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Sunday, September 24, 2006

Whoever wants to be first must be last

XVI Pentecost – September 24, 2006 – The Episcopal Church of St. Paul, Chatham, NJ
(the Rev’d) Elizabeth Kaeton, rector and pastor
Text: Mark 9:30-37

Well, you may have already heard. The media have been all over the story. There was a whole bank of them with a very visible presence on Convention floor at the Robert Treat Hotel in Newark. Even I was interviewed several times by members of the Associated Press, NPR, the NY Times, the Star Ledger and Reuters News Service. The story is in the NY Times this morning. It even made the 11 o’clock news last night on NBC. What’s the buzz about: The Diocese of Newark elected its 10th Bishop yesterday.

The election of Mark Beckwith on the third ballot was a strong mandate for him. I am delighted beyond the telling that my old friend and General Convention dance partner is our new bishop. Yes, of course, there’s a story, which I’ll tell you sometime which is about Mark’s sense of silliness and fun in the midst of the hard and often tedious work of our national church during its triennium convention gathering.

This morning’s gospel story calls with greater urgency to be told – a powerful story, as always, which serves as a cautionary tale for anyone seeking to follow the leadership of Jesus in Christian community.

Jesus and his disciples are on their way to Capernaum, but first had to pass through his home town of Galilee. Some of you may know what it’s like to go back to your home town on a business trip, so you’ll understand that he didn’t want anyone to know he was there. Gosh, and if your mother ever found out you were in town and didn’t stop by for visit, well, there’d be hell to pay! (Can’t you just hear Mary saying to Jesus and the boys, “C’mon, sit down. You could have a sandwich, maybe a piece of fruit.”)

Yet again, Jesus is teaching his disciples about the real mission of his life and work. He is preparing them – yet again – for his death upon the cross. Apparently, they get it this time because – oblivious to the realities and the cost – they begin talking among themselves about who it might be who will replace Jesus as ‘the greatest’ among them.

When they get to Capernaum, Jesus calls them on their discussion, asking, “So, what were you boys arguing about on the way?” You can almost see their faces grow red with embarrassment. It was then that he called the twelve together and said, “Okay, boys, look, it’s like this: Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”

These are pretty daunting words which will greet the first morning of the newly elected 10th bishop of Newark. Indeed, they are fairly challenging words for anyone seeking to follow the leadership of Jesus. That style of leadership is one that is quite humble. Especially in our culture, “humble” and “leadership” are two words that seem so foreign to each other that they create an oxymoron. The challenge is not how to be ‘last of all and servant of all’. Actually, that’s the easy part. The hard part is to have the actions of this style of leadership come from a place of authenticity.

The set up for leadership in Christian community – especially in The Episcopal Church – is not one that exudes humility, exactly. We like our leaders to be, well, distinctive. They should dress nicely. Fashionably, if not nattily, and always, always in good taste. Button down collars, please. And, just in case they can’t, we dress them up the way we want them to look in church – with lovely, ornate vestments in classic design that never go out of fashion, and are always in the appropriate color for the season.

Of course, we color-code the ordained with colors appropriate to the order of ministry. While clergy shirts are a rather new innovation for those who are vocationally deacon (and, I think it’s a decided mistake for deacons to wear clergy collars), priests have traditionally worn black, although in the past ten years, we’ve branched out to other colors. But, we save purple – the color of royalty – for our bishops.

Indeed, yesterday, I wore a purple dress in honor of the election of a bishop and no less than three clergy said, “Hmm, you are brave wearing purple today.” As if wearing purple were an unconscious signal of my ‘true’ inner aspirations! Puullleeezzee! As my ordaining bishop used to say, “Anyone who actively seeks the office of the episcopacy deserves exactly what s/he gets.”
Authentic humility is not an easy achievement – especially in our culture or in the culture of leadership. It’s a difficult balance to be creative and gregarious enough to get people to follow you, and be authentically humble at the same time, but if one is to be a leader, one needs to have followers. As the old saying goes in community organizing: A leader without a following – is just a person out for a walk!”

I think we’re confused – especially in this culture and in this moment in our history – about Christian leadership which is marked by authentic humility. Say that phrase “authentic humility” and most of us call up an image of a humble monk, padding silently around the cloister doing corporal acts of mercy. Well, that can be one authentic model, but it’s not the only one.

Here’s what I’ve learned in my almost 20 years of leadership in the church: Leadership that is marked by authentic humility is not easy to achieve but it is one that has struggled with and embraced the truth. The truth will make you very, very humble. And, I’m not talking about just the bad stuff you know about yourself. That’s the easy part – to acknowledge and claim one’s shortcomings and ‘growing edges.’ It’s much, much more difficult a thing, I’ve found, to acknowledge and claim one’s gifts and skills and talents and offer them to the community for service. That takes real humility. Speaking the truth always does.

One of my favorite stories about leadership that is marked by authentic humility comes from one who is, for me, the very model of this leadership style. I’m speaking, of course, of Desmond Tutu. Several years ago, I met up with Desmond in New York, where our daughter, Julie, had arranged a reception for Tutu prior to an award ceremony which NYU was hosting for him. I had worked with him years before on an AIDS project in South Africa, and he greeted me warmly and enthusiastically.

I queried him about his health. At the time, he had been diagnosed with prostate cancer and was in the States for the last of his radiation treatment. I noted to him that it was shortly after I had learned of his diagnosis that I also heard of his leadership on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission – that organization in South Africa appointed to deal with the aftermath of the atrocities of Apartheid.

When I registered my amazement that he had taken on such an incredible task so soon after a diagnosis of cancer, Tutu said that he had declined initially, telling President Nelson Mandela that he could not possibly take on the job.

After Mandela persisted, Tutu said, “I am not the right person for the job.” The reasoning for his self-disqualification was quite astounding. Listen to this and marvel with me. Tutu said, “I laugh too easily, I cry too easily, I am weak.”

And Mandela, who had spent over twenty years in a South African prison, beaten and tortured almost every day, looked at him and said, “Yes, Tutu, and this is why you are perfect for the job. For if, you can cry easily, you know something about the truth. And, if you can laugh easily, then you know something about the impossible nature of reconciliation. And, when you understand your weakness, then you are strong enough to deal with both truth and reconciliation.”

Jesus said, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” I believe we have a new bishop who understands this kind of leadership. Oh, he’ll wear a purple shirt, and with his swarthy coloring, he’ll look quite stunning and stately and yes, even fashionable. He’ll even interrupt our seriousness with a silly dance – or even two. It is my hope that he will lead by example, and as we draw nearer to God with him, God will draw nearer to us.

I pray that Bishop Beckwith may lead us more deeply into the mystery of our faith in Christ Jesus that we may struggle with and embrace the truth about ourselves, that our mission and ministry may be marked by authentic humility. For, it is by such leadership that the work of God is done in a world that is hungry and thirsty – indeed, starving – for the truth to be told, and secrets disclosed (for we are only as sick as our most deeply hidden secret), and for the family of God to be reconciled in peace.

May it be so. Amen.

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