October 18, 2009 – The Episcopal Church of St. Paul
(the Rev’d Dr.) Elizabeth Kaeton, rector and pastor
I recently saw a rerun of the movie “Ali,” with Will Smith – a tribute to the life of the boxer, Cassius Clay, who later became known as Mohammad Ali. I’m not a fan of professional boxing, but I don’t think there are too many people who don’t remember Ali for saying, over and over and over again, “I am the greatest!”
Turns out, he was pretty close to being right. I don’t know if he was “the greatest” but even I can see that he was a great professional boxer. He won the Heavyweight Championship three times – fighting giants like Joe Frazer and George Forman.
Prior to that, he had won the Olympic Gold Medal in 1960. He both ignited and mirrored the controversies of our times, taking on the law, the status quo, and the Vietnam War with an inner grace and outer feistiness that reflected his boxing style: “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.”
This morning’s gospel has some things to say about greatness. James and John, the ‘Sons of Thunder’ of Zebedee – who sound like the forbearers of Mohammad Ali – had the chutzpah to ask Jesus for a place of honor when he ‘came into his glory’.
I prefer the story told by Matthew (20:20-28) which has the mother of James and John asking Jesus for their place, one on his left, one on his right, when Jesus became “King”. The initial response Jesus makes in both stories is the same, “You have no idea what you’re asking.”
Jesus is talking specifically about the particular burden of his vocational leadership, but I think the same could be said of anyone who actively seeks the greatness of the office – as opposed to being led to serve through leadership. Fred Wolf, my ordaining bishop, once said, with no small amount of chagrin tinged with undeniable sadness, “Anyone who actively seeks the office of bishop deserves exactly what s/he gets.”
You’ll forgive me a brief, personal stroll down memory lane. Today, the Feast of St. Luke, also marks the 23rd anniversary of my ordination to the sacred order of priests. For obvious sentimental reasons, I am wearing both the suit and the alb I was wearing when I was ordained. Twenty-three years ago I was raised, theologically and spiritually, at a time in The Episcopal Church when the term ‘Servant Leadership’ was hot on everyone’s lips.
The Roman Catholic Theologian, Henri Nouwen, had written his 1979 book, “Wounded Healer,” which was becoming widely read and very popular in ministry circles. The book draws its inspiration from this well-known story among the Hebrew people.
It concerns a Rabbi who came across the prophet Elijah and said to him:
“Tell me—when will the Messiah come?”Henri Nouwen adds, “What I find impressive in this story are these two things: first, the faithful tending of one’s own woundedness and second, the willingness to move to the aid of other people and to make the fruits of our own woundedness available to others.”
Elijah replied, “Go and ask him yourself.”
“Where is he?” said the Rabbi.
“He’s sitting at the gates of the city,” said Elijah.
“But how will I know which one is he?”
The Prophet said, “He is sitting among the poor, covered with wounds. The others unbind all their wounds at the same time and bind them up again, but he unbinds only one at a time and binds them up again, saying to himself, “Perhaps I shall be needed; if so, I must always be ready so as not to delay for a moment.”
This image of the wounded healer, the wounded Messiah, became a metaphor for practicing the ancient ministry of Jesus, the Servant Leader, in a contemporary world.
Nouwen maintained that one had to be faithful to one’s own woundedness as well as – indeed, in order to – tend to the woundedness of others.
Nouwen felt that, unless we are able to name and tend to our own wounds as the groundwork of our ministry with others, we will not be practicing authentic Christian ministry. It becomes, instead, an issue of ministry as a vehicle of personal power, ‘lording it over’ others, even in kindness.
You can hear this as an echo of the words of Jesus in this morning’s gospel: “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave—just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20:25-28; also Mark 10:42-45)
This found deep resonance with many, including Bennett Sims, then bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta, who founded the Institute for Servant Leadership in Hendersonville, NC in 1983. Bishop Sims believes that Servant Leaders will:
• Engage in a spiritual journey rooted in a worshiping community and a personal spiritual practice.I think this last one captures the essence of the ministry of Jesus. “Call others to be Servant Leaders.” It’s all the rage, these days, to look for ‘team players’. My experience of leaders who want ‘team players’ is that they are really looking for something that’s more about the ‘captain’ than the team – or, more specifically, the individual players.
• Enhance the power and freedom of others.
• Value all people, with special compassion for the least privileged in the human family.
• Celebrate with gratitude the sacredness, abundance and interconnectedness of all creation.
• Embrace a simplicity of life that honors work and the willingness to be held accountable, while leaving time for rest and play.
• Recognize the gifts of each person, and seek discernment through dialogue as the context for all decision making.
• Call others to be Servant Leaders.
Even in the church, if you want to really sideline someone who doesn’t agree with the ‘captain’, just say, “Well, he’s not a team player,” and the rest will take care of itself.
There’s a great story about basketball player, Magic Johnson. The captain was giving the team a pep talk, saying, "Remember, there's no 'I' in 'team." Magic reportedly responded, "Yeah, but there is in 'win'." I think that sums up what I think is really going on here in the gradual transition from 'servant leader' a few decades ago and 'team players' of today.
I don’t want ‘team players’ on my staff – or, involved in the ministry of the church where I am rector. I don't want or need anyone to 'yes' me to death. I want Servant Leaders. I want to empower people to their own sense of ministry, acknowledging their own gifts and graces, recognizing that many of the skills and abilities to do ministry are gained from the wounds that we all have.
That may not spell ‘success’ to the world, but it does spell ‘ministry’. I hasten to point out that there’s no ‘I’ in success, but there is in ministry. Two of them, in fact. In our consumer-oriented culture and society, we all want ‘success’. We all want the numbers to crunch, the bottom line to balance, and the dollar signs to be plentiful.
That’s what the world wants. That’s not how Jesus measures success. We are all wounded in some way. Being a Wounded Healer is what makes a good Servant Leader. Perhaps Mohammad Ali had to shout “I am the greatest” in the early days of the Civil Right’s Movement just to get people to look at him as a person, but his greatness came not from his flamboyant style but rather, his ability to understand the gifts he had been given as an athlete.
It was also GREAT entertainment, and sports like boxing is nothing if it’s not about entertainment. Ali knew that and made it work for him.
In South Africa, people greet each other in their Zulu language with the words "Sawu bona" "I see you." If you are a member of the tribe, you respond by saying, "Sikhona" which means, "I am here." The order of the exchange is significant. It means that, until you see me, I do not exist. When you do see me, you bring me into existence.
As Bishop Sims once wrote: "In all of us there is something that does not want to be seen - either by others or by our own selves. Self-protection operates as a barrier in all human interaction.
But the "I see you" of servant leadership activates the mystical power of love and begins the process of release, in both the leader and the led, from the fears that inhibit the exchange of truth and drain the energy of collaboration."
If I have learned anything over the last 23 years of ordained ministry it is that, now more than ever, the church needs Servant Leaders. THE Church. OUR Church. THIS Church. And yes, the world.
We need to see each other into being and hear each other into speech. We need to start humbly, painfully, with the recognition, the binding and unbinding of our own wounds in order that we might tend to the wounds of others. The world is in great darkness and even greater despair.
We need a Savior in our lives, now more than ever. And, according to the ancient Hebrew story, that Savior could be you. The one at the gate. Binding and unbinding her wounds. At the ready to lead by serving.
We drink from the same cup as Jesus drank, and were baptized in the same baptism as Jesus, but to sit at his right or left hand is not for any of us to decide, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared. Jesus said, “. . . whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.”
And, therein, my friends, lies the kind of true greatness that never has to raise its voice, but rather, is whispered and echoed over the wings of time until it rests, finally, and discovers a place of inspiration in the heart of a Servant Leader.