July 22, 2018

Brief synopsis of the readings: Our first reading takes us to the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah. Speaking in God’s voice Jeremiah predicts doom for shepherds who allow their flock to be destroyed and scattered. God speaks harshly over those shepherds who neglected their flocks. But God promised to gather the remnant of the herd and return them to their pastures, and then find shepherds for them. Mark’s Gospel begins several versus after last week’s Gospel ended. Here the Twelve rejoined Jesus and gave an account of their travels. Jesus wished to take them to a place apart where they could be by themselves but there were too many people. Finally Jesus “took pity on [the people] because they were like sheep without a shepherd and he set himself to teach them at some length.”

I have to confess a little amusement whenever Jesus speaks in terms of sheep and shepherds. Were it not for the Bible I’d probably know nothing about sheep and shepherds but there’s no way around this: when Jesus speaks of sheep, he’s talking about us. From the earliest days of herding sheep, shepherds have recognized that keeping sheep fed and protected from wolves was full time job.

And without delving too deeply into the finer points of sheep I think we can all agree that these readings speak of leadership. About 150 years ago Karl Marx wrote a series of books that argued against the idea of leadership; he claimed that any form of leadership inevitably leads to oppression and given the opportunity the workers would cooperate and everyone would live happily ever after.

Except it didn’t work. Communities large and small have tried this and it has a success rate of exactly 0%. If you haven’t read George Orwell’s book Animal Farm it’s worth a read. For better or worse we live in communities and societies that call some to lead.

And for our human community of fallen, redeemed, blessed, sinful, generous, and selfish disciples it comes with a problem: how do we lead in our redeemed brokenness and who is chosen to lead?

I think if we look on our history we can see two categories: dominant leadership and servant leadership.

For much of our history this distinction would have been seen as puzzling. In most places leaders grabbed the mantle of leadership through strict exercise of power. Even casual students of the Roman Empire can point out how several leaders achieved power by killing his rivals, and how often their reign ended at knifepoint. The medieval Italian philosopher Niccolo Machiavelli (1469-1527) wrote in his book The Prince that leaders find success in ruthlessness.

Alas, we even see this form of leadership in our own history. We all know the story of how God chose King David to succeed his father Saul (1 Samuel 16) and in many ways the reign of King David commands the high point of the Jewish monarchy. If anyone should look to God with gratitude for his leadership, it should be David. But in 2 Samuel 11 we see David spying on Bathsheba, the wife of David’s soldier Uriah; David commanded that Bathsheba be brought to him. He had sex with her and she became pregnant. Things didn’t turn out well for anyone, but clearly David saw his position in terms of having power over anyone he wished. Since he was the king she didn’t have the ability to decline his advances.

Both of our readings point to a different type of leadership that is often called “servant leadership.” Here the leader works not to perpetuate or even increase his or her power at the expense of others. Instead a servant leader works to ensure the safety and prosperity of those who are led. There are effective arguments that this form of leadership succeeds in the long run, but aside from that servant leadership is the only type that fits into our role as disciples.

Many years ago I met a woman who owned a successful restaurant. When I asked her why she thought the restaurant did well she told me this: “I treat my waitstaff the way I want them to treat the customers. Every dollar that comes to this restaurant begins in the hands of the waitstaff. They need me, but I also need them.” I think she was right and it also encouraged me to eat there more often. She explained that found that if she was a supporter when an employee needed time off it bred loyalty; when she encouraged them to tell her about their mistakes without fear of reprisal they were emboldened to be honest. At the end of the day the employees were happier and willing to work hard. It also made the restaurant owner wealthier.

Compare that to an agency I no longer work for. Though never stated, it was clear that the overriding management policy was this: “Keep the employees a little off balance, a little afraid for their jobs. They won’t necessarily work harder but they’ll be too afraid to complain about anything. That agency is no longer in business.

A servant leader cares deeply. He or she cheers their success and sees defeats as an opportunity to learn and become more skilled. Jesus was never afraid to make demands on his disciples but he never took his eye off the goal of making them better. He overlooked or forgave their mistakes and he cheered their victories. In describing the same event in Luke, Jesus tells them this: “[d]o not rejoice so much in the fact that the devils are subject to you as that your names are inscribed in heaven.”

So where do we find earthly examples of servant leadership? I suggest we begin with our own families. Certainly we can think of (and perhaps lived with) toxic or tyrannical parents but I think they are rarer than we think, and I suspect it includes nobody who is reading this. When I was an active priest and heard confessions I used to joke that most confessed sins fell into three categories: children confess to disobeying parents, teenagers confess to trying tobacco, and parents confess to a lack of patience with their children. When I was a child I was an altar boy; this meant that my family didn’t always choose the mass we went to, it was dependent on the altar boy schedule. No matter. My parents took me to whatever mass I was assigned to as well as twice monthly altar boy meetings. When I needed glasses, or braces, or allergy shots it was never a question either for the expense or the time. Because my parents practiced servant leadership I have devoted my career in living my faith, I also have good eyesight, straight teeth and can live with our two cats.

I also want to give a shout out to teachers and mentors. At this point in my career I’ve had the opportunity to mentor new employees. I have no words to completely explain the joy over seeing them do well, and even become mentors themselves.

And I have this to say to Harvey Weinstein: mentoring someone, capturing their enthusiasm, cheering their victories, transforming their defeats, and watching their success is better than sex.