Richard Topping

Dying to Lead

Principal Richard Topping was the preacher on Sunday August 9, 2015 at Fairview Presbyterian Church, Vancouver, on the occasion of the ordination of Curtis and Elaine Wilson to the ministry of Word and Sacrament in the Presbyterian Church.  Curtis graduated from VST in May of 2015 and Elaine, our top ministry graduate, in May of 2014.  The Wilson’s will take up the work of congregational ministry in Kingston Ontario.  The sermon is entitled: Dying to Lead and is a reflection on the temptations of leadership and their remedies.

Dying to Lead

Mark 9:30-41, Mark 10:32-45

It is an utter delight to offer the sermon at the service of ordination for Curtis and Elaine Wilson, two wonderful people, committed Christians and diligent students.

Many people are here today – their parents and pastors and teachers, mentors and friends – who have shared in their formation, people whom the risen Christ has used to shape their lives for ministry. Thank you Church of Jesus Christ. Today we acknowledge the way the Spirit has already ordered the church in the gifts given to those two friends for service to God and the Gospel. Thanks be to God!

The topic of my sermon is leadership. Leadership comes up in our lessons from Mark (chapter 10). This is one of the rare places in the Bible where Jesus gets involved with his followers about leadership style (katexousiazousin – the contemporary English Bible translates the word – leadership, in Mark 10 and in Matthew 25).

Like most of the Bible on the theme, Jesus comes at it from the side. At one and the same time, Mark has Jesus teaching us about the temptations of leadership and what leading looks like when it is Jesus inspired and Spirit fired. I want to look at 3 temptations for leaders and then their remedies.

1: The Temptation to forget only Jesus presence makes ministry work.

Just before the place we began in the 9th chapter of Mark, Peter and John and James descend the mountain. They’ve come fresh from an experience of God – lights and voices and prophets at dizzying heights. They all have an epiphany, they see Jesus with the curtain drawn back in his full glory. This spiritually pumped up inner group comes down to the ‘real’ world with Jesus.

They come way down to a religious argument. It is actually an attempt to rationalize failure. The topic seems to have something to do with demons, and how best to be relieved of them. The other nine disciples engage religious authorities about the right words, the correct sequence, the proper alchemy, how to get the exorcism abracadabra to work. The nine disciples in the valley couldn’t help a demonized boy. And their failed attempts at ministry turns into a theoretical discussion of formula and process and the right way to do it.

I do that. You know what they say, those who can, do; those who can’t teach, or, in this case, fuss about the liturgy.

The crowd abandons the religious debate for Jesus. Mark says, ‘they were immediately overcome with awe’ at the sight of Jesus. Crowds would still rather meet Jesus than engage in religious argument about the right way to do it.

‘What’s the fuss?,’ asks Jesus. And a desperate Father speaks up about his demonized son for whom there is no deliverance.

And Jesus loses it; Jesus goes on a rant – ‘you faithfulness generation, how much longer must I be among you, how much longer must I put up with you?’ Wow! Jesus seems ready for a premature ascension. The disciples and the crowd stand there for this dressing down. This is no gentle Jesus meek and mild. I wonder if Jesus is just fed up with antiseptic arm’s-length religious discussion in the face of genuine human need. Notice they argue about how to get a demon out, and Jesus talks not about formula but faith – trust, confidence in God and God’s only Son, Jesus.

Jesus turns to the boy’s dad – ‘Bring him here’ and the kid is writhing in the gravel. He asks, ‘How long has he been like this?.’ The boy’s dad says from childhood and ‘I know that you’re willing to cure him Jesus, but are you able?’ Jesus says, “Able! Have a little faith would you!” The situation is starved of faith – confidence in Jesus as the embodiment of God’s good intention for this suffering world. But the boy’s dad says, ‘Well I’ve got some faith, please give me more.’ And Jesus, hears these words as a prayer, orders the demon out and helps the boy to his feet.

Once alone with Jesus the disciples say, ‘Why couldn’t we do that, Jesus?’ And Jesus says, ‘It was a tough one – only prayer and fasting (in some manuscripts) can get that monkey off your back.’

You see prayer and fasting are ways in which disciples get clear on whose ministry it is. Prayer is the posture of dependence on Jesus. As Living Faith says, it is not our ministry, ‘all Christians participate in the ministry of Christ.’ Forget that and all we’ve got are tired and boring and tedious discussions about the right way to do it – alchemy and odd superstition and our defenses of our preferences is all that’s left.

Jesus then tells the disciples, again, he’s going to the cross – he’s going to be handed over, killed and he will rise. He won’t just heal this boy but the world! His ministry is one of service to the whole of humanity. He will give his life a ransom for many. He will exorcize God’s good creation. The disciples don’t know what he’s talking about. No one even asks a question – they are puzzled, bewildered, afraid.

And so the disciples follow a familiar pattern when they are stymied, afraid and defeated: they argue, this time about who is the greatest. They had argued about healing ministry with the religious leaders. The topic this time isn’t ministry, but ‘who is the greatest minister.’

Remember: not one of them was successful in exorcizing the demon possessed boy when Jesus wasn’t there. Not one of them could bring life and liberty to a boy troubled from birth. They come fresh from failure, from the experience of their own limitations and of their utter need to participate in Jesus’ ministry if anything is going to become of theirs and they argue with each other about who is top dog.

Howard Schultz, chairman and chief executive of Starbucks wrote an op ed piece for the NY Times this week entitled – ‘People deserve a servant leader.’ It is a piece inspired by the example of Pope Francis. Shultz says he remembers that, shortly after his election, Francis knelt and washed the feet of a dozen prisoners in Rome, one of them a Muslim woman. He wrote, “I have taken to recalling that humble inspiring act of servant leadership as I observe the antithesis in the field of presidential aspirants . . . ‘

Jesus took a child, and said in the topsy-turvy world that God is bringing if you get down low, get downwardly mobile, on your knees, enter the world of a child – one without power or even a tinge of greatness as the world counts greatness – then you will meet me and welcome the one who sent me. And when and where we meet Jesus and welcome him in the ones he is with, we are in ministry, his ministry, and so effective ministry.

I came to visit Martina, who was dying of emphysema. I knew the previous night she had almost died. She told me, ‘I had never felt so alone and desperate as last night. I just felt God forsaken, abandoned, overwhelmed.’ I stood there thinking, ‘what’s the thing to say, the right protocol, the correct formulary now?’ Thank God before I could say anything ‘religious’ she said, “and then I remembered Jesus’ words on the cross, ‘my God, my God, why have you forsaken me, and I knew that he had been where I was, and I didn’t feel alone.’ And we thanked God for Jesus’ presence. It is his presence, not our formulas, that makes ministry work.

Temptation 2: The temptation to competitive ministry.

Fresh from the mountain with the inner circle, voice hoarse from his argumentative candidacy for number one disciple, John takes note of a freewheeling healer muscling in on the neighbourhood. He knows a copyright violation when he sees it. His closeness to Jesus makes him proprietary about healing. ‘We saw a guy using your name, Jesus, to force demons out. You know that thing we failed at, couldn’t do. Well, someone else who isn’t a part of our group succeeded. We have got to put a stop to it. They must be doing something wrong if they are succeeding where we aren’t.’ Jesus he isn’t following ‘us’ – interesting turn of phrase.

It’s outrageous. Nothing makes an ambitious disciple of Jesus so seething as the success of another disciple of Jesus who’s doing good work outside the Book of Forms. We think we’re afraid of death, but it turns out we’re afraid of life! ‘We can’t cast out demons but Jesus do you want us to stop people who are. We’ve got this freelancer. He’s not a mainline healer! Probably some sort of swarmy Pentecostal type – you know that tactile bunch with their hugging, meeting in some theatre – working our neighbourhood. Can’t put my finger on exactly what’s wrong here; but it must be wrong! After all, how could he be following Jesus if he isn’t following ‘we’ enfranchised disciples?’ They are not card-carrying members of the Jesus movement. We’ve got to put an end to this.
Jesus says, ‘if he’s not against us, he’s for us.’ Turns out the mission of Jesus is larger than us. Turns out that we disciples don’t have exclusive rights to the healing ministry of Jesus.

That’s disturbing – ‘anyone who isn’t against us is for us!’ Anyone who works for human flourishing and deliverance is an agent of Jesus work in the world. Wow! Doesn’t that just reframe ministry expectation.

That view of ministry could get away from us. If you are the kind of person who irons your socks and underwear, lays your clothes out the morning before, this will drive you crazy. What kind of bureaucracy could manage this Spirit generated, random healing, by God knows who? Order that!

This past week I was downtown at a School of Business. I met a Dean and an administrator about teaching some administrative savvy to our students. I was a little shy about the whole enterprise. I apologetically said, ‘yea, sorry about how we religious types are always hammering on business; but the human heart is a little to the left.’ He said, ‘do you remember 2008, the crash of the stock market. Man, we need some spiritual input. I spend my days telling students, you have got to think of the common good, human flourishing in your work. Maybe you guys at VST could come and teach us some ethics.’ And I sat there thinking – what? Jesus is at work here too.

Following Jesus into ministry in the wider world is so disorienting. It is even a kind of embarrassment to the church when we find out Jesus is making more progress with ecological renewal, truth and reconciliation through the government and NGO’s than with us! Karl Barth calls this a ‘free communication’ of God’s word coming back at the church, almost as if to embarrass us to get with God’s program. There are people out there who never went to VST or Regent, who have never dawned the door of a church, uncredentialed freelancers whom Jesus requisitions to get healing done.

Temptation Three: The temptation to take up the dysfunctional dance of pride and envy.
Jesus gives a third talk about his death in chapter 10 – ‘the disciples were confused as Jesus lead them toward Jerusalem’ – that’s an understatement. He takes the disciples aside again -‘let me lay this out for you. I’m going to get handed over, be killed, handled by foreigners, spit on, disrespected, beaten, die! Three days later, I’ll rise again. Did you get that?’

James and John take Jesus aside. Over in Matthew they get mom to agitate for her boys. Here they do it themselves, on the sly. ‘Yeah great thanks for that speech, Jesus.’ But didn’t you say something about a kingdom? We could hardly hear you with those little monsters (kids) making racket. We thought we’d do a little backroom deal about the corner offices in the kingdom. I mean we’re the A team – we went up the mountain with you. We’d like to be your number one men.’ James and John have no idea that first in the kingdom has a cruciform shape. Be careful what you ask for. What did Bonhoeffer say, ‘when Jesus calls a man, he bids him come and died.’

Once word of their ambition gets out to the rest of the disciples, they get mad. Ambition by some disciples, miffs the rest of the disciples.

I know how this discontent goes. ‘They are so proud, you’d think a little humility would be in order here.’ It is a very Canadian objection. We don’t like ambitious push to the front of the line types. And sure pride is a sin.

However, I’m never sure when I hear the pride accusation come up whether it’s ‘James and John’ pride or the other disciples’ envy that’s at work. Pride’s a no-no in Canada\; envy, however, in a socialist society, our context, is just fine. A couple of ambitious proud disciples can easily summon up envy in the rest of the group. And then the dance is on – pride and envy provide the rhythm.

Jesus calls the disciples all together and says, ‘ok so you all want to be number one. You all want to be top dog, numero uno, kingdom executives, CEO’s in glory.’ No need to tell all of you to be ambitious and make something of yourselves. I see you want to lead the people under you. You want to be powerful and wield that power top -down. I can see how you’d soak that in from executive types like Donald Trump and Party of One politicians.

And then Jesus says, ‘How very pagan of you to think that!’

If you want to be great, says Jesus, it’s all about how many people you serve. In the upside down world Jesus ushers in, a disciple goes to work for everyone else, and that’s greatness – bottom-of-the-heap, greatness! Now we know what Mark means when he says, ‘Jesus is going to Jerusalem and the disciples are confused’ – about leadership among other things.

And then the embodiment of the Son of Man’s critique of pagan leadership: “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.”

And I start to wonder, as you all do, about measure, balance, prudence, burn out, self-care. What are the limits? How many people can a person serve without exhaustion? What about boundaries? Haven’t we used these words of Jesus to make some people servants who get walked on?

Yes. All of these questions require our attention. But in this passage I think what we’ve got might be paraphrased like this, and it is my conclusion:
‘Whoever wants to save their leadership, will lose it; and whoever loses it for Jesus’ sake and the sake of the Gospel, will actually become a Christian leader.’