on public transport in London is to be
believed – countless books contribute to the leadership industry
today.
Jesus’s teaching on leadership is far from the modern leadership
industry. Catching the disciples having something of a debate about
greatness, and therefore about leadership, he offers them three
words – last,, servant and child – to expand his point and to
challenge our assumptions about what it means to be a great leader.
It’s counter-intuitive stuff in many ways.
First, Jesus says you must be last. Perhaps we can understand this
idea by the familiar phrase “saving the best till last.” We easily
assume that this means primarily something about being selfeffacing, which feeds well into the British psyche. Perhaps though,
being a leader like this means remembering that we are part of a
tradition and a community. We too easily have the idea that a leader
must have some unique, buccaneering individualism. Jesus, I think,
instead implies that leadership is exercised by learning: learning from
those who have gone before us and learning from those who are
around us. We build on the efforts of others, we work together as
partners.
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That can then extend into the idea of a leader as a servant. Jesus
doesn’t expect a disciple to be a servant to all, seeking to meet every
need that every person throws at him or her. He himself never
sought to do that, we do well to remember. Rather a servant of all
means being givers to those around us, working together with
others, sharing mutual responsibility and mutual accountability.
And then, lastly, the word child. But not a word, but a person, a small
child, someone who (unlike our own more sentimental age)
represents not innocence but the vulnerability of the outsider.
Children were marginal in Jesus’s day. Even into the Middle Ages,
Thomas Aquinas, when posing a moral question about who to rescue
first from a burning house, put children after father, mother and
wife. There is something about greatness, and therefore about
leadership, that has a view to the margins, who looks to the people
and the situations at the edge of things, because this is where the
welcoming presence of God lies. As Jesus wraps his arms around the
child, he challenges us to look to the edge and to model ourselves
upon them. When you grow up, I want you to be insignificant.
So here is an invitation to ponder, a way of being church (and
perhaps a way of being a leader beyond as well as within it) that
offers a different, counter-cultural, Christ-like view.
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If we were to follow Jesus’ model of greatness, we might find
ourselves giving time to the developing of disciples, with a focus not
on those in the centre of things, but in the margins.
If we were to follow Jesus’ model of greatness, we might give more
attention to the voices on the margins – our children, those who
seem not quite to fit or who aren’t usually seen as having much
worth saying.
If we were to follow Jesus’ model of greatness, we might give greater
attention to the character of the leader rather than simply his or her
ability.
Some years ago I was fortunate enough to encounter the Church of
the Saviour in Washington DC, which was led for many years by an
extraordinary minister, who understood this form of leadership, and
who died aged 94 in 2013. When I heard him, a frail 88 year old, he
told us about what he thought was at the heart of leadership, which
is at the heart also of being a Christian. Christians, Cosby said, were
called by God. By our baptism, we are called to be new creatures in
Christ; we’re called, in other words, to a new way of being. So the
question for any Christian, and for any kind of leader it seems to me,
is this: will you become who you are intended by God to be?
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This passage tells us that to be the person and the leader God
intends us to be, we need to attend to the voices at the margins (and
that might also mean listening to the marginal voice of God within
ourselves that we too easily ignore), to be part of a learning
community of faith and to be givers to those around us.
You want to be great, Jesus says? Then re-imagine what that means
in this way. It is the call of the Gospel. Amen.